November 20, 2014
(++++) THE MANY MOODS OF PIANOS AND PIANISTS
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 13: Brahms—Variations on a Theme by Handel; Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 14: Prokofiev—Sonata No. 7; Bartók—Romanian Folk Dances Nos. 1-6; Suite, Op. 14; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Mikrokosmos, Book VI, Nos. 148-153); Allegro barbaro. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volumes 16-17: Brahms—Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, transcribed by Idil Biret; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1-4, 6-7; Paganini Variations; Capriccios, Op. 76, Nos. 1 and 5. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99.
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Haydn: Sonata in D, H. XVI/51; Adagio in G, H. XV/22; Capriccio in G, H. XVII/1; Maria Hester Reynolds Park: Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2; A Waltz in E-flat; Sonata in F, Op. 4, No. 1; Sonata in C, Op. 7. Patrick Hawkins, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61; Nocturnes in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and E, Op. 62, No. 2; Bolero, Op. 19; Nouvelle Etude No. 1; Ballades Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes; In a Landscape. Kate Boyd, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Instruments, like those who play them, have personalities, and the way they interact with performers has a great deal to do with the effectiveness of performances. Liszt’s “orchestra in miniature” treatment of the piano, for example, was not merely the result of the way he composed – it was also a reflection of the way he handled the instrument, which was quite different from its handling by, say, Friedrich Kalkbrenner or Sigismond Thalberg. Turkish pianist Idil Biret is a contemporary performer whose handling of the piano shows considerable sensitivity to the instrument and whose performances themselves are affected by the particular pianos on which she plays. The ongoing Idil Biret Archive series, which is releasing some of her older recordings as well as some newer ones, is a perfect demonstration of her versatility as well as her virtuosity. The series now contains 16 volumes (the numbers go through 17 but, for some reason, Volume 15 does not exist in the United States), and its most recent ones are studies in considerable contrast. The two volumes designated 16 and 17 are especially interesting because of their focus on Biret’s own transcriptions of Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies. The Fourth is wonderful in every way, with Biret’s handling of the material bringing out the strong Bach influence in the symphony quite effectively and her playing creating a reading of very careful structure and tremendous elegance. The rather slow-paced first movement here comes across as laying a foundation in much the way that Bruckner’s first movements do, and the succeeding movements build on it effectively, with the final passacaglia being a beautifully realized capstone that Biret handles as if she was indeed playing Bach: it has that same sense of clarity, purpose and musical inevitability. Her Brahms Third, in contrast, is less compelling: here it is easy to hear the elements used to build the symphony, but its rich and warm orchestration is sorely missed, and the intensity of its communication disappears – the scaffolding here is less revelatory and more skeletonic, despite the fact that Biret’s actual playing is excellent. It is nevertheless fascinating to hear these recordings, which date to 1995 and 1997, both for Biret’s skill at transcription and for her exceptional playing of what she has transcribed.
The remaining works included in Volumes 16-17 are a mixed bag. The six Hungarian Dances from Brahms’ first set – Nos. 5 and 8 are omitted – make a nice contrast to the symphonies and have a very different sound, partly due to their different venue (the symphonies were recorded at concerts in Paris, the Hungarian Dances at the Lille Festival in 1993) and partly because Biret handles the piano in a different way for the lighter music. These pieces are very effective in their own way. The remaining works here, on the other hand, are distinctly disappointing: the Paganini Variations and two Capriccios from Op. 76 were recorded in concert in 1972, and the sound is simply awful, being muddy and echoey and overly compressed. Biret’s virtuosity in the Paganini Variations is far from apparent: it must be there, but the sound is so poor that it is difficult to detect. Fortunately, an earlier version of Biret playing the same work, recorded in Paris in 1961, appears as part of Volume 13, and it is all the things that the later one is not: clear, well-paced, filled with exceptional finger work and altogether convincing. It is also in monophonic sound, which will make modern audiophiles cringe – but the sound is good for its time, and this version shows Biret’s abilities in a way that the later stereo one does not. Actually, Volumes 13 and 14 are both monophonic and of the same vintage, having been released in France in the early 1960s. They represent early Biret interpretations (the pianist was born in 1941) and still very good ones. Modern listeners should note, though, that these are simply remastered CD versions of LPs, so they are LP-length releases: Volume 13 runs 46 minutes and Volume 14 runs 42. Nevertheless, as archival products they are more than worthwhile. Biret’s handling of the Variations on a Theme by Handel is just as exemplary as is her 1961 performance of the Paganini Variations, being bright, assured, and of the highest virtuosity. As for Volume 14, its highlight is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, which is clear, precise and rhythmically lively. Here Biret’s focus is not only on the work’s virtuosity but also on its many surprises, its contrasts of runs and chords, its passion and intensity. Biret sometimes comes across as a rather cerebral pianist rather than one with deep emotional commitment – one reason her Brahms Fourth is superior to her Brahms Third. In the Prokofiev, though, her thoughtfulness is thoroughly welcome, shining a fine interpretative light on the music and making it very rewarding indeed. The rest of this CD is devoted to Bartók and is quite fine, with special sensitivity to the composer’s dance rhythms and the angularity of the music. The performances are not as blazingly attractive as that of the Prokofiev, but they are sensitive and adept, and they fit the music very well indeed.
Whether the Goldberg Variations performance by Zhu Xiao-Mei fits the music will depend on listeners’ feelings about piano renditions of Bach’s work, compared with ones on the harpsichord. Xiao-Mei plays the work with considerable skill on a new Accentus Music DVD, recorded live at the 2014 Leipzig Bach Festival, and certainly she shows considerable pianistic sensitivity to the music. But it is pianistic sensitivity, which means the tonal colors and emotional expression are those of a later time than Bach’s. The universality of this work, and indeed of Bach’s music in general, has long led to pieces being played on instruments other than those for which they were written, and there is continuing debate – when they are played that way – as to whether it is better to approximate the sound of the originally intended instrument (the Glenn Gould approach) or to take advantage of the sonic differences in the instrument being used (the more common approach, and the one Xiao-Mei follows). There are many admirable elements in this performance, touches of elegance and refinement and simple prettiness, but it is not an especially idiomatic handling of the music, despite Xiao-Mei’s fine technique. Also, the DVD format is less than effective here, since there is not all that much to see visually in a work for solo keyboard, and the visuals tend to be more distracting than involving. That makes this a (+++) release even with the inclusion of an interesting documentary by Michel Mollard called The Return is the Movement of Tao, in which Mollard not only follows Xiao-Mei on tour but also goes with her to the quiet of the French Alps and gets from her a series of insights into her technique and her feelings about the Goldberg Variations. Fans of Xiao-Mei will delight in this release, and they should: it is a very fine personal and musical profile of a first-rate pianist. From a strictly musical perspective, though, it is somewhat unconvincing.
The fascinating Navona CD of music by Haydn and Maria Hester Reynolds Park, on the other hand, is a (++++) recording even if the use of a piano rather than harpsichord in some of this music is questionable. The reason this is such an involving disc lies in the personality of this particular piano – indeed, this particular type of piano. It is a square piano, an instrument that even many knowledgeable music lovers may never have seen – and one that is thoroughly obsolete. Gorgeous as furniture, these early-19th-century instruments were almost impossible to tune and keep in tune, and they rapidly fell out of favor as pianos closer to the modern concert grand came into being. Very few square pianos are even playable nowadays, but the one Patrick Hawkins uses, an 1831 William Geib model, certainly is. Restored in 2013, it has a six-octave range and a sound quite unlike that of other pianos or, for that matter, fortepianos. This is definitely an instrument with a character, a personality, all its own. Hawkins is an early-keyboard specialist and is clearly comfortable with the instrument, on which he gives poised, stately performances of the Haydn and Park works. The pieces themselves are of less interest than the instrument on which Hawkins performs, but they certainly show off that instrument in the best possible light. The Haydn works here are on the slight side, but display all the clarity, balance and elegance for which Haydn was justly renowned. The music of Park (1760-1813) is far more of a curiosity, although only two of these works are world première recordings: A Waltz in E-flat Major and the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2. Park (née Reynolds) was both a pianist and a piano teacher, and her works are more of the salon or drawing-room type than are those of Haydn and other composers of greater consequence. They are pleasant, easy to listen to, and generally easy to perform: Park did not try to challenge her pupils unduly, but created music that could allow them to showcase their talents even when those talents were comparatively modest. Of the three short sonatas recorded here, Op. 7 is the most interesting and the most Mozartean in flavor; it is also the most substantial, although none of these works is really very musically meaty. This is music that would in fact likely have been performed on just the sort of instrument on which it is heard here, in the fashionable homes of the early part of the 19th century. Hearing this disc is thus an invitation to a bit of most enjoyable time travel. The one peculiarity of the CD lies in Navona’s insistence on giving its releases titles. This one is called “Haydn and the English Lady,” which is accurate (Park was indeed English) but which seems on the verge of scandal-mongering. Still, Haydn did know Park and her husband, Thomas, and one Haydn work here, the Sonata in D, may actually have been written for Park – so there is a connection, although scarcely a sensational one.
The connection between Chopin and pianists is one of the firmest in classical music, so it is no surprise when yet another CD of self-selected Chopin works appears, performed by a fine interpreter. The new Steinway & Sons release featuring Andrew Rangell is a particularly personal assortment of music, the works appearing in no particular order except what is dictated by the changing moods that Rangell wants to evoke. The Polonaise-fantaisie is a fine choice for an opening piece here, allowing Rangell free rein to indulge in performing a highly imaginative work whose twists and turns remain surprising even today. The rest of the disc’s sequence is fairly straightforward and mood-oriented: the free-ranging opening work is followed by the dreamlike Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, which is succeeded by the flashy Bolero, then the crepuscular Nouvelle Etude No. 1, and so on. Rangell is particularly good at drawing out the varying moods of these pieces, which means his handling of three of Chopin’s four Ballades is especially intriguing – although the omission of No. 2 is a distinct disappointment. Despite Rangell’s clear intention of using this disc to show Chopin first in one mood, then another, contrasting one, and so on, there is something a bit capricious in the choice of the music and its sequencing. However, Rangell plays the pieces with such verve, involvement and understanding that the CD deserves a (++++) rating simply as an exercise in excellent pianism, even though the connections among the works are at some times fairly forced and at others rather slight.
Speaking of slight: that describes the connection of John Cage’s piano music with that of earlier composers. Cage (1912-1992) would not allow pianos to display their inherent personalities, which are a blend of strings and percussion. He created the “prepared piano,” turning the piano into much more of a percussion instrument than it inherently is by having each pianist modify each piano in his or her own way – and then use the modified instrument to play music with aleatoric elements as well as Eastern and mystical influences that predate and portend the arrival of minimalism. A little of Cage tends to go a long way, but the 20-movement Sonatas and Interludes is a lot of him: at more than 65 minutes, it is one of the longest works he ever wrote. To understand this piece, which dates to 1946-48, it is necessary to know something about Cage’s musical and philosophical beliefs – putting this work in the vanguard of a slew of later pieces that insist music cannot and should not be expected to stand on its own for purposes of communication. In fact, Cage did not really believe in the communicative ability of music, claiming that listeners misunderstood things he was saying musically when those things were perfectly clear – to him. This too points toward the solipsism of later composers, and it is an element of importance in listening to Sonatas and Interludes. Also, the work is intended to express the eight permanent emotions of an Indian tradition called rasa, and the whole thing is built using rhythmic proportions determined by natural numbers and fractions. The insistence that listeners have information of this sort in order to comprehend the music is one of the off-putting things about Cage and his successors, making his work and theirs often seem like navel-gazing, at which audience members are intruders more than participants. Still, Cage’s influence is widespread, and Sonatas and Interludes is a substantial doorway to his aesthetic, so Boyd’s well-delineated performance is worth hearing for those seeking insight into what Cage was trying to do. And the lengthy work contrasts interestingly with In a Landscape (1948), which is much shorter and lighter and vaguely reminiscent of the music of Erik Satie. This (+++) Navona CD is by no means for everyone, but for those committed to the principles of a certain sort of contemporary composition, and interested in where some modern composers got their ideas and philosophical concepts, it will be highly worthwhile.