December 11, 2014


Franz Hummel: Diabelli Variations. Angela Cholakian, piano. TYXart. $18.99.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Africa—Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. Gabriel Tacchino, piano; Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg conducted by Louis de Froment. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Alkan: Sonatine in A minor, Op. 61; Capriccio alla soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs, esquisse; Trois Menuets, Op. 51; Une fusée, introduction et impromptu; Nocturnes Nos. 2 and 3, Op. 57. Costantino Mastroprimiano, piano. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Idil Biret Chamber Music Edition, Volume 1: Schumann—Piano Quintet; Symphonic Etudes. Idil Biret, piano; Borusan Quartet (Esen Kivrak and Olgu Kizilay, violins; Efdal Altun, viola; Çağ Erçağ, cello). IBA. $9.99.

Uncommon Ground: Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano and Organ. Amy Schendel, piano; Gregory Hand, organ; Bernhard Scully, horn; Todd Schendel, trombone and euphonium; Réne Lecuona, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     As outrageously bold musical attempts go, the Diabelli Variations by Franz Hummel (born 1939) has to rank very close to the top. Training one’s sights on Beethoven, using the same theme that inspired Beethoven to create what may the greatest set of variations ever written – perhaps even, as Alfred Brendel said, the greatest piano work of all time – and creating one’s own work with the same number of variations (33) and the same extraordinary length (nearly an hour)….well, Hummel here set himself a task that even his Beethoven-era namesake, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (no relation), would never have attempted. The fact that today’s Hummel does not fall flat on his musical face with this work and the fact that it does not sink beneath the weight of arrogance are themselves remarkable. The fact that this Diabelli Variations is not at all imitative of Beethoven’s greater set, but is instead an exploration in its own right and something of a homage, is a huge tribute to Hummel’s  tastefulness, his musical understanding, and his own considerable abilities – as a fine pianist in his own right – in writing for piano. Angela Cholakian gives a simply splendid performance for her recording on the TYXart label, moving with ease from variation to variation, elegantly contrasting the speedy with the slow and the emotional with the staid, carrying the work as a whole from start to finish with a remarkable sense of its daring elements as well as its imitative ones. This is a tour de force performance of a really remarkable piece. Hummel keeps the music tonal and bases his approach to the rather trivial Diabelli waltz at the work’s core on the same foundation used by Beethoven. That is to say that these are not variations in which the basic theme is ever readily discernible, because Hummel, like Beethoven, takes the theme apart, using tiny bits of its smallest elements to build dozens of miniature tone poems that showcase aspects of the waltz’s rhythm, intervals, turns, harmonies and other building blocks. Hummel does not follow slavishly in Beethoven’s harmonic footsteps: Beethoven’s variations are harmonically daring for their time, but Hummel’s understandably go farther even as they pull back from contemporary extremes. Hummel’s strongest variations are the fast, complex ones: it is in the slower ones that he seems to become self-conscious about what he is evoking, so that the Adagio cantabile (variation 11), Molto rubato, passionato, parlando (variation 14), and Intermezzo nostalgico (variation 23) draw attention to themselves as too deliberately sweet. And the longest variation, Marcia funebre (variation 28), is disappointingly ordinary. On the other hand, the lovely little Ländler, marked Comodo, is a gem, several variations without tempo markings are intricately impressive, and the final variation – which leaps unapologetically and unashamedly into jazz, the only out-and-out anachronism here – is an absolute delight. Even listeners who come to Hummel’s Diabelli Variations predisposed – with reason – to be deeply skeptical, will likely find themselves captivated by this bold and fascinating foray into Beethovenian territory.

     There is much that is fascinating as well in Saint-Saëns five piano concertos, of which No. 2 is heard fairly often but the others are comparatively rarely encountered. A fine release of the full cycle by Brilliant Classics makes the relative neglect of most of these works much harder to understand. Gabriel Tacchino handles Saint-Saëns’ music highly idiomatically, with all its warmth, flourishes, runs, arpeggiation, cadenzas in unexpected places, and the other elements that set these concertos apart from others of their time. Admittedly, Concerto No. 1 is somewhat less than highly engaging for the soloist – the orchestral writing is actually more imaginative and daring than that for the piano, which is a major surprise in light of Saint-Saëns’ own keyboard virtuosity. But Tacchino gamely handles the many charms of his part, and when he does get a chance to cut loose, at the work’s very end, he does so in splendid style. In No. 2, Tacchino’s light touch is in the forefront, making the concerto into a fleet, dashing, elegantly glittering exercise in pianism filled with mischief, playfulness and light. No. 3 is a more conventional work, its most distinguished movement being the second, a lovely nocturne in which strings rather than the piano dominate. The Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg is not one of Europe’s best – the musicians play gamely and with considerable understanding, but their overall sound is rather thin, and the sections are not always as well-balanced as they could be. In this movement, though, Louis de Froment guides the players with particular skill, and the interplay between woodwind and piano is especially charming. Concerto No. 4, which is more strongly reminiscent of Liszt than the other concertos, has well-balanced elements of warmth and severity within a structure that broadly parallels that of Liszt’s Concerto No. 1. Saint-Saëns’ skillful reuse of the piece’s early themes late in the work is well brought out by Tacchino, who infuses the music with considerable severity and grandeur to balance its more-affectionate elements. Concerto No. 5, called the “Egyptian” because of where it was written and because it uses actual Egyptian and Arabian themes, is a particularly lyrical work and one with a distinct Oriental (not just Middle Eastern) cast. Here Tacchino emphasizes the music’s exoticism, the virtuosity of the final movement, and the overall delicacy of the concerto. As what amounts to an encore, the recording includes the fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa, which also shows Saint-Saëns’ willing and able use of exotic elements in the context of a virtuoso display piece – and which caps a very fine, exceptionally well-priced offering of music whose manifest pleasures are deserving of much more frequent hearing.

     Speaking of music deserving of more-frequent performance, the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan emphatically fit that description. One reason they may not be played more often is simply how difficult they are. Yes, even in a century marked by the piano works of Liszt and Chopin, Alkan’s music stands out for its unique combination of drama, intensity, intricacy and delicacy. Much of it is extraordinarily complex and filled with echoes of Chopin (Alkan’s close friend) and prefigurings of later composers such as Mahler (in the military-like Le tambour bat aux champs). Alkan does not hesitate to demand differing techniques for different pieces – each of the Trois Menuets, for instance, represents a different social class and needs to be performed with more or less suavity and gentility. Nor does Alkan shrink from confounding expectations – for example, Nocturne No. 2 on a new Brilliant Classics CD seems to have the wrong pace for a nocturne, requiring performer and listener alike to consider the meaning of the title and take it as evocative of nocturnal atmosphere in general. Other Alkan titles must be taken with a grain or two of salt: the Sonatine, Op. 61, the major work played by Costantino Mastroprimiano, is an extended four-movement piece with clear debt to Beethoven and considerable complexity of thought and performance requirements throughout – scarcely a “little sonata” at all. Mastroprimiano, who specializes in historically informed performances of less-known 19th-century piano repertoire, offers his Alkan recital on a very fine, beautifully restored 1865 Pleyel instrument with almost the full complement of a modern grand piano: it has 85 keys. It fits these specific works very well indeed: the Sonatine is from 1861, and all the other pieces date to 1859. Furthermore, Mastroprimiano has thoroughly explored Alkan’s relationship with Chopin, not only in terms of their personal relations but also regarding their piano methods and approaches – and the result is a knowing, unusually idiomatic performance of music whose sheer technical requirements can be off-putting for both performers and audience. Not so here: everything is very well-considered to make use of the formidable virtuosic elements of these pieces for the purpose of bringing a multitude of pleasures to listeners.

     The pleasures of Idil Biret’s pianism are displayed in an ever-increasing series of recordings on the IBA label: an Archive Edition, a Beethoven Edition and a Solo Edition – and now an Idil Biret Chamber Music Edition. Unlike most recordings in the other editions, the first volume here includes very recent performances, recorded in May 2014 and featuring a string quartet formed only in 2005. This new sequence is off to a very good start with a disc highlighting works by a composer who is one of Biret’s particular specialties: Schumann. The composer’s sole Piano Quintet was a climax of a year (1842) in which he devoted himself wholeheartedly to chamber music. Written not in haste but with great speed (it was sketched in five days and finished in two weeks), the quintet highlights the piano but rarely allows it to dominate the strings, although it is preeminent in the Scherzo. The work is tightly written and filled with interestingly contrasted themes, notably the rather sinister minor-key march that opens the slow movement and the contrasting major-key theme that provides some respite. The performance here is a strong one: there is some sense that the quartet members defer to Biret, but never unduly so, with the balance among the players generally finely honed and nicely cooperative. The quintet is coupled with Biret’s highly impressive performance of the Symphonic Etudes, a long work with a complex publishing history that makes the numbering of its sections complicated but does nothing to diminish its very considerable complexity and virtuosic demands. Biret handles these with apparent effortlessness, whether Schumann is looking for extended arpeggios, lightly traced passages, delicate triplet figures, counterpoint, expansiveness or sheer speed – these and more are the building blocks here, and Biret uses them to construct a highly impressive edifice of sound, technique and musicianship.

     The piano is just one of several accompaniment instruments on a trumpet-focused MSR Classics release featuring Amy Schendel and entitled Uncommon Ground. An anthology of contemporary compositions that are largely unrelated except for their use of the trumpet in a chamber-music context, this (+++) CD has the typical pluses and minuses of a recording of music that will be largely unfamiliar to listeners: there are some fine elements, some less-fine ones, and little reason for listeners to buy the disc unless they are fans of Schendel or are already familiar with one or more of the composers. Even in the latter case, they will not likely know these specific works, since five of the six are world première recordings – only the 1971 Sonate für Trompete in C und Orgel by Harald Genzmer (1909-2007) has been recorded before. The other works on this CD are Fanfare for Trumpet and Organ (2007) by Patrick Schulz (born 1975); French Suite by Joseph Blaha (born 1951); Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2007) by Wayne Liu (born 1970); and two pieces by Jean-François Michel (born 1957) – Suite pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone (1994) and Eveils pour Trompette, Trombone et Piano (1993). Listener enjoyment here may turn less on the specific composers, none of whom has an especially distinctive style – although Blaha’s suite is an attractive updating of its Baroque model – than on the works’ varying sonorities. In particular, the trumpet and organ have complementary sounds that merge to fine effect in the pieces by Schulz and Genzmer, and Michel’s melding of trumpet, horn and trombone makes for some interesting mingling of brass in three short but nicely distinguished movements. Schendel and the other performers here do a uniformly fine job with the music, and the CD as a whole is pleasant to hear even if none of the works on it is really exceptional.

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