March 26, 2015
(++++) BEYOND THE PIANO
Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 7—Volumes I, II, III, X, XI and XIV (piano and vocal excerpts). Alessandro Marangoni, piano and organ; Ars Cantica Choir and Consort conducted by Marco Berrini. Naxos. $9.99.
Hummel: Piano Trios, Volume 2—Nos. 1, 4 and 5. Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Naxos. $9.99.
Fauré: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Schumann: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Bartók: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Jade Duo (Shuai Shi, violin; Zhen Chen, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 1—Glassworks: Opening (1981); Orphée Suite (2000); Dreaming Awake (2003); How Now (1968). Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Bernstein: Sonata for the Piano (1938); Seven Anniversaries (1943); Thirteen Anniversaries (1988); Music for the Dance No. II (1938); Non Troppo Presto (1937). Alexandre Dossin, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
The excellent continuing Naxos series of Rossini’s complete piano music seems to have come to a crossroads with its seventh volume, expanding beyond the piano works in the 14 volumes of Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) and starting to include vocal pieces and even one for which Alessandro Marangoni plays the organ rather than the piano. There are delights aplenty in this latest release, as in all the earlier ones, but in truth, matters get confusing here: the 22 tracks are drawn from six different volumes of the Péchés de vieillesse, appear in no particularly clear order, and include mix-ins of a recently discovered half-minute Andantino mosso and the Italian version of Album français from Volume II – both those works receiving their world première recordings. The Péchés de vieillesse are themselves a mishmash, with the 14th volume not even by Rossini (it is a posthumous collection of his late works), so making a mishmash of an existing mishmash is perhaps not such a big deal. After all, there is a great deal of delightful music here, both secular and sacred – and sometimes straddling the border, as in the Canone perpetuo per quattro soprani from Volume XIV, which parodies Sistine Chapel singing style. Rossini was quite prepared to be serious in his late works – this CD concludes with Preghiera from Volume III and Salve, o Vergine Maria from Volume XI, both heartfelt and elegantly scored miniatures. But he was equally comfortable taking himself and music in general lightly, as in Prélude blagueur (“Joking Prélude,” which is not only amusing but also more technically difficult than many other of Rossini’s late piano works). The juxtapositions in this seventh volume of Péchés de vieillesse therefore are in the same spirit as Rossini’s albums themselves. And the performances, both keyboard and vocal, are first-rate and highly enjoyable, even if this volume somewhat blurs the concept of the entire series of which this CD is a part.
Rossini was a better pianist than he gave himself credit for being (he said, although probably with tongue in cheek, that he was “of the fourth class”). He was not, however, at the level of Hummel, a considerable virtuoso in his day as well as a composer whose music is far too good to deserve the neglect into which it fell after his death, and from which it is only now starting to emerge. Hummel wrote a great deal for the piano, but he also moved beyond it into works in which his instrument was only one element – even though it tended to be primus inter pares, first among equals. Hummel’s seven piano trios all generally give the piano greater prominence than the strings, although individual movements frequently balance the three instruments quite adeptly. The Gould Trio’s very fine performances of these trios are concluded in the second of two Naxos discs with the early Op. 12 in E-flat and the later Op. 65 in G and Op. 83 in E. Hummel’s first trio, like Nos. 2 and 3 as heard on the earlier CD, is distinctly Mozartean, requiring a light touch by all three performers and a willingness to let the music flow simply and uncomplicatedly. The Gould Trio’s performance contrasts well with its handling of the two later trios here. No. 4 is something of a transitional work for Hummel. The most original of his first four trios, Op. 65 has a comparatively substantial first movement and more formal and harmonic adventurousness than Nos. 1-3. But it is with his fifth trio that Hummel really moves into grander scope and a more forward-looking approach. Op. 83 is the longest of the seven trios and is sometimes labeled “Grand Trio Concertante.” It does indeed have strong concerto-like elements – it was dedicated to Hummel’s friend, the virtuoso pianist Johann Baptist Cramer, and showcases the piano to an even greater extent than do the other trios. In addition, Op. 83 has intensely lyrical sections and is distinguished for the way it significantly expands sonata form. Hummel’s seven trios are not only fine works in their own right but also examples of the way in which a highly skilled pianist can incorporate virtuoso writing for his instrument into forms that expand the piano’s expressive potential by combining it with instruments of a different caliber and sound.
Fauré, Schumann and Bartók understood how to move beyond the piano – which they all played – just as Hummel did; but the three did so in very different ways, as a new MSR Classics disc featuring the Jade Duo makes clear. The first of Schumann’s two violin-and-piano sonatas was actually identified when published as being for piano and violin, indicating the extent to which the piano is the dominant instrument. An intense work in which the piano’s prominence is especially strong in the finale, this sonata gets a strong, vibrant performance from Shuai Shi and Zhen Chen. The first of Fauré’s violin sonatas was written 25 years later (1876 vs. 1851), and has an even broader and freer form in its four movements than Schumann’s does in its three. Schumann was a more innovative composer than Fauré, but Fauré was more important as a synthesizer of the disparate elements that developed as the Romantic era progressed. And in his first violin sonata, as in other of his chamber works, he effectively mingled lyrical songfulness with vivacity and effective contrapuntal passages, producing a work of many moods that nevertheless comes across in this performance as unified and carefully structured. As for Bartók’s second violin sonata, it dates to a time of musical transition and turmoil (1922), and it integrates multiple elements in a manner very different from Fauré’s. The elements themselves differ significantly, too, including atonality, impressionist harmony and folk music. Nevertheless, just as Fauré’s first sonata has an overall feeling of unity, so does the second by Bartók. The development of the ideas is clear and consistent, and despite some intense eruptions reminiscent of other works of the 1920s, this sonata sounds more inspired by Hungarian dances than by deeply felt emotions. The Jade Duo’s ability to present three such disparate works convincingly bespeaks the performers’ considerable sensitivity to the composers’ varying musical styles and approaches.
Of course, individual composers can themselves produce works that are very different from each other, and sometimes composers expand the idea of piano music even when their works are performed as piano solos. Philip Glass, a quintessential minimalist who now considers himself to have gone beyond minimalism and to be more focused on his classical roots from his studies with Nadia Boulanger, is represented by some very different piano works – spanning 35 years – on a new Grand Piano release. Nicolas Horvath brings as much care and sensitivity to the piano version of How Now, a work inspired by Indian ragas and gamelan music that was written in 1968 for the Philip Glass Ensemble, as to the much more dramatic Dreaming Awake from 2003. How Now goes on and on – it lasts more than half an hour – and is either hypnotic or simply dull, depending on each individual listener’s perceptions. Dreaming Awake is half its length and more tightly constructed, its dynamic contrasts showing that Glass has more recently been willing to move beyond the somnolent (and sometimes soporific) into more-variegated music. Actually, as long ago as 1981, Glass realized that his music did not necessarily reach an audience beyond a core group of the like-minded, and so he created Glassworks in an attempt to approach more listeners. The opening movement is an early instance of Glass trying to move beyond the static and repetitive, at least to some extent. Its measured chordal elements are indeed repeated again and again, but above them Glass weaves a mixture of triplet eighth notes over duple eighth notes over whole notes, so the music has some motion beyond its stasis. Also on this CD is Paul Barnes’ 2000 piano version of Orphée Suite, which contains music extracted in 1991 from the first work in the Cocteau Trilogy. There is inherent motion in the original version of this piece, which Glass wrote for voices and chamber orchestra, but the minimalist sensibility still informs it through the pervasive repetition that, in one form or another, characterizes virtually all the works that Glass has written. Horvath is clearly at home with this music, but the inherently static nature of much of the material makes this a (+++) disc, suitable primarily for those already strongly attracted to Glass’ sensibilities.
Like Glass, Leonard Bernstein worked in areas well beyond the piano, but Bernstein was himself a pianist of considerable talent, and one whose performances were sometimes genuinely revelatory – as in his recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. However, many of Bernstein’s own classical compositions, as opposed to his theater music, tended to be either overwrought or of rather minimal importance, and his output for solo piano was not extensive. The works on a new (+++) Naxos CD are not major ones by any means, and Bernstein does not seem to have intended them to be. The two sets of Anniversaries are nothing but extended miniatures written for the benefit of, or in celebration of, Bernstein’s friends, colleagues, acquaintances and hangers-on – he had many in each category. They are pleasant and were no doubt meaningful to the individuals for whom they were intended, but they are, for the most part, rather thin vignettes. Sonata for the Piano is more substantial, but this two-movement work, written when Bernstein was in his late teens, is more an exercise and an occasional promise of things to come than a fully satisfactory piece in itself. Its use of syncopation and polytonality is more interesting than the music to which those techniques are applied. Music for the Dance No. II and Non Troppo Presto are of the same vintage as the sonata and, although rhythmic enough, tend to be harsher and less lyrical than later Bernstein music for the stage. These two works are world première recordings, and for that reason will be of interest to Bernstein aficionados – and in fact those fans would seem to be the primary audience for this entire CD, which is nicely played but offers nothing musically revelatory and not very much material with significant staying power.