July 23, 2015


Fugue State: Music of Bach, Buxtehude, A. Scarlatti, D. Scarlatti, Handel, and Froberger. Alan Feinberg, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Heart & Soul: Devotional Music from the German Baroque. Ryland Angel, countertenor; Matthew Dirst, organ and harpsichord; Ars Lyrica Houston. Centaur. $16.99.

Gottschalk: Piano Music. Steven Mayer, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

     There is something inherently quixotic in Alan Feinberg’s new Steinway & Sons release, Fugue State. It features 14 wonderful fugues, fascinating in their variety and their exploration of contrapuntal and expressive principles, by some of the greatest practitioners of the form in musical history, all played with great skill – on an instrument for which none of them was written, and indeed one that is poorly equipped to bring forth the counterpoint that lies at the heart of the fugue. Even more than early fortepianos, even more than 19th-century instruments up to the Erard, the modern Steinway is ill-equipped for the music Feinberg plays – forcing the pianist to play against the depth, grandeur and harmonic blending that are the modern piano’s salient characteristics, rather than using that combination of elements to produce the full, rich, blended sound for which today’s pianos were designed. It is therefore difficult to figure out to whom Feinberg’s CD will appeal. Certainly the performances themselves are first-rate, and certainly there is always some interest in hearing Baroque music played on a modern piano – up to a point. But Fugue State goes well beyond that point. The most interesting thing about the disc, musically, is the chance it offers to hear the contrasting fugal creations of two generations of Baroque composers. The older generation includes Johann Jacob Froberger (Canzona No. 2 in G minor), Dietrich Buxtehude (Fugue in C, BuxWV 174, “Gigue”; Fugue in G, BuxWV 175), and Alessandro Scarlatti (Fugue in F minor). The younger generation, whose works are much better known, includes Domenico Scarlatti (Sonatas in D minor, K 417; in G minor, K 30, “The Cat’s Fugue”; in C minor, K 58); Handel (Fugue in B-flat, HWV 607, No. 3; Fugue in A minor, HWV 609, No. 5); and, of course, Bach (“Ricercar a 3” and “Ricercar a 6” from “The Musical Offering”; Fugue on a Theme by Albinoni, BWV 951; Fugue in C, BWV 953; Fugue in A, BWV 949). The CD’s arrangement, though, makes ready comparison of the older and younger composers’ music difficult: Bach opens and closes the disc, but there is little apparent rationale for the juxtaposition of the remaining works. The result is a recording featuring some very fine playing and an unusually extended look at varieties of fugue and differing emotional as well as technical elements of the form – but a disc that practically cries out for the fugues to be heard on the instruments for which these composers created them.

     The organ and harpsichord heard on a new Centaur release called Heart & Soul fit the music of the Baroque much better, and Ryland Angel’s countertenor is far more apt for the music of this age than a lower-range voice would be in this repertoire. The selection of composers to include is an interesting one: the one name in common with those on Feinberg’s CD is that of Buxtehude, heard in Nun lob mein Seel den Herren, BuxWV 213 and Auf meinem lieben Gott, BuxWV 179. The only other comparatively familiar composer here is Johann Christian Bach, whose Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte opens the disc. For the rest, the CD is a chance to hear devotional music written by composers whose works, although heartfelt and well-made, have not retained listeners’ interest as has the music of better-known Baroque figures. There are nine pieces here in addition to those by Buxtehude and J.C. Bach. They are Sonata Decima à 5 by Johann Rosemüller (1619-1684); Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele by Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692); Der Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nicht and Der hat gesiegt, den Gott vergnügt by Adam Krieger (1634-1666); Suite à 5 and Paduana à 5 from Musikalische Frülingsfrüchte by Dietrich Becker (1623-1679); O Jesu, du mein Leben by Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725); Warum betrübst du dich, meine Seele by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654); and Trocknet euch ihr heißen Zähren by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714). Angel, Dirst and Ars Lyrica Houston approach all this music, greater and lesser, with equal levels of involvement, emotion and understanding. Indeed, “greater” and “lesser” are not entirely relevant terms here, since these particular works are all redolent of the time in which they were written and all express their devotional messages with equal skill and, in the vocal music, fervor. This CD offers a foray into less-known but still very fine music composed for specific purposes in a time remote from ours – three or more centuries ago – but still capable of communicating with listeners disposed to hear the works either for their religious messages or simply for the beauty with which those messages are put across by both the better-known composers and the less-known.

     The pleasures are purely secular in Steven Mayer’s performance on a new Naxos disc of some of the piano music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Here as in the Heart & Soul CD, the keyboard is very well-matched to the music, although in fact Gottschalk (1829-1869) wrote for pianos of less span and less resonant depth than the famous Steinway CD 299 used in this recording and previously heard in performances by a number of famous 20th-century virtuosi. Actually, there was considerable pianistic development between the earliest piece heard here, Reflets du passé—Rêverie (1847), and the latest, Pasquinade—Caprice and Grande Fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien (both 1869). In Gottschalk’s music itself, however, there was less development over the decades: American by birth, he lived and worked outside the United States for almost his entire career, and the influence of Chopin is clear throughout his oeuvre. Nevertheless, Gottschalk had his own distinctive pianistic style, anticipating today’s composers in his willingness, even eagerness, to include material from outside the traditional classical-music realm in his works: folk and slave music, Latin American dances, even jazzy elements that prefigure ragtime. Flickers of this material are heard throughout the works that Mayer plays, which are mostly miniatures that communicate small elegances of feeling and tend to come across as well-made salon music rather than anything significant or profound. Le Banjo—Fantaisie grotesque (1854) is particularly effective, as is Mayer’s own 2013 arrangement of the Andante from La Nuit des tropiques—Symphonie romantique (1858-59). Also here are the forthright The Last Hope—Méditation religieuse (1854) and Berceuse (1860); the reflective Fantôme de bonheur (Illusions perdues) (1859-60); and a brief but effective Caprice élégant from 1849 that is tied to Ambroise Thomas’ opera Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which despite its title does not follow the plot of Shakespeare’s play). None of this music is particularly substantial or substantive, but all of it is charming, melodic and pleasant to hear, and Mayer plays all of it attentively and with just the right mixture of emotional involvement and flamboyance. The fare is light, but Mayer makes it tasty.

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