November 12, 2015


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete, arranged for solo piano). Stewart Goodyear, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99 (SACD).

R. Nathaniel Dett: Complete Piano Works. Clipper Erickson, piano. Navona. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Ravel: Complete Piano Works; Alfredo Casella: À la manière de…Ravel; Arthur Honegger: Hommage à Ravel; Kendall Briggs: Hommage à Ravel; Marcus Aydintan: Encore avec Ravel; Anton Plate: Erinnerung an Maurice Ravel; Benedict Mason: Galoches en d’août. Hinrich Alpers, piano. Honens. $20 (2 CDs).

Scarlatti: Sonatas K3, 54 and 502; Messiaen: Quatre études de rythme—No. 4, Île de feu II; Préludes—Les sons impalpables du rêve, Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu; Webern: Variations, Op. 27; George Benjamin: Shadowlines—Six Canonic Preludes for Piano; Debussy: Préludes deuxième livre—Feux d’artifice; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse. Gilles Vonsattel, piano. Honens. $15.

Valentin Silvestrov: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Classical Sonata; Children’s Music I; Nostalghia. Simon Smith, piano. Delphian. $19.99.

     Most of Stewart Goodyear’s performance of his piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s complete The Nutcracker is so good that a listener can do little more than sit back slack-jawed at the constant stream of revelatory moments in this exceptionally well-played version of thrice-familiar music that sounds amazingly fresh and new on an outstanding Steinway & Sons SACD. There has simply never been anything like this before: pianists have essayed the Nutcracker Suite, but Goodyear offers the entire ballet, start to finish, in his own arrangement, and the engineers have managed to fit the whole 82½ minutes onto a single marvelous-sounding disc even though the medium is supposed to have an 80-minute limit to avoid quality loss. There is not a scintilla of sonic diminution here, and the performance is, plainly and simply, an utter joy. The scenic connections of the ballet come through better here than in the orchestral version, thanks to perfectly chosen tempos and an arrangement that highlights similarities that are integral to the score even as it brings out far more coloristic elements than one would expect any piano version of a brilliantly orchestrated work to do. Everyone from young would-be ballet dancers to parents oversaturated with The Nutcracker ought to hear what Goodyear does with it, and in fact this would make a marvelous ballet-school rehearsal disc if it weren’t so involving that dancers would likely keep stopping in the midst of their pliés to pay special attention to one touch of elegance or another. There are plenty of those, from the bright yet piquant March to the tremendously vivid The Presents of Drosselmeyer, from a genuinely exciting (and surprisingly dramatic) battle scene to the warm elegance of the Coffee dance. And more – much more. Every number of the ballet gets loving and lovely handling here, and when there are occasional missteps, they are mostly just ones of trying a bit too hard: Galop and Dance of the Parents is a touch too heavy-handed and clumsy; Waltz of the Snowflakes does not really capture the magic of this gorgeous number (although the piano does almost sound like a wordless chorus at the end); the start of Chocolate is a touch awkward and its rhythm slightly flaccid. But it is almost embarrassing to nitpick this arrangement and this performance, because so much in it is absolutely splendid. When Goodyear wants to cut loose, he does so with consummate skill and at a pace that is almost unbelievable: no one could possibly dance this Trepak, but listening to it and then hearing the contrast with the bouncy Dance of the Reed Pipes immediately afterwards is an experience not to be missed. Indeed, this entire recording is not to be missed: it is one of the best piano releases of the year and, even more amazingly, it is simply one of the very best versions of The Nutcracker available.

     The pianism is not as spectacular as Goodyear’s and the music is as little-known as Tchaikovsky’s is familiar, but Navona’s excellent two-CD release of the complete piano works of R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is a winner in its own way. Dett, who was black, was born in Canada and remains better known there than in the United States; the chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the city where Dett was born, is named for him – he was church organist there for five years. Dett actually lived in both Canada and the U.S., performing as a pianist and choir leader in Boston and at New York’s Carnegie Hall, as well as at Canadian venues. His piano music nevertheless represents a major discovery, or rediscovery: unlike his near-contemporary Charles Ives, who incorporated hymn and folk tunes into many works but used them as jumping-off points for forays into complex polytonality, multiple rhythms and sonically adventurous pieces, Dett made hymns, especially black spirituals, and folk tunes into the center of entirely tonal, beautifully harmonized works that applied European Romantic musical notions to pieces of American origin. Inspired in part by hearing Dvořák’s works that incorporated New World themes, Dett created piano suites and individual character pieces with striking rhythms and harmonies, a fine flow of musical ideas, and pianistic settings requiring virtuosity but never becoming empty fireworks displays. In fact, there is little that is explosive and much that is expressive in these pieces, all of which Clipper Erickson plays with beauty and understanding. The recording takes most of the works in chronological order, which is a useful approach for showing how Dett’s music developed and how, near the end of his life, he adopted more-contemporary compositional methods while remaining true to his lifelong incorporation of folk and spiritual thematic elements. Magnolia (1912) tries impressionistically to evoke specific settings: “Magnolias,” “The Deserted Cabin,” “My Lady Love,” “Mammy” and “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends.” The music is naïve but skillfully crafted. In the Bottoms (1913) is less specific in its scene-painting but still impressionistic, its movements being called “Prelude – Night,” “His Song,” “Honey – Humoresque,” “Barcarolle – Morning,” and “Dance – Juba.” Enchantment (1922) is more abstract still, offering “Incantation,” “Song of the Shrine,” “Dance of the Desire” and “Beyond the Dream.” The standalone Nepenthe and the Muse (also 1922) is also dreamlike, drifting along pleasantly. The four movements of Cinnamon Grove (1928) show Dett fully comfortable with classical-music style, being marked only with tempo indications such as Adagio cantabile and Allegretto. This work also has forward propulsiveness and a certain stylistic elegance that mark it as a mature piece. Tropic Winter (1938) returns to specificity in movement titles but combines the words with music of considerable sophistication and more of a 20th-century feel than Dett’s earlier piano pieces. It includes “The Daybreak Charioteer,” “A Bayou Garden,” “Pompons and Fans (Mazurka),” “Legend of the Atoll,” “To a Closed Casement,” “Noon Siesta,” and “Parade of the Jasmine Banners.” Dett’s final piano suite, Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43), goes as far into contemporary techniques as Dett was ever to go, which is not very far – but here the somewhat extended harmonic language lends a piquancy and vibrancy to pieces drawing their themes and seriousness of manner from the Bible. After these chronologically presented works, Erickson offers three encores from early in Dett’s career: After the Cakewalk (1900), which is as high-stepping and exuberant as anyone could wish; Cave of the Winds (1902), which features a somewhat Joplinesque bounce and straightforward rhythms and harmonies; and Inspiration Waltzes (1903), which in truth are less than inspired musically but do show Dett’s ability to produce pleasant pieces in three-quarter time. The slightly harsh piano tone throughout the recording is actually fitting: it seems to place Dett and his music firmly in their time and transport listeners there as well, giving them the chance to meet a pianist/composer whose music neatly straddles the line between American classical and folk/spiritual idioms.

     Whether the Dett recording truly includes his complete piano music depends on one’s definition: his American Ordering of Moses suite (1937) is absent, but since it is based on his oratorio The Ordering of Moses, it could be argued that it need not be included in a Dett piano survey. The picture is more complicated, however, when it comes to Ravel, whose supposedly complete piano works are played with a finely honed mixture of sensitivity and virtuosity by Hinrich Alpers on a new Honens release. The two-CD set is attractive in numerous ways, for its clever inclusion of supplements to Ravel’s works (commissioned by Alpers) as well as for those pieces themselves. But in this case, calling it a “complete” recording is simply incorrect. There is a lot of Ravel piano music here, more than most listeners will likely have heard, and there are some genuine rarities as well as familiar works. Alpers plays Sérénade grotesque (1892-93), Menuet antique (1895), Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), Jeux d’eau (1901), Sonatine (1903-05), Miroirs (1904-05), Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909), Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), À la manière de…Borodine and Chabrier (1912-13), Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), Menuet in C-sharp minor (1904), and the solo-piano version of La valse (1919-20). However, he omits a number of brief early works, a series of unpublished fugues (including one interestingly designated as Fugue à quatre voix on a theme of Napoléon Henri Reber), and the Danse gracieuse de Daphnis suite. The omissions do nothing to diminish the importance and high quality of this release, and Alpers’ fine handling of Ravel’s difficult-to-balance piano music (which must be played on the fine line between simplicity and virtuosity to have its full effect) makes this a first-rate recording even though it should not really be called a “complete” one. Particularly interesting here are the piano versions of works more familiar in orchestral guise, not only La valse (which sounds rather pale on piano, although Alpers handles its rhythms adeptly) but also Le tombeau de Couperin and Pavane pour une infante défunte. One of the enjoyments of this recording is the chance it offers to hear high-quality piano readings and consider how differently Ravel’s particular sensibilities come through on keyboard and when orchestrated – the disparities are surprisingly significant, and they are revelatory in a very different way from that of Goodyear in his handling of his arrangement of The Nutcracker. Alpers’ finely honed technique is particularly well-suited to Ravel, whose music, even at its most virtuosic, tends to sound pale or shapeless if not handled with genuine insight and well-thought-out balance between its technical demands and its expressiveness. Gaspard de la nuit, which comes across quite well here, is a perfect case in point. Alpers’ inclusion of multiple composers’ short tributes to or musical comments on Ravel makes this release even more interesting. The works by Casella (1883-1947) and Honegger (1892-1955) reflect their composers’ styles as much as Ravel’s, and the three more-modern works by Briggs (born 1959), Aydintan (born 1983) and Plate (born 1950) include some very interesting contemporary compositional elements that reflect on post-Ravel music as well as on Ravel himself (Aydintan’s 38-second piece is about as minimalist as it is possible to be). And the final work here, evocatively titled “Galoshes in August,” shows that a modern composer such as Mason (born 1954) can channel some of Ravel’s sensibilities in very intriguing and fitting ways. Ravel continues to speak to 21st-century composers and listeners not only through these tributes and interpretations but also through his piano music itself, when the performances are as adept as are those by Alpers.

     Another new Honens release features another fine pianist, Gilles Vonsattel, in a varied program that unfortunately does not hold together particularly well when heard straight through. It sounds as if Vonsattel really wants to do a recital of contemporary music with a strong focus on George Benjamin (born 1950): in addition to Benjamin’s own Shadowlines (2001), the disc includes several pieces by Messiaen, whose final work Benjamin was involved in orchestrating. And the inclusion of Webern, the most minimalist composer of the Second Viennese School, enhances the impression of a CD trying to sound as modern (perhaps modernistic) as possible. But the first and last portions of the disc, containing works by Scarlatti and Debussy respectively, point to an attempt to put the “moderns” in a context that is not quite as acerbic as the inclusion of Webern and Benjamin would seem to indicate. There is some justification for this: Scarlatti’s sonatas can in fact be seen as harbingers of modern minimalism – it is a stretch, but not a totally unjustified one. However, Scarlatti wrote for harpsichord, not piano, and whatever forward-looking elements his sonatas contain must be seen within that context: each of the three sonatas included here is about the same length as the third of Webern’s Variations, but the music’s purpose, structure and intent are quite different, and all are tied to the instrument for which Scarlatti composed his sonatas and on which he played them. As for Debussy, there are some intriguing connections between the effects of the pieces Vonsattel performs and those of Messiaen, whose impressionist and coloristic effects, although quite different, overlap in ways that show the two composers to be not as far apart in sensibility as they are in the elements from which they construct their piano pieces. There is much of interest on this recording, and certainly Vonsattel’s pianism is of a high order, but the (+++) CD ultimately has more to offer on an intellectual and analytical level than on an emotionally communicative one: the thoughts underlying the production are stronger than the music selected in an attempt to elucidate those thoughts.

     The piano works of Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937) on a new Delphian CD in some ways serve on their own to showcase the forms of 20th- and 21st-century piano communication that Vonsattel displays through the works of multiple composers. Silvestrov – himself a pianist – is sometimes neoclassical, sometimes tonal, sometimes modal, sometimes postmodern (although that word is a slippery one where his music is concerned). What unites his works, including those played with considerable élan by Simon Smith, is their drama and forthright emotion, the latter being something encountered all too rarely in contemporary classical pieces. Silvestrov’s music nevertheless requires some getting used to. There is a pervasive sense of melancholy in much of his output, and even when he writes in what seems on the surface to be a clear form – as he does in the Classical Sonata, which predates the three numbered ones – things are not quite as they appear on the surface (just as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is not quite what its title indicates). Silvestrov believes that we are in the “end times” of music itself, and many of his works seem to reflect that depressive proposition: three bear the name of Postludium, two the title Epitaph, and there are a Requiem and a Lacrimosa in addition to a symphonic poem called Metamusic. Much of Silvestrov’s output, including the piano works heard here, combines elements of structural minimalism with yearning but not especially lyrical passages that seem to want to communicate more than they actually do. The title of the concluding piece on this (+++) CD, Nostalghia, could stand for pretty much all the music here: in its short duration, it delivers the yearning and expressiveness, the searching for meaning and emotional connection, that the sonatas seek at their greater length. Children’s Music I fits rather oddly into this grouping: although certainly no Jeux d’enfants or Children’s Corner Suite, it lies in the same tradition, including seven movements (played without pause) with titles including “Gratitude,” “Astonishment” and “Morning Ditty.” Lighter and less fraught with meaning than the rest of the music on this disc, it is a pleasant change of pace placed mid-way through the CD, providing a touch of respite before Smith resumes his pursuit of Silvestrov’s weightier, more-intense pianistic productions.

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