February 25, 2016
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Mahler: Symphony No. 2—arrangement for piano four hands by Bruno Walter. Maasa Nakazawa and Suhrud Athavale, pianists. Naxos. $12.99.
Idil Biret Chamber Music Edition, Volume 2: Brahms—Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Cello and Piano. Roderic von Bennigsen, cello; Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 9: Bach—Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903; Partita No. 1; French Suite No. 5; English Suite No. 3. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Bach: Organ Music—Prelude and “St. Anne’s” Fugue, BWV 552; Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540; An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653; Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546; Choral Prelude “O Mensch Bewein dein Sünde Groß,” BWV 622; Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542; Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Wedge”), BWV 548. Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 18, D. 894, and 20, D. 959. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
How far can you push the piano? If you are Chopin, you can push it deeply into expressiveness; Liszt, deeply into drama; if you are John Cage, you can push it into “prepared” territory, changing many of the inherent qualities of its sound. But there are other ways to push the piano into new regions, for example by turning it almost literally into the “orchestra in miniature” that Liszt saw it as being – by taking grand symphonic works and creating versions of them for piano alone. This is scarcely a new idea: Liszt himself was expert at it, as he showed in his arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies (and even he was not the first to undertake that particular task: he was preceded by Friedrich Kalkbrenner). Every once in a while, though, the sheer daring of a piano arrangement of something symphonic becomes breathtaking; and so it is with Bruno Walter’s four-hand arrangement of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. Even Mahler fanatics have not heard this before – the new Naxos recording is a world première – and even those who know Walter’s emotive conducting of Mahler’s symphonies, which often deviated from the scores so as to bring out the feelings that Walter (who studied and worked with Mahler and was friends with him) believed the composer intended to emphasize, will have heard nothing like this. Variable in tempos and filled with rubato Walter’s conducting may have been, but when it comes to this handling of the Symphony No. 2, his devotion to Mahler is absolute. This is an amazing feat, in one sense scaling down the symphony but in another clarifying its structure and visualizing its innards in much the way that X-rays illuminate bone. Walter is faithful to Mahler’s scale, his tempos, his harmonies; but the inherent difference between the sound of four hands on a piano (or, as in the present recording, two separate pianos) and that of 100 musicians doubling parts and creating inner voices and varieties of tension means that this arrangement sounds exactly like Mahler and at the same time not at all like him. Mahler actually used the orchestra as if it were a gigantic chamber group: instead of generally aiming for massed sound in the Bruckner manner, he sought delicacy of color and care of aural impressions by including a huge variety and number of instruments without insisting that they play together all the time. The result is that when there is a full tutti, it is all the more overwhelming. That effect is inevitably missing in Walter’s piano arrangement – but instead, listeners get to hear with exceptional clarity the building blocks from which Mahler created this monumental score, and to hear clearly how the pieces of the symphony connect to and contrast with each other. The performance by Maasa Nakazawa and Suhrud Athavale is more than serviceable, although it is not especially Mahlerian – in the sense that one gets the feeling that these players would have handled a Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner arrangement in much the same way. The notes are there, the tempos are followed and the harmonies are present, but there is a certainly Mahlerian spirit missing – an absence that accentuates that of the vocal forces in the fourth and fifth movements. Even Liszt had problems with omitting the voices from the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth; Walter encounters similar issues with Mahler’s Second. He solves them in a similar way, by following the vocal lines in the piano and creating enough underlying support to give these sections heft, if not verbiage. What is missing, though, is grandeur, partly because of the inherent limitations of an arrangement like this and partly because the pianists do not seem fully conversant with the sheer scale of what Mahler did in this work. Nevertheless, this is a very valuable recording and a must-have for Mahler lovers: it shows the inner workings of the “Resurrection” symphony in ways that orchestral performances do not, and indeed cannot. In so doing, it only increases one’s appreciation for how magnificently Mahler handled this symphony’s musical material.
The first pianist to record all the Liszt arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies was Idil Biret, and that is not the only way in which she pushed the boundaries of piano repertoire. Her exceptionally strong and varied discography becomes increasingly impressive as it grows and grows through new releases on the IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label. These releases fall into separate series and, within the series, into re-releases of older performances and new releases of ones recorded recently. The two latest IBA recordings, in the Chamber Music Edition and Solo Edition sequences, are both new, the former from 2014 and the latter from 2015. Both show that Biret, who is now 74, has lost none of her pianistic skill and none of the thoughtful, analytical approach to music that, coupled with her sheer technical ability, makes so many of her readings intellectually as well as sonically thrilling. The Chamber Music Edition recording of the two Brahms cello sonatas is especially good. The reason is that Biret here has a partner (with whom she first worked as far back as 1970) who matches her musical intellect and shares with her the same sense of Brahms’ scale and of the relationship the composer created between the cello and piano in these sonatas. One would normally expect the string instrument to take the lead much of the time in music of this sort, but Brahms’ own pianistic predilections mean that the piano is the primary focus in these works more often than not. Yet in the hands of Biret and Roderic von Bennigsen, what emerges is not a contest for supremacy but a finely honed level of cooperation, a true partnership that lends the music considerable stature and emotional depth. These two sonatas are quite different. The first, Op. 38 in E minor, is a deeply somber three-movement work with the pervasive “autumnal” quality so often associated with Brahms. It also has some strong ties to Bach – just as the Fourth Symphony, also in E minor, was later to have – and possesses in its finale the same surprising combination of traditional formality with distinctly Romantic emotional sensibility. Von Bennigsen and Biret have clearly thought through all the elements of the work, and they deliver a fully convincing reading as a result. Then they switch gears for the Op. 99 sonata, which is in F and in four movements and is more outgoing and lyrical. It sounds almost as if this is the earlier, more-youthful work and the first sonata is the later, more-serious one. One of the difficulties with the second sonata is that the first three movements are very well-constructed and effective, but the concluding Allegro molto is a less-substantial piece, a Rondo that does not quite measure up to what has come before. The skill of these performers is such that this movement makes full emotional sense in their reading – it never quite becomes a capstone for the work, but it seems to follow more logically and with a greater sense of rightness than it usually does. These sonatas show off Biret’s skill in chamber music to a very fine degree, and show how fortunate she is to have a partner such as von Bennigsen in music that requires such close collaborative effort.
The Bach disc in the Solo Edition is not quite at this level. It certainly shows Biret’s elegantly stylish way with Bach, and demonstrates for the umpteenth time that this pianist has the intellectual as well as technical heft to make Bach’s solo music effective. But no pianist, Biret included, can ever escape the reality that Bach did not write for the piano, and there is no really good solution to playing him on this instrument. Making the piano sound sere and spare only calls attention to the fact that it is not a harpsichord or clavichord. Allowing it to flourish with the sound of which it is capable produces performances that are out of keeping with the scale and intent of the music. Biret, not surprisingly, stakes out a middle ground. She does not overwhelm listeners with grand Romantic-era gestures and constant rubato, nor does she hold back the piano’s sound to such a degree that it becomes constricted and constrained. Instead, Biret delves into both the formal elegance and the emotional content of Bach’s music, allowing it to flow naturally while effectively showcasing the rhythmic differences among the dance forms in the Partita No. 1, French Suite No. 5, and English Suite No. 3. Biret’s formal skill comes through most clearly in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, where her pacing and handling of the fugal voices are well-balanced and as contrapuntally convincing as they can be on an instrument not constructed for counterpoint. Not even Biret can make Bach sound totally appropriate on the piano, but what she can do – and what she does do – is to make his music appealing in a different way from that of the instruments for which he intended it.
Still, the contrast between Biret’s piano-Bach and Barbara Harbach’s organ-Bach shows the inherent superiority of performing this music on the right type of instrument. Much like Biret, Harbach is a thoughtful performer as well as an energetic one, and she too gives the impression that she has thought through all the elements of every work she plays long before she sits down for a performance. The two organs that Harbach plays on a new MSR Classics CD are scarcely comparable to those of Bach’s time: one, in Rochester, New York, dates to 1983, while the other, in Lyons, New York, dates to 1970. But Harbach evokes the Baroque feeling of this music through her skillful choice of stops, her adept blending of voices, and her very clear understanding of Bach’s style and the extent to which an interpreter must – and must not – vary from the printed notes. The program given by Harbach is clearly a highly personal one – there is little inherent connection among the works – but these pieces, one and all, give Harbach a chance to show the great variety of sounds and styles that Bach brought to his compositions and that the organ can put on display. The gradual addition of voices to An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653, for example, contrasts strongly and appealingly with the striking immediacy of the opening of the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546, which immediately follows on the disc. The stepwise, highly chromatic opening of the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 (usually called “Fantasia” rather than “Fantasy”) makes a wonderful contrast with the much more declamatory start of the next work, Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Wedge”), BWV 548. Harbach handles all the fugues with care, precision and enough feeling to make them sound like something well beyond dry exercises. Indeed, the contrast between her improvisation-like approach to the first of the paired movements (whether Prelude, Toccata or Fantasy) and her much more even, almost-staid handling of the fugues is one of this disc’s particular pleasures. Harbach, herself a composer, quite clearly understands the structural elements of this music, and her sensitive readings show that she knows just when to draw attention to the works’ foundations and when to let listeners hear just how imposing an edifice Bach built upon those bases.
The piano is much better suited to the music of Schubert than to that of Bach, not only because Schubert deliberately wrote for it but also because Schubert’s melodic flow and his quicksilver key switching seem ideal for an instrument that is essentially harmonic in nature rather than contrapuntal. David Korevaar offers sensitive, nuanced interpretations of two late Schubert piano sonatas, Nos. 18 and 20 (the latter the composer’s penultimate one), on a fine new MSR Classics recording. No. 18 in G, D. 894, was the last sonata published during Schubert’s lifetime, and was given the title “Fantasie” by the publisher because of the freewheeling nature of the first movement. Quite unlike a Bach Fantasia, this movement one by Schubert is songlike from the start and features a lyrical, lilting second subject – and in fact the movement is in sonata form, although it tends to push the form’s boundaries. One thing Korevaar does particularly well is to hold the movement in formal check while still allowing its emotional overflow to pour forth. The contrasts of the second movement, between gentleness and drama, also come across well here, but what is most impressive by the end of the sonata is the feeling of serenity that Korevaar communicates. There is a sense in which all the contrasts of the music are designed to be merely brief excursions from quietude. Sonata No. 20 in A, D. 959, is a different matter altogether. Here Korevaar begins effectively with the opening drama, then lets the work slide into gentler, more-lyrical territory with apparent ease. There is serenity in this sonata too, notably at the end of the first movement, but by and large, there are more highs and lows than in D894. This later work has lamentation in its not-very-slow second movement (an Andantino), considerable good spirits in its third, and pervasive lyricism in its concluding Rondo. Korevaar picks up on all these emotions and lets them flow naturally and pleasantly – indeed, a good adjective for the sonata as a whole is “pleasant.” The sound of Korevaar’s piano – not the usual Steinway but a Shigeru Kawai SK-7 – is interesting, with considerable liveliness but without the rich resonance in the bass that one expects from Steinway. Korevaar plays with feeling and adeptness, but the actual piano sound may not be to all listeners’ liking. The quality of Korevaar’s performances, however, should be.