April 14, 2016
(++++) THE USES OF VIRTUOSITY
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2; Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2. Gil Shaham, violin; The Knights conducted by Eric Jacobsen (Prokofiev); Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève (Bartók). Canary Classics. $16.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 18: Brahms—Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. Idil Biret, piano; London String Quartet (Carl Pini and Benedict Cruft, violins; Ruşen Güneş, viola; Roger Smith, cello). IBA. $9.99.
Bruch: String Quartets (complete). Diogenes Quartet (Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Alba González i Becerra, viola; Stephen Ristau, cello). Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
On Safari: MirrorImage Goes Wild. MirrorImage Horn Duo (Lisa Bontrager and Michelle Stebleton); Tomoko Kanamaru, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Luca Buratto: Live at Honens 2015. Luca Buratto, piano. Honens. $20 (2 CDs).
True virtuosi – modern ones, anyway – tend to use their considerable talents for more than sheer display. Sometimes they try to further one musical cause or another; sometimes they deliberately subsume their abilities to further the overall quality of chamber-music performance; sometimes they put their capabilities in the service of rediscovered or brand-new music. In Gil Shaham’s case, he likes to use his recording label, Canary Classics, to promote music in which he strongly believes; and that is why he launched a series called “1930s Violin Concertos.” The second volume in the sequence is a real beauty, with Shaham in fine fettle and his technique in full bloom in the works by Prokofiev and Bartók. The balance in the Prokofiev is particularly winning: although Shaham stays front-and-center when he should, he has no problem (that is, no ego trouble) scaling himself back so Eric Jacobsen and the excellent chamber group called The Knights can come to the fore when appropriate. The first movement of their collaboration is particularly impressive, with Shaham offering an emotional, almost soulful reading of the music and Jacobsen and the ensemble providing such well-balanced backup that he overall performance sounds like that of a top-notch chamber performance: strongly communicative and with a sense of conversational handling of the motivic material. The rest of the concerto is a bit more straightforward, but this still comes across as a first-rate interpretation. The Bartók, a longer and in some ways more discursive work, is on the slow side here, although not as slow as a previous Shaham performance (from 1999) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez. Shaham finds a constant flow of lyricism in this concerto, offering a passion-packed reading whose virtuosity is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. There is nothing easy about this piece, but Shaham surmounts its technical challenges so adeptly that listeners can stay focused throughout on the work’s emotional underpinnings. The Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stéphane Denève provides finely nuanced backup, its playing perhaps not quite as precise as that of the Chicagoans under Boulez, but just as well paced and sectionally well-balanced. The result is a CD that puts Shaham’s virtuosity front-and-center – but always in the service of the music, on which the spotlight truly shines.
The latest Idil Biret Archive recording features the Turkish pianist’s skill being use equally successfully at the service of Brahms’ Piano Quintet. It needs to be said up front that this is not a recording for everyone, because for all the excellence of the performance, it dates to 1980 and was recorded in mono; it is also the only work on the disc, which means this is a 41-minute CD, essentially a smaller-size version of a vinyl disc of its time. Even in 1980, monophonic sound was essentially obsolete, so the disc is certainly a throwback; but listeners already familiar with the music will find this version revelatory enough so they may well want this recording as their second or third, albeit not their first. This quintet started out for strings alone (with two cellos), then was recast by Brahms for two pianos before he eventually turned it into piano-quintet form. Despite Brahms’ own skill as a pianist and despite the influence of Clara Schumann, who was largely responsible for getting Brahms to transform the music into this form, the quintet requires considerable restraint from the pianist; and the best thing about Biret’s work here is the way she provides that restraint without ever seeming to hold anything back. She simply joins the London String Quartet as an equal partner, takes material handed off to her, hands it back as appropriate, and produces throughout a feeling of mutual assurance and easy camaraderie that serves the music particularly well. The well-paced first movement never drags, the ensuing slow movement offers a calm center, the assertive scherzo also includes effective episodes of lyricism, and the finale manages to be both strong and poetic – emerging as a unifying movement that ties the whole work together neatly. This is a substantial performance in every way except sonically: the digital remastering is perfectly fine, but the monophonic reproduction sounds distinctly old-fashioned for the simple reason that it is.
There is no piano on a new Brilliant Classics release of chamber music by Bruch, but there is plenty of virtuosity to go around: every member of the Diogenes Quartet plays with soloist-quality intensity and strength, bringing warmth, power and lyrical flow to the music of one of the 19th century’s most skilled creators of mellifluous melodies. Bruch’s quartets are little-known nowadays, and a highlight of this exceptionally well-priced release is its inclusion of a third quartet in addition to the only two by Bruch that were previously recorded. This world première recording is of a C minor quartet that the composer – yet another of those amazing child prodigies of his century – created at the age of 14. It was a prize winner for him, getting him a scholarship at the Mozart-Stiftung that launched his musical career as a student of Ferdinand Hiller. The quartet, rediscovered only in 2013, is certainly derivative of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, the usual suspects for a quartet written in 1852. But its movements flow so well, its themes are so florid with beauty and true Romantic-era emotion, that it looks forward with considerable clarity to Bruch’s later work. In fact, the first of Bruch’s two previously known quartets, Op. 9, is in the same key as this youthful work – C minor – and lifts significant portions directly from the “student” quartet: the main theme of the slow movement and nearly the entire Scherzo. It is a shame that Bruch’s chamber music is under-heard today, because he clearly came to the form early and with considerable skill. His second already-known quartet, Op. 10 in E, confirms this: the melodies are captivating, as Bruch’s usually are, but there is also a sure balance to the parts and some genuine creativity in the themes, their development and even in the work’s structure – notably in the Scherzo’s two very different trios. The performances here glow with the musicians’ involvement in the music, and the music itself is beautifully balanced, warm and winning.
The horn duo called MirrorImage certainly displays plenty of virtuosity on a new MSR Classics recording called On Safari, and there is a pleasant lightness and humor to the whole production that makes the disc, in the main, enjoyable. But the quality of the music, as opposed to that of the playing, is rather uneven, and the whole notion of the production – to write pieces inspired by the term “safari,” which each composer thinks about quite differently – gives the enterprise less cohesion than it could have. Some of the tracks are distinctly animal-oriented and surprising: Uneven Ground – A Short Walk on Safari (2012) by Mark Schultz (1957-2015) features Lisa Bontrager as “soprano chimp” and Richard Price as “bass chimp.” Other works present sounds that interestingly complement the two primary instruments: The Hunt (2008) by Laurence Lowe (born 1956) includes Jaren Angud on hand drum in an effective complement to the horns. There are also pieces here that interpret “safari” in terms having nothing to do with the word’s usual animal-focused meaning, such as Prayer (2014) by Michael Daugherty (born 1954), which is one of the most affecting pieces on the disc, and Reverie (2012) by James Naigus (born 1987). This is one of two Naigus pieces here – the other is Journey’s Call (2014) – but neither is really a standout on the disc. The other works here are Majaliwa “God willing, we will meet again” (2009) by Paul Basler (born 1963); Rastros – Por Los Senderos del Chaco (2011) by Luis Szaran (born 1953); and a pleasant little encore called Improvisation (2014) by Maureen Young (born 1993). On balance, this is a (+++) recording with very fine playing throughout, some of it in the service of music of considerable interest and some of it showcasing the performers’ virtuosic abilities but offering them in the context of less-captivating material.
The context of the new two-CD Honens release featuring pianist Luca Buratto is clear enough: Buratto was the 2015 Honens Piano Competition Prize Laureate. Clearly the sole purpose of the release is to let listeners hear how good Buratto is and why he was chosen for this major honor. And certainly the recording shows Buratto to have plenty of technical skill and a certain amount of interpretative ability as well. But the whole enterprise is so intensely devoted to Buratto that much of the music gets short shrift – and the material presented is a complete hodgepodge that makes no sense outside the venue of a competition. There are four major works here, the most impressively performed being Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17, in which Buratto couples his very considerable pianistic skill with sensitivity and understanding befitting a pianist of much greater experience (Buratto is 22). There is also Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, again handled with great skill, although here the understanding of the composer’s emotional milieu seems less sure. And there are Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K. 498, known as “Kegelstatt,” in which Buratto seems a touch constricted by being required to perform as an equal with clarinetist James Campbell and violist Hsin-Yun Huang rather than as first-among-equals; and Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4, where Buratto seems more comfortable in a partnership role with Huang. It is true that these four works show Buratto’s ability to play a variety of music with skill, although his pianism is not as varied from piece to piece as it will likely be with greater experience and maturity. Nevertheless, this material is very well handled – but what music lover will likely want this two-CD set for these pieces in these performances, aside from someone committed to collecting recordings of Honens Piano Competition winners? The puzzle of who the audience for the recording could be only deepens when the remaining works here are considered. There are two Ligeti études, Nos. 15 and 16 from his third book, separated for some reason by Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse. There is No. 14 from Schumann’s Davidsbundlertänze. There is Buratto’s backup of soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in two songs by Pauline Viardot and two by Fernando Obradors. There is his backup of clarinetist Campbell for Lutoslowski’s Dance Preludes. And at the end of the second CD there is Brahms’ Geistliches Wiegenlied, Op. 91, No. 2, in which Buratto joins both Bayrakdarian and Huang. From the viewpoint of a competition, this sort of mishmash makes complete sense, being designed to showcase versatility and to give competitors a chance to make up any shortcomings in one type of music through exceptional strength in another. But from the point of view of anyone considering what to listen to in a personal setting, such as one’s home, this nearly two-and-a-quarter hours of Buratto requires extreme devotion to the pianist himself or to his success in the Honens Piano Competition for a purchase to make any sense. The performances themselves are good enough to earn the release a (+++) rating, but it is very difficult to determine just why most music listeners would be interested in integrating this recording into their collections.