September 15, 2016
(+++) EMOTIONAL EVOCATIONS
Chopin: Ballades Nos. 1 and 3; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Berceuse, Op. 57; Mazurkas, Op. 50, Nos. 1-3; Nocturnes, Op. 15, No. 2; Op. 27, No. 2; Op. 48, No. 1; Op. 55 No. 2; Scherzo No. 4. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Tango Nuevo—Music for Two Pianos by Pablo Ziegler and Ástor Piazzolla. Pablo Ziegler and Christopher O’Riley, pianos. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
American Visions—Music of Copland, Gershwin, Kris Becker, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ian Gindes, piano. Centaur. $18.99.
Robert Casadesus: Sonata No. 3; Toccata, Op. 40; Henri Dutilleux: Blackbird; Au Gré des Ondes: 6 Petites Pièces pour Piano; Sonate pour Piano. Cicilia Yudha, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Henri Dutilleux: Sur le mème accord; Les citations; Mystère de l’instant; Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou “La nuit etoilée”). Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse—A Film by David Bickerstaff. Seventh Art DVD. $21.99.
Pianist David Korevaar pushes Chopin in the direction of Impressionism in a fascinating and very well-played, but perhaps overly intellectualized, recital for MSR Classics. The CD really does come across as a recital, the sort of musical mixture selected by an individual artist to reflect his view of a particular composer, style of music, musical period, or some other unifying force. Korevaar’s unifying approach here is not thematic or entirely chronological, either of which would be reasonably simple for listeners to follow, but is based on Chopin’s use of flat and sharp keys – a matter of considerable interest to musicians but not one that will clearly pull this specific sequence of these disparate works together for most listeners. Of the 12 tracks, Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 11 are Nocturnes; Nos. 2 and 4 are Ballades; Nos. 6-8 are the three Mazurkas of Op. 50; No. 9 is a Barcarolle, No. 10 a Berceuse and No. 12 the Scherzo No. 4. Listeners will have no trouble identifying the Mazurkas as the central elements here, the linchpins of the disc; but that is not exactly how Korevaar sees them – to him, they are a demarcation between flat and sharp keys (a bit of a stretch, actually, requiring considerable attention to key changes within the three works for full comprehension). Korevaar has a marvelous understanding of this music, and is a very fine pianist and, for that matter, an excellent interpreter of Chopin. There is nothing to fault here in the expressive nature of his performances or the finely honed pianism that he uses to bring forth the varying emotional elements of these dozen works. In fact, for listeners familiar with all the music here – particularly for ones who know it as well as Korevaar himself does – the CD’s intellectual framework has some genuinely revelatory elements. But for listeners less intimately familiar with the music, it is considerably harder to tell from the musical sequence itself (that is, without following Korevaar’s discussion of what he is doing and why he is doing it) just why these particular pieces appear in this particular sequence. There is a great deal to enjoy in this very well-played recital, and also a great deal to think about – but the latter requirement somewhat gets in the way of the full availability of the pleasures of the music.
The pleasures are more readily accessible on a new Steinway & Sons CD featuring music for two pianos by Pablo Ziegler and his mentor, Ástor Piazzolla. There is an impressionistic element to this music, but it is a highly specific one, with all the tunes intended to evoke elements of life in Argentina – from the bustle of the city of Buenos Aires to the nation’s traditions and cultural touchstones. Thanks to the approach of Piazzolla and Ziegler, the music also stretches beyond the geographical boundaries of its nation of origin to encompass the melodies and harmonies of jazz, and occasional forays into classical influences dating back to Bach. Of the 13 works here, eight are by Ziegler: El Empedrado, Milongueta, Asfalto, Maria Ciudad, Elegante Canyenguito, Places, Milonga del Adios, and Sandunga. The other five are by Piazzolla: Michelangelo ’70, Elegia sobre Adios Nonino, Fuga y Misterio, Buenos Aires Hora Cero, and the very well-known Libertango. The Piazzolla pieces have more sureness of expression and, even when not very well known, a greater familiarity of style than those of Ziegler, but this is more a matter of degree than of inherent quality: Ziegler’s works are also nicely crafted and in some cases virtually indistinguishable from ones by Piazzolla. Indeed, the problem with this very well-played disc is simply that all the music on it sounds as if it comes from the same source and shares similarity of inspiration. That is, indeed, the simple truth of this material – and listeners for whom this Argentinian evocation is much to be desired will revel in the CD. Others may find an hour and a quarter of music of similar provenance to be a bit much – although even they may enjoy listening to a piece or two here and there, if not to the entire CD from start to finish.
It might seem, on the face of it, that the Centaur CD called American Visions also consists of works of similar inspiration, but in fact what Ian Gindes does here is show just how variegated the adjective “American” can be when it comes to music. True, all the works skew to the popular side of American music rather than its more purely “concert-hall” side; but unlike the basically popular focus of Tango Nuevo, the music on American Visions shows a variety of ways in which composers use more-popular works to express themselves in different milieus. Thus, from Copland, the CD includes the third of his Four Piano Blues, a short work labeled Muted and Serious; four mostly upbeat excerpts from the ballet Rodeo; and three pieces from Our Town, which present a more contemplative mood. There are two Earl Wild arrangements from Gershwin’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes: No. 7, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” followed by No. 4, “Embraceable You.” From contemporary composer Kris Becker come two works with a certain amount of intellectual and musical heft: Passacaglia from The Four Curiosities and a rather extended Elegy. And from Rodgers and Hammerstein, in arrangements by Stephen Hough, Gindes offers “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel. As an encore, there is a live recording of Mack Wilberg's arrangement of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, in which Gindes is joined by Tatiana Shustova, Jiafang Yan, and Jing Hao. There is a certain thoughtfulness in the assembly of this CD that gives it heft beyond what its mostly straightforward music would suggest. It could be called a celebration of specifically American impressionism – from Copland’s American West to Becker’s look in the musical rearview mirror to the insistently saccharine Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. Gindes plays all the music well, and if none of it is unfamiliar or particularly profound, it is all eminently listenable.
There is also some balancing of the impressionistic and intellectual in the works of Robert Casadesus on a new Navona CD. Sonata No. 3 is classically structured, its pointed first movement giving way to a gently reflective Lento e tristamente that speaks of generalized rather than specific melancholy, before a bright and bouncy finale sweeps away any lingering tristesse. Cicilia Yudha evokes the sonata’s changing moods with unfailing skill, and also does a bang-up job, pretty much literally, with Toccata, which somewhat uneasily treads the line between pounding intensity and jocular celebration. Impressionism is more explicit and vivid in the three piano works of Henri Dutilleux that follow the Casadesus pieces. Blackbird, an early work, comes across as modest salon music with slight hints of birdsong. The six little piano pieces collectively called Au Gré des Ondes (“Along the Waves”) are more explicit in their scene-painting, harking back to some of the mood evocations of Debussy and Ravel – and being as accessible as would be expected in works originally written as radio interludes. Far more substantial is the Sonate pour piano, toward which all the other works on this CD seem to build. Large in scale in its nearly half-hour length, mixing traditional three-movement form with forays into distinctly 20th-century-French treatment of rhythm and harmony, progressing – sometimes leaping – from delicacy to intensity, the work is far more varied than its straightforward movement designations of Allegro con moto, Lied and Choral et variations would indicate. Dutilleux disowned many of the works he wrote before this 1948 sonata, clearly considering it the start of his significant compositions. It seems constantly to hint at specificity in the scenes it evokes briefly before turning elsewhere, even though there is nothing definite portrayed. The rather sleepy second movement never quite coalesces, but the resounding opening of the finale leads into a set of variations that challenge both the listener’s ear and the performer’s fingers. Yudha is a first-rate advocate of this not-quite-first-rate material – she explores its coloristic aspects wonderfully but can do nothing about a certain formal flabbiness that leads to music that drifts more often than it moves in any particular direction.
Dutilleux (1916-2013) is far better known for his orchestral music than his piano pieces, and Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony make another strong case for his orchestral works on a new CD on the orchestra’s own label – their third recorded foray into this repertoire. Much of the music of Dutilleux stands explicitly in the Impressionist tradition, with refinement in construction and orchestration and considerable attention paid to carefully devised harmonies and coloristic instrumental approaches. Dutilleux is, however, difficult to label as belonging in any particular musical pigeonhole. One work on this disc, Les Citations, has strongly neoclassical roots and unusual instrumentation: it is for oboe (Mary Lynch), harpsichord (Mahan Esfahani), bass (Jordan Anderson), and percussion (Michael A. Werner). Texturally clear, as the music of Dutilleux generally is, the work is also steeped in specifically French musical history: the second movement, From Janequin to Jehan Alain, deliberately recalls the French Renaissance composer and also quotes a work by the innovative organist/composer Alain, who died at age 29 in 1940. The nocturne-like Sur le mème accord, for violin and orchestra, is highly expressive, but it also benefits from the level of precision brought to it here by soloist Augustin Hadelich. Mystère de l'instant offers a good example of the composer’s interest in comparatively unusual sonorities, employing a solo cimbalom (played by Chester Englander) to particularly good effect. The concluding work on the CD, Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou “La nuit etoilée”), marked the 1978 return to orchestral composition by Dutilleux after a period of focus on chamber works. Inspired by Van Gogh’s famous painting, The Starry Night, this work takes Impressionism to a new and very contemporary level, omitting violins and violas from the orchestration, insisting that the 12 cellos be placed in a semicircle around the conductor, and using those cellos for an interlude that Dutilleux added in 1990 to the work’s two original movements. Dutilleux is a composer whose work it is easy to admire and whose care in orchestration, timbres and harmonies is always noticeable. Certainly Morlot and the Seattle Symphony have a strong attachment to these works and play them with great warmth and a high degree of involvement. The music nevertheless will not be to all tastes, its catholicity (now recalling Les Six, then sounding a bit like Messiaen) and distinctly French modernism making it something of an acquired taste. Listeners seeking to acquire it will find this recording an elegant entry point to the Dutilleux sound world.
Those interested in getting a sense of the way in which Van Gogh and other painters created the works that so inspired Impressionist composers will be fascinated by David Bickerstaff’s film, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, available as a Seventh Art DVD. Based on a show at London’s Royal Academy, the film is designed to let viewers really study the paintings, providing an even closer look at brushstrokes and details of form and color than attendees can get in person at an exhibition. There are plenty of closeups of paintings here, juxtaposed with scenes of the gardens that inspired those specific works and views of other gardens with an equal profusion of blooms, colors and shapes. The film is not entirely about the works of art – unsurprisingly, it also takes viewers to the studios and houses of the artists, displaying the environment in which they worked and in which their creativity took shape. The real visual interest here, though, is in the gardens themselves, in the way they were planted and the way they grew, and in the way specific artists visited and revisited them as their own style changed and evolved, so that growth of art and growth of plants become parallel continuing events. All this comes across as a touch effete, to be sure, and the details about figurative-vs.-abstract portrayals of specific gardens will be a bit much for those not deeply immersed in Impressionist art history. And of course the DVD is aimed entirely at people seeking immersion in the world of Monet, Matisse and the other famed oil painters inspired by gardens and using them to display their view of growth and color. The very slow shots of flowers, foliage, ponds and elegantly sculptured trees give Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse a sense of timelessness that balances the growth inherent in all gardens – and the artifice and artificiality of the film complement the interpretative niceties of the Impressionists for whom gardens were so overwhelmingly important. Intended for a limited and artistically committed audience, Bickerstaff’s hour-and-a-half of visuals serves that audience carefully and well.