December 01, 2016
(++++) PIANOS FROM ALL ANGLES
Schubert: Valses Nobles, D. 969; Brahms: Waltzes, Op. 39; Dvořák: Waltzes, Op. 54; Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales. Peter Schaaf, piano. SchaafRecords.com. $12.
Bruce Adolphe: Chopin Dreams; Seven Thoughts Considered as Music; Piano Puzzlers. Carlo Grante, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op. 17; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Haydn: Sonata in E-flat. Jasmin Arakawa, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 5—Enlightenment: Mad Rush; Metamorphosis Two; 600 Lines; The Sound of Silence. Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
A CD cleverly titled 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys gives pianist Peter Schaaf the unusual opportunity to present waltzes in easy-to-compare-and-contrast groups: a brief “Schubert group” and somewhat longer groupings by Brahms, Dvořák and Ravel. The result is a fascinating overview of the waltz from the early 19th century to the early 20th, albeit without material from the Viennese waltz masters (it is worth remembering Brahms’ famous autograph of the first few bars of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Blue Danube: “Unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms”). The 12-waltz Schubert set, written in 1828, near the end of the composer’s life, sparkles: most of these little gems run less than a minute and only one is longer than two minutes, yet within their brief compass they tantalizingly inveigle themselves into the ear, evanescing almost as soon as they start. They are trifles, true, but highly charming ones, and Schaaf’s delicate touch fits them wonderfully. The 16 Brahms waltzes date to 1865 and were a direct tribute the Viennese waltz, with one of them, in A-flat, becoming highly popular on its own, if not quite at Blue Danube level. These are also short works – once again, only a single one lasts more than two minutes – but they have plenty of lilt and rhythmic panache. Schaaf plays the more difficult of the two solo-piano versions that Brahms made, but no strain is evident in his performance: everything flows smoothly, and the contrasts among the works – seven of which are in minor keys, scarcely the norm for waltzes – come through especially well. The real find on this disc is the eight-waltz group by Dvořák, which dates to 1879 and is rarely heard. Anyone listening to Schaaf’s performance will wonder why. These are significantly more substantial works than those of Schubert or Brahms, filled with mood and tempo contrasts and containing distinct Slavonic elements. Three of the eight are in minor keys, and it is tempting to see this set as somehow tied to Brahms’ Op. 39, just as Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are tied to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. But the comparison in this case is inconsequential: the Dvořák waltzes set their own standards and their own moods, and their harmonies are quite different from those of Brahms. Perhaps it is their musical complexity that has kept them from popularity – they have more depth than the pleasant but rather superficial Schubert and Brahms sets – but Schaaf’s warmly knowing performance argues strongly that these pieces deserve more-frequent hearing. After all these delights, Ravel’s set of eight Valses nobles et sentimentales is a bit of a letdown. Dating to 1911, these works clearly come from a different age, a time when the waltz was already a trifle faded, if not yet the symbol of a bygone era that Ravel made it after World War I in his La Valse. Mostly concise in expression except for the final, slow, extended work in G, the Valses nobles et sentimentales seem, somewhat paradoxically, to be frozen in their time in a way that the sets by Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák do not. Schaaf plays the Ravel with as much skill and understanding as he brings to the other waltz sequences – it is just that this final waltz series comes from a very different set of sensibilities, making it a bit out of keeping with the rest of the music here. Given Schaaf’s exemplary pianism, though, it is possible just to sit back and enjoy the entire disc, ignoring any philosophical musings.
A new Naxos CD of piano music by Bruce Adolphe (born 1955) is highly enjoyable as well. Two of the works here are world première recordings: Chopin Dreams and Seven Thoughts Considered as Music. Ravel’s updating and eventual dismissal of the waltz has nothing on Adolphe: Chopin Dreams pulls Chopin forcibly, if not too roughly, into contemporary times, stirring some actual Chopin works into a jazz-infused modern sensibility and, elsewhere, using Chopin as a jumping-off point for music that sounds nothing like any work Chopin ever composed. Carlo Grante, to whom Chopin Dreams is dedicated, plays this multifaceted piece for all it is worth, which is quite a lot. The six-movement work starts with New York Nocturne, a kind of jazz-infused nocturne-like something-or-other. Jazzurka is based directly on Chopin’s mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4; it is followed by Piano Popping, which is based on hip-hop rhythms and makes for as weird a juxtaposition as that origin implies. It is back to Chopin’s direct influence for Brooklyn Ballad, which uses Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, and for the following Quaalude (ha, ha), taken loosely from Chopin’s Prelude No. 3. The final movement, Hora, represents “what Chopin would play at a bar mitzvah,” according to Adolphe, and is as strange – and oddly ingratiating – as might be expected. Chopin Dreams, which dates to 2014, may seem on the surface to be a rather nightmarish use of Chopin’s delicate, even precious music, but the whole thing works surprisingly well as long as listeners maintain a sense of humor. Seven Thoughts Considered as Music (2016) is a somewhat more serious work, and again very well suited to the pianism of Grante, who is its co-dedicatee. Here Adolphe chooses quotations from Heraclitus, Rilke, Kafka, Emerson, Novalis, Chief Seattle, and Shankara, and attempts to interpret and comment on their remarks through music. This is a bit pretentious and is less effective than Chopin Dreams, which is composed with seriousness but does not take itself too seriously. Seven Thoughts Considered as Music seeks to be meaningful, but Adolphe’s harmonic language and his impressionistic attempts to convey and expand upon the specific quotations he has chosen are not especially pointed – although the shortest of the seven vignettes, a response to Kafka’s “Beyond a certain point there is no return,” is effective. Adolphe is back on firmer ground with Piano Puzzlers, a set of nine little pieces taken from the 500 or so that Adolphe has composed for a public radio show since 2002. These pieces have “encore” written all over them: they play with popular tunes in the style of various classical composers – Chopin, in the case of all nine heard here. There is nothing that is profound and much that is pleasurable in hearing, among others, London Bridge Is Falling Down and When the Saints Go Marching In served up more or less in Chopin’s style. Grante, who clearly has great affinity for Adolphe’s music, has plenty of fun with these little pieces. Listeners will, too.
Matters are altogether more serious on a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Jasmin Arakawa. Arakawa has a strong feeling for the intensities and frequent mood changes of Romantic music, producing a heartfelt, deeply affecting reading of Schumann’s Op. 17 Fantasie. This is a work in which Schumann strains to develop a new form: it is not as freewheeling as a typical fantasy, having many elements of sonata form, but within its three movements it sweeps along with strong emotions that no formal structure seems quite able to contain. Encompassing all the work’s emotional and technical demands is difficult, but Arakawa does so to very fine effect, handling the rhapsodic first movement – and the recollections of its emotions in the final one – particularly well. Arakawa also seems quite comfortable with Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, which has some intriguing parallels with the Schumann: it too offers deep emotion within a structure that seems always to be on the verge of becoming something altogether new. Despite its apparently conventional four-movement layout, the sonata shows Scriabin straining beyond Romanticism even as the work’s program seems Romantic to the core: the composer called the sonata “States of the Soul.” Arakawa follows the music from its dramatic, often turbulent opening all the way to a finale that strains beyond the Romantic in sound and ends with a level of unexpected bleakness that is at odds with the earlier musical material (although not with the program that Scriabin wrote, which refers to “the abyss of non-being”). Both the Schumann and Scriabin performances are knowing, intense and fully cognizant of the complexities both of the musical material and of the thinking underlying the works. The one weakness here lies in Arakawa’s handling of Haydn’s E-flat sonata (Hob. XVI: 52). This is late Haydn, to be sure, dating to 1794, but it is not really a work that pushes the boundaries of sonata form to any significant degree – certainly not to a greater degree than is evident in other Haydn piano sonatas. Haydn was a remarkable innovator throughout his oeuvre, but he was a subtle one, always fully cognizant of his audience (whether aristocratic or more popular). This is his final sonata, so the fact that it shows considerable maturity is scarcely a surprise; and the fact that the sonata includes greater harmonic exploration than earlier Haydn sonatas is also no shock. But this is no grand, heaven-storming sonata, and it requires careful balance and a much lighter touch than the works of Schumann and Scriabin. Arakawa handles it with rather broad tempos and an intensity befitting Beethoven – with the result that the work sounds rather portentous. It sounds as if Arakawa is a little bit too determined to make the Haydn “fit” with the other works on the CD – but it really does not, and the result is a bit of a stretch. Still, Arakawa’s approach is arguably justified in a sonata composed three years after Mozart’s death. And even if this reading is less convincing than that of the Schumann and Scriabin, it is a well-thought-out and well-played one that listeners will find well worth hearing.
The value of hearing Philip Glass’s music remains very much a matter of personal opinion. The continuing Grand Piano releases called Glassworlds do nothing to make Glass’s approach more congenial – or less – but they certainly confirm Nicolas Horvath as a first-rate interpreter of this material. The music itself, though, remains distinctly unidimensional, its unending repetitiveness either haunting or soporific, depending on each listener’s viewpoint. All the works on the latest Glassworks release are world première recordings, except for Mad Rush, but there is nothing particularly revelatory here. Glass sounds like Glass – and nowadays like a whole host of other composers who believe that hypnotic repetition bordering on obsessiveness is a strong foundation for audience communication. Mad Rush, for example, tries to contrast peacefulness with drama, but it is the work’s lulling aspects that come across most strongly. It is in the nature of Glass’s music that Metamorphosis Two draws from the same wellspring of quiet repetitiveness, and although there is indeed something metamorphosing here, what changes does so with extreme gradualness. As for 600 Lines, much of it sounds like the noise made by old-fashioned piano tuners (in the days before electronic tuning) as they tried to ensure that an instrument was ready for a performance. The shortest and in some ways most interesting piece here is by far the least typical of Glass: it is his only transcription, of Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence. It is a nicely managed re-creation that, however, does not really add anything to Simon’s original. There is nothing especially enlightening about Glassworlds, Volume 5—Enlightenment, which gets a (+++) rating but will, of course, be highly appealing to those who cannot get enough of Glass’s musical approach.