January 12, 2017


Respighi: Solo Piano Music—complete. Michele D’Ambrosio, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 3—Nos. 22-32. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Shostakovich: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; String Quartet No. 2—Waltz: Allegro; String Quartet No. 8. Boris Giltburg, piano; Rhys Owens, trumpet; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $12.99.

     Although Respighi’s solo piano music is little known and mostly consists of student pieces, it sheds some interesting light on his later, better-known works. The chance to hear all of this music is a very unusual one, and the Brilliant Classics release featuring Michele D’Ambrosio is therefore highly welcome. Respighi lived from 1879 to 1936, and almost all his works for solo piano date to the late 19th century or very early 20th. It is therefore scarcely a surprise that many have derivative elements, notably echoing Schumann. The Sonata in F minor (1897), Sonata in A minor (1895-96), Andante in F (1895-96), Andante in D (1895-96), Allegro in B minor (1895-96), Preludio in B-flat minor (1898), unfinished Preludio from “Suite per pianoforte” (1903), and Preludio in D minor (1903) are all nicely constructed works and, in the case of the sonatas, ones showing a sure command of classical forms and the ability to sustain musical ideas over multiple movements. None of the material is especially distinctive in terms of what it has to say, however. The five-movement Suite of 1898, though, is a pleasant surprise: the material is light and harks back to music considerably earlier than Schumann’s – the third movement, for instance, is marked Sarabanda – but there is a fleetness and assurance to the piano writing that gives the work a distinctive stamp. The same is true of the piano version of Variazioni sinfoniche (1900), heard here in a world première recording that shows this piano piece to be different in significant ways from the much-better-known orchestral version. And the loosely connected Sei pezzi (1903) are also a pleasant discovery, resembling the earlier Suite in several ways and containing a waltz, nocturne, Canone and Minuetto – all of which Respighi shows himself to understand well and to be able to create with care and solidity. Nevertheless, all these pieces together, their total time nearly an hour and three quarters, have less to show or tell listeners about the elements that make Respighi’s music special than the only two comparatively late piano works he wrote. These are the Antiche danze ed arie per liuto (1917-18) and Tre preludi su melodie gregoriane (1919). Respighi’s first suite of Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute and his four-movement Church Windows are among his best-known orchestral compositions. These piano works offer an opportunity to hear the pieces in their formative stages. The dances are transcriptions, not free adaptations, and as such sound as straightforward and accomplished on piano as they do in orchestral guise, although less interestingly colored. Tre preludi differs from Church Windows in lacking a finale – Respighi added that in 1925 when he made the orchestral version – and here the absence of elegant orchestration makes the piano piece seem rather pale. Nevertheless, these two works provide considerable insight into Respighi’s thinking and compositional process, and are worthwhile on that basis as well as a purely musical one. D’Ambrosio’s performances are, like Respighi’s piano music itself, straightforward and forthright, a fine melding of the performer’s approach with that of the composer.

     Far more often heard than Respighi’s piano music, and available in innumerable fine performances, the final 11 piano sonatas of Beethoven get elegant, classically balanced readings from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in a three-CD Chandos release that completes Bavouzet’s Beethoven cycle. These performances have all the considerable strengths and occasional shortcomings of those in the two earlier volumes. The readings are uniformly clean, elegant and graceful, the pedaling discreet, the emotions kept carefully in control to a degree that means that even when they flow, as in the last three sonatas, they do so within firm boundaries that Bavouzet sets. Bavouzet has technique to spare, and there is no evident strain at all in his handsome reading of No. 29, the Hammerklavier. He is also quite comfortable with a work as small and slight as No. 25, Op. 79, which is as much a sonatina as a sonata; indeed, he gives this work just the right weightiness to show that it reflects Haydn and Mozart while not being beholden to either. No. 23, Appassionata, and No. 26, Les adieux, are a trifle less satisfying: here a listener may be waiting for Bavouzet to cut loose a bit, to let the emotional impact of the music become nearly overwhelming, but the performances are entirely too well-mannered for that, and as a result come across as a bit too poised. The playing itself is excellent, however. The last three sonatas are a collective puzzle as well as three individual ones, and Bavouzet has obviously thought carefully about how to handle them as entirely separate works that nevertheless form a trilogy of sorts. The final variations of No. 30, Op. 109, are a high point here, with Bavouzet characterizing each variation with care while nevertheless being sure they all fit within an overarching concept. The emotive nature of the finale of No. 31, Op. 110, is somewhat underplayed here, but the fugal material does not come across as dry – merely as a touch more distanced from an emotional center than might perhaps be ideal. Bavouzet’s handling of No. 32, Op. 111, is likely to be controversial: it is quite quick, the whole lasting only about 24 minutes – many performances run 30 minutes or more. Bavouzet does not give short shrift to anything specific here, but he keeps the whole sonata moving along smartly, never dwelling on its unusual elements or the surprises that other performers find in it (such as the section of the second movement in which Beethoven appears to invent jazz). The performance is in a sense emblematic of Bavouzet’s entire Beethoven cycle: thoughtful, well-balanced, clearly articulated and leaning more toward the Classical era than the Romantic, Bavouzet proffers Beethoven sonatas that are technically excellent, carefully (if not always traditionally) paced, and at times rather lacking in the deep emotional connections that other pianists find in them. The general coolness of the approach will certainly appeal to listeners who have had their fill of overwrought emotionalism in Beethoven; it will not, however, please those who find greater expressive depth in these sonatas than Bavouzet brings forth.

     There is no shortage of expressiveness in the Shostakovich works performed by pianist Boris Giltburg and conducted by Vasily Petrenko on a new Naxos CD – but there are some curious juxtapositions of types of expressiveness. Aside from his theater music, Shostakovich’s oeuvre is scarcely thought of as light or bright – even his excellent scherzos, whether in orchestral or chamber form, include more bite than light. But his two piano concertos are unusual in this regard: both the first in C minor (1933) and the second in F (1957) convey an overall impression of brightness, if not exactly ebullience. The first concerto makes a solo trumpet essentially equal to the solo piano, in impact if not in total number of notes, both in the haunting central movement and in outer ones in which the brass instrument keeps interfering mischievously with the percussive one and insisting that matters be kept in a kind of Till Eulenspiegel realm of trickery. The second concerto offers some genuinely surprising balance of soloist and orchestra in the first movement, a quirky and parodic finale immediately recognizable as typical of Shostakovich, and in the center a movement of surprising emotional impact in which the sad and tender are mixed and stirred. Giltburg plays both concertos with verve and style, and Petrenko, whose stature as an interpreter of Shostakovich is very high indeed, expertly interweaves the orchestral elements with those of the soloist and knows just which ones should dominate at just what time. And there is more to this excellent recording: two arrangements by Giltburg of material from Shostakovich’s 15 quartets. The strange, quick, shadowy waltz from No. 2 (1944) is as unsettling in isolation, and in Giltburg’s piano version, as it is in the quartet itself. But the real capstone here is the entire eighth quartet, the most often performed of the cycle, which is intensely autobiographical and was written later than either piano concerto (in 1960). Shostakovich’s musical signature, D-S-C-H, is featured throughout the quartet’s five movements, and the work is full of striving and attempts that are designed so they never quite gel, as when the start of a first-movement fugue degenerates – if that is the right word – into self-quotation. The quartet is a complex work, difficult both to play and to hear, and Giltburg has done a remarkable job of reducing it to piano form without having it sound like a reduction. Instead, it sounds a bit like an extended single-movement sonata/fantasia, a dark work (in C minor) evocative not quite of despair but surely of deep unhappiness, yet one whose central bitterness (carried through three movements) leads eventually to something of acceptance, if never quite affirmation, in the finale. Giltburg’s arrangement comes across as a tribute to Shostakovich, an argument that this composer’s music, like that of Bach, can at least sometimes be independent of the instruments on which it is performed, its underlying emotional resonance coming through differently but equally strongly on an instrument for which the work was never intended – but one that is quite capable of evoking the feelings that Shostakovich strove so hard to elicit.

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