June 28, 2018
(++++) BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS: STILL SURPRISING
Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Marc Coppey, cello; Peter Laul, piano. Audite. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5. Norman Krieger, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Decca. $15.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1; Capriccio in D minor, Op. 116, No. 1; Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2; Ballade in B, Op, 10, No. 4. Norman Krieger, piano; Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Artisie 4 Recordings. $15.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Sonata No. 1. Norman Krieger, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philip Ryan Mann. Decca. $15.
The major works of Beethoven and Brahms are so familiar, and have been performed and recorded by so many outstanding musicians over so long a time period, that their genuinely innovative nature can sometimes get lost. So can the ability of certain performers to bring out the intricacies of even the best-known of these pieces in ways that shine an intriguing spotlight on elements that are not always in the forefront. Doing this – making highly familiar material sound genuinely new – sometimes requires considerable daring on the part of performers. And that is precisely what Cellist Marc Coppey and pianist Peter Laul offer on a new two-CD Audite set of Beethoven’s five cello-and-piano sonatas, plus his three sets of variations for these instruments. This is a live recording made in one day, taking performers and audience alike through this music chronologically and with tremendous style. The cello-and-piano sonatas are very clear examples of the usual division of Beethoven’s music into early, middle and late periods – a division also seen in the symphonies and piano sonatas but not, for example, in the piano concertos, which are early- and middle-period works only. For performers to trace Beethoven’s development as Coppey and Laul do, with sensitivity and a firm understanding of the way the composer’s style matured and changed in so many ways over time, is an exceptional accomplishment. Only musicians of the highest caliber would even be likely to attempt a survey of this sort on the basis of live recordings. That Coppey and Laul bring it off successfully is genuinely remarkable. The two play together with such solidity and refinement that it is often impossible to say which of them is taking the lead and who is taking the accompaniment role. And this works surpassingly well in the cello-and-piano sonatas, in which Beethoven – even in the two earliest, which retain largely Classical proportions – balances the instruments to a degree quite surprising for a virtuoso pianist such as himself. The first two sonatas, in F and in G minor, follow a two-movement form common in the Classical period, with the first movement being much longer and weightier. But already here Beethoven strikes out in a new direction, opening each sonata with an extended slow introduction that, in the second work, is nearly as long as a separate slow movement. These early-period sonatas contrast strongly with the sole middle-period one, No. 3 in A, which is in three movements that are all in fast tempos: its sole concession to a slower pace is the introduction to the finale. Coppey and Laul convey a fine sense of the headlong rush of this work and its greater intertwining of instruments than in the first two sonatas. As for the final two, late-period sonatas, No. 4 in C is another two-movement work, but here the movements are about the same length and are short: this is a compressed, concise and rather harsh work balanced more toward the end than the beginning. No. 5 in D returns to the three-movement form and features a remarkable central Adagio con molto sentiment d’affetto that looks forward to the late string quartets and back toward Bach at the same time – and leads to a fugal finale that also shows Beethoven’s way of reinterpreting that which came before. Coppey and Laul play the three variation sets as “punctuation points” among the sonatas – after Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – and use them to provide balance and a lighter experience than the sonatas themselves offer. The first set is on a well-known theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, the second and third on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – with the second set of variations, on Papageno’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, being the most sophisticated and unusual of the three, even including a minor-key Adagio variation that somehow manages to wring a tragic sound from essentially light and airy material. The daring with which Coppey and Laul approach all this material, and their willingness to perform all of it in one extended sitting before an audience, result in an outstanding recording that holds listeners’ attention and attentiveness throughout its two-and-a-half hours, all the while showcasing both Beethoven’s compositional development and the performers’ thorough understanding of and attunement to it.
Laul is scarcely the only pianist whose deep feeling for Beethoven’s style, structure and stature leads to strong and sensitive performances. Norman Krieger’s pianism on a new Decca CD featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 (“Emperor”) results in a disc that is also remarkably well-handled and a front-runner in an extremely crowded field of recordings of these works. And what is equally interesting about this recording is the excellence of the accompaniment by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. Many conductors dislike the “accompanist” role for their ensembles, but Falletta seems to relish it, taking advantage of every opportunity to show the many ways in which Beethoven’s use of the orchestra in these concertos sets off and deepens the piano’s centrality. Over her years at its helm, Falletta has turned the Buffalo Philharmonic into a top-notch ensemble: in this recording, the strings are sweet and warm, the winds are lively and very well balanced (the flute-and-bassoon duet in the Largo of No. 3 is a high point), the brass has nuance worthy of the sound of Central European orchestras, and the timpani add just the right touch of piquancy and drama again and again. As for Krieger, he here shows himself, above all, to be an intelligent virtuoso, not just a thoughtful one (although he is that as well). There is a sense of control everywhere: in the steady rhythms of the first movement of No. 3, the careful proportions of that concerto’s second movement, the expansiveness of the latter part of the first movement of No. 5, and the exceptional beauty of the piano’s first entry in that concerto’s second movement. The Krieger-Falletta pairing is one of insight as well as musicianship: again and again, the way piano and orchestra play off each other is impressive and involving, with a sense of rightness that approaches the revelatory. Of course, as with any performance of these works, it is possible to nitpick some specifics: for example, the finale of No. 3 seems rather held-back until the coda, the opening flourishes of No. 5 are on the mild side, and that concerto’s last movement seems rather matter-of-fact. Even these less-than-ideal elements, though, seem to emerge from thoughtfulness, from a desire to let the music unfold without being overplayed or subjected to Romantic-era excesses (again, these concertos are middle-period Beethoven, not late Beethoven). This live recording of the Third and Fifth stands up to just about any other performed on a modern piano (those using the type of fortepiano for which Beethoven actually wrote, and against whose inadequacies he railed even as he sought to overcome them, are in a different class). Both Krieger and Falletta refuse to produce straightforward Beethoven here: each seeks, and finds, numerous small, elegant touches to bring forward, both separately and together.
Krieger and Falletta have actually shown their joint mettle repeatedly, and at times to an even greater degree than in the Beethoven concertos – which were recorded over a surprisingly long time period, No. 3 in 2004 and No. 5 in 2015. Between those dates, in 2007, Krieger and Falletta got together for a genuinely eloquent live performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, in which Falletta led not the Buffalo Philharmonic but the lesser (although still more than adequate) forces of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, another ensemble of which Falletta has long been the artistic director. All the best characteristics of their Beethoven disc are here as well: the intelligence, sensitivity, mutual respect, and excellence of interplay. Add to those a palpable sense of excitement in live performance, with touches of rubato and carefully building emotional sincerity limned by rhythmic sensitivity and a thoroughgoing understanding of the vast symphonic sweep of the score, and you have a recording in which the exceptionally high level of involvement of the performers comes through both audibly and emotionally to listeners. Nothing is out of place here: the subtlety of Krieger’s first-movement opening and the amazingly effective way it intertwines with Falletta’s handling of the orchestral entry; the discipline and care that both Krieger and Falletta put at the service of an unabashedly Romantic interpretation of a concerto that they appropriately conceptualize on the grand scale of a symphony; even the recorded sound, whose vividness complements the performers’ approach beautifully. As in the Beethoven disc, Falletta seems especially focused on the woodwinds and brass, which accordingly play with drive, enthusiasm and unending expressivity. This is, by any measure, a gem of a Brahms First Concerto, one that stands up against any other available and is as thrilling on CD as it must have been when performed at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk more than a decade ago. It is complemented by three studio-recorded encores that show just how carefully Krieger pays attention to detail not only when performing with an orchestra but also when playing piano solos. There are the first two of Brahms’ Op. 116 Seven Pieces, late works that contrast in significant ways with the early First Concerto but that Krieger handles with equal care and attentiveness; and the Ballade, Op. 10, No. 4, in which he produces a more-intense performance that draws out the music’s inner core to fine effect.
Anyone who hears the Krieger/Falletta Brahms First Concerto will surely hunger for a Brahms Second, and now Decca has released one – sort of. It is indeed a Krieger performance, but this time the accompaniment is provided by the London Symphony Orchestra under Philip Ryan Mann. And that accompaniment is at a very high level, with the strings here being particularly warm and welcoming – a must for this late (and decidedly autumnal) Brahms. However, listeners will miss the seemingly intuitive connection between Krieger and Falletta: this Brahms Second has a more studied feel about it, a sense of careful balance and well-rehearsed interplay that lacks the apparent spontaneity (really the result of extremely careful scrutiny of the score) in the Krieger/Falletta Brahms First. Nevertheless, the Krieger/Mann Brahms Second is a top-notch performance. The meditative first movement, in particular, is a gem, with the interplay between piano arpeggios and strings (and winds) handled with gentle beauty and a sense of mystery toward the movement’s end – which makes the onrushing Scherzo all the more effective, especially with the lustrous string tone. One string player in particular deserves mention: the cellist in the third movement, whose name, unfortunately, is not provided. The extended cello solo that opens this movement can be a high point of the entire concerto, and so it is here: smooth, warm, assured and just delicate enough to complement the piano when Krieger eventually enters. Krieger and Mann take a somewhat unusual approach to the finale, making its opening as close to carefree as one ever gets in Brahms – with Krieger underlining this handling of the music by the time the movement’s third theme comes around, then keeping the liveliness front-and-center as the movement concludes. The result is a performance that, while certainly not lacking gravitas, finishes in more-upbeat fashion than is typically heard in this very long and generally very serious concerto. The pairing on this CD is an interesting one: instead of offering short encores, as he does for the Brahms First Concerto with Falletta, Krieger here presents Brahms’ very large (more than half-hour) Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 1. This makes for an unusually generous disc (total time of more than 80 minutes) and an unusual opportunity to hear the scale of Brahms’ thinking both in an early work and in a late one. Krieger’s attentiveness to detail is as clear in his performance of the sonata as in the three shorter pieces offered on the Brahms/Falletta CD. This sonata is packed with traditional elements of construction, from canons to arpeggios to extended trills, and it has echoes (from the faint to the readily apparent) of Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn and even Mendelssohn. At the same time, it is a wholly Brahmsian work in its contrasts between the monumental and the intimate and in a pervasive sense of melancholy and frequent use of minor keys (even though its tonic is C major). Krieger’s high musical intelligence is everywhere on display here along with his formidable technique, whether in the con grande espressione variation of the second movement or in a Scherzo that at one point is marked fff molto pesante. By the time Krieger escorts the Allegro con fuoco finale to an eventual Presto, he has thoroughly plumbed the depths of this unusually deep sonata and shown strikingly – and rather surprisingly – that the vast canvas of the Second Piano Concerto shares many of its emotional and pianistic roots with Brahms’ First Piano Sonata. The totality is a CD that is exceptionally impressive both in its orchestral elements and in its solo-piano material.