November 14, 2019
(++++) MORE OF THE LESSER
Dvořák: Piano Concerto; Martinů: Piano Concerto No. 4, “Incantation.” Ivo Kahánek, piano; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jakob Hrůša. Supraphon. $19.99.
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (cantata); Lieutenant Kijé (suite). Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano; Utah Symphony Chorus, University of Utah A Cappella Choir, University of Utah Chamber Choir, and Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Bruckner: Piano Music (complete). Francesco Pasqualotto, piano. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.
It is symphonies, and specifically late symphonies, for which many composers are best known: Dvořák’s Symphonies Nos. 7-9 (with No. 6 also heard moderately often), Prokofiev’s Nos. 5 and 6 (and, to some extent, No. 7), Bruckner’s Nos. 7-9. An occasional other work, symphonic or not, is also closely associated with these composers – but much of the rest of what they wrote is heard far less frequently. Yet there is considerable material of interest in their less-heard pieces, which sometimes merely require exceptional performances to showcase their value. Of course, exceptional performances are, by definition, outside the norm – but when they are available, they really allow some less-often-encountered music to shine forth. In the case of Dvořák, his cello concerto and, somewhat less often, his violin concerto receive frequent readings and are considered first-rate. His piano concerto, by contrast, languishes. But not in the new Supraphon recording by Ivo Kahánek and the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jakob Hrůša. This concerto traditionally suffers from being comparatively non-virtuosic and from having some awkward technical elements, attributable to Dvořák having been a string player with limited familiarity with the piano. But in other contexts, including his chamber works with piano, Dvořák showed that he could write quite well for the instrument in a collaborative sense, and that is the way in which Kahánek and Hrůša approach the concerto. This turns out to be a key to the work’s effectiveness. It is far from a display piece for the soloist – instead, it is a bit like an expanded chamber-music piece, in which the piano is featured but not exactly dominant. Furthermore, the concerto is essentially a lyrical work that requires a focus on the warmth and smooth flow of its themes, and that is just the way it is handled here. The result is a remarkably cogent and tightly knit rendition of a concerto that does not fit the standard 19th-century mold as a display piece for the soloist with subsidiary orchestra, but makes its own way as a smooth, warm and convincing work whose piano highlights shine forth from the orchestral fabric but remain almost obbligato elements much of the time. The concerto shows itself to be unusual for its time but scarcely unsuccessful – as it can seem when performers try to fit it into the mold of a virtuoso showpiece. The pairing of this work from 1876 with Bohuslav Martinů’s Fourth Concerto (1956) also proves to be a particularly happy one. The Martinů is a short, two-movement piece with much of the rhythmic angularity to be expected of a work from the middle of the 20th century. But it also contains a considerable amount of the lyricism that permeates Dvořák’s music – altered, to be sure, in such a way that its dreamlike passages are evocative almost of something surreal. This Martinů concerto is packed with fast-changing emotional landscapes as well as technical challenges, and it is to Kahánek’s credit that he masters them all with seeming effortlessness. Hrůša partners him ably, supporting all the ins and outs of this very varied work, and the Bamberger Symphoniker – not an orchestra particularly known for playing Martinů – proves itself more than capable of sounding idiomatic and thoroughly convincing. It would be hard, after hearing this release, to consider either of the works on it minor or inconsequential.
It is somewhat easier to deem Prokofiev’s film scores to be among his less-important musical productions, but even if that is true, it does not diminish the enjoyment they can generate when played as well as they are by the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer on an excellently recorded Reference Recordings SACD. Alexander Nevsky is essentially an extended patriotic cantata in seven movements, the longest by far being “The Battle on the Ice,” which accompanies the most amazing footage in the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film for which Prokofiev wrote the score. The historical Nevksy was a 13th-century ruler and warrior, later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, who repelled various invasions, including the one shown in the film. He has been a hero in Russian thought for centuries and was carried over on that basis by the Soviet Union. Eisenstein’s celebratory film, whatever its propaganda value, does not actually stray far from the longtime Russian attitude toward Nevsky. Prokofiev’s music is suitably solemn, even tragic in one section, with the dramatic battle scene being so striking that even listeners unfamiliar with the film will be able to imagine some of what must be going on as the opposing armies clash. The singing, both solo and choral, is very fine, even though the Utah Symphony and Utah University choruses can scarcely be intimately familiar with Russian. Fischer keeps the music moving smartly along in a way that unifies the cantata despite its elements being drawn from different sections of the film. Alexander Nevsky contrasts interestingly with the suite from Lieutenant Kijé, which was written four years earlier and was Prokofiev’s first film score. Although Alexander Nevksy is not often performed, Lieutenant Kijé is heard much more frequently – it may be minor Prokofiev, but it is written in a highly popular, accessible style that even led Woody Allen to feature some of the suite in one of his films (Love and Death, 1975). There is opportunity in the story for some of Prokofiev’s wit and sarcasm to come through, and it is this that likely made the music popular and has kept it that way. The underlying tale is of a nonexistent lieutenant who is created through a bureaucratic error, comes to the attention of Tsar Paul I, and then must be kept “alive” until those who accidentally brought him into existence can have him die and receive a suitably heroic funeral. This is, essentially, a fairy tale, and the notion of “putting one over” on an incompetent Russian ruler surely figured in Soviet authorities’ acceptance of the story. Be that as it may, Prokofiev’s suite sparkles and shows the influence of the musical circles of 1920s Paris, where he lived for almost a decade before returning to his homeland. Fischer conducts it with just the right light touch, plus a dose of expressive piquancy that is properly absent from the far more serious Alexander Nevsky. Neither of these works really qualifies as “major” Prokofiev, but both have much to recommend them – and they work especially well when juxtaposed as they are on this recording.
Just how “minor” Prokofiev’s film music and Dvořák’s piano concerto are may be arguable, but the same cannot be said of Bruckner’s piano music: by any measure, the one hour of music he composed for this instrument is very, very incidental to the rest of his oeuvre. Bruckner did not mature as a composer until he was in his 40s, but virtually all his piano music dates to the period 1850-1862, at the end of which he was 38. And the vast majority of these works are student pieces, having appeared in the Kitzler-Studienbuch, a notebook containing works by students of Otto Kitzler (1834-1915) – with whom Bruckner studied for a time. Francesco Pasqualotto is to be commended for assembling these works onto a Brilliant Classics recording: many of them have never been recorded before, and Pasqualotto plays them quite well. However, the usual enjoyment of finding hints in a composer’s early or minor works of what he was to do later and in more-significant form is largely absent here. None of the piano pieces is long: the lengthiest, lasting a bit more than seven minutes, is Bruckner’s only piano sonata, a work so highly derivative of Beethoven that it gives few clues to the innovations for which Bruckner would later be responsible. There are some very short dance pieces here (quadrilles, minuets, a polka, even two miniature waltzes); there is one theme-and-variations; there are even a couple of brief marches, one of which, in D minor, does have a bit of heft to it. But for the most part, one searches in vain for significance in these piano works. Two Andante movements, one in D minor and one in E-flat, are attractively lyrical; a set of four fantasias shows some influence of Schumann, not a composer usually thought of in connection with Bruckner; another, standalone fantasia has a lovely, sentimental slow first section, although the faster portion that follows is quite conventional. The works on this disc that make it a worthwhile musical experience – and more than just a curiosity – are two expressive pieces with a crepuscular feeling about them. They are Stille Betrachtung an einem Herbstabend (“Silent Reflections on an Autumn Evening”), which dates to 1863, and Erinnerung (“Memory”), written five years later – in the last year in which Bruckner composed anything at all for piano. It would be stretching things to call either of these works major or even particularly significant, but both possess budding forms of some of the emotions that would later flower to such wonderful effect in the composer’s later symphonies. Bruckner was an organist, not a pianist, and the differences between the two keyboard instruments surely account for much of the low impact level of his piano compositions. In addition, the piano works were written either as student exercises or for amateurs to perform at home, so they were never intended to be particularly groundbreaking or technically challenging. They are a sidelight in Bruckner’s music, but it is worth pointing out that even sidelights do produce illumination, faint though it may be. Listeners interested in a side of Bruckner that is almost never experienced will find it thoroughly explored here.