October 27, 2005


Bruch: Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Cello and Piano; D’Indy: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano.  Amici Ensemble: Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; David Hetherington, cello; Patricia Parr, piano. Naxos. $7.99.

Mozart: Concertos for Three and Two Pianos; Sonata for Two Pianos. Wolfgang Brunner, Florian Birsak and Leonore von Stauss, Hammerflügel; Wolfgang Brunner directing Salzburger Hofmusik. Profil. $16.99.

     Certain instrumental combinations just aren’t heard very often.  When they are – that is, when they are well played in pieces written for them rather than in arrangements – they provide unusual revelations and considerable pleasure.  Such is the case with the Amici Ensemble’s new Naxos CD.  Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces is a late work, written in 1910, when the composer was 72 and experimentation was becoming the norm.  But these pieces are thoroughly Romantic in sonority and sensibility.  The soulful clarinet and dark-hued piano tones are reminiscent of Brahms’ late sonatas for clarinet and piano – which, like the Bruch work, can be played on viola instead of clarinet.  Most of Bruch’s pieces move at deliberate speed: five are marked Andante or Moderato.  But each uses the instruments differently.  The third, for instance, opens with dramatic cello flourishes and piano arpeggios and chords, then becomes meltingly beautiful.  The sixth, marked Nachtgesang, sounds like a contralto aria.  The seventh is a bouncy mini-scherzo.  The Amici players handle everything with superb ensemble and great enthusiasm.

     Vincent D’Indy’s Trio, written in 1888, is a different sort of work: graceful, flowing and very idiomatic in its use of the instruments – all of which D’Indy could play.  The lengthy first movement ebbs and flows more than it progresses; the second has some clever and surprising cello pizzicati; in the third, the cello sings like a viola, and in a comparable register.  The extended finale is part rondo, part fantasia, with faster and slower episodes alternating.  The trio is polished and more tightly structured than Bruch’s Eight Pieces, but has less inherent thematic beauty.  It makes a worthy complement to the later composition – and is equally well played.

     There is nothing at all unusual about Mozart and the piano, but the multi-piano pieces on a new Profil CD do qualify as instrumental rarities – doubly so when played, as they are here, on period instruments or carefully crafted replicas.  The Concerto for Three Pianos, K.242 is pretty rather than profound, but sounds very good indeed when the 18th-century-style pianos called Hammerflügel are contrasted with a small group of period instruments.  That is, it sounds best when played as Mozart intended.  The Concerto for Two Pianos, K.365 is a more mature and substantial work, written on a larger scale – comparable to the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364, with which it is contemporaneous (both date to 1778-9).  The two-piano concerto is more complex than the three-piano work, but it is still at heart a showpiece.  In both these concertos, the resemblance between the Hammerflügel and the harpsichords from which they were derived is quite plain, especially in fast runs and trills – which are distinctly harpsichord-like and sound far more effective in this music than would a modern piano.

     The Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448 is the latest work here (1781) and the most pianistic in the modern sense.  By this time, Mozart is clearly reaching for additional instrumental power in unison sections, though there is still great delicacy when the two Hammerflügel are played against each other, tossing melodies and runs back and forth.  The performers seem thoroughly comfortable with 18th-century performance practices and with their instruments, which deserve to be heard less rarely than they are – provided they can be played this well.

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