August 21, 2008


Field: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-7; Divertissements Nos. 1 and 2; Rondeau; Nocturne No. 16; Quintetto. Míċeál O’Rourke, piano; London Mozart Players conducted by Matthias Bamert. Chandos. $34.99 (4 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Anton Kuerti, piano; Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. CBC Records. $19.99 (3 CDs).

      Best known for creating the form of the Nocturne and somewhat known for a single one of his piano concertos (No. 2), John Field has long been on the fringes of mainstream musical performance. True, his output was uneven, as the cycle of his complete piano concertos shows. But he had a voice with some unique qualities, and may have been primarily disadvantaged by living in an age of transition, in which greater geniuses, such as Chopin, took his innovations farther than Field himself ever did. (It is perhaps not coincidental that Field, who lived from 1782 to 1837, seems to suffer much the same treatment as does his contemporary, Johann Nepomuk Hummel [1778-1837].) Míċeál O’Rourke’s Field compilation, which includes excellent support by Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players, is a rerelease of recordings made between 1994 and 1996. Both the performances and the sound have held up beautifully. O’Rourke has a fine understanding of the combination of classical poise and Romantic sensibility that together make up the Field “sound,” and he plays each concerto with individual attention, bringing out its unique elements. Nos. 1 and 3 (the latter probably Field’s earliest concerto, despite its numbering) are largely in the spirit of Mozart and, perhaps more to the point, of Muzio Clementi, with whom Field worked closely (Clementi probably helped with the scoring of No. 1). No. 2 is the first concerto to showcase Field’s more poetic side, and its rondo finale has delightful lilt. No. 4 contains one of Field’s few really interesting orchestral effects, with strings playing col legno while the piano is in its highest register (Field, like Chopin in his two concertos, uses the orchestra mainly for straightforward accompaniment). No. 5 is called “L’Incendie par l’orage” (“The Blazing Storm”) and is packed with effects portraying lightning, thunder and heavy rain – an impressive piece, if not one that wears particularly well. No. 6, the weakest of the mature concertos, uses an arrangement of Nocturne No. 6 for its slow movement and has a truncated finale, perhaps written in haste; its first movement, though, is filled with interesting melodies in a succession of short episodes. Concerto No. 7 is in two-movement form and includes forward-looking key changes (major to minor) and a slow section that was later published separately as a Nocturne. The four-CD Field set is filled out with some of the composer’s rarely heard chamber music, including a piano-and-strings version of Nocturne No. 16, a very effective Rondeau, and the lovely Divertissement No. 2, whose first part was later rewritten as Nocturne No. 7. Both on its own terms and as a chance to find out, through hearing Field, the ways in which he influenced later composers, this set of his concertos is a winner.

      Anton Kuerti’s Beethoven cycle is also a reissue – the performances date to 1986 – and also quite well done. Furthermore, it is well priced and neatly packaged, with an unusual three-CD holder. As a musical offering, though, it gets a (+++) rating, largely because there are so many fine performances of Beethoven’s piano concertos available, and Kuerti’s brings nothing especially distinguished to the table. This is in no way to fault his playing, which is excellent; nor is it a criticism of Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – the accompaniment is first-rate throughout. But these are straightforward performances that, although they rarely make missteps, also rarely take the sorts of chances that might reveal something new about the music. There are a number of brief uses of rubato in the concertos, for example (No. 1 is especially rife with them), but they appear to be to no particular purpose except to extend one nicely played section slightly at the expense of another that is also nicely played. Kuerti’s tone is suitably light for the first two concertos and appropriately intense for No. 5, but there is little interpretative nuance in any of the performances – they are well done but never really catch fire. Surprisingly, though, Kuerti comes into his own in the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, taking the quasi-improvisational first section very quickly and giving the whole piece the flavor of an encore to the concerto cycle (the fantasia was in fact written by Beethoven as a sort of encore to a very extended concert of his works). The excitement of the fantasia – to which the chorus also brings considerable intensity (although it would have been nice if the booklet had included the text) – shows how well Kuerti and Davis were capable of doing Beethoven in the mid-1980s. But that level of passion is largely missing from the well-controlled concerto performances.

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