January 22, 2009


Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 2—Sonatas in C major, Op. 1, No. 1, and A minor, Op. 1, No. 2; Sonatinas in B flat major, Op. 5, No. 1, and F major, Op. 5, No. 2. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 2—Volume VI, “Album pour les enfants dégourdis” (excerpts). Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Pelléas et Mélisande, Symphonie (arranged Marius Constant); Suite Bergamasque: Clair de lune (orchestrated André Caplet); Nocturnes; Berceuse héroïque; Trois Etudes (orchestrated Michael Jarrell). Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

     Naxos’ penchant for producing multi-volume sets of composers’ music is especially happily served in these three second installments of what will eventually be complete series. The two Ries sonatas that Susan Kagan plays with idiomatic skill are both intimately related to Ries’ piano teacher and (for a while) friend, Beethoven, being in fact dedicated to him. The first sonata was written in 1806, the second earlier, in 1804, and it is intriguing to speculate about Beethoven’s involvement in both. They certainly sound in places like somewhat watered-down Beethoven, but that could be caused simply by Ries’ proximity to the greater composer. The first sonata, in four movements rather than Ries’ usual three, has a strong opening and an especially well-wrought final rondo that intriguingly dips into the minor and changes rhythm midway through. The second sonata is in A minor, but its first and most interesting movement moves back and forth between the home key and E minor. The two sonatinas here date to 1806-8 and could have been inspired by publication of Beethoven’s two Op. 49 sonatinas. In any event, the first of the Op. 5 sonatinas by Ries is a pleasant throwback to the sound of Haydn and Mozart, with three brief movements that all have moderate tempo indications. The second Op. 5 sonatina dips into the minor in its first two movements but is all brightness in its finale. The four works on this CD confirm Ries’ compositional skill while also confirming that, at least in this period, he was treading in other composers’ footsteps rather than making his own way.

     Not so Rossini in his Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), some of the most original piano miniatures of their time. The composer created 14 volumes of these brief delights, for voice and a variety of instruments both solo and in combination, after retiring from opera composing at age 37. Many of the works are not intended to be taken seriously – some of the little songs are hilarious – but there is certainly no need to trivialize the pieces, as some performers do (except, of course, when Rossini wants them trivialized). Alessandro Marangoni handles his second foray into the piano “sins” with as much skill and enthusiasm as he brought to his first. The new release contains 11 of the 12 pieces in what Rossini called “Album for Smart Children,” unfortunately omitting (undoubtedly because of CD length limitations) the eleventh piece in the album, Étude asthmatique (which Naxos promises to include in a future release). Among the delights here are the somewhat Wagnerian-sounding Mon prelude hygiénique du matin (“My morning hygienic prelude”); the wonderful juxtaposition of the solemn Memento homo and the bright and lively Assez de memento: dansons; the tender Une caresse à ma femme; and two works that Rossini structures as “spoiled” dances: Valse torturée and Fausse couche de polka mazurka (“Miscarriage Polka Mazurka”). In these and the rest of the pieces on this CD, Rossini shows considerable skill both in writing for the piano and in creating highly satisfying miniatures; and Marangoni’s pianism imbues the works with just the right amount of emotion – of whatever type is appropriate.

     The piano is the starting point for several works in Naxos’ second volume of Debussy’s orchestral music, all of it very well played by Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl. The lovely but over-familiar Clair de lune is the third movement of Suite bergamasque; the Berceuse héroïque was written for piano, then orchestrated by the composer; and the Trois Etudes are from the set of Douze Etudes for piano. All the works sound fine in orchestral guise – the Trois Etudes perhaps a bit less so than the others – but none of these brief works is as impressive as the longer pieces here. Pelléas et Mélisande—Symphonie mostly uses instrumental episodes from Debussy’s opera, maintaining the composer’s scoring and progressing from medieval scene-setting to Mélisande’s eventual death. It is an effectively atmospheric and emotive work, although it does not entirely encapsulate the opera (and was not intended to). As for the Nocturnes, Debussy originally planned them for violin, but after completing that version in 1896, he made one for orchestra that he finished in 1900. The first and third movements are poetic (the third including a chorus, in this recording the fine MDR Radio Choir, Leipzig), while the second is celebratory, and the suite as a whole is very effective in showing why Debussy and the word “impressionist” are often considered nearly synonymous.

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