April 09, 2009


Handel: Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1-8 (“Great”); Chaconne in G Major. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Delos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Grieg: Piano Concerto; Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2. Howard Shelley, piano and conducting Orchestra of Opera North. Chandos. $18.99.

Fazil Say: Violin Concerto, “1001 Nights in the Harem”; Alla Turca Jazz, Fantasia on the Rondo from the Piano Sonata K. 331 by Mozart; Patara Ballet; Summertime Variations. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Luzerner Sinfonieorchester conducted by John Axelrod; Burcu Soysev, soprano; Aykut Köselerli, percussion; Celalettin Biçer, ney flute; Fazil Say, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     Here are three excellent offerings that, in combination, provide a fascinating look at how keyboard virtuosity and the music that brings it forth have changed over the centuries. Jory Vinikour offers more than two hours of Handel’s wonderfully varied harpsichord music in the two-CD Delos set of all eight “Great” harpsichord suites, plus the Chaconne in G and its 21 variations. Handel is not well known as a keyboard composer – he is famed for oratorios, operas and orchestral music – but he was a harpsichord and organ virtuoso, and it is clear from these suites that he knew how to get the maximum effectiveness from a keyboard. Interestingly, five of the eight suites are in minor keys, including one in the unusual key of F-sharp minor (which Haydn used for his “Farewell” symphony, No. 45). The generally big sound of Vinikour’s harpsichord (a 2001 copy of a 1739 instrument built by Johann Heinrich Gräbner, with an unusually large range), so apparent in the A major, F major and E major suites – and in the Chaconne – becomes far more intimate and inward-directed in the minor-key works. Vinikour fully explores the different tempos and moods of the suites’ various movements, bringing forth lyricism and brilliance in equal measure and handling ornamentation and balance with ease and skill. Handel’s harpsichord suites are far less well known than the harpsichord works of Bach, but on the basis of this recording, they are as deserving of a place in listeners’ collections and – for those who can surmount their technical difficulties as elegantly as Vinikour does – a place in harpsichord recitals as well.

     The works on Howard Shelley’s new Chandos CD are as familiar in the concert hall as Handel’s harpsichord suites are unfamiliar. But these Schumann, Grieg and Saint-Saëns concertos have rarely sounded like this. Shelley has gone back to the original manuscripts to find out the composers’ tempo intentions and has discovered, he says, that many modern performance practices are out of kilter – especially in the Schumann and to a lesser extent in the Saint-Saëns. In restoring the tempos to what the composers planned, Shelley offers very spirited performances that will seem over-fast to many listeners on a first hearing – but that bear repeated listens surprisingly well, since they are internally consistent and make up in verve what they somewhat lack in expansiveness. The Schumann is particularly revelatory, bouncing along at a brisk pace that is not without lyricism but that does not allow either piano or orchestra to dwell on the piece’s long lines and broad musical brushstrokes. In the Saint-Saëns, the bright and bouncy second movement is followed by a finale that is truly played Presto, as the tempo indication says – it is a real rouser that has rarely sounded so intensely rhythmic and effective. The most conventional performance here, and therefore the least interesting, is of the Grieg: it is by no means bad, but neither is it revelatory. Shelley does a good job conducting Orchestra of Opera North from the keyboard – a technique more often practiced in Handel’s time than in the Romantic era – and the musicians stay right with him throughout his thought-provoking versions of these concertos.

     From Handel’s 18th century to the 19th and early 20th on Shelley’s CD to the late 20th and 21st on Fazil Say’s new Naïve disc is a journey not only of time but also of sensibility. Say is a fine if somewhat self-indulgent pianist – and a fine if somewhat self-indulgent composer as well. He gets to showcase his pianistic prowess here in two encore-like works that draw heavily from the past but give it Say’s own twists and turns. Alla Turca Jazz, Fantasia on the Rondo from the Piano Sonata K. 331 by Mozart (1993), uses the famous finale of Mozart’s A major sonata for a set of intricate, occasionally dazzling variations. Summertime Variations (2006) draws on the iconic Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess, but takes the jazz elements of the music several steps beyond what Gershwin did, creating a sort of hybrid classical-jazz piece that has a pleasant lilt as well as plenty of opportunities for virtuosity. Say also participates in the very interesting Patara Ballet (2005), written for soprano (or violin), ney flute (or alto flute/treble recorder), piano and percussion – a work that, as in much of Say’s oeuvre, brings Turkish sounds and motifs into play alongside Western European ones, often resulting in fascinating juxtapositions. There is a similar blend in Say’s Violin Concerto, heard here in a live recording from its world premiere in February 2008. The subtitle of this work, 1001 Nights in the Harem, invites comparison with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and in fact Say’s work also uses the solo violin to tie the four movements together. But if Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration is grander and his conception more grandiose, Say’s work is more authentic and exotic in its use of Turkish percussion instruments and its third-movement variations on a well-known Turkish song. The concerto meanders through the harem, introducing the women there, presenting them in dances, and eventually culminating in a sensuous, dreamy conclusion that – once again – seems partly to echo the quiet ending of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. Yet Say’s concerto, which Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays very well indeed, is wholly his own and very clearly, in harmonies and use of instruments, a piece born in the 21st century. Its virtuosity is different from that of Handel, Schumann, Grieg and Saint-Saëns, but it is as much a part of the music of today as their displays were of the music of their own times.

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