August 27, 2009


Tchaikovsky: 18 Pieces, Op. 72. Igor Kamenz, piano. Oehms. $16.99.

Nietzsche: Complete Solo Piano Works. Michael Krücker, piano. NCA. $24.99 (SACD).

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; A Night on Bald Mountain; Rachmaninoff: 6 Etudes Tableaux. Sa Chen, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 10: Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 10, 13 and 14 (“Moonlight”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     It is easy to assume that the 19th century has been fully explored in terms of piano music – it is the mainstay of many a recital and recording. Yet there remain some astonishingly good, little-known works for solo piano from the Romantic era, and Tchaikovsky’s 18 Pieces is one of the most surprisingly neglected. Written late in his life, after he had completed the sketches for the “Pathétique” symphony, the 18 Pieces are as lovely and generally upbeat as the symphony, for all its lyricism, is dour. The cycle’s opus number, 72, places it immediately after The Nutcracker, which is Op. 71, and some of the 18 Pieces reflect the stage work: No. 1 takes after the ballet’s overture, No. 4 is reminiscent of “Mother Ginger,” and No. 11 sounds a bit like the “Waltz of the Flowers” combined with “Chocolate.” Other pieces sound a bit like Eugene Onegin, the second movement of the “Pathétique” and the work that would eventually become Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Yet none of these 18 Pieces is slavishly imitative of anything else in the composer’s oeuvre – they are charming, virtuosic and imaginative by turns, and succeed very much on their own terms. Igor Kamenz plays the cycle with intelligence, care and fine musicianship – so well, in fact, that it makes the neglect of these pieces even harder to understand. Perhaps the 80-minute length of the cycle explains why it is not often heard as a whole in concert – but surely individual pieces ought to be performed more often.

     It is harder to argue for frequent performances of the solo-piano music of Friedrich Nietzsche, even though much of it is intriguing and all of it is well crafted. Although known today only as a philosopher, Nietzsche was a fine self-taught musician and, for a time, a devotee of Richard Wagner, although the relationship between the men was forever broken when Wagner turned to Christianity for the setting of his last opera, Parsifal. Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote most of the works that Michael Krücker plays between 1861 and 1865, so they qualify as juvenilia – and their echoes of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt are scarcely surprising. But the longest work here, Hymnus an die Freundschaft, was written in 1872 and revised in 1875, and shows more signs of originality, although it scarcely rises to the level of great music. Krücker includes with the completed works a variety of fragments, from a half-minute Marcia to a two-minute Albumblatt to a three-minute portion of a fugue. These provide interesting insight into Nietzsche’s compositional process, even if they are not in themselves particularly compelling. The Krücker recording is more of a curiosity than anything else – Nietzsche contributed a great deal to philosophy but not much to music, despite his obvious talent for it. Yet Nietzsche himself acutely felt the interrelationship between these two fields, writing, “I know no difference between tears and music” and speaking of “the strings of my soul, invisibly moved.” Krücker’s recording of Nietzsche’s piano music make a fascinating companion to the philosopher’s writings.

     Sa Chen takes listeners to much more familiar territory with her new recording of Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff. Fourth-place winner in the 2000 International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition and third-place finisher in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the 30-year-old performer is one of a number of impressive young pianists to emerge from China in recent years. She has the strengths and weaknesses that seem to typify this group of rising young stars: superb control, technique to spare, but a tendency to miss out on interpretative niceties and to play very different pieces of music in much the same way. As it happens, this potential defect is of little importance in her new recording, which emphasizes sweep and technique in music that generally does not call for considerable subtlety. Chen’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the colorful tour de force that Mussorgsky intended it to be, with the contrasts among its movements particularly well displayed and with plenty of power when needed, as in the final portrait of the heroes’ gate at Kiev. A Night on Bald Mountain is a bit of an oddity, being a piano transcription by Konstantin N. Chernov of Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s original. Chen plays it well and rather flashily, although it is hard not to miss the familiar delicacy of orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov brought to his version of Mussorgsky’s work. Chen tends toward the flashy in the six Rachmaninoff Etudes as well: Op. 33, Nos. 2, 3 and 5, and Op. 39, Nos. 4, 5 and 6. Five of these six are in minor keys, inviting thoughtfulness as well as virtuosity, but Chen’s focus is mostly on the works’ intensity and their potential for sheer display – not the most sensitive possible approach to the music, but one that generally works well in pieces with more than their share of the showy.

     “Showy” is scarcely a word to apply to Idil Biret’s handling of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the fifth volume of which is now available as the 10th release in Biret’s 19-volume Beethoven Edition. Biret brings a light touch and classically poised elegance to the two Op. 14 sonatas (No. 9 in E and No. 10 in G). For the two from Op. 27 (No. 13 in E-flat and the famous “Moonlight” in C-sharp minor), Biret seems particularly focused on Beethoven’s designation “Sonata quasi una fantasia” – which he applied to both works. There is rhythmic freedom in these performances, and an expressivity that gives them feelings of tenderness and near-improvisatory flexibility, with Biret’s tone in No. 13’s Adagio con espressione and No. 14’s opening Adagio sostenuto especially lovely. These are among Biret’s most recent recordings in her Beethoven sonata series, having been made in May 2008 (Nos. 9 and 10 were recorded in 2004). The Op. 27 performances are also among her most thoughtful, showing just how effective even familiar piano works can be when presented by a performer both technically skilled and closely attuned to the music.

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