October 15, 2009


Sarasate: Virtuoso Violin Works. Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, violins; Akira Eguchi, piano; Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León conducted by Alejandro Posada. Canary Classics. $16.99.

Liszt: Organ Works, Volume 2. Martin Haselböck, organ. NCA. $24.99 (SACD).

     Spectacular playing is not always at the service of music: sometimes it overwhelms what the composer is trying to communicate. In other cases, though, it is the virtuosity itself that is a big part of what the composer wants to put across, and this is the case with the works of Pablo de Sarasate, one of the great violinists of the 19th and early 20th century. Like many other virtuosi, Sarasate wrote pieces for himself to play, designing them to show off his tremendous technical skills as well as, to a lesser extent, his qualities of expressiveness. Sarasate’s works are mostly surface-level showpieces; they remain as effective for violinistic display today as they were when he wrote them. Gil Shaham and his wife, Adele Anthony, play a dozen of these pieces with tremendous flair on the latest CD from Shaham’s own label, Canary Classics. Self-indulgent? Yes, but that goes with the territory of being a virtuoso. And the CD really is splendid to hear, from a technical viewpoint. The four works with orchestra – Carmen Fantasy, Zortzico “Adiós Montaňas Mías,” Zigeunerweisen and Navarra for Two Violins – are live recordings, and the audience’s palpable enthusiasm after each one ends is entirely understandable. The first three of these pieces are played by Shaham, the last by Shaham and Anthony together. The eight other works are studio recordings with piano. Shaham brings a bold, sweeping style to Habanera, Zapateado, Romanza Andaluza, Capricho Vasco and Gavota de Mignon, while Anthony offers somewhat more delicate but equally virtuosic playing in Song of the Nightingale, Airs Écossais and Introduction and Tarantella. The best-known works here – Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen – are the most effective, but there are charms aplenty in the others, and a certain amount of parlor-room emotionalism as well. It would be a mistake to read too much into these pieces, which are effectively constructed and filled with the colorations of the areas to which they refer (including the Basque region, Scotland, and of course Spain), but which were never intended as deeply meditative. Shaham and Anthony have here produced what is essentially a CD of encores; and very effective encores they are.

     Martin Haselböck uses virtuosity in a very different way in his recordings of Liszt’s organ music. Liszt himself was not above producing pure display pieces – on one level, he was the champion of piano virtuosity for its own sake. But there were many levels to Liszt, and his organ works have depth that many of his piano pieces do not. There are five works on the new Haselböck release: the famous Präludium und Fuge über B-A-C-H (1870 version), Orpheus (1854/60), “Les Morts” – Oraison (1860), “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (1862), and “Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine” (1862). The B-A-C-H prelude and fugue is Liszt’s most popular organ work, and Haselböck’s finely tempered performance shows why: this is a piece of great depth, filled with a learned understanding of the forms of Bach’s time but filtering those forms through Liszt’s own sensibilities. It is a simultaneous tribute to Bach and to Liszt himself; its considerable difficulties are clearly in the service of fulfilling a deeply committed musical vision. Regarding the other four works here, Haselböck’s own remarks (made about “Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine” but applicable to much of Liszt’s organ output) are worth noting: “In a manner that is unique to Liszt the boundaries between transcription, paraphrase and composition appear to have been done away with.” Thus, Orpheus started as a prelude to a Gluck opera; the organ version was created by Robert Schaab; Liszt was unsatisfied with it, but instead of revising it he thoroughly transformed it, adding new elements and altering the conclusion significantly. Liszt could not keep up with the demand for his works and often had students and friends make arrangements for him – but he then tinkered with what others had done, even (as in this case) making substantial changes, before finally signing off on a piece as his own. What ultimately matters is the effectiveness of the final work, not its provenance; and Orpheus is a fine example of Romantic (and romantic) organ music. The three other works on this SACD are all mourning music, tied to various family tragedies in Liszt’s life. All are perhaps best seen as coping mechanisms for Liszt, who expressed himself musically with a level of emotion absent from the letters he wrote in times of inner turmoil. Each of the works is very effective in its own way; all of them (but especially “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”) make for depressing listening, especially for anyone who plays the disc straight through. The religiously focused music stands in striking contrast to the B-A-C-H prelude and fugue; but in all these very different pieces, technical virtuosity is necessary but not sufficient to give the works their full effect.

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