January 14, 2010


Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto in C; The Wasps—Aristophanic Suite; English Folk Song Suite; The Running Set. Ashley Wass, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Dvořák: Piano Concerto. Martin Helmchen, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     It is often worth hearing less-known piano concertos – even if hearing them helps make it clear why they are less-known. Vaughan Williams’ concerto is an impressive work, and Ashley Wass plays it with great skill, but it somehow does not quite satisfy. It may be that the music is too blended, and too little “pure” Vaughan Williams, to be fully effective. It does have some of the folksong elements that this composer frequently uses in his music, and its treatment of the orchestra is very skillful and often produces a sense of majesty. But the work seems overly influenced by Bach (not a bad thing) as transcribed by Busoni (more of a mixed blessing), so that its coloristic elements are rather uncertain. The middle movement, Romanza, is lovely, but there is something a touch forced about the opening Toccata and later Fuga cromatica. Everything is well constructed, but the concerto does not hang together particularly well. Interestingly, this 1930 work seems less unified than Vaughan Williams’ 1909 music for The Wasps, which has a single-minded mood of lighthearted levity – but with bite (or sting). In addition to the Overture, often played on its own, the suite includes four other movements, which run the gamut from nobility (or pseudo-nobility) to puckishness. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra plays the suite with verve and a sure sense of style, and James Judd leads it skillfully. The more-familiar Vaughan Williams is represented here by Gordon Jacobs’ well-known orchestration of the English Folk Song Suite, a perennial crowd-pleaser that was written in 1923 and is as full of bounce and charm as ever. The Running Set dates to 1933 and is cut from much the same cloth, being a single-movement dance based on several folk tunes and packed with high spirits.

     If the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto is a bit of a disappointment, the one by Dvořák is not; and although still relatively underplayed, it is now making its way into pianists’ standard repertoire on the strength of its grand scale and gorgeous melodies. Martin Helmchen gives it a stirring performance, with the extended first movement being especially fine in its long lines and lovely flow. Marc Albrecht and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg provide exceptionally sensitive backing, showcasing the work’s grand Romantic gestures and partnering with the piano while still giving Helmchen plenty of chances to stand out. PentaTone’s usual outstanding SACD sound is a big plus here. In all, this performance makes a strong argument for more-frequent inclusion of the Dvořák concerto in concert programs – the work does sprawl and often wears its heart on its sleeve, but its essential loveliness sweeps away its occasional tendency to sound a bit bloated. Unfortunately, Helmchen is less convincing in Schumann’s much more frequently played concerto: there is nothing specifically wrong with his interpretation, but there is nothing unusually strong about it, either. This work is so well known that it takes a bold pianist to find new ways to handle it – for example, it would be nice to hear some soloist and orchestra play the first movement at tempo, as written, instead of starting it Allegro agitato and then slowing down after the opening flourish, only to speed up again later. Helmchen and Albrecht do not do this, opting for a conventional approach that will be familiar to listeners even though it is not quite what Schumann wanted. But it is the very conventionality of this performance that works against it: there is plenty of very fine playing, but there is nothing revelatory or even especially noteworthy in the reading. It is quite well done but not inspired – in contrast to the Dvořák, which is certainly the main reason to consider buying this disc.

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