May 26, 2011


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 18: Piano Sonatas Nos. 26 (“Les Adieux”), 30 and 32. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 19: Piano Sonatas Nos. 22, 24 and 29 (“Hammerklavier”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Volume 2—Nos. 19, 20, 32, 48 and 50. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

American Music for Percussion, Volume 1: Works by Joan Tower, Felicia Sandler, Jennifer Higdon, Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Gunther Schuller. New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble conducted by Frank Epstein and Gunther Schuller. Naxos. $9.99.

American Music for Percussion, Volume 2: Works by Elliott Carter, Peter Child, Edward Cohen, John Harbison and Fred Lerdahl. New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble conducted by Frank Epstein. Naxos. $9.99.

     The piano is essentially a percussion instrument, producing its sounds through the striking of hammers upon taut strings. But it is the only percussion instrument that seems consistently at odds with its inherent nature, to such an extent that it is sometimes considered a string instrument (and of course it is that too, in a sense). Composers in the 20th century certainly celebrated the percussive piano, often by “preparing” it so it would make sounds beyond those intended by its builders. In earlier times, though, overly percussive playing was simply considered pounding and was frowned upon – unless, of course, it was done in the service of extreme virtuosity by a Kalkbrenner, a Thalberg or a Liszt.

     The final two volumes of the 19-CD Idil Biret Beethoven Edition are revelatory of the piano’s nature as well as of Biret’s interpretations. These are the ninth and tenth volumes of Biret’s versions of Beethoven sonatas, and the sonatas themselves are presented in no particular order in terms of their composition dates or the dates of the recordings (indeed, all the numbering by IBA is unnecessarily confusing and detracts from what is basically a very fine set of discs). But it is wholly appropriate that the final sonata on the final CD should be No. 29, the Hammerklavier, because it encapsulates in a single work not only Beethoven’s mastery of the piano (on which he was a virtuoso performer before he became deaf) but also the pluses and minuses of Biret’s approach. Biret’s technique is masterful and her thoughtfulness in these works unsurpassed. She generally favors deliberate tempos that give her plenty of time to explore the nuances of the music – although she is quite capable of playing exceedingly well at high speed when she wishes to (as in the very intense and difficult, and exceptionally brief, Scherzo of the Hammerklavier). Where Biret sometimes falls short is in exuberance (all her performances are tightly controlled) and emotional communication (some of her interpretations tend to sound a bit studied). Thus, Biret’s Hammerklavier as a whole is quite expansive, running more than 50 minutes, and its dense and difficult finale is exceptionally impressive. But the Adagio sostenuto, the longest movement by far and the emotional heart of the work, is not really reflective of Beethoven’s indication, Appassionato e con molto sentimento, for there is little that is sentimental about Biret’s reading, whose passion seems more a cloak to be worn than a deep and heartfelt emotion. Biret deserves substantial credit for not wallowing in excess here, but some will find that she has pulled back a little too far in the opposite direction, although always in a carefully considered rather than arbitrary way. This is a very impressive performance even though it is not always an emotionally gripping one. Biret also does a fine job in the two two-movement sonatas on this CD, her cerebral approach working particularly well in No. 22, whose first movement is rather remote and reserved; while in No. 24, she is a touch lacking in ebullience (that Biret reserve again) but has a sure command of structure and pacing.

     Beethoven’s final sonata, No. 32, is also a two-movement work, but a huge one; it is on the second-to-last release in the IBA series. Biret is at her best in the quieter and more thoughtful parts of the Arietta of this sonata, making them tender, lovely and very moving. She is somewhat less effective in the more-dramatic portions of the movement (the sonata’s second), including the section (about one-third of the way through the movement) that makes it possible to argue that Beethoven invented jazz – a touch more abandon (even apparent abandon) would have worked better here. Biret does handle the ominous portions of the opening movement quite effectively, though. On the other hand, her opening movement of Sonata No. 30 is on the heavy-handed side – more percussive than it ideally should be – and her second movement, while all right, is nothing special. But her finale is top-notch, capturing the many moods of the movement’s variations while maintaining a high level of lyricism. Yet this sonata as a whole is less effectively presented than No. 26, Les Adieux, which is a high point of the entire Biret series: sad, sonorous, reflective, expressive and joyous by turns, and expressive of delight and thorough relief in the finale, the sonata is a success, and a wonderful bit of tone painting, from start to finish.

     Beethoven claimed never to have learned anything from Haydn, and certainly Beethoven’s later sonatas go far beyond anything Haydn ever created or contemplated; but the notion that the younger composer owed nothing to the older is simply untrue. The second volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s very well-played survey of Haydn’s sonatas shows Haydn developing works of poise and balance, if only modest technical requirements (unlike Beethoven, Haydn was not a piano virtuoso). The formal structure here, adhered to more rigidly than in Beethoven, clearly paved the way for Beethoven’s early piano sonatas, which in turn laid the groundwork for his magisterial later ones. Three of the five Haydn sonatas here are in major keys; the other two, No. 19 in E minor and No. 32 in G minor, are somewhat more interesting, if only by contrast. In particular, No. 32, although scarcely a profound work, is in a key that was emotionally important both to Haydn himself (e.g., in his Symphony No. 39) and to Mozart (Symphonies Nos. 25 and 40). This sonata and No. 19 both carry somewhat more weight than the brighter major-key ones here, although the emotional content is more along the lines of melancholy than it is redolent of sadness, much less tragedy. Bavouzet seems to enjoy playing these sonatas, especially their more ebullient finales, and the CD conveys a satisfying impression of music-making for the sake of pleasure, without the need or intention of plumbing the depths as Beethoven was later to do.

     For a true affirmation of percussion – including pianos but very far from limited to them – listeners interested in 20th-century music will scarcely go wrong with a new Naxos series, American Music for Percussion. The longest work heard on the first volume, Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005), is by far the most sonically overwhelming – perhaps just a bit too much so, for all its compositional skill. Piano, celesta and harp are merely the “front men” here for more than 100 percussion instruments of all types, combined in unusual ways and with considerable rhythmic skill. The point of all the cacophony (and, to be fair, some melodiousness) is not entirely clear – the work sounds like a demonstration project, showing all the things percussionists can do – but as a sheer sonic celebration, it is quite something to hear (although not necessarily something that many listeners will want to hear often). At the opposite side of the scale on this CD is Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood (2006), scored simply for three marimbas, which weave a fascinating if somewhat monochromatic sonic web. Between these two extremes lie Felicia Sandler’s Pulling Radishes (2007), an evocative work inspired by a one-sentence Japanese poem; Joan Tower’s DNA (2003), which not surprisingly uses pairs of instruments to build a whole work, in parallel to the way the twin strands of DNA build a whole living being; and Robert Xavier Rodríguez’ El día de los muertos (2006), whose playfulness and joy (representing the Mexican Day of the Dead, during which departed souls celebrate with their living descendants) seem to extract the most basic elements of percussion instruments – brightness, forthrightness and rhythmic vitality.

     The same elements are found in this series’ second volume, but they are scattered among the offerings rather than concentrated in any particular one. The most celebratory music is The First Voices (2007) by Fred Lerdahl (born 1943): it is filled with exuberance and high spirits. And there is some of the same outgoing nature in Refrain (2000) by Peter Child (born 1953). But the other three works here are different in design, somewhat more subtle, and in some ways a bit more difficult to grasp. Cortège (2008) by John Harbison (born 1938) is a tribute to his fellow composer, Donald Sur (1935-1999), who was best known for an oratorio called The Slavery Documents (1990), which incorporates spirituals and folk songs as well as excerpts from the Bible and other writings. But Harbison makes no overt references to that work – or, indeed, to other music by Sur. Instead, he crafts a tribute that mixes loving elements (which listeners will expect) with some rather angry ones (which they will not). Cortège may have more personal resonance for Harbison than for a general audience, but its use of percussion is certainly adept. And its sound is easier to grasp than that of Acid Rain (1997) by Edward Cohen (1940-2002). This work is inspired by the Balinese gamelan and sometimes seems to be asking the instruments to make sounds for which they were not quite designed. Yet it is not the most intriguing piece on this CD. That is Tintinnabulation, written by Elliott Carter in the year he turned 100 (2008). Carter’s piece is for unpitched percussion instruments, with the result that the whole work is a sonic texture rather than a construction with a defined beginning, middle and end. It is, in some ways, an indulgence in sheer sound, whose meaning is likely to shift as frequently as its tonal colors. And its effect is about as far from that of the percussive piano, as used by Beethoven and Haydn, as it is possible to get.

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