October 20, 2011


Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 2: Liszt—Etude en douze Exercises (1826); Trois Etudes de concert (1845-49); Zwei Konzert-Etüden (1862-63); Rigoletto—Paraphrase de concert (1855); Tannhäuser—Ouvertüre (1848). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete). Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. Ondine. $21.99 (2 CDs).

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Finlandia. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $9.99.

     There remains a great deal worth exploring in the Romantic repertoire for musicians who are willing to take new looks at familiar works and interpret them with sensitivity and care. Idil Biret brings both those characteristics to the second CD in the Idil Biret Solo Edition, which, like the first release in this series, is devoted entirely to music of Liszt. And there is a lot of it here: the disc runs nearly 80 minutes, which is just about the limit for CD recording. Three sets of etudes take up a large portion of the release, and they are etudes from very different times in the composer’s life. The earliest set dates to 1826, when Liszt was but 15 – which by no means indicates a lack of experience, since by that age he had already composed his only opera and seen it staged. Following the circle of fifths from C major to B-flat minor, these mostly short works demand considerable virtuosity without offering any particular profundity. The three etudes from the 1840s are longer and more complex, especially the first of them (“Un lamento”). Here Biret has a chance not only to display her considerable technique but also to express passionate involvement with the music, and she does so quite effectively. The two later etudes (1862-63) return to a shorter format and are more in the nature of character pieces: Gnomenreigen (“Gnomes’ Dance”) and Waldesrauschen (“Forest Murmurs”). Here Biret does a fine job of putting the technical difficulties of the pieces at the service of their expressive intent. Also on the CD are two of Liszt’s operatic pieces, a concert paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto and a piano version of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The first of these, drawn from the final tragic scene of the opera, combines pianistic virtuosity with melodramatic emotionalism. Here Biret holds back a bit – she is a thoughtful pianist who does not wear her heart on her sleeve – and presents the music straightforwardly, without wallowing or overdoing the emotive component. That approach works well enough for Verdi, but even better in the Wagner arrangement, because here Liszt is careful to preserve the lines and the understated religiosity of the orchestral overture, never allowing the work to become a mere display piece. Biret recorded these works only a few months ago, in April, and they show her retaining, at age 69, the formidable technique she has possessed for decades – and coupling it with musical thoughtfulness and intelligence that have also long been hallmarks of her performances.

     The new Ondine recording by Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra also re-explores the Romantic era, in this case one of the most beloved ballets of all time: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Whatever the merits of the ballet’s story (and they are not many: all the action takes place in the first act), this work is a genuine charmer, and it is crucial not to overwhelm it with too big a sound or attempt to give it profundity that it does not possess. Pletnev clearly understands this: he lets the first act unfold with as much drama as it contains, emphasizing the many elegant instrumental touches that Tchaikovsky brought to the score, and then he simply makes the second act – essentially a long series of characteristic dances – into a celebration. The music is so familiar that there is very little new to be heard in it. To his credit, Pletnev does not attempt to extract additional meanings or a higher level of importance from a score that is short for a ballet and was not even intended to be performed by itself (it originated as half of a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta). The good thing about Pletnev’s restrained approach is that it lets the excellent playing of the orchestra shine through and allows the music to flow naturally and without any pomposity whatsoever. The ballet becomes a sort of sumptuous divertissement filled with gorgeous melodies that flow over each other unceasingly from start to finish – not exactly what is intended in a stage work, perhaps, but a very pleasant way to hear this particular much-loved standard of the Romantic era.

     Sibelius was, chronologically, in the post-Romantic era by the time he wrote his last two symphonies in 1923 and 1924, but for all their formal and harmonic innovations, they remain in many ways firmly grounded in a Romantic approach to large-scale music – even when the grounding is clearest through the ways in which Sibelius deviates from it. The final CD in the Sibelius cycle by Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is every bit as good as the earlier ones, with Inkinen extracting very fine and surprisingly idiomatic playing from the orchestra and offering interpretations filled with touches of elegance. Symphony No. 6, which Sibelius originally envisioned as a stormy work, somehow emerged as a tranquil one, and Inkinen lets it flow poetically from movement to movement with a kind of sunny optimism. The single-movement No. 7, on the other hand, gets a wide variety of mood and tempo changes that lead up to the eventual strong affirmation of its C major tonic key. The switch of flutes to piccolos in the central Adagio is particularly well done here: Inkinen has a fine sense of Sibelius’ coloristic innovations, which combine with the constant tempo changes to give this work its strong effect. And the CD concludes with Sibelius’ ever-popular Finlandia, given a stirring rendition filled with grandeur and a sense of wide scale and great triumphalism. This is an excellent completion of a Sibelius cycle that has been, from first to last, a joy to hear.

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