April 19, 2012


Mieczysław Weinberg: CompletePiano Works, Volume 1. Allison Brewster Franzetti, piano. Grand Piano.$16.99.

Saint-Saëns: Complete PianoWorks, Volume 1. Geoffrey Burleson, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.

Louis Lortie Plays Chopin, Volume2. Louis Lortie, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Bach: Goldberg Variations.David Jalbert, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Bach: Goldberg Variations.Daniel Barenboim, piano. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

      A batch of newsolo-piano releases provides a feast for the ears, but not all the dishes areequally tasty.  Two on the Grand Pianolabel are especially interesting: they are the opening volumes in seriesdevoted to the piano works of MieczysławWeinberg and Camille Saint-Saëns.  Weinberg (1919-1996) is sometimes mentionedas the third great Russian/Soviet composer of the 20th century,after Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but his works are far less frequently playedthan theirs.  And he is primarily knownfor orchestral music, including 22 symphonies and seven operas, plus chambermusic (17 string quartets) and film scores (about 40).  Still, he wrote six piano sonatas and a fairamount of other piano music, and Allison Brewster Franzetti makes a strong casefor this first batch of it, which includes his first two sonatas and worldpremière recordings of threeother works.  Sonata No. 1 dates to 1940and has a modern, or rather modernistic, feel, with considerabledissonance.  Sonata No. 2 (1942) hasmore-classical poise and balance and a greater feeling of solidity.  These are four-movement works.  Also here is a three-movement one identifiedas Sonata, Op. 49bis, which isactually a 1978 reworking and expansion of a 1951 piece that Weinberg labeled asonatina.  It is one of the première recordings.  The others are the composer’s Op. 1, Lullaby, a brief work from 1935 that issurprisingly intense for a piece with this title, and two Mazurkas written evenearlier (in 1933), which are essentially examples of well-constructed 20th-centurysalon music.  Weinberg’s piano works maynot be the best introduction to his music, but they are worthy and well-madeand will be of particular interest to pianists – Weinberg himself was one.

      Saint-Saëns was a more-substantial pianist –a first-rank virtuoso, in fact – and Grand Piano’s first volume of his pieces,devoted entirely to études,gives some sense of his performing skill. Geoffrey Burleson does a fine job balancing the virtuosity and delicacyof the six from Op. 52 (1877), the six from Op. 111 (1899), and Six Études pour la main gauche seule, Op.135 (1912).  The influences on the 18pieces are quite different, and Burleson does well in showcasing thedifferentiation.  The earliest set isalmost all high spirits and 19th-century display; the second isinterestingly transitional, looking back to Bach and Chopin but also ahead tothe Impressionists, notably Ravel; and the third, left-hand set is deliberatelymodeled on the works of Rameau and Couperin. These pieces are not hugely important, perhaps – certainly not at thelevel of the composer’s five piano concertos – but neither are they easilydismissible or inconsequential works. They explore piano techniques skillfully while offering listenersmore-substantial involvement than étudesusually do.

      Louis Lortie’s Chopinsequence for Chandos is also well-played, but there are some quirks to it – andsome lacks – that result in a (+++) rating. The first volume contained the “Funeral March” Sonata (No. 2), the fourscherzos, and – almost as afterthoughts – four Nocturnes.  The new, second volume seems to be almost all afterthought: the four Ballades arehere, but their sequence is broken up by inserting six Nocturnes, the Berceuse, Op. 57, and the Barcarolle, Op. 60.  The CD sounds mostly like a recital ofshort-form works juxtaposed without a great deal of thoughtfulness, and whileit is well-enough played, it is not entirely convincing.  Lortie does not show a great command of theunderlying structure of this music – he gets swept up in its Romanticindulgences (often, indeed, to very fine effect), but much of the playing seemssuperficial, getting the notes right but not attempting to get at Chopin’s formalfoundations.  Lortie puts considerableemotion into his playing and pulls considerable emotionalism out of the music.  But there is a level at which deepinvolvement is missing, as if the pianist is “going through the motions” ofexpressiveness rather than extracting the underlying meaning of music that,whatever its initial appearance may sometimes suggest, is not all on the surface.  This is in part a matter of taste, but alsoin part a matter of Chopin.

      Two new and verydifferent (+++) releases of Bach’s GoldbergVariations are also a matter of taste. Both are piano versions; that in itself means they are not for listenerswho prefer this work played as Bach intended, on harpsichord.  David Jalbert’s, on CD, runs just under 80minutes, is suitably virtuosic, shows passing familiarity with Baroque stylewithout seeming to be imbued with Bach’s sensibilities, and is a bit on thecold side despite Jalbert’s willingness to use the sustaining pedal rather morethan is justified by the music. Barenboim’s – a DVD issue of a 1992 Munich performance – lasts 90minutes (not counting the pianist’s 10-minute discussion of the work), isthoughtful and deliberately paced, has a fairly substantial Romantic elementunderlying it, and is occasionally rather soporific.  Listeners who want the Goldberg Variations on piano will still do better with either ofthe two recordings by Glenn Gould (1955 and 1981) – Gould was better able to articulate Bach’s polyphony on the piano than either Jalbert or Barenboim.  But this really is a work that sounds betteron harpsichord, and there have been a number of fine recordings of it on thatinstrument – dating back to Wanda Landowska’s classic reading and including,more recently, ones such as those by Trevor Pinnock and Gustav Leonhardt.

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