October 04, 2012


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3. Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Sony. $11.99.

Eternal Echoes: Songs & Dances for the Soul. Itzhak Perlman, violin; Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, tenor. Sony. $12.99.

Vivian Fung: Violin Concerto; Glimpses for prepared piano; Piano Concerto, “Dreamscapes.” Kristin Lee, violin; Conor Hanick, piano; Metropolis Ensemble conducted by Andrew Cyr. Naxos. $9.99.

Toward the Light: Songs of Handel, Franck, Roger Quilter, Brahms, Gluck, Wagner and Schubert. Elaine Huckle, mezzo-soprano; Ian Clarke, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

      Soloists in concertos do tend to take center stage, often quite literally, and in some recordings – such as these – the soloist’s role is especially prominent.  Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has not been recording Beethoven, making him a distinct anomaly among piano virtuosi, but now he considers himself ready and is embarking on what Sony is calling “The Beethoven Journey,” which will include the five piano concertos and the Choral Fantasy.  On the basis of the first “Journey” disc, this is a trip that listeners will very much enjoy taking with Andsnes.  The pianist is central to the whole production, playing the solo part, conducting the orchestra, and contributing to the booklet notes both with a personal essay and with his answers to interview questions.  This could easily become a vanity project if Andsnes did not handle his roles so well – but he does.  His ideas about Beethoven are thoughtful and well-expressed verbally, and they come through very elegantly indeed in the carefully structured, detailed and emotionally effective performances here.  Interestingly, some of the best elements of these robust readings come from the orchestra, whose inner voices Andsnes brings out quite clearly so that they complement the piano solo adroitly.  Andsnes also has a fine sense of the Mozartean lightness of the first concerto – which, however, is big-boned in a way that Mozart’s concertos are not – and of the drama of the third, especially in the intense ending of the first movement and the tremendous contrast of the second, which opens in a wholly unexpected key (E major, after a C minor first movement).  Andsnes says he waited to record Beethoven until he felt he could bring something new and revelatory to his performances, and on the basis of this first leg of the “Journey,” the trip was worth the wait.

      Itzhak Perlman takes his violin on a different sort of odyssey on a CD called Eternal Echoes. Perlman has long had a broad view of the ways in which he can bring his virtuosity to bear, not only performing as violinist but also conducting at times and even appearing on Sesame Street.  Now he offers a CD of what he calls “Jewish comfort music,” melding his playing with the elegant tenor voice of Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.  This CD goes a step beyond traditional Jewish klezmer music, which Perlman has recorded before, to present 10 tracks that highlight violin and voice while also offering klezmer musicians and a chamber orchestra.  Hankus Netsky, who did the arrangements and plays piano in them, produced five works for soloist and orchestra and five for various instrumental combinations intended to evoke the traditions underlying the music.  Few works here are even reasonably well known: “Mizmor L’Dovid,” a setting of the 23th Psalm, perhaps, and “Kol Nidre,” a lovely chamber setting of the famous Yom Kippur prayer.  But other pieces are very much worth hearing, including the folklike “A Dudele” (“A Song to You”) that opens the disc and the operatic “Shoyfer Shel Moshiakh” (“Ram’s Horn of the Messiah”).  Eternal Echoes is not really a CD with mass appeal, being too steeped in Judaic culture and sensibility to be effective in drawing in listeners not already interested in the music and experiences of the Jewish people.  But although its relatively narrow reach turns this into a (+++) CD, the excellent performances of both its soloists would be top-notch in any religious or secular tradition.

      Both piano and violin have chances to shine on a new Naxos Canadian Classics CD of the music of Vivian Fung (born 1975).  Fung writes music that it is possible to appreciate without necessarily liking it.  It comes across as self-consciously exotic, although there is no reason to think that Fung is at all self-conscious about what she is doing.  Fung uses Western instruments, sometimes in modified form, to interpret and communicate the sounds of Balinese gamelan music, and she incorporates Javanese folk elements as well as sounds of nature – primarily bird songs – into all the works heard here.  The earliest, Glimpses for prepared piano, dates to 2006 and is a set of three pieces: one uses rhythms employed in gamelan works, one employs the piano’s upper range to try to put forth the idea of light, and one has the pianist playing inside the instrument in the manner of John Cage and others.  The single-movement “Dreamscapes” piano concerto (2009) is designed to reflect the way the gamelan is played, but it starts with bird whistles – not just the sounds, but actual bird whistles that Fung bought in Vietnam.  The concerto is again filled with gamelan-style sounds, and at one point includes an expanded version of the first piece from Glimpses.  The most-recent work, the violin concerto, dates to 2010-11 and, like the piano concerto, is in one extended movement.  This piece too starts with the sound of birds – but here imitated by strings, not using actual bird whistles – and features sounds and playing reminiscent of the gamelan while also including a complex cadenza that mounts to the violin’s highest register.  An actual quotation from a Javanese folk song is part of the work’s final section, before the piece ends with a return of the birdlike sounds with which it began.  This (+++) CD will be of interest to listeners seeking to experience nontraditional uses of Western instruments and ones who want to hear Balinese-style rhythms and sounds interpreted by orchestral forces and some very adept soloists.  That may be a rather small group, but this rarefied music does not seem designed to reach out to concert audiences or home listeners at large.

      Most of the music on a CD called Toward the Light is far more familiar than Fung’s, but the soloist focus here is nevertheless special.  Mezzo-soprano Elaine Huckle’s rich, full voice is put at the service of a dozen works whose generally religious  or reflective moods help connect the disc with Huckle’s reason for making it: her promising career was interrupted by a diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer.  Determined not to be stopped by the disease, and to record a CD that could help inspire others with the same condition, Huckle assembled three Handel arias (from Joshua, Messiah and Rodelinda), Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Roger Quilter’s June, three Brahms songs (including, unsurprisingly, Wiegenlied – the famous “Lullaby”), a Gluck aria from Orfeo e Euridice, two of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Schubert’s Ave Maria into a program that begins with an assertion of faith and moves through wistfulness and celebration of everyday earthly things to, at the end, a new and gentle proclamation of belief and offer of thanks.  The parallel to the experience of being diagnosed with cancer and moving through treatment to remission is scarcely a perfect one, and indeed would have been better if it had begun with some anger and “why me?” feelings before moving into these calmer waters.  There would have been plenty of room on the CD to do this: the disc lasts only a bit more than half an hour.  As a personal statement about her diagnosis and an attempt to soothe others who experience similar trauma, Toward the Light is certainly heartfelt, with the songs offered with warmth and often (as in the Schubert) quite lovingly and tenderly.  Pianist Ian Clarke backs up Huckle admirably, enhancing each song’s mood.  The CD’s shortness and somewhat monochromatic tone result in a (+++) rating: it certainly has many lovely moments, but there is perhaps a slightly overdone feeling of earnestness tying them all together.

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