Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 and 25. Rudolf Buchbinder, piano; Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sony. $11.99.
Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Remembranza: Music of Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Ernesto Nazareth, Granados and Albéniz. Rosa Antonelli, piano. Albany Records. $19.98.
Maestro or Mephisto: The Real Georg Solti. A film by Andy King-Dabbs. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.
Anyone who thinks there is a single “right” way to perform Mozart or Bach will be disabused of the notion when hearing the new recordings by pianists Rudolf Buchbinder and David Korevaar – and there is even more personalization to be had in Argentinian pianist Rosa Antonelli’s heartfelt playing of the music of her countryman, Astor Piazzolla, and the works of the other composers represented on her new CD. Buchbinder’s Mozart disc is actually a personal expression not only for him but also for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who – unlike Buchbinder – is well-known for period-instrument performances. Harnoncourt’s handling of the orchestral parts of Mozart’s Concertos Nos. 23 and 25 is exemplary, and indeed better than some of his occasionally quirky recent recordings of other music. By presenting his accompaniment in a fairly straightforward manner – with clear edges in the strings and winds that burst through the texture whenever they are called upon – Harnoncourt highlights the ripieno of his 37-piece orchestra in a way that makes the solo playing of Buchbinder all the more effective. Buchbinder here plays a very fine Paul McNulty fortepiano copied from a 1792 original by Anton Walter, possibly the most prolific of all fortepiano builders; and the choice is an excellent one, allowing Buchbinder and Harnoncourt’s ensemble to communicate on nearly equal and very effective terms. Buchbinder’s cadenza in the first movement of No. 25 is a wonderful display piece for his instrument, yet not out of keeping with historical practice, and the grandeur of this concerto comes through very effectively from start to finish. No. 23 is not quite as successful – the balance between piano and orchestra is not quite as good, which may be due to the recording rather than the interpretation (the two concertos were recorded live at two concerts in June 2012). No. 23 is a touch stiff here and there, without the easygoing lilt that it can have; but this is nevertheless an impressive performance that fully utilizes period sound and performance practices to show Mozart in ways that no reading with a modern piano can – the difference between the modern instrument and that of Mozart’s own time is simply too great.
And of course, the difference between a modern Steinway D and the harpsichord of Bach’s time is greater still. In common with other piano performances of Bach harpsichord works, Korevaar’s version of the complete partitas labels the pieces as being for “keyboard,” but this is a dodge, since they were written for harpsichord and most assuredly not for anything resembling the modern piano. The argument over whether these works are better heard on harpsichord or piano is unlikely ever to be settled, but certainly Korevaar makes a strong case for the emotional depth that a piano can bring to the partitas without delving too deeply into wholly unacceptable interpretative Romanticism. In fact, Korevaar’s lightness of touch is what prevents the partitas from appearing too dense when heard on piano, and his fascinating way with ornamentation – he really mixes it up, handling different movements in very different ways – makes the set a fascinating listening experience. These are nuanced and emotional recordings that do not, however, swoon. Korevaar does an especially fine job of contrasting the slow Sarabande movements of the Partitas with the faster surrounding movements, with the Sarabande from Partita No. 6 particularly heartfelt. The opening movements of the works – such as the short Fantasia in No. 3 and much longer Ouverture in No. 4 and Toccata in No. 6 – provide strong contrast to the lighter dance movements, and Korevaar adeptly draws out the different moods without overdoing them. The recorded sound is rich and warm, adding to the effectiveness of Korevaar’s interpretations – which some listeners may find on the slow side, but which the pianist makes convincing because he uses the frequently relaxed tempos to bring out the nuances and many beauties of the music, not to expand it beyond the proportions it was intended to have. Korevaar knows Bach extremely well, as his fascinating booklet notes and elegant playing both show; and if his performances of the partitas do not quite make an unassailable case for hearing this music on a modern piano, they do show that listeners who prefer the piano sound can get all the detail, all the sensitivity and all the beauty from this music that Bach put into it – when a performer as skillful as Korevaar handles the works.
The music on Antonelli’s very personal CD is nowhere near the level of the music of Mozart or Bach, and Antonelli does not play it as if it belongs on that elevated plane. Instead, she imbues the works with emotional warmth that comes partly from her own heritage, partly from her 2011 Carnegie Hall debut (where she played a number of these pieces), and partly from the works themselves, all of which are relatively brief (the longest runs nine minutes) but all of which encapsulate memories of Spain and Latin America and release them for performer and audience alike. Antonelli performs five tangos here, four by Piazzolla and the very brief Odeón—Tango Brasilero by Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), the least-known composer on this CD. Of the four Piazzolla works, only Adiós Nonino has been recorded in a piano version before; these are world première recordings of the piano versions of La Ultima Grela, El Mundo de los Dos and Imperial. Antonelli has a marvelous affinity for the tango, especially in the modernized version created and championed by Piazzolla – yes, it is a dance, but it is not just a dance, any more than the best waltzes of the Strauss family were just waltzes. Antonelli pulls the tango beyond its roots, as Piazzolla himself did, to show it as a musical miniature, capturing its heritage and Latin flavor just as surely as many Strauss waltzes encapsulated the joys and tribulations of Austria-Hungary in the 19th century. Wisely, Antonelli mixes the tangos with other evocative pieces: Villa-Lobos’ Poema Singelo and Valsa da Dor; Granados’ Quejas ó La Maja y El Ruiseňor from Goyescas and the Allegro de Concierto in C; and Albéniz’ Granada and Cádiz from Suite Espaňola, plus L’Automne Waltz – the last of these showing Antonelli’s skill and comfort with dance forms beyond that of the tango. If there is a flaw in this recording, it is that it comes across mostly as a series of encores: some pieces are more substantial than others, but there is nothing here with the depth and extent of fully worked-through sonatas or descriptive suites. Nevertheless, the choice of works makes a statement of its own, and Antonelli’s clear personal commitment to the music produces an evocative and involving recital that will make listeners wonder when the pianist will attempt something of really grand scope, such as the entirety of Albeniz’ Iberia.
It is sometimes forgotten that conductor Georg Solti (1912-1997) started out as a pianist, working as a répétiteur coaching Hungarian State Opera singers and playing at rehearsals. Solti always had his sights set on a conducting career, and conducted The Marriage of Figaro as early as 1938 – but during World War II, living in Switzerland, he could not get a work permit as a conductor and supported himself as a piano teacher. He must have been a highly demanding one, since his early reputation as an extremely tough conductor – coupled with his bald head – led some wags to label him as “the screaming skull.” Maestro or Mephisto, a biographical Solti film that is slightly less hagiographic than others, could have used a bit more of a sense of humor to offset the extreme seriousness with which Solti emerges here (although Kiri Te Kanawa’s description of Solti as “naughty” is an amusing moment). Solti’s early pianism and wartime experiences get short shrift here, as Andy King-Dabbs focuses primarily on the conducting characteristics for which Solti was justly famous and sometimes controversial: his strong willpower, tremendous drive and very demanding style. Solti left an extensive recording legacy that shows him to have mellowed somewhat in later years: some of his more-recent performances are less driven and hectic, less intense, than his earlier readings of the same works. But his strength and musicianship never flagged. Forceful, almost ferocious on the podium, Solti almost always led performances that were worth hearing and that frequently brought something new in sound, balance or emphasis to standard-repertoire music. And some of his accomplishments remain unmatched: his Der Ring des Nibelungen recording, completed in 1965, is generally considered the best version of the cycle even today, despite the vocal weaknesses of the aging Hans Hotter as Wotan. Maestro or Mephisto contains the usual mixture of comments by fellow musicians – most of them, not surprisingly, admiring. It also offers a number of remarks by Solti himself, including some retrospective ones from near the end of his life in which he talks about his challenges and achievements and is clearly trying to shape his legacy. Solti was a larger-than-life figure in classical music, which explains why a number of film biographies about him have been made. King-Dabbs’ (+++) film is nicely positioned among them: it does not reach out to anyone beyond those already familiar with Solti, but it gives those who do know and admire him yet another set of comments and discussions explaining why he was held in such high esteem despite the distinctly prickly parts of his personality and podium manner.
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