September 12, 2013


Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra, Nos. 1-6. Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. CPO. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 (“Italian”) and 5 (“Reformation”). Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch. United Classics. $12.99.

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 6—Sonatina for Piano Duet in C Major, Op. 6; Sonata for Piano Duet in B-flat Major, Op. 47; Sonata for Piano Duet in A Major, Op. 160. Susan Kagan and Vassily Primakov, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     Grand sweep, intense and often overdone emotion, and a certain sprawl beyond the limits of formal structure are generally considered characteristics of the Romantic repertoire – and indeed are present in many works of the era. However, the notion that Romantic music is somehow unsubtle, inevitably wearing its heart on its sleeve, is an overstatement that is often (although admittedly not always) unfair to composers of the time. These are thoughts engendered by Martin Haselböck’s poised, elegant and very musicianly performances of the six orchestrated Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt (the orchestrations being by Franz Doppler and the composer, apparently working in tag-team manner). These are among Liszt’s flashiest orchestral works, and they have considerable surface-level charm that is often the only impression they leave behind after a performance. Not so here. Orchester Wiener Akademie performs the pieces on original 19th-century instruments or modern copies – with a few older, 18th-century instruments thrown in for good measure – and this is one reason the Hungarian Rhapsodies here have a more-mellow sound then in modern-instrument performances. But Haselböck’s way with the music is an even bigger reason. He takes these pieces seriously, studiously avoiding the ebullience that is so much in evidence in most performances and tending to select tempos, even in the friss sections, that are slower and more stately than usual. The result is that, for example, the “Carnival in Pest” (No. 6 of the orchestrated rhapsodies) is celebratory without being raucous, while “Héroïde élégiaque" (No. 5) does have heroic as well as elegiac moments. In truth, Haselböck’s approach takes some getting used to, particularly in the famously exuberant No. 2 – a certain intensity and forthright oomph is missing, not only here but elsewhere in the set, and the fact that it is clearly missing by design does not stop a listener from periodically mourning its absence. But the fact is that Haselböck clearly believes that the Hungarian Rhapsodies are serious music, not light-musical throwaways intended for pop concerts; and in that he is clearly correct, based on Liszt’s own intentions for these works. It is unlikely that this CPO recording will be most people’s first choice for a full set of the orchestral rhapsodies, but when the surface-level brightness of many other readings starts to fade, this one will remain front-and-center and even, indeed, gain considerable stature.

     Stature and grandeur were clearly on the mind of Charles Munch (1891-1968) when he recorded Mendelssohn’s “Italian” and “Reformation” symphonies in 1958 and 1957, respectively – the versions just re-released by United Classics. These symphonies, especially No. 4, tend to get fleet, often lighthearted interpretations – yes, even the “Reformation,” whose underlying topic is as serious as they come, even though Mendelssohn did not here create a deeply intense work (perhaps one reason he was never satisfied with the symphony). To Munch, these are  big works, not in length – neither reaches the half-hour mark – but in seriousness of purpose, and he uses the full force of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to give them as grand a scale as they can have. This is partly because of performance standards of the 1950s – which, among other things, eschewed exposition repeats, an unfortunate circumstance – and partly because of Munch’s own predilections. These are heartfelt readings that largely make up in elegance what they lack in intimacy. Munch’s approach is more successful in No. 5, to which he brings a sense of purposeful loftiness, than in No. 4, which tends to be overweighted and insufficiently fleet of foot, particularly in the finale. The playing is quite good, as is the digital remastering, but as a whole this is a (+++) CD that will be of greatest interest to listeners unfamiliar with Munch’s approach to the Romantic repertoire and to his handling of the Boston Symphony – and to ones who are familiar with both and will welcome a chance to hear them on CD.

     There has been little familiarity in recent times with the work of Ferdinand Ries, who is generally considered “proto-Romantic” even though his career and compositions reached well into the Romantic era, with his Sonata for Piano Duet in A Major, Op. 160, dating to exactly the same time as Mendelssohn’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Ries in fact grafted Romantic  approaches and techniques onto what was essentially a Classical formal style, albeit one heavily influenced  by Beethoven, the association with whom provides Ries with more fame than does his own music. Susan Kagan recorded all the Ries solo-piano sonatas for Naxos on five notable CDs, and now adds, as a sort of appendix, the three Ries sonatas for piano duet – one piano, four hands. She and Vassily Primakov perform than with élan, and they are certainly attractive to the point of being a must-have for those who bought the earlier Naxos CDs. But in strictly musical terms, there is less here than meets the eye (or the ear). The Sonatina for Piano Duet in C Major, Op. 6 is not a particularly early work, despite its opus number (Ries’ numbering is extremely confusing); it is more of a teaching sonata, somewhat along the lines of Mozart’s K. 545, and runs through four nicely formed and technically unchallenging movements in less than eight minutes. The Sonata for Piano Duet in B-flat Major, Op. 47 is an earlier piece, with particularly well-balanced parts for the two pianists, and with no real attempt at depth: the slow movement is quite short and functions mainly as an interlude. The most interesting work here by far is Op. 160, which shows both Ries’ considerable strengths and his never-conquered weaknesses. The first two movements are very large indeed – the first is longer than the entire Op. 47 and twice the length of Op. 6 – and show Ries at his most intense and expressive, with improvisatory elements and other distinct signs of Romantic temperament. But the third movement does not fit with the first two. Ries simply changes gears and presents a bright, high-spirited finale that does not so much sweep away the emotions of the first two movements as ignore them. It is well done and, on its own, a pleasure to hear, but Op. 160 as a whole ends up as a disappointment, the potential of the first two movements being ignored by a finale that feels tacked-on. This is a (++++) CD for those who found the first five volumes of this Naxos series congenial and who want to hear some very fine piano-duet playing, but musically it is a (+++) disc that shows why Ries never really attained the status of a first-rank composer.

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