July 24, 2014


Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Symphony No. 1; Scherzo from Octet, Op. 20. Alon Goldstein, piano; Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi. Centaur. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Songs without Words: Op. 30, No. 5; Op. 38, No. 6; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54. Christian Chamorel, piano; Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois conducted by Laurent Gendre. Fondamenta. $21.99 (CD+bonus CD).

Schumann: Kinderszenen; Abegg-Variationen; Fantasie, Op. 17. Lisa de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Michael J. Evans: Cipher—Variations on a Theme by Felix Mendelssohn. Karolina Rojahn, piano; Kyle Milner, spoken word. Navona. $16.99.

Greg Bowers: Gestalt Figures; String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media; Perception Etudes; Eurydice Returns. Navona. $16.99.

     Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos neatly encapsulate both the enormous talent of the composer and the reasons he was, in the past, held in less esteem than he is today. No. 1 is absolutely splendid, filled with beauty, virtuosity and a sense of rhythmic and harmonic daring that sweeps the listener along from start to finish and leaves him or her wanting more. No. 2 is more considered, more carefully assembled, every bit as well-thought-through – but lacking a certain spark of sheer ebullience for which its greater maturity of purpose never quite compensates. The two concertos’ lengths allowed them easily to fit on a single vinyl record, so they were often paired at that time; and in the CD era, they tend to be offered together as well. But it is quite difficult for even the best pianists to handle them the same way without losing something in the process. In two new recordings of the works, both of them first-rate in terms of the skill of the soloists, Christian Chamorel’s is the more successful because it offers No. 2 as an entirely different work from No. 1, not in any way a continuation or attempt to recapture the verve of the earlier concerto. Alon Goldstein’s version, while also very well and effectively played, makes No. 2 into something of a pale successor – which many in the 19th century thought Mendelssohn’s later music to be in general (hence the lower level of appreciation of him as a composer at the time). Goldstein’s performance, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Yoav Talmi providing strong and committed backup, was recorded live in March 2013, and it has some of the involvement and intensity of a good live performance – but also some of the excesses, such as overuse of rubato, for example in the piano entry in the finale of No. 1. The tempos here are well-chosen and the interplay between soloist and orchestra is well managed, as is the balance between piano and ensemble. Goldstein handles the youthful fervor of No. 1 with considerable élan, but No. 2 is more earthbound: the notes are all there, but the work’s spirit is rather thin, as if the pianist himself does not care for it as much as the earlier concerto. The performance is fine, but it never really catches fire. The concertos are offered on this Centaur CD with Mendelssohn’s First Symphony – like both concertos, a minor-key work – and this gets a strong reading from Talmi, although a less emotionally satisfying one in the Andante than it sometimes receives. As an encore, the orchestra offers the Scherzo from the utterly delightful Octet, Op. 20 – a movement orchestrated by Mendelssohn himself and used by him in the première of the First Symphony instead of the Menuetto, which the composer restored when the symphony was published.  The delicacy of the movement comes through in this recording just as well as it does in the music’s chamber version, with the CD as a whole showcasing the tunefulness and beautiful balance that are characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music, particularly the earlier pieces.

     Chamorel’s handling of the concertos is perhaps more mature, perhaps simply more considered. It is fascinating to hear how different these works can sound even when performers take them at essentially the same tempo: the difference between Chamorel’s No. 1 and Goldstein’s is less than 40 seconds, the difference in No. 2 a mere 12 seconds. Chamorel’s First Concerto is just as fiery and extravagantly youthful as Goldstein’s, with Chamorel paying even more attention to the con fuoco indication in the first movement while using rubato more judiciously in the finale (although still a bit too much). No. 2 shows the different approaches even more clearly. Chamorel gives the concerto expansiveness that it lacks in Goldstein’s version, allowing the first movement to flow more broadly and the second to emphasize its molto sostenuto marking clearly – even though Chamorel’s reading is almost a minute faster than Goldstein’s. Chamorel gets excellent backup throughout from Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois under Laurent Gendre: the ensemble’s suppleness and adaptability match the pianist’s. And Chamorel’s handling of the solo-piano pieces that fill out the CD is exceptional: he treats each of the Songs without Words as a perfectly formed miniature with strong emotional import, and gives the Variations Sérieuses a reading that balances structure and emotional content to fine effect. Fondamenta provides top-notch sound and a very unusual bonus called a “Mobility CD” that is designed to be played on computers, in cars and on other sound systems with audio characteristics noticeably different from those for which the primary “Fidelity CD” is made.

     It was Schumann who was largely responsible for the high regard in which Mendelssohn was held in his own lifetime, Schumann who deemed Mendelssohn the Mozart of the 19th century (a somewhat back-handed compliment, since Schumann then noted that if there is another Mozart, there must also be another Beethoven out there). Mendelssohn in turn was a strong advocate of Schumann’s music. The composers’ pieces have many affinities as well as differences, and Lisa de la Salle’s excellent performance on Naïve of three very different Schumann solo-piano works is a fine complement to Chamorel’s handling of some of Mendelssohn’s. De la Salle is a sensitive and highly nuanced performer. She casts a spell of wistfulness over Kinderszenen while neatly encapsulating the individual pieces, so different from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words but just as personal in their own way. The Abegg-Variationen, Schumann’s Op. 1, get a sturdy, solid reading that contrasts interestingly with Chamorel’s handling of Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses. And the Fantasie, Op. 17, is expansive and involving, with strong flow within and between its sections, as de la Salle manages to connect the strongly emotional first and third movements with the more-martial second, giving each its own characteristic flow while uniting the three into a work of both strength and expressiveness. The connection of this piece with Mendelssohn is quite clear, not so much in the music as in the circumstances of its composition: both it and the Variations Sérieuses were contributed to a fund appeal for a monument to be erected to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. As different as the works’ scale and effects are, this point of similarity shows yet another way in which Mendelssohn and Schumann were connected in their lifetimes.

     Many years later, in the 21st century, Michael J. Evans has turned directly to Mendelssohn for inspiration in ways both musical and extra-musical. Cipher is an interestingly odd construction that spends an hour using both Mendelssohn’s words and a theme from one of his Songs without Words to explore the different communicative potential of verbiage and music. The original words are spoken, then given in 13 translations – they are transferred between English and other languages and then back – and then, in the 14th variation, they fade into the musical theme, which is subjected to 24 variations and then becomes the basis of an extended final fugue. The pianism required of Karolina Rojahn here is quite different from that needed to perform Mendelssohn or Schumann, but it has roots in the same need to bring out both formal structure and emotional content – the latter being more important in Cipher. The difficulty in this (+++) Navona release is that Evans’ intellectual exploration of the abstraction of music as a more-effective communicator than the specificity of language is somewhat abstruse and not particularly involving, especially in the overuse of words in the first five minutes or so of the work. It is never entirely clear how the variations on the words and those on the musical theme relate to each other – that is, it is clear philosophically, but not by simply listening to Cipher, which has a fascinating intent that does not quite come off in the execution, despite Rojahn’s sensitive playing.

     Evans is scarcely alone in wanting to explore the relative efficacy of music and words, the psychological connection between what music is and what it communicates to listeners. On another (+++) Navona CD, this one entitled Rational Passions, Greg Bowers looks into exactly the same subject. Rojahn is the pianist here, too, in Perception Etudes, a nine-movement suite whose weighty intention is to explore ways in which audience, performer and the music itself combine to produce the musical experience. Somehow it seems wholly appropriate that the final movement is called “Confusion,” although the work is not so much confused as rather unfocused. Clearer, at least in strictly musical terms, is String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media, whose three movements all try to come to terms with aspects of pop culture: rave music, channel surfing and the online world. The Boston String Quartet (Christopher Vuk and Angel Valchinov, violins; Chen Lin, viola; Christina Stripling, cello) gamely essays a work whose sounds wander around and about without ever settling on any specific meaning – which may be Bowers’ point but can leave listeners feeling somewhat dislocated. Also here are an intellectual exercise and an emotional one: Gestalt Figures (played by Vuk and Stripling with pianist Keun Young Sun) tries to suggest composer-listener connections by showing musically how the parts of a work are used to assemble a sense of the whole; the exercise in toto is about as dry as its description. Eurydice Returns, on the other hand, is a psychologically oriented approach to the Orpheus myth that never quite evokes the drama or pathos of the story, which at its heart is as much about music as about love. The title of this CD is an accurate one in showing what Bowers is trying to do, which is analogous to what Evans seeks with Mendelssohn as a springboard. The issue with the Bowers disc is that its cerebral approach requires an explanatory framework that never allows the emotional content of the music – to the extent that it has any – to shine through. The result is pieces to be ingested rather than experienced.

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