August 07, 2014


Clementi: Four Preludes from Musical Character Pieces, Op. 19; Sonatinas, Op. 36, Nos. 4 and 6; Sonata, Op. 24, No. 2; Piano Duets, Op. 3, No. 1 and Op. 14, No. 3; Sonata for Keyboard with Flute Accompaniment, Op. 2, No. 3—Rondo. Shuko Watanabe and Timothy Gaylard, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Chopin: Études, Op. 10; Sergey Lyapunov: Douze études d’exécution transcendante, Op. 11—No. 12, “Élegie en memoire de Franz Liszt”; Liszt: Ballade No. 2; “Ernani”—Paraphrase de concert; Roberto Piana: Après une Lecture de Liszt. Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano. Two Pianists Records. $16.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 2, 17 (“The Tempest”) and 26 (“Les Adieux”). James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Spanish Dances: Music of Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Joaquin Turina, Joaquin Rodrigo, Federico Mompou and Isaac Albéniz. Brazilian Guitar Quartet. Delos. $16.99.

     There is something on the unusual side about all these piano performances – an indication that for all its popularity and use in a huge repertoire, the piano still has new areas to be explored. Certainly the fortepiano does – maybe not new areas, exactly, but ones with which most listeners will not be familiar. For example, Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), one of the most influential musicians of his time and for a while considered second only to Haydn as a composer, was – among many other things – a piano manufacturer. His piano designs were enormously respected and were responsible for the fact that much of his own piano music became well-known in his day. But few listeners today have ever heard a Clementi piano – an opportunity now available thanks to a new Navona CD featuring Shuko Watanabe and Timothy Gaylard. The two offer various Clementi selections, as individuals and duo pianists, on an 1814 fortepiano from the Clementi factory (one of only seven known to have survived). It is fascinating to hear what is clearly a transitional instrument, not as light or delicate as the best fortepianos of earlier times but by no means as structurally imposing and resonant as full-fledged instruments to come. Clementi’s music, likewise, is pleasant and invariably well made – he was a solid and substantial composer, if not a particularly innovative one – and all the works here lie well for pianists (even ones who are not virtuoso performers) and sound quite good on this instrument. One unusual piece here – only part of a piece, unfortunately – is the Sonata for Keyboard with Flute Accompaniment, Op. 2, No. 3, in which Watanabe is the pianist and is joined by Byron W. Petty on flute. Not a flute-and-piano sonata as much as a piano work with flute obbligato, this piece is more intriguing than most of the others here, which are generally straightforward. But there are missed opportunities beyond the inclusion of only one movement of this sonata. The biggest one is the presentation of only four pieces from what the disc calls Clementi’s Musical Character Pieces (more usually referred to as Musical Characteristics). Two of those heard here are in Haydn’s style and two are in Mozart’s, but there is a great deal more to this work, which is one of Clementi’s most interesting. Written in 1787, it contains two preludes and a cadenza written in the style of each of many famous musical personalities of the late 18th century: Leopold Kozeluch, Johann Sterkel, Johann Baptist Wanhal, and Clementi himself, in addition to Haydn and Mozart. Exploring this work on a Clementi fortepiano would be particularly interesting musically; the excerpts here will whet listeners’ appetite for more. As a once-over-lightly chance to hear some Clementi on an authentic instrument, this disc is welcome, but it could have been truly outstanding with a more-careful choice of pieces.

     The repertoire selection is exceptionally careful on a new CD featuring Antonio Pompa-Baldi, but whether the works really go together well will be a matter of taste and opinion. The Two Pianists Records release is intriguingly titled, including an ellipsis, “After a Reading of…Liszt!” That title refers not only to the rather inconsequential Après une Lecture de Liszt by Roberto Piana (born 1971) but also, and more significantly, to Liszt’s own Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, often simply called the Dante Sonata. But this work itself does not appear on Pompa-Baldi’s recording, although it could certainly have been included – it runs about 17 minutes, and could have substituted for Liszt’s Ballade No. 2, which here runs just over 14. For some reason, though, the approach of this CD uses Ballade No. 2 and the Ernani paraphrase rather than Liszt’s reaction to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and this decision undercuts the thematic unity of the disc. This is not to take away from the performance itself: Pompa-Baldi does a very fine job with everything here, from the Chopin Études that come across as the CD’s major offering, to the Liszt and Piana works, to Lyapunov’s monumental Élegie, a highly impressive piece that opens the CD and may make listeners wish that Pompa-Baldi had presented Lyapunov’s full Op. 11 rather than the much-better-known Chopin. All in all, this disc is quite well played, with the Chopin and Lyapunov being particularly impressive; it is also well planned, clearly intending to extend Liszt’s own musical reaction to Dante into a set of musical reactions to Liszt himself. The result, though, is a touch too clever for its own good.

     James Brawn’s latest “Beethoven Odyssey” CD – the third in this series – is not unusual in the same way as the Clementi and Liszt-focused discs. After all, innumerable pianists have had things to say, verbally and in writing as well as at the keyboard, about Beethoven’s piano sonatas. There are nevertheless a couple of particularly interesting elements to this MSR Classics offering. One is the choice of sonatas: plenty of recordings include The Tempest and Les Adieux, but Brawn pairs them with the comparatively underplayed Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 2, No. 2. It turns out that No. 2 is a longer work than either of the others, with a particularly substantial first movement. And while it is clearly in Beethoven’s early style – it dates to 1795 – this sonata already contains elements whose gestural, harmonic and rhythmic approach look ahead to The Tempest of 1801-02 and even to Les Adieux of 1809-10. One of the more difficult things to do in Beethoven is to play the early works as if the late ones had not yet been written – to eschew familiarity with where the composer would later go and thus try to replicate the effects he was looking for at the time he wrote the pieces. Brawn is not fully successful at this – Sonata No. 2 is not quite as big and forward-looking as he makes it out to be – but by and large, his controlled expressiveness serves the music well, not only in No. 2 but in all the sonatas here. And the sonic environment helps, too: it is the other especially worthy element of this recording, allowing Brawn both warmth and expansiveness that, together, produce an intimacy in his performances approximating that of a small recital hall rather than (as often in recordings of Beethoven sonatas) a large concert space.

     The piano literature is, of course, rich in transcriptions and arrangements, of which Liszt’s Ernani paraphrase is an example. But piano music itself is transcribed and arranged for other instruments, too, and the aural results can be fascinating, as in some offerings on a Delos CD featuring the Brazilian Guitar Quartet and simply called Spanish Dances. What listeners get here is nearly an hour and a quarter of arrangements by Tadeu do Amaral drawn from familiar and less-familiar territory. There are the Cuatro Piezas Españolas (Aragonesa, Cubana, Montañesa, Andaluza) and the Danza Española No. 2 from La Vida Breve by Manuel de Falla; El fandango de candil and El pelele from Enrique Granados’ Goyescas; and the Zapateado from Joaquin Turina’s Tres Danzas Andaluzas. Also here are Joaquin Rodrigo’s Sonada de Adiós, which is his homage to Paul Dukas, and Cuatro Piezas: Caleseras; Fandango del ventorrillo; Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla; and Danza valenciana. Federico Mompou is represented by four of his Cançons i Danses: Nos. 1, 3, 6 and 8. And the disc concludes with Azulejos by Isaac Albéniz as completed by Granados. The works chosen clearly reflect the disc’s title, and listeners enamored of Spanish music will find much to enjoy here. However, despite the cleverness of the arrangements and the very fine ensemble (and solo) playing by the quartet members (Clemer Andreotti, Luiz Mantovani, Everton Gloeden, and Amaral), the guitar simply does not have the richness and variability throughout its range that the piano possesses, and more than once when hearing a work originally written for piano, it sounds as if something rhythmic or sonic is lacking. The guitar is in many ways a quintessentially Spanish instrument, but a comparatively small amount of it – even of four of them – goes a rather long way. The great solo classical guitarists – Andrès Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams, Christopher Parkening and others – can captivate through their sheer instrumental mastery and their ability to call forth a wide variety of sounds as well as intriguing rhythms from the guitar. Some of that is lost in a four-guitar ensemble, for all that all four players here are highly skilled. The CD has many attractive individual moments, but is one of those that are better listened to in small bites rather than devoured enthusiastically all at once.

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