February 05, 2015


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 8: Scriabin—Etude, Op. 2, No. 1; Twelve Etudes, Op. 8; Eight Etudes, Op. 42; Fantasie, Op. 28. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Weber: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra; Hummel: Trumpet Concerto. Philippe Cuper, clarinet; Eric Aubier, trumpet; Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne conducted by Claude Schnitzler (Weber) and Vincent Barthe (Hummel). Indésens. $18.99.

Beethoven: Sonata for Horn and Piano; Schumann: Adagio and Andante; Richard Strauss: Andante; Dukas: Villanelle; Eugène Bozza: Sur les cimes; Scriabin: Romance for Horn and Piano; Hindemith: Sonata for Horn and Piano. David Alonso, horn; Hélène Tysman, piano. Indésens. $18.99.

Schumann: Dichterliebe; Widmung; Der Nussbaum; Meine Rose; Mozart: An Chloë; Abendempfindung; Das Veilchen; Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch—Four Songs. Siwoung Song, baritone; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Gramola. $18.99.

     The expertise of the performers – not just the virtuosity, but the understanding with which that virtuosity is applied to the music – is what makes all these new recordings  attractive, although some of the releases stand out from the rest. Harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour offered Book I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier seven years ago, and the recording was an outstanding one: beautifully paced, sensitive to issues of registration and sonic contrast, filled with understanding of Bach’s methods, and comfortable in all the various keys in which the composer wrote these preludes and fugues. The new release of Book II, recorded in 2011 and 2012, is every bit as good. Hearing these 48 works (24 preludes and 24 fugues) in a single two-and-a-half-hour session is overwhelming, and scarcely necessary, since the individuation of the pieces is so well managed by Beauséjour that it makes it attractive to listen to just a few at a time. There is, to cite just one example among many, wonderful contrast between the pairs designated Nos. 16 (G minor) and 17 (A-flat major). Beauséjour manages to make every fugue, whether three-voice or four-voice, clear and structurally audible – you can hear the building blocks Bach used very easily without ever being distracted by them and without ever having them descend to the level of a mere academic exercise. Written to showcase a particular form of tuning, well temperament, that allows fine-sounding composition in all major and minor keys, these Bach works far transcend their original purpose and stand as pinnacles of his art because of their purity of form, excellence of structure and perfection of assembly. Beauséjour is an absolutely wonderful guide to this absolutely wonderful music, and this recording, like his earlier one, serves as yet another reminder of the fact that Bach’s keyboard works sound far better on the instruments of his time (harpsichord, clavichord, organ) than on those of later years (fortepiano and piano). It takes a performer of the first water to show listeners, again and again, just how much meaning Bach packed into these five-minute-or-shorter pieces – and Beauséjour is just such a performer.

     Music that does belong on the piano is the specialty of Idil Biret, and she is consistently at her best in the Idil Biret Solo Edition, one of several sequences highlighting her older and more-recent performances. Volume 8 of the Solo Edition on IBA is a particular pleasure, because all the music here was recorded quite recently (March 2014), and all of it is by Alexander Scriabin, a composer to whom Biret seems especially closely attuned. Scriabin’s coloristic effects – he had synesthesia – may seem quite difficult to incorporate into solo piano music, much less to bring out in playing it. But Biret handles the material exceptionally well. Furthermore, she shows the great progress that Scriabin made in finding his own voice as he wrote his etudes: Op. 2, No. 1 dates to 1888, when he was 16 years old; the Op. 8 set to 1895; and the Op. 42 set to 1903. Without getting into the pluses and minuses of regarding Scriabin’s works as falling into distinct categories (the usual thinking puts them in four periods), it is certainly true that the etudes show increasing maturity and an increasingly personal – and, yes, coloristic – style. Biret plays Op. 2, No. 1 and the Op. 8 set straightforwardly, emphasizing the various contrasts of mood and dynamics to fine effect. For the Op. 42 works, though, she sounds more freewheeling – even though she does not tamper with the composer’s pacing or dynamic instructions. All the etudes really are study works, but the fluttering, cross-rhythms, and rhythmic complexities of the Op. 42 pieces set them apart from the earlier ones, and Biret conquers their technical demands with ease while giving Scriabin plenty of chances to communicate emotion as well as the necessity of flawless technique. Then, for the Fantasie of 1900, she uses the same style and elegance she brings to the etudes in the service of a rhapsodic work that is in some ways the diametric opposite of the miniature, pointed etudes, providing listeners with a journey into lyricism and tenderness as well as warmth and bursts of virtuosity. The result is a wholly satisfying CD that showcases Scriabin’s piano music in terms of the interesting places where the composer started and where, even more interestingly, he later went.

     The pleasures of performance are equal, although of another sort, on a new CD from Indésens – even though the performances themselves are not particularly new, the Weber ones dating to 1990 and the Hummel one to 1998. What remains fresh and vital is the sound of this music and that of the performers, especially clarinetist Philippe Cuper. He has an absolutely wonderful way with Weber’s three works for solo clarinet and orchestra, giving them propulsive drive while thoroughly exploring the interesting way in which they mix operatic elements in the slow movements with virtuoso flights of fancy in the quick ones. Among the many highlights of these readings are the finale of the first concerto, which absolutely bubbles with brio and panache, and the cadenza of the Concertino, which is by Heinrich Baermann, for whom the work was written. This cadenza was only recently rediscovered and is recorded here for the first time. Weber had a marvelous, near-intuitive sense of the capabilities of the clarinet, allowing it expressive passages in which it approximates the human voice and contrasting those with sections of sheer glowing brilliance – all of which Cuper handles wonderfully well, receiving fine backup support from the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne under Claude Schnitzler. Coupled with the three Weber works is Hummel’s always-delightful Trumpet Concerto, although the performance here does not quite raise the rafters as do those of the Weber pieces. Eric Aubier is a fine soloist, but brings little sensitivity to the music, which he seems to regard as a romp throughout – it deserves more credit than that. And although the orchestra here is the same as for the Weber works, it is conducted more tentatively by Vincent Barthe than by Schnitzler and therefore seems a trifle pale. True, it is enormously exciting to hear the opening of the Hummel finale, which is one of the great tours de force for trumpet by anyone: Aubier plays it so quickly that it seems impossible for him to keep it up, and indeed he does not, using the rondo format to allow himself to slow things down for the hyper-difficult passages later in the movement. The most intriguing thing about this performance is Aubier’s use of a C trumpet, which is what Hummel originally wanted for this work in E major. The piece is usually performed in E-flat, and (oddly) is so listed on the jacket of this disc – but Aubier does play the original version, which creates some difficulties of balance between soloist and orchestra that he handles admirably. In this respect he serves the music exceptionally well and does considerable credit to the composer’s originality and sense of style.

     A different brass instrument offers pleasures of another sort on an Indésens disc whose music seems selected primarily to highlight the very fine, warm tone of David Alonso. Of the seven works here, only two are of real significance musically: Beethoven’s and Hindemith’s horn sonatas, both in the key of F. They make fascinating bookends for the CD, not only because of their obvious differences of harmony and understanding of tonality but also because they call on the horn player for very different things. However, the value of performing Bach on instruments of his own time is worth considering here as well: Beethoven’s sonata was written for natural horn and fortepiano, with the result that it sounds somewhat overblown on a modern horn and concert grand. The piano part is equal to that of the horn, a balance easier to attain and maintain with the instruments for which Beethoven wrote than with those used here. The performance itself is fine, but this is a case in which original instruments would and do make a significant difference. The Hindemith, on the other hand, was composed in 1939 and lies quite well on the modern horn and piano – although on a strictly musical basis, it is somewhat on the turgid side, especially in contrast to the Beethoven sonata (an early work, dating to 1800). Alonso and pianist Hélène Tysman work well together in both sonatas, but neither piece comes across as a significant one in the versions heard here. However, both have more weight than the remaining pieces on the disc, which are placed between the two sonatas. Schumann’s two movements are pleasant enough, but rather inconsequential. The Andante by Richard Strauss, which was not published until 1971, is warm but musically rather trivial. Paul Dukas’ Villanelle is also a slight work, as is Scriabin’s Romance, which is not even two minutes long. There are some interesting elements in Sur les cimes (“On the Summits”) by Eugène Bozza (1905-1991), but the piece as a whole is simply not very gripping. The playing on this disc is what listeners will find most attractive, and it is very attractive indeed; but the CD gets a (+++) rating because the fine musicianship is mostly at the service of works that do not have a great deal to offer emotionally or in terms of their overall effectiveness.

     There is considerable pleasure as well in a (+++) Gramola CD featuring baritone Siwoung Song and pianist Helmut Deutsch – indeed, Deutsch is so good that at times his playing is more attractive than Song’s singing. The featured work on this CD, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, generally comes across quite well, the 16 Heinrich Heine poems flowing pleasantly as the piano accompaniment underscores and supports the words and themes. However, this is a cycle of considerable nuance, and although Song handles the texts skillfully, he does not seem especially sensitive to the carefully delineated delicacy and careful contrasts among the individual items. Schumann often modified his source material in a way that Schubert, in his song cycles, did not: Schumann repeated and changed lines to create the specific emphases that he wanted, even if they were not quite the ones Heine intended. This fact requires the singer to be hypersensitive to the repeated lines and other alterations and to use them as keys to the overall structure and emotive characteristics of the cycle. And it is here that Song falls a bit short: he does not seem to have thought through all the subtle modifications that Schumann made, and his reasons for doing so. As a result, this Dichterliebe comes across as rather surface-level, for all the beauty with which it is sung. The remaining pieces on the disc seem to be fillers more than showcases. There are three additional, individual Schumann songs, all handled nicely; three infrequently heard Mozart songs, each a small gem and one, Abendempfindung, particularly affecting; and four songs from Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch: Ihr seid die Allerschönste weit und breit; Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund; Schon streckt’ ich aus im Bett die müden Glieder; and Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter. Wolf’s Wagnerian grandeur within the art-song tradition requires a particularly understanding interpreter, one who can allow the songs to bloom and prevent them from seeming heavy-handed. Song handles these works well, and Deutsch is especially effective in underlining their moods; but the performances are somewhat lacking in spark, and here as elsewhere, it feels as if Song can easily reach the notes but has not fully plumbed the music’s foundational rationale. Taken as a whole, this CD is pleasant and sounds quite good, but it is somewhat superficial: it feels as if much of this music has more to it than comes through here – that there are depths of feeling that remain largely unexplored.

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