March 12, 2015


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Kimiko Ishizaka, piano. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Busoni the Visionary, Volume III. Jeni Slotchiver, piano. Centaur. $15.99.

Hindemith: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Suite “1922.” David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Powerhouse Pianists II—Works for Two Pianos. Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen, pianos. AMR (American Modern Recordings). $16.99.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Trio Latitude 41 (Bernadene Blaha, piano; Livia Sohn, violin; Luigi Piovano, cello). Eloquentia. $21.98.

     It is sheer enjoyment of the sound of the piano and the abilities of its many modern virtuosi that will drive listeners to a wide variety of recent recordings – more than, in some cases, the music will. Kimiko Ishizaka’s version of the first book of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier will of course be of interest to any lover of this transcendent music. But the question listeners will ask is why we need another recording of this material on piano rather than on the type of instrument for which Bach wrote the material. What, specifically, does Ishizaka bring to the work that makes her version worth considering amid all the others played by pianists – not to mention those performed, with far greater authenticity, on harpsichord or clavichord? The answer is that Ishizaka offers a firm intellectual understanding of the music, coupled with the technical ability to keep the musical lines clear and the willingness to eschew pedal use in order to bring greater clarity to the music than it generally receives on piano. These strengths, however, only bring into higher relief the reality that this sort of clarity and contrapuntal attention are not the strengths of the type of instrument Ishizaka plays, certainly not those of the Bösendorfer 280 concert grand used in this recording – a piano with vastly more resonance and a far greater span of notes than anything from Bach’s time. Ishizaka performs all this music with care and obvious attentiveness, and attractively brings out many of its lyrical moments without delving into entirely inappropriate Romantic-era swooning. But the recording, although a feast for Ishizaka’s fans and those who think Bach “sounds right” on piano, is not particularly compelling otherwise. Those seeking their first recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I on piano should certainly consider it, but those who already have one of the many fine versions currently available – or who see no particular reason to hear this music on a modern concert grand in the first place – can safely bypass Navona’s two-CD set.

     The piano is certainly the right instrument for the music of composer/pianist Ferruccio Busoni, and the third volume of Jeni Slotchiver’s survey under the title Busoni the Visionary is a fascinating one for listeners interested in this still-underrated composer. Ties between Bach and Busoni are many and well-known, with Busoni not only transcribing a number of Bach’s works for piano (which is not the same as simply playing them on a modern instrument) but also creating his own works using Bach’s forms in both imitative and developmental ways. There are bits of all this on Slotchiver’s new Centaur CD. Busoni’s transcription of Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat for Organ, BWV 552 (“St. Anne”) is the highlight of the disc, monumental in its structure and enormously impressive in its design and Slotchiver’s execution – and in Busoni’s knowing, intelligent transcription, which both conveys the magnitude of the original organ work and produces a fully satisfying piano piece. The other Bach-flavored works here, although of lesser scope, are also impressive. Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, written in memory of Busoni’s father, takes Bachian musical ideas and transforms them, incorporating them into a new structure that is far more free-flowing than Bach’s own music. It is a work perhaps more worthy of intellectual appreciation than emotional involvement, but is certainly an interesting experiment. Toccata uses a form often employed by Bach for a work that is very much of the 20th century, filled with drama and technical virtuosity and incorporating a central Fantasia that is brooding and lyrical. This CD also contains three works with no Bach ties at all. Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin, from 1922, is refined and poetic, delicate and altogether lighter than Busoni’s earlier (1884) variations and fugue on Chopin’s work, from which this piece is derived. This work is in line with Busoni’s mysticism, which is increasingly apparent in his late music, but this element of Busoni’s creativity is even clearer in the two remaining works here: Prélude et Étude (en Arpèges), which delves into a world of shimmering fantasy, and Nuit de Noël, intended as an expression of joy but coming across as a rather restrained form of pleasure. The Bach-related works aside, this release will be of interest mainly to those already following Slotchiver’s path through Busoni’s piano music.

     Hindemith, like Busoni, remains an underrated composer, his vast skill, thoughtfulness and versatility generally acknowledged but his music often thought of as intellectual rather than gripping, and sometimes even turgid. While Hindemith’s piano sonatas will certainly not be to all tastes, those seeking a particularly appealing recording of them will very much enjoy David Korevaar’s performances on MSR Classics. Hindemith wrote all three sonatas in a single year, 1936 – after he had been denounced by the Nazis but before he felt forced to emigrate. The first sonata, in five movements, shows Hindemith at his most lyrical: inspired by a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, it often feels more like a fantasy than a classical sonata. The second sonata, which Hindemith considered closer to a sonatina, is the slightest of the three, but there is a fair degree of drama in its three movements – and Korevaar brings this out to especially fine effect. The third sonata is in four movements and is the darkest of the works, more serious than No. 2 and less lyrical and warm than No. 1. Its harmonic tension is considerable and is a key to its effective interpretation, and Korevaar brings it out with a sure hand (actually two sure hands). The CD also includes Suite “1922,” a five-movement work born of the same 1920s experimentalism that inspired such music as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2. The movements are a march, nocturne, and three based on popular pre-jazz dances – shimmy (a type of fox trot), Boston (a slow jazzy waltz), and ragtime. This suite is quite different from the later sonatas, treating the piano primarily as a percussion instrument and allowing all sorts of clattering and crashing in the march, ragtime and outer sections of the shimmy. Thick and cluttered with notes and chords, the music has little in common with Hindemith’s later work – except in the nocturne (Nachtstück), which is mostly quiet and melancholy. Infrequently heard even by the standards of Hindemith’s music, Suite “1922” is very much a work of its time – but also one whose brash ebullience listeners may well find to be at odds with what they think they know of this composer’s creations.

     Most of the composers on a new AMR recording called Powerhouse Pianists II will be even less familiar to listeners than Busoni or Hindemith: Robert Paterson, Doug Opel, Amanda Harberg and Mary Ellen Childs are scarcely household names in most households. Three composers represented on this CD do, however, have fairly widespread reputations. John Corigliano’s Chiaroscuro uses two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, resulting in dissonance that ranges from the subtle to the extensive in a work whose expressive effects are more those of an intellectual exercise (and something of an “in joke”) than a reaching-out to a wide audience. John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction offers Adams’ usual minimalism, which has worn rather thin by now but still has many adherents. On the other hand, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, taken from his Four North American Ballads, is a showstopper in this two-piano arrangement, filled with drama and industrial clangor and requiring tremendous virtuosity of both pianists – which Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen supply in abundance. As for the rest of the disc, Paterson’s Deep Blue Ocean is a fairly straightforward mixture of tinkling notes with block chords, a typical representation of water and its movements. Opel’s Dilukkenjon is fun – a word not often applied to contemporary music – in its dueling-pianos scenario, whose lighthearted intensity may remind some film-oriented listeners of the piano competition between Donald and Daffy Duck in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Harberg’s Subway is a New York City transit portrait that is all hustle and bustle. It contrasts strongly with Childs’ Kilter, a work of much simpler sonic texture with a much greater sense of mysticism. As is often the case in anthology CDs of modern works, this is a recording with some elements that will interest certain listeners and some that will interest others, with no particular unifying feature except for the excellent pianism of the two performers. It is the chance to hear two highly skilled players performing in tandem that is the main attraction of the disc.

     Those who prefer a far mellower and more Romantic piano sound will get great pleasure from the Trio Latitude 41 recording of Saint-Saëns’ two piano trios – a (++++) disc that fully justifies its presence on the Eloquentia label. Bernadene Blaha, Livia Sohn and Luigi Piovano are indeed eloquent in these two very different works, written nearly 30 years apart. The first, in F, dates to 1863 and is the earliest Saint-Saëns work still played regularly today. This is music of subtle charm and a pastoral cast, using deliberate rhythmic confusion (two beats vs. three) to build the first movement – and including a hurdy-gurdy-like drone in the second, followed by off-beat rhythms in the third that make the music sound somewhat like a peasant dance. The piano really comes into its own in the finale, initially seeming to accompany the strings until Saint-Saëns uses some delightful sleight-of-hand to show that the piano is creating a melody and the strings are in fact accompanying it. Making this movement effective in its subtlety can be a significant challenge for performers; it is one to which Blaha, Sohn and Piovano rise skillfully. The wit and brightness of this finale, which includes dashing piano arpeggios, lead to a conclusion of great charm, in which this performance is fully steeped. The second trio is quite different: written in E minor in 1892, it is larger (five movements instead of four), longer and considerably more serious than the earlier one. Structurally, the second trio has extended outer movements enfolding shorter and generally lighter inner ones, the overall effect being that of an arch. The opening movement is the longest and in many ways the hardest to bring off successfully: the piano must play a series of chords very lightly (something for which the modern concert grand is ill equipped), and the pianist must maintain a delicate, almost airy touch nearly throughout. The second movement is in 5/8 and 5/4 time, rarely used by Saint-Saëns and generally uncommon at the time; the movement sounds in some ways like the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” written a year later. Next comes a simple, rather straightforward slow movement, then a graceful waltz, and finally a large movement of contrapuntal complexity, with a fugue in the middle, in which the piano writing is particularly virtuosic. Trio Latitude 41 makes a very strong case for the disparate beauties of these two works, playing them with gusto and understanding and providing considerable insight into the ways in which Saint-Saëns, who has often been accused of failing to develop much musically during his long career, in fact refined and deepened his musical communication in ways that were very significant indeed.

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