April 16, 2015


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Stewart Goodyear, piano; Czech National Symphony conducted by Heiko Mathias Förster. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Carl Czerny: Variations on Themes from Operas by Bellini, Auber and Pacini. Rosemary Tuck, piano; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Naxos. $12.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 28; Brahms: Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Schumann: Kreisleriana. Alexander Beridze, piano. NY Classics. $13.99.

Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op. 17; Liszt: Funérailles (October 1849); Chopin: Mazurkas, Op. 7, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 4; Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2; Ballade No. 1; Brahms: Intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2; Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I—Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor; Vytautas Smetona: Capriccio in D. Vytautas Smetona, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles. Tzimon Barto, piano; John Ryan, horn; Andrew Barclay, xylorimba; Erika Öhman, glockenspiel; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Call them standard repertoire or, less kindly, chestnuts, if you will, but just as clichés became clichés because they contain a kernel or more of truth, so the great and overplayed piano concertos became great and overplayed because they have something that listeners and performers alike want and to which they gravitate. In the case of Rachmaninoff’’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the most popular of his four, that something is strong, over-the-top emotion, so much of it that it is quite possible to wallow in the big tunes and sumptuous orchestration to the point of becoming entrapped in a sort of sonic treacle. That is how many pianists handle this concerto – but thankfully, Stewart Goodyear is not one of them. Goodyear does not deny Rachmaninoff’s gigantic ebbs and swells, nor does he shy from exploring the obvious emotionalism and film-score-like elements of the concerto. But there is an underlying clarity to Goodyear’s performance – with “clarity” being a word not usually associated with Rachmaninoff – that gives Goodyear’s Steinway & Sons recording a freshness that makes the music seem brighter and far less muddy than it sometimes does. This scarcely means Goodyear makes the thrice-familiar concerto seem new, but it does mean that he plays it with a fluidity that never allows it to bog down and that keeps it moving forward at a solid pace, if scarcely an inappropriately scintillating one. There is a distinction between lyricism and sentimentality, and Goodyear’s performance demonstrates that he knows what it is. In the process, he also shows yet again why this concerto remains so popular: its tunes really are gorgeous and emotionally involving. As for the Concerto No. 3, this is generally considered Rachmaninoff’s best, especially by performers and academics, but it has never quite attained the popularity of No. 2. Rachmaninoff’s Third is a somewhat more-distant concerto, certainly involving but more of a conversation between pianist and orchestra on which the audience eavesdrops – while the Second is one in which the audience is intimately involved. Goodyear’s No. 3 is a fine mixture of pyrotechnics and sensitivity, a reading in which the pianist is more of a partner with the orchestra than is usual in performances of this concerto – in which the soloist is almost always paramount. Goodyear does, however, keep the spotlight firmly on himself in several ways, in part by eschewing the optional performance cuts that Rachmaninoff allowed in this concerto and in part by using the ossia in the first movement – that is, the chordal, more-dramatic of the two cadenzas Rachmaninoff composed. Goodyear is scarcely the first pianist to do this, but he does a particularly good job of turning the cadenza into the climax of the first movement – a justifiable interpretation, if one that gives somewhat short shrift to the lovely coda. Goodyear gets good if not outstanding support from the Czech National Symphony under Heiko Mathias Förster: the orchestra plays quite well, but Förster is more of a workmanlike conductor than a really strong presence and effective partner for a pianist of Goodyear’s caliber. The recording as a whole, though, is a very worthy one.

     Actually, Rachmaninoff’s pyrotechnics are no more extreme than those of the great pianists of the 19th century – Liszt preeminent among them, but also such esteemed virtuosi as Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who is nowadays better known as Beethoven’s friend and the creator of numerous piano studies than as a composer of heaven-storming works. A CD like Naxos’ excellent new one of four of Czerny’s opera paraphrases could well start to change that: these pieces, all here receiving their world première recordings, are absolutely splendid showcases of pianism as well as strong evidence of the extent to which opera tunes were the popular music of Czerny’s and Liszt’s time. Liszt’s paraphrases are many and well-known, as are his piano transcriptions of (in particular) music by Wagner – intended to promote the operas that form the works’ bases. The Czerny works here are created less for promotional purposes than to give audiences already enamored of the themes a chance to hear them at greater length and in new guises. The Strauss family and their Viennese dance-hall competitors did something similar on a regular basis: find the top tune in an opera and build a dance piece around it. But there is nothing danceable in Czerny’s far-longer, far-more-elaborate works: these are display pieces, giving pianists and audiences alike a workout for 15 to 20 minutes, building to impressive climaxes requiring a soloist to mount ever-higher technical heights while bringing more and more “ahhs” of delight from listeners. All four pieces here are played with élan and gasp-inducing proficiency by Rosemary Tuck, and all receive excellent, supple and commendably intense support from the English Chamber Orchestra under Richard Bonynge, a long-time specialist in reviving little-known works of the Romantic era. Two of these works are drawn from operas with which many modern listeners will likely be familiar: Introduction, Variations et Presto finale sur un Thème favori de l’Opéra “Norma” de Bellini and Grandes Variations de Bravura sur deux motifs de l’Opéra “Fra Diavolo” de D.F.E. Auber. A second Bellini-based piece, with an especially long title, is drawn from one of the composer’s now-less-often-performed works: Introduction, Variations et Polacca dans le Style brillant sur la Cavatine favorite “Tu vedrai la sventurata” chantée par M. Rubini dans l’Opéra “Il Pirata” de Bellini. This title shows to what a great extent Czerny’s works were based on popular music of the time, including as it does a reference to tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794-1854), idolized as the Enrico Caruso of his era. The final work here is drawn from an opera whose composer, Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867), is now little-known but was once very popular: Introduction and Variations Brillantes sur le Marche favori de l’Opéra “Gli Arabi nelle Gallie” de Pacini. Whether or not listeners already know the favori tunes around which Czerny based these display pieces, they will certainly be drawn into this recording by the sheer pyrotechnics of the music and the considerable pleasure to be had in listening to works that are, by design, entirely superficial and intended purely to bring enjoyment – which, in these performances, they decidedly do.

     The pleasures are of a quieter and deeper sort in a new recording by Alexander Beridze on the NY Classics label. This is simply a recital of familiar music, but there is nothing simple about Beridze’s handling of it. Beridze (born 1980) brings a delicately lyrical touch to the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28, Op. 101, then follows it with an enthusiastic rendering of the second-movement march that occasionally goes off-track in tempo but has considerable expressive power. The third movement is a delicate and beautiful gem, and the fourth, an unusual combination of sonata form and fugue, is a wonderful capstone for the work, its trills shining forth brightly. Beridze also does a fine job with the two Brahms Rhapsodies, Op. 79. The first of these is nearly twice as long as the second and tends to sound heavy and overwrought, but not here: the pacing is careful, the phrasing well-considered, and the work as a whole very impressive. The second piece is less so: Beridze makes it loud and even bombastic, and plays it rather too quickly for clarity. Beridze tends generally to do better in slower, more-lyrical pieces, as is quite clear in his handling of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. It can be argued that the more-intense movements of this suite, representing Schumann’s impetuous alter ego, Florestan, are inherently less subtle than the gentler ones representing dreamy Eusebius. But even so, the Florestan movements need not be quite as hectic and unsubtle as they are here in order to contrast effectively with the poetic beauty of the Eusebius elements. Still, Beridze’s overall handling of the suite is impressive, and his approach to its final element is quite interesting: this piece is marked Schnell und spielend (“fast and playful”), but there is a certain sinister quality to the music that Beridze highlights to excellent effect.

     Beridze hails from the former Soviet satellite of Georgia, and his playing contrasts interestingly with that of Vytautas Smetona, who was born in the United States but has a strong family history tied to another former Soviet satellite, Lithuania: his grandfather, Antonas Smetona, was both the first and last president of independent Lithuania (1919-20 and 1926-40). The title of Vytautas Smetona’s new Navona CD, All the Way Back, needs some explaining. Listeners familiar with Leon Fleisher’s Two Hands, his first recording after decades of performance possibilities lost to focal dystonia, will see a parallel here: Smetona (born 1955) also stopped performing for decades, although not because of a comparable illness; the reasons for the hiatus are murky. In any case, this disc marks Smetona’s full return to music-making for the first time since 1983 and is his first recording since 1979. The recital is a bit of a hodgepodge, coming across as a selection of pieces that Smetona particularly likes but that lack any compelling organizing principle. If the Beridze recital at least offers music calling on comparable interpretative approaches and written in roughly comparable styles, Smetona’s presents a little of this and a little of that and a little of Smetona’s own music (very little: his Capriccio lasts less than 90 seconds). The primary emphasis here, though, is certainly the Romantic era, and Smetona comes at it with interpretative strength and a willingness to engage fully in its emotional upheavals. Schumann’s Fantasie, with its huge and emotionally fraught first movement, is the disc’s centerpiece, and Smetona handles it in grand style, plumbing its emotional depths while proving himself fully equal to its tremendous technical demands (such as the rapid simultaneous skips in opposite directions in the coda of the second movement). There is majesty as well as pathos in Smetona’s interpretation – the same combination he brings to Funérailles (October 1849) by Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work was dedicated. Funérailles is the seventh of the 10 Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and is exceedingly heartfelt, being a memorial to three of Liszt’s friends who died in the Hungarian uprising of 1848 against Habsburg rule. Smetona’s own family history suggests that he must feel this work deeply, and certainly his performance conveys intense involvement in the music, from its gloom-laden opening to its somber funeral march to its heroic march of war that is soon followed by the funeral march’s return. This is a particularly impressive performance that may well make listeners wish for an opportunity to hear how Smetona would handle the complete set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Also on this CD are four Chopin pieces, all handled with sensitivity and delicacy. Ballade No. 1 in G minor is the longest of the four and the most impressive in its emotional nuance and power – which contrast well with, in particular, the D-flat Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2. The three remaining works on the CD fit rather imperfectly into the recital. Smetona’s Capriccio is quite clearly Bach-influenced, producing a nice contrast as well as a complement to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, but the latter is handled strictly in a pianistic interpretation that is effective in itself but not particularly true to the music or its time period. And the Brahms Intermezzo is technically impressive but seems out of place here, its emotional roots not explored as thoroughly as are those of the Schumann, Liszt and Chopin works. Nevertheless, as a whole this is a very impressive recording that shows Smetona to be a distinguished, technically adept and thoughtful pianist, from whom it would be most welcome to hear more.

     Des canyons aux étoiles (“From the canyons to the stars,” the title sometimes given with an ellipsis after the last word) treats the piano as a solo instrument throughout its 12 movements, with the fourth, Le cossyphe d'Heuglin ("The white-browed robin-chat”) and ninth, Le moqueur polyglotte ("The mockingbird”), being extended piano cadenzas. First performed in 1974, this work by Messiaen (1908-1992) also includes important solo parts for horn, glockenspiel and xylorimba (an extended-range xylophone). The virtuosity required of the piano here – and, indeed, of the other instruments – is of a different order from that needed in the Romantic and neo-Romantic repertoire. Inspired by the scenery of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Des canyons aux étoiles is strongly reflective of numerous aspects of Messiaen’s output and life, from his religious faith to his synesthesia (he perceived sounds as colors, much as Scriabin did). Thus, Des canyons aux étoiles is pervaded by birdsong, like many other Messiaen works, but the songs are used impressionistically, as symbols of the larger, cosmic whole that the piece celebrates – it is not so much a portrait of a geological or geographical place as it is the use of a particular landscape to celebrate the overall wonder of creation. That is a lot of weight to put on and into any piece of music, and it requires a first-rate conductor as well as excellent soloists to make Des canyons aux étoiles fully successful. The new LPO release has the soloists: Tzimon Barto, John Ryan, Andrew Barclay and Erika Öhman all do a fine job, with Ryan handling the very difficult sixth movement, Appel interstellaire ("Interstellar call"), especially sensitively (the movement mixes a resounding call across the universe with birdsong, and it requires tremendous performance dexterity as well as consistently beautiful horn tone). Unfortunately, conductor Christoph Eschenbach is not quite up to the soloists’ level. He never brings the entirety of Des canyons aux étoiles together: the dozen movements (organized by Messiaen into three parts) come across as largely separate vignettes, attractive individually (and very well played throughout by the London Philharmonic Orchestra) but not adding up in totality to an experience greater than the sum of its parts. But it is precisely for such an experience of transcendence that Messiaen was striving, here as in so much else that he wrote. The overall fragmentary nature of this reading results in a (+++) rating for this release. This takes nothing away from the first-rate solo performances but makes note of the fact that under a stronger conductor, the overall effect of Des canyons aux étoiles would have been more impressive and the piece would have come across with more splendor and a greater sense of wonder than it ends up having here.

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