July 30, 2015


Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder; “Tristan und Isolde”—Prelude to Act I; Elgar: Sea Pictures; “The Dream of Gerontius”—The Angel’s Farewell. Sarah Rose Taylor, mezzo-soprano; Nigel Potts, organ; Grace Cloutier, harp. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 15 (“Pastorale”), 24 (“À Thérèse”), 25 and 27. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Ravel: Miroirs; Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux, Op. 33; Chen Peixun: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake; Tan Dun: Eight Memories in Watercolor. Shen Lu, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Sometimes the juxtaposition of pieces of music makes for a more-interesting listening experience than do the individual items on their own. This is the case with a new MSR Classics recording in which elements relating to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which is, after all, a sea story (even if not primarily one), are heard along with Elgar’s Sea Pictures – a very unusual pairing of material. To complicate matters further, all the material has been arranged or transcribed for organ by Nigel Potts, producing, especially in the Wagner song cycle, a very unusual effect. The Wesendonck-Lieder have, to be sure, appeared in many versions: Wagner himself made a chamber-orchestra version of the fifth, Träume; Felix Mottl produced a version of all five songs for large orchestra; Hans Werner Henze made one for chamber orchestra; and there have been others as well. But using the organ, with its inevitable association with religion and transcendence, produces an almost eerie effect in these songs, particularly in the two that Wagner himself labeled as studies for Tristan und Isolde, those being Träume and Im Treibhaus. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Rose Taylor does a fine job exploring the über-Romantic pathos of the songs, and the works gain in intensity when Potts follows them with the prelude to the first act of Tristan und Isolde itself. Hearing this on the organ is an odd experience, uplifting in some ways and just plain strange in others. And then, after the Wagnerian canvas has been laid out, hearing the Sea Pictures cycle (which dates to 1899) puts a whole new perspective on matters oceanic. Originally written for contralto but often sung by mezzos, Elgar’s cycle is less emotionally fraught than Wagner’s Wesendonck songs and, despite the recurrence of elements of the first song in the later ones, less musically unified. This is at least in part becaue the five songs are by five different poets (one of them being Elgar’s wife), but it is also because Elgar uses the cycle to explore multiple moods of the sea and those who interact with it, while Wagner – in Tristan as well as the Wesendonck songs – seeks always to focus and intensify the emotions he is portraying. Concluding this fascinating CD with The Angel’s Farewell from The Dream of Gerontius produces an effect quite different from the one that would result from the more-usual conclusion of Tristan-related recordings with the Liebestod. Here there is an ultimately hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, conclusion to this foray into Wagner and Elgar; and the result, especially in light of the pervasive presence of the organ, is to encourage listeners familiar with these works to rethink them and their implications in some highly intriguing ways.

     There is also considerable optimism in the five sonatas performed by James Brawn on another MSR Classics CD, this one being the fourth in Brawn’s Beethoven cycle. It is usually Beethoven’s more-intense, emotive, proto-Romantic piano works that garner the most attention; but some of his sonatas, although surely imbued with expressiveness and considerable feeling, are less angst-ridden and more positive in outlook than others. That general description applies to all five works here: Nos. 9 (1798-99), 15 (1801), 24 (1809), 25 (also 1809), and 27 (1814). These works span Beethoven’s early and middle creative periods and, in the case of the two-movement No. 27, hint at the direction he would take in his last and most forward-looking piano pieces. Brawn performs the five sonatas chronologically, and this adds considerable interest to the disc, allowing listeners to hear the differing ways in which Beethoven expressed essentially positive feelings pianistically over a 15-year time period. There is some melancholy here and some pathos, but no sense of despair or of the depth of emotional exploration to be found in better-known sonatas that Brawn has played elsewhere in this series, such as the Appassionata (No. 23) and Pathétique (No. 8). Brawn brings out the lighter, almost Mozartean elements of No. 9 to good effect, and contrasts them well with the more-expansive argument of No. 15, whose extended first movement is longer than the whole of No. 25. Indeed, both No. 24 and No. 25 come across as miniatures, not quite salon music but certainly not works possessing the sort of heaven-storming, fiery intensity usually associated with Beethoven. Brawn treats them delicately and warmly, bringing out the gentleness of their themes and musical arguments. The concluding sonata here, No. 27, is not only the latest but also the only one in a minor key (E minor); and Brawn – without overdoing the contrast between this work and the others – shows clearly the ways in which this sonata (anticipating the ones written afterwards) diverges from the approach of the others on this disc and starts to move into an emotional and harmonic realm of a very different sort. Brawn’s “Beethoven Odyssey” sequence attempts, unlike most cycles of the composer’s sonatas, to find elements of commonality and contrast among the works and present them to highlight those elements. In the case of this volume, both the selections and the performances do so quite successfully.

     There is success through a very different sort of juxtaposition in a Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist Shen Lu. Here, what could be an over-obvious contrast between Western and Eastern piano music becomes something more through careful selection of the works and through the attentiveness of Lu’s playing. One point of connection through much of the music is water. Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake is a 1930s Chinese folk song arranged by Chen Peixun with rippling arpeggios that seem to propel the melody and the listener gently downstream. There is an interesting contrast with Une barque sur l'océan ("A Boat on the Ocean"), the third of the Miroirs by Ravel, which also uses arpeggios to imitate the flow of ocean currents – but which includes broad, sweeping melodies that effectively expand this notion of water beyond that of a lake to that of a much broader expanse. However, the water connection among the works here should not be pushed too far: the four remaining pieces in Miroirs have nothing watery about them, instead mirroring the darkness of night in Noctuelles ("Night Moths"), the wistfulness of birdsong in Oiseaux tristes ("Sad Birds"), a variety of complex, Spanish-inflected themes in Alborada del gracioso ("Morning Song of the Jester"), and the broad harmonies of bells in La vallée des cloches ("The Valley of Bells"). These tonal pictures are extensive and sophisticated, not mere trifles, and Lu accords them the depth and color they deserve. Miroirs makes a fascinating contrast with the eight pieces in Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, Op. 33, which are at least as challenging as the Ravel to perform but are more concerned with inward human emotions than with impressionistic portrayals of external scenes. Yet Rachmaninoff’s pieces did have direct outside inspirations – ones the composer disclosed only in part, to fellow composer Ottorino Respighi, who orchestrated several of the 1911 piano works in 1930. The second étude, for example, was inspired by the sea and seagulls, thus providing yet another water connection for Lu’s recital. But the Rachmaninoff works, unlike those in Ravel’s set, are best heard without any particular reference to their stimuli, allowing listeners to focus on the underlying emotions brought forth by Rachmaninoff and on the extraordinary technical demands of the études, especially the last four. The Rachmaninoff cycle provides a very well-thought-out contrast with Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor, a sequence that includes four folk songs – thus tying to Chen Peixun’s piece – and that is based on highly personal recollections. Written in 1978 and revised in 2002, the year before its first performance, Eight Memories in Watercolor is a work in which Tan Dun remembers the last period of China’s Cultural Revolution, when violence was ebbing and Western music was again allowed. The piece thus functions both as a bridge between East and West and as one between Tan Dun’s own later life and his earlier one. Filled with wistfulness and longing, it contrasts technically as well as harmonically with Rachmaninoff’s eight-movement work and allows Lu to show the considerable skill with which he perceives and communicates the very different emotional content underlying these pieces and the others on this first-rate recording.

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