May 18, 2017
(++++) MUSICAL CHANCE-TAKERS
Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 20, D. 959, and 21, D. 960; Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op. 116; Three Intermezzos, Op. 117; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).
François-André Philidor: Sinfonias 1 and 5 from “L’Art de la Modulation”; Michel Blavet: Sonata Seconda, Op. 2; Rameau: Excerpts from “Les Boréades,” “Les Fêtes de l’Hymen” and “Dardanus”; Jean-Pierre Guignon: Les Sauvages; Jacques Duphly: Pièces de Clavecin. Les Délices (Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Julie Andrijeski and Karina Schmitz, baroque violins; Emily Walhout, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.
The willingness to take chances is a distinguishing feature of artists who want to continue to grow beyond their existing accomplishments. And when chance-taking succeeds, the results can be remarkable, as they are in Jorge Federico Osorio’s new two-CD recording of Schubert and Brahms piano works for Cedille. Osorio has recorded two of the four sets of late Brahms piano miniatures before, and has established a strong reputation as a sensitive, elegant Brahms interpreter. But he has never recorded anything by Schubert, and the formidable last sonatas are a very challenging place to start. Schubert’s three final sonatas, D. 958, D. 959, and D. 960, respectively in C minor, A major and B-flat major, are towering works in their own right, lengthy and complex and structurally challenging; they are also reflective of Schubert’s fascination with Beethoven and apparently of his own emotional state, on the basis of their inclusion of references to some of his earlier works, such as Winterreise. The fluidity of key changes, the complexity of themes and their development, and the sheer scale of these works – D. 959 and D. 960 run some 40 minutes apiece – show Schubert scaling new structural and emotional heights that build on a great deal of his earlier material. And the sonatas are a huge challenge to pianists, not only in their virtuosity, which is really of secondary importance, but also in their size and temperament and the need to maintain a forward flow over long periods while still carefully expressing the intricacies of individual movements and portions of movements. Osorio turns the final two sonatas into the bookends of a two-CD set offered at the price of a single disc, which would make this a bargain even if the performances were less impressive than they are. But they are so good that the major disappointment of this release is that D. 958 is omitted – Osorio clearly has understanding and affinity for these works that would surely be just as clear at the start of the trilogy as they are in its latter two-thirds. Osorio builds to climaxes carefully, choose tempos wisely, and handles the very large first movements of both these sonatas with care and attentiveness throughout. And he paints a highly expressive and convincing canvas for both works, even though neither offers the usual pacing for a slow movement: D. 959 has an Andantino and D. 960 an Andante sostenuto (it is D. 958 that includes an Adagio). Osorio’s accomplishments in the Schubert are wonderfully contrasted with and complemented by his handling of the four sets of complex, emotionally charged “miniatures” by Brahms – works that are short but in no way small. The vast majority of these pieces were labeled Intermezzo by Brahms – 14 of the 20 works in the four sets – and Osorio’s intriguing performances set up the curious, imaginative question of the sort of work within which each “intermezzo” might appear. The other six works – three marked Capriccio and one each called Ballade, Romanze, and Rhapsody – receive the sort of sensitively variegated treatment that makes the distinctive features of each piece stand out while also fitting each work neatly within the particular set into which Brahms placed it. This release bears the overall title “Final Thoughts,” referring to the fact that the pieces on it are the last ones for piano by these two composers. But surely these are not and will not be Osorio’s final thoughts on these works or on others by these composers (including, perhaps in a future recording, Schubert’s D. 958). Osorio is a pianist of sensitivity and nuance, and here shows himself capable of handling self-contained miniatures and large, even sprawling multi-movement sonatas with equal skill and involvement. To the extent that he takes chances in this recording, he succeeds with them admirably.
Speaking of titles, that of the new Navona release featuring the ensemble called Les Délices is “Age of Indulgence,” and it is in being indulgent of their interest in late-Baroque French composers that these performers take their chances in this recording. Only two of the composers here are at all well-known: Rameau and, to a lesser extent, Philidor. Offering their music along with works by three very infrequently heard composers is part of the chance-taking. Also, like Osorio’s CD, this one uses musical bookends, here in the performance of two four-movement, fugue-focused sinfonias from Philidor’s L’Art de la Modulation to open and close the disc. These prove to be very intriguing works, filled with chromaticism, unexpected harmonies and unusual modulations. This is very late Baroque music, dating to 1755 – just a year before Mozart’s birth. So some of its harmonic daring is not entirely surprising. But as heard here on excellently played original instruments, it is revelatory of the ways in which late-Baroque thinking shaded into that of the Classical era. Blavet’s Sonata Seconda features virtuoso playing reminiscent of that required for Vivaldi’s music, but there is fluidity to the complex oboe part that is certainly more French than Italian in spirit. The five excerpts from operas by Rameau include two from an opera that was really post-Baroque: Les Boréades dates to 1763, and although it sensibilities are similar to those of other Rameau works, some of its musical techniques are more forward-looking than those of the excerpt from Les Fêtes de l’Hymen (1747) and the two from Dardanus (1744). A particular gem on this release is Guignon’s Les Sauvages, which is for two violins: it interweaves the instruments very skillfully while providing considerable drama and truly impressive use of the violins’ virtuoso capabilities. Duphly’s two pieces for solo harpsichord make an excellent contrast to Guignon’s music: they are perhaps the most traditionally Baroque works here in terms of harmony and their overall sound, skillfully made and with some attractive flourishes but without the sense of boundaries breaking, or about to break, that comes to the fore in several of the other pieces on the disc. The musicians of Les Délices, a group founded as recently as 2009, are not only skilled performers – individually and together – but also strong advocates for the special pleasures of this set of works. Few if any of these pieces will be familiar to most listeners, but all of them, in addition to being delightful to hear, shed clear light on an important transitional time in classical music.