June 22, 2017


Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sunwook Kim, piano; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Liszt: Berlioz Transcriptions. Feng Bian, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat, Op. 20; Blumenstück in D-flat, Op. 19; Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6. Luca Buratto, piano. Hyperion. $19.99.

Gershwin: George Gershwin’s Songbook; Jasbo Brown Blues; Impromptu in Two Keys; Three Preludes; Promenade (Walking the Dog); Novelette in Fourths; Prelude (unnumbered); Prelude (fragment); Melody No. 17; Rhapsody in Blue, solo piano transcription; Rialto Ripples; Swiss Miss; Three-Quarter Blues; Two Waltzes in C. Maurizio Zaccaria, piano. ÆVEA. $18.99.

     The exceptionally high quality of the up-and-coming generation of pianists comes across again and again in highly varied repertoire, showing that virtuosi of whom moist listeners will likely never have heard are the technical equals – and sometimes the interpretative equals, too – of many of the great pianists of the past. The consistency of these pianists’ performances is truly remarkable. Brahms’ two concertos have been recorded so often, by so many superb and highly thoughtful performers, that it is hard to imagine what someone new can bring to them. One answer is in a splendid recording featuring Sunwook Kim and the orchestra that now styles itself simply Hallé, on the ensemble’s own label. Kim and conductor Sir Mark Elder here produce performances of great sweep, dramatic tension, and exceptional lyricism. Kim is actually capable of performing both of these huge concertos at a single concert, as he did shortly after this recording was made: he is that confident, that well-versed in Brahms’ style and expressive requirements, and (not to put too fine a point on it) that durable. These concertos are enormously draining physically, technically, emotionally and psychologically. Separated by two decades by time of composition, they simultaneously display two very different sides of Brahms’ musical personality and show the foundational elements that remained unchanged throughout his life. They are wonderful works with some striking similarities – in elements of the Adagio of the first and Andante of the second, for instance. And they also have substantial and obvious differences, the first concerto being heaven-storming and enormous in scale, its three movements lasting almost as long as the four movements of the second – while the second has calm and Brahms’ famous autumnal warmth as its most salient characteristics, plus some gorgeous cello writing in the Andante (with lovely playing here by Nicholas Trygstad). The fact that Kim can surmount the technical difficulties of these works, while impressive, is not what makes these performances exceptional, simply because there are so many really wonderful pianists out there. What sets these recordings on a very high plane is their poetry, the nuanced handling of works that can easily sprawl, the control and propulsiveness that Kim, encouraged and abetted by Elder, brings even to the longest movement (the opening one of Concerto No. 1). These are readings to cherish, and they are even more remarkable for reflecting the amazingly high quality of thoughtfulness as well as technical skill possessed by Kim, who is all of 29 years old.

     Feng Bian is the same age, possesses many of the same technical skills, has considerable sensitivity of his own, but comes across very differently on a new CD featuring Liszt’s transcriptions of works by Berlioz. This is the 46th volume in an ongoing Naxos series offering Liszt’s complete piano music, featuring various performers, and it is one of the most interesting discs released so far. The distinguishing feature of Liszt’s work here, and of Bian’s interpretations, is delicacy rather than virtuosity. It is easy to forget, given Liszt’s famed technical prowess and the enormous difficulties he wrote into his music (in a very different way from those that Brahms wrote into his), that there was a highly sensitive side to Liszt as well. And it is this side that Bian explores most thoroughly and engagingly. The Dance of the Sylphs from The Damnation of Faust, the Bénédiction et serment from Benvenuto Cellini, and the March of the Pilgrims from Harold in Italy are all given careful and very lovely treatment by Liszt, and Bian brings out the pieces’ manifest beauties in very involving and altogether winning readings. There are also pieces here drawn from Symphonie fantastique, including Marche au supplice – which has an introductory section called L’idée fixe before the march itself, and which requires more of the pounding virtuosity for which Liszt is known. More interesting, though, is a work called L’idée fixe: Andante amoroso d’après une mélodie de Hector Berlioz, which uses the symphony’s famous recurring theme as the basis for a lovely, fantasia-like work of warmth and gentleness, which Bian handles with sensitivity and skill. The most-substantial pieces here are Liszt’s transcriptions of two overtures, to King Lear and Les Francs-Juges, but these are actually less interesting than the shorter works on the CD. Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator, more adept and creative in that respect than Liszt himself, and the piano transcriptions of these extended works simply pale beside the originals. That is scarcely the fault of either Liszt or Bian, the former bringing accuracy and understanding to the piano versions and the latter offering strong interpretations with fine balance and flow. But it is the more-delicate, more-sensitive portions of this disc that are more memorable.

     There are quite a few other twentysomething pianists of considerable skill; indeed, the field of piano virtuosity is currently quite a crowded one, which bodes well for the next several decades of music-making. A new Hyperion disc featuring Luca Buratto clearly shows this pianist’s affinity for Schumann, especially in the Davidsbündlertänze, whose many variations of style and mood Buratto clearly finds congenial: his playing is now forceful, now subdued; now intense, now reserved. Indeed, if there is a criticism of this performance, it is that it never quite settles down: there is no sense of where the Davidsbündlertänze, taken as a whole, are going. But that has as much to do with Schumann’s Florestan/Eusebius duality as with anything in Buratto’s playing, which is skilled and sensitive throughout. Buratto’s handling of Humoreske and Blumenstück is impressive, too: this is one pianist who really throws himself into Schumann’s differing musical styles, so that the quiet and tender portions of these works contrast especially strongly with the stormy and passionate ones. Buratto shows a kind of easy virtuosity here, accepting the difficulties of the piano writing without making it sound as if he has any difficulty surmounting them. The result is a disc that focuses on the impetuosity and pronounced contrasts of these Schumann pieces rather than on the pianist himself – an unusually mature approach, and one that suggests a core sensitivity that should serve Buratto well as his career progresses.

     Some of that same sensitivity is evident in Mauricio Zaccaria’s playing on a new ÆVEA disc whose repertoire is more unusual than that offered by Buratto. Zaccaria here plays essentially all the published piano music of Gershwin, a composer noted in particular for one piano-and-orchestra work, Rhapsody in Blue, but not otherwise thought of as a typical focus for pianists. There is something of a crossover feeling to this CD, which is scarcely surprising: Gershwin was a crossover composer, straddling the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music and refusing to be pigeonholed in any of them. The extended Songbook of 1932, broken up into three parts in this recording, includes 18 tunes that are often instantly recognizable as vocals but rarely heard as pure piano pieces, including such standards as I Got Rhythm, Strike Up the Band and Oh, Lady Be Good. There are also individual arrangements here, including Jasbo Brown Blues from Porgy and Bess, the Promenade from Shall We Dance, and Merry Andrew from Rosalie. But the pop-music side of Gershwin is only part of what Zaccaria explores. He makes no attempt to turn the songs into anything profound, but he contrasts them strongly with, among other pieces, the Three Preludes from 1926. These show, individually and collectively, that Gershwin could and did write strictly classical music – and very well-made classical music, too – when he so chose. There are some other treasures here as well, notably Impromptu in Two Keys, which has the right hand in C and the left in D-flat. As for Rhapsody in Blue, it is interesting to hear it in Gershwin’s solo-piano transcription, but this version does no more justice to the piece than Liszt’s versions of Berlioz’ opera overtures do to those works. Someone who has never heard Rhapsody in Blue would find the solo-piano work intriguing for its combination of solid understanding of classical form with freewheeling thematic development and well-chosen harmonies. But anyone who has heard this piece in its version for piano and orchestra will find it diminished here, curiously flat and altogether less convincing than in its better-known version. Zaccaria plays it well – he plays all this music with plenty of skill – but there is simply less of interest here than in other works on the disc. Still, Zaccaria, like Kim, Bian and Buratto, is already a considerable pianist and one whose future development is sure to be worth watching and hearing.

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