April 04, 2019


Gabriel Dupont: Piano Music (complete). Bo Ties, piano. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Wen-Lei Gu, violin; Catherine Kautsky, piano. Centaur. $16.99.

Beethoven: Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2; William Bolcom: Piano Trio; Brahms: Piano Trio No. 3. Delphi Trio (Liana Bérubé, violin; Michelle Kwon, cello; Jeffrey LaDeur, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Dvořák: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. Dvořák Piano Quartet (Slávka Vernerová-Pěchočová, piano; Štěpán Pražák, violin; Petr Verner, viola; Jan Ždánský, cello). Supraphon. $19.99.

     Whether it is on its own or heard in combination with other instruments, the expressive potential of the piano is immense – and this sometimes becomes especially clear in piano music with which listeners are not already highly familiar. That would certainly include the piano works of Gabriel Dupont (1878-1914), offered by Bo Ties on a new two-CD release from MSR Classics that is a pleasure on multiple levels: for the quality of the playing, the quality of the music, and the delight of discovery. It would be overstating the case to call Dupont’s music revelatory or genius-level – it is firmly planted in its time and shows considerable compositional skill, but it is scarcely groundbreaking in any significant way. However, the miniatures played by Ties – all the works on the discs are miniatures – serve to spotlight the large but largely unrealized talent of a composer who died young, of tuberculosis, just at the start of the Great War. Dupont’s piano music consists of two extended suites, the 14-movement Les Heures Dolentes and 10-movement La Maison dans les Dunes, and two shorter works, Deux Airs de Ballet (two brief pieces) and Feuillets d’Album (four short works). The longer suite, which takes up the entire first disc of this release, is a highly personal one, its title referring to “The Sad Hours” during which Dupont first suffered from and eventually, if not completely, recovered from the disease that would later claim his life. The setting and emotional content are mostly straightforward, but they are expressed with considerable elegance and some lovely pianistic touches. For example, the contrast between the second, nighttime piece, Le soir tombe dans la chambre, and the third, morning-focused one, Du soleil au jardin, is beautifully handled, the very simplicity of the enjoyment of the garden in daytime making the sense of joy all the more effective. There is gentleness throughout this cycle, whether in the quiet rain of Chanson de la pluie or the apparently warm, concerned visit of Le médecin. And although there is some effective storm-portrayal in La chanson du vent, this proves merely an interlude in a convalescence that seems to proceed in mostly untroubled fashion. But it is not wholly untroubled, as evidenced by the awareness of possible death in La mort rode and, even more strongly, in Nuit blanche—Hallucinations, which depicts the effects of medicines and which lasts longer than any other piece in the cycle. This is Impressionism, to be sure, but it is Impressionism with a level of personal connection that is beyond the ordinary and that communicates with exceptional effect, thanks to Dupont’s compositional skill and Ties’ highly sensitive pianism. La Maison dans Les Dunes is filled with personal scene-painting, too, with, again, moods that are mostly tender and gently inward-looking, sentimental and tinged with melancholy – and with a degree of sorrow, but nothing approaching despair. The movement here called La maison du souvenir actually refers to the house where Dupont stayed during the illness that underlies Les Heures Dolentes, but the memories the house calls up are every bit as tender, even sweet, as is Les Heures Dolentes itself. Elsewhere in La Maison dans les Dunes is an interesting movement called Mélancolie du bonheur, which in some ways encapsulates Dupont’s style through merging happiness with a kind of wistful undertow. Several movements are ocean-focused – not surprising, given the cycle’s setting – and the work as a whole builds to its longest movement, Houles, in which Dupont has the piano effectively portray the storminess of which the sea is capable before the ends the piece and the entire sequence with the quiet tenderness than comes to seem a trademark of his pianistic compositions. The two shorter works offered by Ties are, by comparison with the two extended cycles, very slight indeed, but their expressiveness is comparable to that of individual elements of the longer collections of miniatures. Deux Airs de Ballet contains a Pavane and Aria, while Feuillets d’Album offers some gossamer-light pianism in the very short Valse and Fughette and the only slightly longer Berceuse and Air à danser. Dupont’s music is in many ways a wonderful discovery, resembling in some elements the works of other “salon composers” of his time, such as Cécile Chaminade, but in Dupont’s case with enough overtly personal expressiveness to make his piano pieces quite pleasantly distinctive.

     Add an instrument to the piano and the expressive possibilities can grow exponentially. Certainly Wen-Lei Gu and Catherine Kautsky strive for maximum emotional communication on a new Centaur recording of Brahms’ three sonatas for violin and piano – works in which one might expect the piano to be paramount, since that was Brahms’ own performing instrument, but pieces in which the composer made a clear and successful effort to treat the two instruments as equal partners. All three sonatas are among Brahms’ most lyrical works, and that justifies the way Gu and Kautsky handle them as warm, emotionally trenchant pieces almost without virtuosic display – which is not to say they are easy to play, only that the complexities are in the service of a kind of songful resonance that is the main purpose of the music. There is considerably greater depth here than in Dupont’s works, but the underlying Romanticism is largely the same, and Gu and Kautsky are thoroughly comfortable with it. The first sonata (1878) sings mostly sweetly and with considerable beauty, although it dips periodically into melancholy that seems only to deepen the lyricism and smooth flow of the music. The second (1886) is sunny and projects, for the most part, a feeling of contentment. But it has a very unusual second movement, with alternating Andante and Vivace sections, and here the fine communication between Gu and Kautsky stands them and their performance in good stead, as the emotions expressed in the differing-tempo sections seem to flow naturally and lead to a more-unified whole than is sometimes heard in readings of this music. The first two sonatas are in major keys (G and A, respectively), while the third (1888) is in D minor and is the only one of the sonatas in four movements rather than three. Although not much later than the second sonata (Brahms actually started writing it in the same year in which he finished the earlier work), the third piece sounds quite different from both the earlier ones. It is not a matter of scale: the third sonata is just slightly longer than the second and is shorter than the first. But it is only in the third sonata that there is restlessness, agitation, a deep sense of unease permeating the music. Here the piano comes more to the fore than in the first two sonatas, especially in the first movement, and here Brahms goes through two movements in a state of heightened emotion that turns to more-relaxed charm only in the third movement, interestingly marked Un poco presto e con sentimento. This is a delicate, interlude-like movement that is quite short and leads to a passionate finale that restores some of the sense of uncertainty of the first two movements, with the eventual triumphal feeling of the work’s conclusion definitely sounding hard-won. Gu and Kautsky are not quite as convincing in this sonata as in the first two, tending to downplay its Sturm und Drang elements while emphasizing its less-prominent times of relaxation. However, their excellent playing, both together and as individuals, produces a sense of a highly unified work that, in their reading, is tightly knit into a piece in which, although striving is certainly present, the overall mood is one of determination rather than barely suppressed tension.

     Brahms’ communicative strength where the piano is concerned develops further in his piano trios, when both a violin and a cello are added to the piano. The third trio dates to the time of the second violin sonata and start of the third (1886); and, like the third of those sonatas, this trio is Brahms’ only minor-key work in this form. It is not really Brahms’ final piano trio, since he prepared a much-changed version of his first trio in 1889, and that is essentially a fourth work for these instruments. But the third trio is certainly mature Brahms and certainly shows, as does the third violin sonata, a considerable depth of emotion and a certain degree of inner turmoil (the sonata was published as Op. 100, the trio as Op. 101, further indicating their closeness). Like Brahms’ first piano trio, the third is homotonal: the first has two movements in B major and two in B minor, while the third has one in C major (its third movement) and all others in C minor. This gives the trio the sort of focused intensity used by composers for many years to indicate considerable seriousness of purpose – as, for instance, in Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” in F minor. On a new MSR Classics CD, the Delphi Trio does a first-rate job of exploring the emotional depth of the music, with the piano interweaving seamlessly with the strings and the overall performance one of seriousness and intensity. The players also do a fine job with Beethoven’s trio in E-flat, the second in Op. 70 (in which the better-known first, in D, is the “Ghost” trio). Op. 70, No. 2, is in the same key as the “Eroica” symphony and is in fact rather grand in scale for a work of this type, if not exactly heaven-storming. Indeed, this is a generally relaxed, even easygoing work, with a certain degree of classical poise not common in music of Beethoven’s middle period. The Delphi Trio handles Beethoven’s way of balancing the three instruments particularly well here: the first movement’s sequence of cello opening, violin continuation and then piano entry, reversed in the recapitulation, emerges as a stylistic keystone of the work. Placing the Beethoven, with its comparatively transparent handling of the three instruments, at the start of this recording, and the much denser Brahms at the end, results in a very intriguing exploration of this instrumental combination. Yet for many listeners, the most attractive part of this very attractive release will be the trio played between those of Beethoven and Brahms: one written in 2014, specifically for these performers, by William Bolcom, and here receiving its world première recording. Bolcom (born 1938) actually seems to be channeling his inner Brahms with the very strong, dark and dense opening of this trio, his first work in this form. But the harmonic world of the trio soon moves beyond that of Brahms – although not too far past it – and the textures become more transparent as the first of the three movements progresses; it ends thinly and questioningly. The second and longest movement, marked serene, molto sostenuto, is a touch too acerbic for that designation but is, by and large, quiet and rather sentimental. The piano part is distinctly downplayed here as the strings dominate the sound and set the mood. In truth, the movement is a touch soporific, but it has ample beauty. The intensity of the start of the finale makes for a very strong contrast. The strongly dissonant opening leads to a somewhat jazzy, piano-led section, after which the movement becomes rather unexpectedly lyrical for a time. The music becomes increasingly aurally challenging toward the end, building to a seeming climax only to stop altogether for a drifting coda that more or less evaporates in a slight bow to Shostakovich. Very well written for the instruments, Bolcom’s work is a fascinating blend of Romantic and post-Romantic elements, a recognizably contemporary trio that, however, shows itself and its composer to be quite comfortable with the past on which today’s music is built. This entire CD is quite appealing, but the Bolcom work makes it a must-have for listeners especially interested in the piano-violin-cello combination.

     Add yet another instrument to the piano – a viola – and you have the richly sonorous sound of a piano quartet. And few of those are as warm and beautifully melodious as the two by Dvořák, played with striking understanding and first-rate intonation by the eponymous Dvořák Quartet on a new Supraphon CD. The dates of these works intertwine with the dates of Brahms’ violin sonatas and piano trios: the first Dvořák piano quartet dates to 1875, the second to 1889. Although the first work is in three movements and the second in four, they are almost identical in length (actually within one second of each other as played by the Dvořák Quartet). But as music, they are quite different – and the Dvořák Quartet members are obviously attuned to the distinctions between the pieces. The first of the quartets is easy to listen to and grasp, Slavonic in sound and flowingly lyrical. Like Brahms in his second violin-and-piano sonata, but to different effect, Dvořák in this quartet combines elements of two types of movements: here, the scherzo is incorporated into the finale, which is interestingly marked Allegretto scherzando. The Czech flavor of the material comes to the fore in this concluding movement, with the furiant, often used by Dvořák in later music, being heard prominently. This D major quartet is upbeat and nicely balanced between lyricism and propulsiveness, although the string writing is superior to that for piano, which is rather mundane. The second piano quartet is in E-flat, perhaps recalling not only Beethoven’s “Eroica” and his Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, but also, more directly, Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2, K. 493. This is a thornier work than Dvořák’s first one in this form, and one in which the piano is much better treated – both as percussion instrument and as a richly vibrant contributor to the overall sound. The second piano quartet has a complex first movement, a comparatively straightforward second, a dancelike third (although the specific dance form is not easy to pin down), and a finale that starts in E-flat minor and features some especially expressive writing for viola (an instrument that Dvořák himself played, along with the violin). The Dvořák Quartet members have clearly studied this music and, it seems, have grown up with it, so naturally does their collaboration appear to flow in both these quartets. These very fine performances of some ingratiating and invigorating music show clearly that the piano, so impressive and expressive in a solo role, gains considerable fluency and communicative capability as the chamber ensembles of which it is a part grow larger and larger.

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