May 16, 2019


Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto in F; Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets, pianos; Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers, percussion. Navona. $14.99.

Debussy: Suite bergamasque and other piano music. Jerry Wong, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sulkhan Tsintsadze: 24 Preludes for Piano. Inga Fiolia, piano. Grand Piano. $17.99.

Piano Music of George Rochberg, Michael Anderson, Leo Brouwer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Phillip Evans, Almeida Prado, Thomas L. McKinley, and John Sharpley. Roberta Rust, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     Sometimes one must dare greatly in order to succeed wonderfully – and to take solace when one falls short, simply because one has tried to do so much. The immensely dramatic and dynamic new Navona CD of music by Gershwin and Bernstein – arranged, improbably and often marvelously, for two pianos and percussion – is so inventive and filled with such sheer joie de vivre that even the places where it does not quite work are ones worth hearing. Experiencing, rather: there is more here than just some acoustic dabbling. Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets did their own two-piano arrangements of all the music here, with their collaborators and co-performers Carlo Willems and Koen Wilmaers handling the percussion arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue and playing an arrangement of the Piano Concerto in F by Thomas Schindl and one of the Bernstein dances by Peter Sadlo, based on an earlier arrangement by John Musto. A little suspension of musical disbelief is in order here for all listeners: to start with, is it really possible to make an effective piano-and/or-percussion version of the wailing clarinet opening of Rhapsody in Blue? Well, no. But right at the start of this piece, right at the start of this disc, what the performer/arrangers are trying to do becomes clear: they are bringing out and emphasizing certain elements of Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s familiar scores, carefully choosing what to include and what to omit or look past, and in so doing are turning the arrangements themselves into unusual and remarkably involving interpretations of the music. Then they are performing – that is, interpreting – the arrangements that interpret the originals, turning this whole CD into a kind of “meta-interpretation.” Not that anything loftily philosophical seems to be going on here: the overall impression of all the performances is that the players had tremendous fun doing them, resulting in infectiously joyous, sometimes over-the-top readings that capture all the verve and jazziness of Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s creations. Caution, though: “verve and jazziness” do abound here, but tenderness and quietude do not come across so well. The arrangements and performances are at their best by far in the upbeat, brash and heavily jazz-inflected elements of the scores. In the quieter, more-restrained and more-lyrical passages, matters are somewhat less satisfactory. Thus, Rhapsody in Blue is an absolute smash, a truly wonderful performance that breaks all sorts of bounds and rules while adhering to Gershwin’s spirit to an exemplary degree. It is so good that it is difficult to hear the original version of this work immediately after listening to the one recorded here without finding the original a trifle pale. What an accomplishment: certainly the Rodrigues/Smeets/Willems/Wilmaers version is not better than Gershwin’s original, but it is so different in sound and emphasis, yet so true to the spirit of Rhapsody in Blue, that lovers of the original really owe it to themselves to hear how fascinatingly this rethinking shines new light on many elements of the score. The Bernstein dances, placed next on the CD, are not quite an unalloyed triumph, but they have a great many high points. Mamba, Cha-cha and (unsurprisingly) Rumble come off especially well, while Cool is something of an unexpected hit: its mere 40 seconds seem far too few to contain all the classy, irreverent sound of this arrangement. Much less successful, predictably, is Somewhere, always a somewhat saccharine (if effective) element of Bernstein’s score, and one that does not take well to this instrumental combination even when the playing is as sensitive as it is here. The Finale is also underwhelming, lacking the emotional punch of Bernstein’s original – but, again, it is very well and sensitively played. And then comes Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, a decidedly mixed bag. Parts of it are simply wonderful in their exuberance, and the finale is a tour de force for everyone involved, building to a genuine bang-up ending. And in the first movement, the sections just for the two pianos display some marvelous camaraderie between Rodrigues and Smeets. The second movement, though, never gels. The multiple-keyboard arrangement of the opening is clever but never fully convincing, and the remainder of this lovely movement seems always to cry out for sounds beyond those of which percussion – however well-played – is capable. The amazing opening of the finale, though, instantly throws away any misgivings, and the concerto builds to a conclusion that is every bit as convincing as the arrangement here of Rhapsody in Blue. Triumph in music does not require perfection: if not everything here works, what does succeed does so to an overwhelming degree. What a CD!

     The pleasures are of a somewhat more conventional sort but are no less welcome on a new MSR Classics release featuring a selection of Debussy piano music played by Jerry Wong. Except for Suite bergamasque, nothing here is “complete” – Wong curates the album by presenting various Debussy works in such a way as to expand upon each other’s moods or provide contrasts. The approach will not be to all tastes, but the clean and unfussy playing ought to be: Wong does not overindulge anything in this music, but presents it in a manner that is not so much straightforward as it is carefully considered. The CD bears the somewhat misleading title, “Of Motion and Dance” – yes to the former, but not so much to the latter, especially when compared to dances by, say, Bernstein. Debussy certainly used the names of dances for some of the pieces heard here – indeed, except for the every-popular Clair de lune, each movement of Suite bergamasque bears the title of a Baroque dance. But none of the suite’s movements is particularly danceable, and Wong certainly does not attempt to make them so: he simply accepts the underlying dance rhythms when Debussy provides them, and uses them to being forth Debussy’s elegant little musical portraits. There are no fewer than 14 other pieces on the CD, eight before Suite bergamasque and six afterwards. Most of those in the group of eight are chosen from Book I of the Préludes or from Children’s Corner, and the juxtapositions highlight Wong’s sensitivity to this music and the care with which he assembles this recital. For example, the liveliness of La danse de Puck is immediately followed by the oddly titled and rather ominous-sounding Berceuse héroique (“Heroic Lullaby”), which in turn is followed by Jimbo’s Lullaby (for a toy elephant), in which Wong suitably brings forth the humor as well as the warmth of expression. In the six pieces at the end of the CD, dances as reimagined by Debussy make several appearances, again to good contrasting effect. Thus, the frenzy of Tarantelle Styrienne is neatly followed, to conclude the disc, with two cakewalks: Minstrels from the first book of Préludes and Général Lavine – eccentric from the second. Both in the choice of material to perform and in the sensitive, studied-but-not-academic way in which he performs it, Wong shows himself well-attuned to the subtleties of Debussy’s piano music and proves himself a fine exponent of it.

     The 24 Preludes for Piano (1971) by noted Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1925-1991) are quite different from Debussy’s and far less familiar. But on the basis of a fine new Grand Piano recording of this set, they deserve to be better known. German-Georgian pianist Inga Fiolia performs them with considerable flair. Like many other, better-known sets of preludes, they are studies in key sequence we well as in pianism: the first is in C major, the second in A minor (the minor-key, no-accidentals equivalent); then come G major and E minor, then D major and B minor, and so on. But Tsintsadze does not explore any particular characteristics of individual keys in structuring this set. Instead, perhaps with an eye toward the realpolitik of Soviet times that was still a force to be reckoned with nearly two decades after Stalin’s death, Tsintsadze chooses folk and folklike tunes for the preludes, adheres almost always to tonality or mild dissonance, and presents rhythms that clearly show the dance forms in which some of the thematic material originated (although these preludes are no more danceable than Debussy’s). Indeed, Tsintsadze was well-regarded in the Soviet era and was even awarded the USSR Stalin Prize. Yet his father had been arrested during Stalin’s purge of 1937, and this must surely have left a strong impression on the then-preteen boy, who at the time was already studying in a school for highly gifted children (as a cellist). The extent to which the early events influenced Tsintsadze’s compositions in general and the 24 Preludes for Piano in particular is at best conjectural, but certainly there is nothing in this music that would in any way have jeopardized the composer’s position at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, of which he was head at the time he wrote the cycle. It would be overstating things to claim that this is profound or revelatory music, or to single out individual preludes among the 24 as especially noteworthy. Indeed, this set is notable for the way in which the preludes, although thematically unconnected, flow naturally – in Fiolia’s performance – from one to the next, giving the impression of a kind of grand suite celebrating the dances and folk music of Georgia. Although the music’s value is insufficient to give this CD the highest rating, it is certainly enough to designate this a strong (+++) release that will be of considerable interest to listeners who know little of Soviet-era music beyond that of the greatest composers of that time – and who know even less about 20th-century music from the onetime Soviet republic of Georgia.

     The connection of heritage between Fiolia and Tsintsadze, although significant, is less immediate and personal than the connections that permeate a new (+++) Navona anthology CD featuring pianist Roberta Rust. There are eight composers heard here, each represented by one to three works, and all of them are personally connected to the pianist – who in turn created the disc as a memorial to her recently deceased mother and stepdaughter. So a level of strong emotional involvement in the music is scarcely surprising here – but as a compendium, the CD does not really hang together very well, since the composers and their works are so very different. Rust’s own catholicity of taste is evident in her choice of these pieces, but listeners who simply want to hear her handling of comparatively modern music (the pieces were composed as far back as 1939 and as recently as 2007) will find the transitions and juxtapositions rather awkward. George Rochberg’s Blues, the second movement of Carnival Music (1971), opens the CD, and is followed by two much more recent Michael Anderson works: Thirteen Plus 4 (2005) and the first movement of Sonata (2008). These tone-cluster-heavy pieces follow rather uneasily after Rochberg’s rather close adherence to the bluesy jazz idiom. Next come three pieces by Leo Brouwer, all from Diez Bocetos (2007; the title translates as “Ten Sketches”). Two of the three include improvisatory sections in which Rust chooses to interpolate and interpret material based on Bach – yet another level of her personal involvement in this recital. Next on the CD is the somber Lament (1999) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, followed by the earliest music on the disc: Phillip Evans’ Minuetto (1939) and two movements from his Suite 1945. Evans and Rust married in 1980, and it is Evans’ late daughter to whom this CD is in part dedicated. Rust next plays Almeida Prado’s three-part Halley, whose world première performance Rust gave – the 1986 work was inspired by the return of Halley’s comet that year. Two of Thomas L. McKinley’s Fantasy Pieces for Piano (2005) are heard next; the entire work was dedicated to Rust. Finally, Rust plays three of the Four Preludes (1998) by John Sharpley. One of these quotes “Yankee Doodle” and another “Bringing in the Sheaves,” making them somewhat more approachable than many of the other works here. Rust plays everything on the CD with fine technique and obvious dedication, but the musical mixture is just too much of a hodgepodge for the disc to work well for listeners who lack the very strong personal connections to the music that Rust herself has.

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