November 21, 2019


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5, transcribed for organ by Matthias Giesen. Matthias Giesen, organ. Gramola. $18.99.

Scarlatti and Clementi: Keyboard Sonatas. John McCabe, piano. Divine Art. $25.99 (2 CDs).

Hommage to Women Composers: Piano Music by Clara Wieck Schumann, Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, Barbara Pentland, Marga Richter, Thea Musgrave, Ruth Lomon, Jacqueline Fontyn, Marta Ptaszynska, and Shulamit Ran. Iris Graffman Wenglin and Ruth Lomon, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     For all the talk of the ways in which Bruckner sought organ-like sonorities in his symphonies, the notion of actually playing one of the symphonies on an organ seems quixotic in the extreme. Or it would to most people – but not to Matthias Giesen, who undertook a fascinating transcription project by turning Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 into a work for organ. Not the best-known Bruckner symphony by a long shot, No. 5 is the most contrapuntal of them and in some ways the most difficult to interpret, because the entire work builds to a climax that appears only at the very end of the last movement – yet everything that comes before needs to make perfect sense and be handled in correct proportion. Giesen’s transcription is immensely absorbing for anyone fascinated by Bruckner, even though it by no means supplants the orchestral version of the work – and was never intended to. It is really a tour de force for organ, and the fact that Giesen performs it on what is called the “Bruckner Organ” of the St. Florian Monastery, near Linz, Austria, only makes the entire enterprise more piquant. Bruckner’s exact involvement with this organ is unknown. The instrument dates to 1774 and was reconstructed in 1873, possibly but not certainly with some input from Bruckner. A later reconstruction, in 1931-32, was done under the auspices of the Anton Bruckner Society, and the instrument’s designation dates to that time. Apart from the name by which it is known, this is an organ that Bruckner certainly played – in November 1875, its inaugural use after the 1873 reconstruction. None of these historical facts, though, fascinating as they may be, has much bearing on the way the Symphony No. 5 sounds when transcribed for organ. What Giesen has done is a transcription, not an interpretation or modification, although of necessity he has had to select certain instrumental lines to emphasize or deemphasize because, after all, he has only his feet and two hands to perform a full orchestra’s worth of music (aided by a third hand, belonging to a second organist, in part of the finale, which simply did not work otherwise). Giesen’s choices are carefully considered and very intelligent, and the symphony’s structure comes through exceptionally clearly as a result – more clearly than it sometimes does in orchestral performances. Giesen also takes a very broad approach to the material, resulting in a reading that lasts a full 85 minutes (even though, remarkably, Gramola fits it on a single CD without any apparent loss of sound quality). This puts Giesen’s timing almost at the level of the other Bruckner Fifth on Gramola, conducted by Rémy Ballot, which lasts 90 minutes and as a result is spread over two discs. Generally, performances of this symphony are in the 70-to-75-minute range, although an outlier among them, conducted by Mario Venzago, runs a mere 60 minutes. The reality that this symphony can last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half provides a clue to just how complex and how subject to interpretation it is. Giesen sheds no particular new light on the work’s structure and plan, but his well-considered tempo choices and very clever methods of using the organ pipes to explore a variety of differently colored sounds (without ever attempting to duplicate the sounds of orchestral instruments) make this a completely fascinating recording to experience. This is definitely not the “right” way to perform Bruckner’s Fifth, and should certainly not be any listener’s first choice for the music. But just as the chamber-music transcriptions of Mahler symphonies, done under Arnold Schoenberg’s auspices in the early 1920s, are “wrong” but extremely intriguing and at times revelatory, so this Bruckner Fifth is a kind of by-blow of the orchestral version – but one whose relationship to it is abundantly clear. It is an astonishing undertaking and a remarkable accomplishment, even though it is unlikely ever to have wide-ranging appeal.

     The appeal of a new Divine Art release featuring pianist/composer John McCabe (1939-2015), on the other hand, is likely to be wide-ranging, even though McCabe’s renditions of works by Domenico Scarlatti and Muzio Clementi are neither historically correct nor performed on the instruments intended by the composers. Both Scarlatti (1685-1757) and Clementi (1752-1832) wrote for the harpsichord or, in some works by Clementi, the fortepiano, and playing this music on a full-size modern Bösendorfer piano, as McCabe does, is simply not correct. It is, however, mostly wonderful: McCabe does not overdo his pedal use, performs each work with care and clarity, and – with a few notable exceptions – does not make the pieces sound as if they belong in the Romantic era. This is not a new recording: it was made in 1981 and originally released on two Hyperion discs, and it was recorded, mixed and edited on analog equipment before being digitally mastered for CD release. But McCabe’s pianism on these works certainly stands the test of time – and, for that matter, so does the sound, which has greater warmth and richness than did most digital recordings from this time period. Whether warmth and richness are apt for this music is, however, a reasonable question to ask. Scarlatti’s 555 harpsichord sonatas are notable for their clarity of line, their exploratory techniques (many from his middle period feature difficult hand-crossings), and their complexity within their brief one-movement form. Their numbering is mostly arbitrary and does not reflect their dates of composition, so performers tend to come up with their own ways to arrange them, as McCabe does here. He offers three major/minor pairs, in G major/minor (K105/426), D minor/major (K517/490), and F minor/major (K69/518); then a pair in E major (K28/215); and finally a set of four in C, G, G minor and C (K133, 259, 43, 460). Only two of these do not quite work: K517 simply sounds too strongly Romantic with the emphasis McCabe gives to its bass line, and K133 is emphatically chordal on the piano in a way that it would not be on the harpsichord. In the remaining works, though, McCabe’s sensitivity to the music’s structure and his willingness to downplay the piano sound rather than emphasize it lead to a highly enjoyable listening experience, even though it is historically inappropriate. McCabe actually makes a better case for playing Clementi on a modern concert grand, thanks to an excellent selection of music. The Sonata in G minor, Op. 50, No. 3 (Didone Abbandonata – scena tragica) is the highlight of this two-CD release. It is Clementi’s last piano sonata and the only one to which he gave a programmatic title. And it is quite marvelous, evoking the despair of Dido upon the departure of her faithless lover, Aeneas, in three movements whose tempo indications sum up the work’s emotional superstructure exceptionally well: Largo patetico e sostenuto – Allegro ma con espressione; Adagio dolente; and Allegro agitato e con disperazione. This really is a proto-Romantic (if not quite fully Romantic) sonata, and McCabe handles its moods and moodiness with exceptional sensitivity. It is a piece that definitely deserves to be heard more often, providing it can be played with this level of power and beauty (which, however, is by no means assured). The other two Clementi sonatas, although not at this level, are fine works in their own right: the two-movement Sonata in F, Op. 33, No. 2, in which the forceful main section of the first movement is especially impressive; and the three-movement Sonata in D, Op. 40, No. 3, which has a tragedy-pervaded mood despite its major key, the central slow movement being particularly heartfelt. Between those two sonatas, McCabe plays three of the 12 little salon pieces called Monferrinas, Op. 49 – Nos. 4 in C, 3 in E and 12 in C. These are versions of Italian folk dances (from Montferrat; hence the title), and McCabe handles them with considerable spirit and a welcome lightness of touch that contrasts well with his approach to the tragic moods of the Op. 40 and Op. 50 sonatas. McCabe’s skillful presentation of this material occurs, in the main, in spite of his use of the modern concert grand, not because of it: he holds back on the full force of the piano so as to communicate the textures of Clementi’s music more effectively than would be possible otherwise. But this simply draws attention to the reality that Clementi (and Scarlatti) did not write for this sort of instrument at all. True, they might well have been impressed if it had existed in their time. But if it had, they would not have written this music for it – they would have written music to take advantage of what a modern concert grand can do. That said, McCabe provides a generally excellent listening experience in these works, despite presenting them on an instrument quite different from what the composers wanted.

     The instrument is not the “correctness” issue on a new Navona CD featuring pianists Iris Graffman Wenglin and Ruth Lomon. Here the issue with the disc is more one of presentation – packaging, if you will – than one of pianistic provenance. Yes, it has become de rigueur in many circles to bemoan the relative lack of attention to women in a wide variety of fields, and to attempt to redress the imbalance by focusing on something – in this case, music – because the creators were female. But that does a disservice to the composers, implying that their music somehow cannot stand on its own and would not have been programmed if it were not for their gender. True, not all the works by the 11 composers on this very well-played disc are of equal value and interest, but the same tends to be true of any anthology CD: it would be very rare indeed for an entire disc of works by disparate, little-known composers to contain nothing but music of top quality. This has nothing to do with gender. Furthermore, one composer here – Clara Schumann, here called “Clara Wieck Schumann,” presumably to emphasize her feminine identity, although that is not what she called herself – needs no apology for her compositions and even less for her fame as a performer: she was one of the great pianists of the 19th century, as well as the great love of not one but two major composers (Schumann and, obviously although in no overtly romantic manner, Brahms). The brief, graceful Clara Schumann works here are the only pieces on the disc played by a solo pianist (Wenglin), and they cement the composer’s reputation as a fine miniaturist: the Five Caprices of 1832 and a Polonaise in E-flat from 1831. The remaining pieces on the disc are all from the 20th century. Germaine Tailleferre’s “Cache-cache mitoula” from Jeux de Plein Air (1917) and Louise Talma’s Four-Handed Fun (1939) are both short, light and playfully intricate. Miriam Gideon’s Homage a ma jeunesse: Sonatina for two pianos (1949) is pretty rather than profound, and it is nicely structured in three short movements, including a more-elaborate finale. Barbara Pentland’s Three Piano Duets after pictures by Paul Klee (1958) is both impressionistic and rather self-consciously modernistic in compositional style; as is usually the case with “illustrative” music, listeners need to know the specific works (“Small Fool in Trance,” “Surfaces in Tension,” and “Fish Magic”) to get the full effect of the music. Marga Richter’s Variations on a Theme by Latimer: piano, four hands (1969) moves from a somber beginning through a series of rather dissonant and often atonal elements. The eight tiny movements of Thea Musgrave’s Excursions (1965), seven lasting less than a minute and one just a bit longer, combine into another impressionistic piece, this one micro-miniaturized, with each scene gone almost by the time it is established and all the little pieces dealing with automotive matters (“The Road Hog,” “The Drunken Driver,” “Roadside Repairs,” “Backseat Driver,” and so forth). Lomon herself contributes Soundings for piano four hands (1975), a work that never really goes anywhere even though it takes full advantage of its dual-pianist construction. Jacqueline Fontyn’s Spirales pour 2 pianos (1974) offers even greater intensity and an emphasis on percussive sound, but to no particular point. Marta Ptaszynska’s Interlude I and Interlude II (both 1979) are two episodic studies featuring many contrasts of volume and tempo. Finally, the 10 miniatures in Shulamit Ran’s Children’s Scenes (1970) – eight under a minute and two not much longer – make up another case of micro-miniaturization, but with greater playfulness than in Musgrave’s suite and with some particularly nice touches: the slightly off-kilter “Rag Doll Valse,” Mussorgsky-ish “A Game,” insistent “A Little Toccata,” and concluding “The Steel Soldier” are highlights. The music on this CD is diverse and always well-crafted, the composers’ intentions differing and their skill in bringing those intentions across to an audience differing as well. Listeners interested in piano duets will likely find at least some of these pieces attractive, with the solo-piano pieces by Clara Schumann having the widest appeal of all. This has nothing to do with paying homage (or “hommage”) to women composers because of their gender – it is only a matter of recognizing well-conceived, very skillfully composed music.

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