December 05, 2019


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Triple Concerto. Inon Barnatan, piano; Stefan Jackiw, violin; Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Alan Gilbert. PentaTone. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 80 and 81; Piano Concerto No. 11. Lucas Blondeel, fortepiano; Le Concert d’Anvers conducted by Bart Van Reyn. Fuga Libera. $18.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 18 and 23 (“Appassionata”); Rondo in C, Op. 51, No. 1. Young-Ah Tak, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas Nos. 48, 50, 54, 59, and 60. John O’Conor, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: 25 Préludes dans Touts les Tons Majeurs et Mineurs, Op. 31. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

     The inevitable flood of releases marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth has begun, and quite a few of those releases are sure to be of his works for piano. Since 2020 is, after all, such a notable anniversary year, it is a fair bet that the recordings will generally be high-level performances and, at least in some cases, interesting combinations of music. The new two-CD PentaTone release featuring pianist Inon Barnatan certainly fits the bill: the interpretations are exceptional and the combination of music rather unusual (the package is labeled “Beethoven Piano Concertos, Part 1”). These are Beethoven’s second, third and fourth piano concertos –No. 1 is later than No. 2, although it was published first – and Barnatan plays them with lightness and transparency that recall Leon Fleisher’s recordings from the mid-1960s. Furthermore, Alan Gilbert conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with precision and balance that are reminiscent of the way George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra accompanied Fleisher in his classic readings. This is quite an accomplishment, made even more interesting by the fact that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has never recorded a Beethoven concerto cycle before. Apparently the 250th-anniversary celebration will bring some genuinely new elements with it. What impresses the most about Barnatan’s performances is not their strength, although they certainly have that when needed, but their delicacy: Piano Concerto No. 1 sounds positively Mozartian in its pose and balance, and even in the cadenzas, which Barnatan plays with considerable flair, there is nothing the slightest bit proto-Romantic. The comparative lightness of Piano Concerto No. 3 is even more of a surprise, since this minor-key concerto is often presented with a certain portentousness that the music can certainly handle but that is not quite in keeping with a sensibility that remains closer to Mozart’s than to that of the Romantics or of Beethoven’s own later works. It is only in Piano Concerto No. 4 that Barnatan and Gilbert let a degree of emotional expansiveness begin to emerge clearly. That is entirely appropriate, and this still-underrated concerto, with its exceptional slow movement, here sounds like a piece in which Beethoven definitely began stretching the piano-concerto form even while maintaining elements from the Classical era. “Part 2” of these performers’ Beethoven cycle will include the composer’s first and last concertos, and this “Part 1” certainly whets the appetite for what can be anticipated as showcasing the significant contrasts between those two. The current release also has a most-welcome bonus in the form of the Triple Concerto, in which Barnatan is joined to very fine effect by Stefan Jackiw and Alisa Weilerstein. This work is essentially a concerto for piano trio and orchestra – still a very unusual concept – and it leans more heavily on the cello than might be expected from Beethoven’s other music. The key to a fine interpretation – and this one is very fine indeed – is to handle the three solo instruments’ roles in the “conversational” manner familiar from chamber music, not in any competitive or assertive way. And that is just what Barnatan, Jackiw and Weilerstein do: this sounds like an intimate music-making session among friends, despite the presence of an orchestra (which Gilbert avoids using to compete with, much less swamp, the soloists). This entire release is a genuine pleasure and, one hopes, a harbinger of further excellences in the Beethoven celebration.

     Despite writing a great deal more music than Beethoven did, Haydn has not attained the same performance regularity for his concertos. This is partly because he was not himself a virtuoso performer and partly because he focused so strongly on symphonies when he was not producing works to order, such as puppet-theater operas, for his princely employers. There is also still uncertainty about just which concertos Haydn wrote: he was so immensely popular that many works were circulated as his but were certainly written by others. In terms of piano concertos, there is no doubt that he did not write 11 of them, even though the most popular nowadays is the one labeled No. 11, in D. It was intended for fortepiano (it is worth remembering that Beethoven also wrote his concertos for instruments quite different from today’s); and hearing this Haydn work played on an appropriate instrument by Lucas Blondeel on a new Fuga Libera disc shows just how sparkling and wonderfully balanced this concerto is. Haydn sought neither emotional depths nor significant virtuosity in his concertos, whether for piano or for other instruments: these were works of courtly pleasure, but with some sly humor and intriguing thematic material, such as the delightful Rondo all’Ungarese that concludes No. 11. Blondeel handles Haydn’s keyboard writing with just the right touch, and Le Concert d’Anvers, a 24-member period-instrument ensemble, provides just the right balance and backup. Bart Van Reyn also leads the group in two of the less-often-played later Haydn symphonies, Nos. 80 and 81 – the second and third of a group written by Haydn just before he accepted the commission that led to the six “Paris” symphonies. No. 80 features a particularly energetic first movement that does not, however, plumb any significant depth even though the symphony is in D minor. Indeed, the work is more upbeat than would be expected, and when there is serious material, it tends to be balanced quickly by lightness. No. 81, in G, is actually a more subdued work, with its gentle second-movement siciliano a highlight. The disc as a whole is an effective and somewhat unusual one, thanks to its choice of repertoire and its keen attention to historically informed performance practice.

     The pianistic contrasts between Beethoven and Haydn are as clear in their sonatas as in their works for accompanied piano. Beethoven’s sonatas are sure to receive numerous performances and recordings throughout the 250th-anniversary year, and the high quality of the new Steinway & Sons one featuring Young-Ah Tak will likely be found in other releases as well. But the Beethoven sonatas admit of so many interpretations that fine playing is not the first thing one notices about any given release. It is the underlying approach to the material that stands out – which in Tak’s case is reflected in a light touch that places most of the sonatas she plays on this CD firmly in the orbit of Mozart, if not Haydn. Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 10, No. 2, an early and less-often-heard work, is a real gem here, light and bright and beautifully balanced throughout. It juxtaposes nicely with the Rondo in C, Op. 51, No. 1, which is quite an early piece despite its misleading opus number. Tak plays both the sonata and the rondo with relaxed charm and very smooth flow, never pushing the works beyond their modest boundaries but letting them emerge with charm and a fine sense of tastefulness. The slightly later, four-movement Sonata No. 18, Op. 31, No. 3 also gets a highly commendable reading. It is an interestingly structured work without a designated slow movement – instead, the third movement, Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) fills that role, contrasting with the second movement, Scherzo (Allegretto vivace). Having both a minuet and a scherzo in the same work is rare, and Beethoven’s contrasting use of the two movements is quite unusual. Tak does a fine job showcasing their differences and their centrality to the overall structure and argument of the sonata. It is only in the best-known work on this disc, Sonata No. 23, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), that Tak’s approach falls a bit short. This is not for any technical reason – her ability to play the music is certainly never in doubt – but because the intensity of this F minor work never quite comes through here as effectively as it can. The opening movement is fine, if a bit on the episodic side. But the second movement is marked Andante con moto and is definitely not supposed to be an Adagio, much less a dirge. Tak tries to make it over-serious, continuing much of the feeling of the first movement, but Beethoven quite deliberately wanted to lighten the sonata’s mood here, making the second movement almost an intermezzo, so as to heighten the effect of the finale. Tak’s second movement drags the sonata down – not to a great extent, but enough so that the finale does not have the power of contrast that it should, ideally, possess. And while Tak never struggles technically with the final movement, neither does she come entirely to grips with its intensity, with the result that when the concluding Presto arrives, it seems a lightening of the entirety rather than an insistence on its minor-key power. Yet Tak’s technical prowess is undoubted, as is the thoughtfulness of her playing, so this disc is a worthwhile addition to the considerable library of Beethoven sonata recordings even if the reading of the Appassionata somewhat misfires.

     Today, Haydn’s piano sonatas require something very different from what Beethoven’s are accorded automatically: respect. That is, in modern times, what they especially need is not to be regarded as unimportant or as throwaways – which is how they tend to be seen when compared with Beethoven’s or, for that matter, Mozart’s (and even Mozart’s do not always get the respect they deserve). A Steinway & Sons release featuring five Haydn sonatas played by John O’Conor is an unalloyed pleasure because it handles these works exactly as they should be handled, treating them as unassuming but not naïve, and showing how they share the poise, balance, delicacy and (frequently) humor that are characteristic of so much of Haydn’s music. The unusual tempo marking of the first movement of the two-movement Piano Sonata No. 54 can almost stand for a foundational approach to Haydn’s sonatas in general: Allegro Innocente. There is a straightforwardness to these sonatas that can make it difficult to remember exactly which pleasure comes from which work (Vivaldi’s concertos have a similar issue); but as O’Conor shows, what matters is the sheer amount of pleasure in all the sonatas, even though they (again like Vivaldi’s concertos) have mostly the same structure. Indeed, aside from the two-movement No. 54, the sonatas O’Conor offers all have a fast-slow-fast arrangement, with all the middle movements marked Adagio. But details matter in Haydn, and it is no accident that the longest single movement in any of these five sonatas is the central one of No. 59, which is the only movement in which the word Adagio comes with a qualifier: e Cantabile. O’Conor is so well attuned to Haydn’s sonata design and structure that he manages to bring out the singing quality of this movement without in any way pushing the music beyond the strict Classical boundaries to which Haydn always adhered. All the performances here are equally impressive. The five sonatas are all in major keys: No. 48 in C, No. 50 in D, No. 54 in G, No. 59 in E-flat, and No. 60 in C. But just as in his major-key symphonies, Haydn expertly dips the music into the minor from time to time, always appropriately and tastefully, hinting at slightly more inward-looking material without ever turning the atmosphere significantly darker. O’Conor’s pianistic delicacy – even on a modern concert grand, which is decidedly not the historically correct instrument for this music – keeps the sonatas in the realm of elegance and, in general, stateliness; but Haydn’s sparkle and occasional puckishness come through as well, just as in his other works, and O’Conor’s skill at eliciting them is just one of this recording’s many pleasures.

     The contrast between the solo-piano writing of Beethoven and Haydn is considerable, but the contrast between both of them and Charles-Valentin Alkan is far greater – truly a stylistic abyss. Twenty years after Beethoven’s death, in 1847, Alkan created an astonishing set of 25 piano preludes in all the major and minor keys – yes, 25, adding a second C major one at the end to bring the grouping full circle. Even the stylistic and harmonic amazements of Beethoven’s late solo-piano music scarcely prepare listeners, or pianists, for what Alkan did. This cycle, 25 Préludes dans Touts les Tons Majeurs et Mineurs, Op. 31, is comparable to almost nothing else in the piano literature except other, later Alkan works. Marc Viner, a young pianist (born 1989) with stupendous technique and a strong commitment to performing less-known music, presents the sequence on a Piano Classics CD that really does have to be heard to be believed. This is especially true of the best-known of the preludes, No. 8, whose title translates as “The song of the madwoman on the seashore.” It is almost unbelievable to hear what Alkan has the piano do here: the sound is truly otherworldly and sends chills up one’s spine. The method Alkan uses can certainly be analyzed: he keeps the left hand entirely in the piano’s lowest reaches while confining the right entirely to its highest, and contrasts largely chordal lower material with higher portions in individual notes. But who thinks like this? What sort of composer even comes up with something this outré? The answer is that Alkan was one of a kind (even Liszt thought so), and his music sounds like nobody else’s. Again and again this comes through in Viner’s recording. Three of the preludes are marked as prayers, and very different prayers they are; in addition, one has a title relating to Psalm 150, and another refers to a specific passage of the Biblical Song of Songs. Still another is designated Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue, reflecting Alkan’s Jewish heritage and beliefs; yet another is a decidedly solemn piece even though it is marked Anniversaire – a word that turns out to refer to a Jewish day of lamentation. Yet the considerable religious gloss of these pieces shows nothing about the sheer pianistic amazement they possess: most are on the slow side, reflective and inward-looking, but some are so ebullient that they barely seem to have been written by the same composer; some are extensively ornamented, others plain; some rely on heavy chordal elements and ostinato material, while others require so much lightness of touch that they practically seem to float to and beyond the ear. Alkan’s music is so variegated and so difficult that even today many pianists will not attempt it. Specialists in it, such as Viner – who plans to record all of it, a monumental project if there ever was one – are extremely rare, and their recordings, definitely including this one, are must-haves for anybody interested in hearing just how far it is possible to stretch the communicative power of the piano.

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