January 09, 2020
(++++) KEYBOARD EXPLORATIONS
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0,” 2 and 6. Sophie-Mayuko Vetter, piano and fortepiano; Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Ruzicka. Oehms. $14.99.
Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volumes 10 and 11: Debussy—Images, Books I and II; La plus que lente; Études, Books I and II; Suite bergamasque; Pour le piano; L’Isle joyeuse; Préludes, Book I. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth is bringing a flood of recordings of familiar works and, perhaps even more welcome, something more than a trickle of releases of less-known Beethoven. There is more of that than many people realize. Certainly his symphonies, string quartets, Missa Solemnis, piano sonatas and various concertos are so firmly anchored in the standard repertoire that Beethoven’s music is ubiquitous. In reality, though, only some of it is heard constantly, and if the 250th-anniversary acknowledgments provide a chance for further exploration, so much the better. Even among what are considered the most-familiar Beethoven works, there are surprises to be found. This is the case with his piano concertos. He wrote 8½ of them: the five hyper-familiar ones numbered 1-5, the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, a lost early concerto, a not-lost early one known as WoO 4 or “No. 0,” and a portion of what would have become No. 6 if Beethoven had not abandoned it for reasons unknown. A new Oehms release featuring Sophie-Mayuko Vetter and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra under Peter Ruzicka is an especially happy exploration of Beethoven’s early concertos and late partial concerto, not only because the music itself is worth hearing but also because Vetter correctly plays “No. 0” on the fortepiano. Beethoven very specifically stated that this work was for harpsichord or fortepiano, and it sounds immeasurably better on an intended instrument than on the modern concert grands used on the still-rare occasions when pianists present it. Vetter has an excellent touch on the fortepiano and takes full advantage of the coloristic capabilities of the instrument – a characteristic it shares with the harpsichord but not with modern pianos. Beethoven, although only a young teenager when he wrote this concerto, clearly understood how harpsichord and fortepiano can color music in different ways: different parts of the keyboard produce inherently different sounds, apart from the registration differences that harpsichordists (like organists) can engage at will. The very Mozartean flavor of “No. 0” (which actually sounds somewhat more like a work by Johann Christian Bach than one by Mozart) comes through especially clearly in this recording – whose only significant flaw is an unwelcome decision to rush the finale, which is taken at an Allegro molto pace rather the designated Allegretto. This movement has one of the most delicious rondo themes that Beethoven ever wrote, and a slower pace would have brought forth much more of its charm than the headlong rush heard here. Even with that miscalculation, though, the concerto is played so well, and gets such fine orchestral accompaniment, that the recording is a delight. And No. 2, the first-composed of the five “canonical” concertos, sounds splendid as well. There is a lightness bordering on dalliance throughout the concerto, a sense of joie de vivre not often associated with Beethoven and all the more infectious as a result. Vetter and Ruzicka engage in a bit too much rubato from time to time, notably in the finale. But they mostly get away with their tempo fluctuations, because the changes are judiciously chosen and serve to highlight some elements of the music to good effect (even though, as a result, they downplay others). As for the single surviving movement of what would have been Concerto No. 6, this is a bit of a hodgepodge, having been completed and cobbled into performable form by Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant. Vetter’s performance here is the work’s world première recording, and it serves the music well. The use of the piano in this single-movement fragment is different from its handling in the five numbered concertos, with an integration of piano into orchestral fabric that looks ahead to the Romantic era – and a climactic three-and-a-half-minute cadenza (in a 15-minute movement) that takes the rather pedestrian thematic material and spins it into a kind of fantasy/impromptu. The result is intriguing rather than gripping, providing a sense of where Beethoven could perhaps have gone with the material if he had decided to expand upon and develop it further. In this way, Concerto No. 6 is as revelatory – but as disjointed – as Beethoven’s sketches for his Symphony No. 10. It is fascinating to hear this pianistic possibility, but it is certainly not Beethoven and is not entirely “Beethovenian,” either. Nevertheless, it is the insights into lesser Beethoven and “almost Beethoven” that make this release such a fascinating one.
The fascination of the latest Idil Biret Solo Edition presentation, a two-CD IBA recording featuring more than two-and-a-half hours of Debussy, lies partly in the sheer pianistic prowess of Biret, who in her late 70s (she was born in 1941) retains all the expressive and virtuosic skill she has displayed through many decades; and partly in the chance to hear so much of Debussy’s impressionistic music rendered with such clarity and attention to detail. Much of the material here is thrice-familiar: Images, Suite bergamasque (including Clair de lune) and the Préludes are mainstays of pianists’ repertoires and heard very frequently in recitals and on recordings. But Biret approaches even the most-familiar of these works with the feeling of coming to them, if not for the first time, then in the spirit of discovery and rediscovery of Debussy’s tonal palette and his expressive techniques. It is worth remembering that everything here is a miniature, an encapsulation of a particular mood, feeling or approach to piano playing: there are 39 tracks on the two CDs. And Biret handles every individual piece as a kind of tiny tone poem, delving into the pictures that each elicits or the feeling each evokes and exploring the material in detail before bringing every item to a satisfactory close and then moving on to the next little jewel. Thus, each of the Préludes from Book I breathes its own atmosphere, with the result that the contrasts among the works – say, between La Cathédrale engloutie and the immediately following La Danse du Puck – are quite strong and yet carefully measured (hopefully Book II of the Préludes will be forthcoming on a later Biret recording). All six Images are beautifully turned and lovingly explored, with the last of them, Poisson d’or, especially evocative of its subject matter. The lengthy Études, whose two books together are the longest offering on this release, have little of the charm of Debussy’s favored impressionism: they really are exercises for the pianist, however well-made they may be as individual works. But even here, Biret finds ways to make the material far more expressive than it usually is, for example in Pour les sonorités opposées. Biret is a consummate stylist in much of the music she performs, and shows throughout this very fine recording that she is every bit as adept and accomplished in Debussy’s music as in the works by Liszt and Schumann with which she is more closely associated, and which dominated earlier recordings among the Idil Biret Solo Edition releases.