April 09, 2020


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Stewart Goodyear, piano; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. Orchid Classics. $33.99 (3 CDs).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Clarinet Concerto; Clarinet Sonata; Chamber Symphony No. 4. Robert Oberaigner, clarinet; Dresden Chamber Soloists conducted by Michail Jurowski; Michael Schöch, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Alicia Terzian: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; Three Pieces for Strings. Rafael Gintoli, violin; Siberian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.

     It would seem logical that, in a year celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, recordings of his music would be all about, you know, Beethoven. But someone apparently did not get that message to Stewart Goodyear and/or Orchid Classics, whose new release of Beethoven’s piano concertos focuses to an unseemly extent on the pianist, not the music. The three-CD foldout cardboard package displays four photos of Goodyear; the enclosed booklet displays five (one repeated from the package front). Yes, nine Goodyear photos in all. And the 16-page booklet contains not only those five full-page Goodyear photos, but also two pages of text about Goodyear and two pages of text by Goodyear. There is not a word about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales or about conductor Andrew Constantine. So, on the basis of presentation alone, this is clearly a “celebrity-ization” of Goodyear rather than a serious entry into the Beethoven catalogue. Oh, and the third CD contains only the “Emperor” concerto, despite there being plenty of room for something else, such as the early E-flat concerto or the piano version of the Violin Concerto. Apparently those would not add sufficiently to the star power celebrated here. Thank goodness Goodyear is as good a pianist as he is: the release proves worthwhile musically despite the overdone, inappropriate packaging. Listeners more interested in music than portrait photography and self-glorification will find a great deal to like in this cycle, particularly in the first three concertos. Goodyear not only has a pleasantly modulated, at times rather light touch (despite playing the work on a modern piano), but also has a fine sense of the rhythmic bounce and splashes of humor in the first two concertos – “humor” not being a word often associated with Beethoven. There is whimsicality bordering on puckishness in Nos. 1 and 2. And No. 3 comes across as more serious but still largely Mozartean in tone and emphasis – a worthy counter to the way it is sometimes performed as a kind of early Romantic piece filled with grand gestures. The handling of all three of the earlier concertos places them with pleasant firmness in the Classical era, or at least (in No. 3) on the cusp of something beyond that time period but scarcely all the way into Romanticism. A considerable amount of credit for these performances goes to Constantine and the orchestra, whose accompaniment is crisp, light, and very well-balanced with the sound of the piano solo: neither conductor nor orchestra may be mentioned in the release, but both have a very strong presence in it. The fourth and fifth concertos are also quite well-performed, but somewhat less successful. No. 4 has unusual structure and considerable lyricism, the latter getting rather short shrift here: there are no fireworks written into this piece, but there is plenty of expansiveness and some striving (notably in the slow movement) for a genuinely new form of communication with the audience. Goodyear’s playing is quite good but a touch on the cool side, with Constantine again going along with him effectively but not eliciting as much warmth as this music deserves. As for the “Emperor,” No. 5 can be presented as almost entirely a display piece, and that is basically how Goodyear handles it, delivering a striking but unsubtle performance that is all showmanship and splendor. His enthusiasm, and Constantine’s, may be infectious, but the overall effect is of a work rather closer to Liszt than is appropriate for the material or its provenance. Certainly there are many pleasures in this set, including the very fine collaboration between soloist and conductor, and the sensitive orchestral playing. The overall impression, however, is of a bit too much superficiality – the same impression conveyed even more strongly by packaging decisions that are really quite wrongheaded.

     Neither the music nor the performers on a new Naxos CD could be said to have the “star power” involved in Beethoven’s piano concertos, but the recording of Mieczysław Weinberg’s three works for clarinet is nevertheless a very worthwhile and often fascinating one. The reputation of Weinberg (1919-1996) has been growing in recent years as his skill in multiple forms has become increasingly clear, and his clarinet pieces are further evidence of the quality of his music – and its resemblance to that of his longtime friend and champion, Shostakovich. The concerto is late Weinberg, dating to 1970, and shows the relationship with the late music of Shostakovich (who died in 1975) unusually clearly in its mixture of the lyrical and the sardonic. Alternately pensive and intense, the concerto is a work of varying moods, which tend to tumble over one another in somewhat helter-skelter fashion. Robert Oberaigner handles the material with empathy as well as skill, and the Dresden Chamber Soloists under Michail Jurowski provide well-balanced backup. Oberaigner also performs effectively with Michael Schöch on piano in the much earlier sonata, which dates to 1945. The sonata has more poise and classical balance than the later concerto, but a similar hodgepodge of emotions that often change quickly and unpredictably – a hallmark of much of Weinberg’s music. The overall mood of the sonata is rather bittersweet, and the ending seems more resigned than traditionally conclusive. The third work on this CD is Weinberg’s fourth and final Chamber Symphony, which dates to 1992 and was the last work he completed. It is designated, rather curiously, as being for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, but anyone expecting ample use of the triangle will be disappointed: it appears only four times, all in the finale. There is nothing concerto-like about the clarinet’s part here (as there is in, say, Shostakovich’s 1933 piano-and-trumpet concerto, in which the trumpet has a prominent role): Weinberg’s work remains basically one for strings, with clarinet obbligato and triangle, as noted, providing just a few special touches. Structurally, the work is in four movements, but the movements are all played without pause, as are the different sections within each movement, leading to the feeling of a work consisting of a single half-hour-plus movement. There is particularly strong contrast – nicely managed by Jurowski – between the slow, subtly disturbed, often barely motionless first movement and the very hectic second, in which the clarinet is prominent. The third movement is again in thoughtful mode, while the fourth has some particularly effective writing for the upper strings and a mood that repeatedly strives for the upbeat but never quite achieves it. Like the clarinet sonata, this work ends in resignation – here, with string pizzicati and a triangle chime. The chamber symphony’s very beginning is marked Lento, its very end Adagissimo, and its pace is mostly moderate-to-slow, producing an overall feeling more of nostalgia and roads not taken than of anguish or deep despair. It is a rather strange peroration, but no odder (and in fact rather less odd) than Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15 (1971). This whole CD is a welcome opportunity not only to become acquainted with additional intriguing music by Weinberg but also to hear how skillfully he could interweave a solo clarinet into the totality of works in which his style comes through quite clearly.

     The Violin Concerto by Alicia Terzian (born 1934), featured on a new Navona CD, is another 20th-century concerto, dating to 1954-55. It falls quite early in Terzian’s output, in contrast to the comparatively late date for Weinberg’s concerto for clarinet. Yet Terzian’s work already shows her considerable skill in using the orchestra and contrasting it with the solo violin, whose part is quite difficult without possessing show-off qualities for their own sake. The first and longest movement has a sonic palette familiar from much mid-20th-century music, and engages in microtonalism to a certain extent, but its lyricism is something of a throwback – and a pleasant one. This movement’s cadenza, which Rafael Gintoli handles with sensitivity and skill, requires harmonics, double-stopping and the ability to reach the violin’s highest register without any loss of tonal quality – a considerable challenge. Terzian is Argentinian but of Armenian descent, and Armenian folk tunes find their way into many of her works, including this concerto, whose second movement is based on a gloomy folksong, presented with quiet sadness and considerable feeling. The finale provides a strong contrast, offering some complex violin figurations amid underlying, brass-heavy dance rhythms. There is a kind of lumbering quality to the orchestral part, creating a strong contrast with the more-flighty solo passages, with the entirety eventually resolved – after another elaborate cadenza that Gintoli delivers adeptly and with much feeling – in a speedy race that at last has soloist and ensemble supporting and dancing around each other. This is not a well-known concerto by any means, and Terzian herself feels she has long since moved beyond the musical approach in evidence here. But the concerto holds together very well indeed, and is worthy of being heard more frequently. Vladimir Lande and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra make fine partners for Gintoli, and the performance as a whole is thoroughly satisfying. Lande and the orchestra’s string section do equally well with Three Pieces for Strings, which dates to exactly the same time as the concerto (1954). The Armenian folk influence is even stronger here than in the concerto, even when the specific tunes are not drawn directly from Armenian folk music. The three pieces are all intended to evoke scenes: “Sunset Song,” “Pastoral with Variations,” and “Rustic Dance.” The titles fit the music closely. The first piece flows with gentle nostalgia and has a crepuscular quality that is enhanced by fairly mild dissonances. The second opens with an old-fashioned-sounding theme that Terzian says dates to medieval times. The variations are straightforward, well-constructed and nicely contrasted among themselves. The third piece is a short (two-minute), rather Bartókian dance, strongly rhythmic but with a stop-and-start quality that gives it a kind of angular quality resolved, at the end, with a speed and decisiveness somewhat reminiscent of the conclusion of the great Hungarian composer’s Concerto for Orchestra – albeit on a far more modest scale. This is a highly satisfying release of music possessing considerable power and communicative substance, performed with élan and giving listeners interested in music of the 20th century a chance to hear some particularly well-made examples of it.

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