August 20, 2020


French Music for Piano—Works by Debussy, Fauré, Rameau, Chabrier and Ravel. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille. $16.

Elgar: Violin Concerto; Wilhelm Stenhammar: Two Sentimental Romances. Triin Ruubel, violin; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Sorel Classics. $14.99.

     There are highly personal elements in all recordings – personalization is, after all, what interpretation is all about. But some releases partake of the personal to an especially great extent – indeed, to so high a degree that enjoyment of the music considerably depends on how well listeners are tuned into, or attuned to, the very individualistic nature of what is offered to them. Jorge Federico Osorio’s new recording for Cedille is a case in point. It contains nothing unusual, nothing that classical-music lovers with a penchant for French piano works will find unfamiliar or particularly aurally challenging. And there is nothing in Osorio’s playing that anyone will find less than admirable: he is thoroughly at home with this repertoire and brings it forth with limpidity, understanding, appropriate rhythmic flexibility, and a fine sense of the picturesque. But the specific pieces that Osorio chooses, and the order in which he plays them, are highly personal matters that may or may not resonate with listeners. Most of the music is by Debussy: there are eight of his Preludes plus individual pieces from Estampes (La soirée dans Grenade) and Suite Bergamasque (the ubiquitous Clair de lune). But the 10 Debussy pieces are not gathered as a group; instead, Osorio plays them in two separate groupings. The first, using eight pieces, contains seven Preludes (from both books) and Clair de lune. The second consists of two works: La Puerta del Vino and La soirée dans Grenade. What is going on here is a structural approach within which Osorio chooses recital material for the CD. The whole disc opens with Fauré’s Pavane, after which the first eight pieces by Debussy are presented – with Clair de lune preceded, somewhat obviously, by La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. Then Osorio presents a kind of “palate cleanser” in the form of three excerpts from Rameau’s G major/G minor Suite No. 6 for Harpsichord, a delightfully expressive eight-movement work that relies heavily on the harpsichord’s tonal capabilities and never sounds quite right on the piano, no matter how accurately it is played on the later instrument. This CD bears the title “The French Album,” but the Rameau pieces divide it into “French/French” and “French/Spanish” segments: Rameau’s vignettes are followed by Chabrier’s Habanera, the two remaining Debussy works, and then two hyper-familiar ones by Ravel, Alborada del gracioso and Pavane pour une infante défunte. The two Ravel pieces receive some of the best performances on the disc: Osorio contrasts them beautifully, and the high level of virtuosity in the Alborada gives way to a gentler but every bit as impressive level of impressionistic delicacy in the concluding Pavane – which, not coincidentally, becomes a “bookend” for the disc to complement the opening Fauré Pavane. The recital is all clearly thought through in considerable detail and quite obviously reflective of a specific set of emotions and responses that Osorio seeks to display through his playing and to evoke in the audience. Indeed, the disc is almost over-clever in its careful design. Osorio does an excellent job in this repertoire, and his playing is almost always highly engaging and convincing (the Rameau miniatures are less so). This is a CD that will be thoroughly enjoyed by listeners who internalize Osorio’s arrangement of the music and find themselves in accord with it. Others will likely find it on the quirky side in the selection and arrangement of the material and may therefore deem it less engaging, despite the high quality of Osorio’s pianism.

     The playing is also of high quality on a new Sorel Classics CD that has a certain number of quirks of its own. It features Estonian violinist Triin Ruubel, who was 29 years old when the recording was made in 2017, and Estonia’s grandmaster of a conductor, Neeme Järvi, who was 80. And together they tackle one of the most difficult violin concertos in the repertoire – Elgar’s, from 1910 – and then offer two very little known pieces by Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) as encores. The result is a rather curious disc. Certainly Ruubel has the technique necessary to surmount the manifest difficulties of the concerto, for which Elgar – himself a violinist – sought and received assistance both from Fritz Kreisler (to whom the work is dedicated and who gave its first performance) and from London Symphony Orchestra leader W.H. “Billy” Reed. The solo part is in some respects barely violinistic: although playable by someone of sufficient skill, it demands near-constant double and triple stops and many string crossings that can seem capricious and are in any case enormously difficult to accomplish. Yet the concerto is not merely a display piece – in effect, it is as much a symphony with violin obbligato as a Romantic (or post-Romantic) concerto, being in this way somewhat analogous to Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with its obbligato viola part. It tends to be Järvi, more than Ruubel, who is the dominant force in this recording, whose symphonic grandeur and very “Elgarian” instrumentation (including ad lib parts for contrabassoon and tuba) are emphasized throughout, for all that the conductor certainly knows when to step back and allow the soloist to take a front-and-center role. There are two longstanding traditions of playing this concerto, dating back to its earliest performances and first recordings: one is on the brisk side, the other more expansive and emotionally expressive. Ruubel and Järvi opt for something of a middle ground, seeking a pace that is slightly on the quick side but that brings forth the work’s emotional strength. Ruubel is particularly good at her very first entry in the first movement, a beautiful and haunting moment, and fully displays her virtuosity in the very complex opening of the finale. The second movement is, on the whole, somewhat less successful, its quiet and songful nature sounding a trifle too static before its effectively delivered climax. The performance’s focus on the orchestra and the perhaps slightly uneasy (or imperfectly balanced) relationship between soloist and conductor are among the unusual elements here; in all, though, they detract only slightly from a very nicely played and recorded interpretation. As for Stenhammar’s Two Sentimental Romances, they work surprisingly well with the Elgar concerto: they date from the same year, 1910, and share much of the same emotional content. However, they are more unidimensional than the concerto and, of course, constructed on a much smaller scale. So they sound rather monochromatic after the grandiosity of the Elgar. Perhaps for that very reason, though, they evince no feeling of competitiveness between soloist and ensemble: here everything flows pleasantly and evenly, with Ruubel and Järvi showing an easier collaboration than is always evident in the concerto. These romances are minor pieces, but they nicely set off the major work here and provide a level of comfort and relaxation that Elgar’s grand concerto never delivers or, for that matter, aspires to deliver.

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