September 10, 2020


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5. Eugene Albulescu, piano and conducting Orchestra of Friends. AMP Recordings. $14.99.

Ignaz Moscheles: Piano Sonatas (complete). Michele Bolla, fortepiano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

Oscar Straus: Piano Concerto; Serenade for String Orchestra; Reigen-Walzer; Tragant-Walzer. Oliver Triendl, piano; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $16.99.

     It is exceedingly rare to hear a recording for any ensemble above chamber size in which it sounds as if all the participants are making music together just for the pleasure of it – simply because they are enjoying each other’s company so much. But that is the distinct impression given by the new AMP Recordings release of Beethoven concertos played and conducted by Eugene Albulescu. Indeed, many “ex” words apply to this CD: exhilarating, exciting, extroverted, exceptional. “Excellent” comes to mind as well. And this word play is in the spirit of the musical play itself: “play” can mean both “perform” and “have fun with,” and that combination is just what Albulescu and his Orchestra of Friends sound as if they are doing. Indeed, the orchestra is one consisting of Albulescu’s friends, assembled specifically for this recording: it is a somewhat augmented and altered group of 38 players, most of them members of the Bethlehem Southside Sinfonia, which usually performs ballets. That provenance may explain some of the bounce and rhythmic sensitivity of this recording. Albulescu’s interesting decision to play the concertos on a modern Steinway, with the top removed, jutting into the orchestra at a 45-degree angle, may also explain some of the sound. This is scarcely an authentic or historically informed recording, despite the appropriately small ensemble size, but it is one of great vivacity and exuberance (another “ex” word). Indeed, the first thing a listener is likely to notice is that the finales of both concertos are taken at quite a clip, that of No. 1 in particular. The speediness is outside the norm for these works, but during this 250th year after Beethoven’s birth, all sorts of original and interesting approaches to his music have cropped up, and this one certainly has a lot going for it. Actually, the choice of repertoire itself makes for an interesting contrast. Piano Concerto No. 1 is Beethoven’s first-published, but was composed after No. 2 and also after WoO 4, a work in E-flat that is sometimes called “No. 0” and has been recorded several times in this celebratory year. So No. 1 is really Beethoven’s third completed piano concerto, and No. 5 is his sixth – well, seventh if the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto is included. Numbering matters aside (they are actually even more convoluted than this), Concerto No. 1 dates to 1795 (revised in 1800) and No. 5 to 1811, so they cross a “century line” as a late piece in the Classical era and an early one in the Romantic (more accurately, proto-Romantic). What Albulescu and the orchestra manage to do in this recording is to highlight the very significant differences between the two works while at the same time showing them to have been cut from essentially the same cloth; indeed, they are even the same length in these performances (No. 1 running 37 minutes, No. 5 lasting 38). Albulescu shows real flair for the music, giving No. 1 a light touch that keeps it vivacious and appropriately expressive, but allowing expansiveness in the first movement that clearly shows the front-weighting favored by Beethoven even at this stage. In the “Emperor,” that leaning toward the first movement is always evident, but here it is more so than usual, as if Albulescu has decided to show that, architecturally, Beethoven in No. 5 did not stray all that far from No. 1 – although he had certainly moved on harmonically and in some elements of structure, notably through the opening piano flourish and extended cadenza-in-effect that most clearly portend the Romantic era that was still to come. The seriousness of Beethoven is a given, but his music did have a lighter side that allows it to be played to good effect with the touch that Albulescu and the orchestra provide here. The piano’s sound is really too big for this music, for all the cleverness that Albulescu brings to the seating arrangement of the performers: Beethoven wrote for fortepianos and early pianos with a span of five to six octaves and a far more delicate frame than modern Steinways possess. But what ultimately makes a performance successful – and enjoyable – is the way the musicians interact with the music and each other, the way they shape the listening experience for the audience. And in that respect this recording (to cite one more “ex” word) excels.

     The four piano sonatas of Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) all belong to the fortepiano era as well, and all are only slightly later than Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, dating to the middle of the 1810s. Moscheles’ pianistic skill certainly impressed Beethoven: he entrusted Moscheles with preparation of the piano score of Fidelio. For his part, Moscheles dedicated his third piano sonata to Beethoven – and was one of the few people who remained close to the notoriously difficult composer in his later years. Moscheles’ sonatas are the work of a young composer, in his 20s, who has not yet found a unique voice. But they are all well-made and sound particularly good when played on the instrument for which they were written. The fortepiano used in a very fine new Piano Classics recording by Michele Bolla is a reproduction of a Conrad Graf model from 1819, and the sonatas fit it very well. The first, Op. 22 in D, and second, Op. 27 in B-flat, are three-movement works featuring particularly well-done central variation movements. Op. 22 is a bold-sounding piece with martial tones, especially in the first movement. Op. 27, which Moscheles called Sonata caracteristique, is an occasional piece that is intended to evoke positive emotions toward Francis I (1768-1835), the first emperor of Austria; its variations are on a popular song, Freut Euch des Lebens (“Rejoice in Life”). The largest-scale of Moscheles’ four sonatas is the one dedicated to Beethoven, which is Op. 41 in E. In four movements and styled Grande Sonata, the piece displays more drama than the three-movement sonatas and has an interesting second movement marked Minuetto o Scherzo, thus straddling the line between what was thought of as an older form and a newer one (although even Haydn, usually associated with minuets, wrote works containing scherzos). Yet the most interesting of Moscheles’ sonatas is not this comparatively extended one but the fourth, a single-movement piece that is the shortest of them all. Called Sonate mèlancolique and written in the very dark key of F-sharp minor, this is a much more chromatically exploratory piece than the other sonatas and one that strongly contrasts intensely expressive sections with ones of brilliant virtuosity that, like some works by Beethoven, prefigure other composers’ Romantic explorations in the future. Despite the fact that this work bears Op. 49, it was in fact written earlier than Op. 41 (1814 vs. 1816), so it would be a mistake to think that Moscheles somehow grew into greater expressiveness as the sonatas progressed. In fact, he never revisited the piano-sonata form after producing these four early works, so they constitute a compositional dead end for him. But they are fascinating nevertheless, both because of Moscheles’ connections with Beethoven at the time of these sonatas and because, when played as sensitively as Bolla plays them and on an appropriate instrument, they clearly show where the sound of the piano stood in and around Beethoven’s time.

     There is a full century between Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and the sole piano concerto by Oscar Straus (1870-1954), who produced his while he was a dissatisfied student of Max Bruch: Bruch apparently thought well of Straus, but the feelings were not reciprocated, since Straus was more harmonically daring than Bruch found acceptable and was far more interested in light music and stage music. Indeed, it was as a composer of operettas and other light works, including films, that Straus eventually made his reputation – and one of his most-famous pieces dates to his 80th year. That is the thematic waltz that he wrote for Max Ophuls’ 1950 film, La Ronde, a piece known in German as Reigen-Walzer and sounding like a wonderful reminiscence of times past on a new CPO disc featuring the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Ernst Theis. Indeed, the four-minute waltz somewhat overshadows Straus’ 27-minute piano concerto: it is worth remembering that Straus was a highly skilled waltz composer, even though he was careful to spell his name with a single “s” so he would not be erroneously thought to be a member of the famous Strauß (that is, Strauss) family. (Interestingly, it was Johann Strauss Jr. who advised Oscar Straus not to be tempted to write a series of dance tunes but to opt for more-lucrative stage works – an approach that did not work out particularly well for Strauss himself.) The Oscar Straus Piano Concerto takes full advantage of the late-Romantic version of the piano, which is much closer to today’s pianos than to the fortepianos of Beethoven’s and Moscheles’ time. This concerto is a big, broad work with soaring themes, in three movements played without pause but nevertheless clearly differentiated, and it is put forth with considerable grandeur and strength by Theis and pianist Oliver Triendl. Nevertheless, it is not a particularly convincing work: it does not have a great deal to say, even though it says what it does have to say effectively and with well-considered orchestration. But the other non-waltz work on this CD, the Serenade for String Orchestra, is actually more attractive. This is a light, five-movement work, written a bit earlier than the piano concerto and also during Straus’ days as a student with Bruch. Largely Classical in form and style, it bears comparison with the string serenades by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, having some of the same cheeriness and lightness of spirit, and even including, as its fourth movement, a lovely little, yes, waltz. Waltzes, all of them very short, also appear at the end of this CD: the Tragant-Walzer on themes from Straus’ Der Prinzessin von Tragant, a ballet score from 1912. These are four miniature gems, actually cast as an introduction, three waltzes and a coda, and they serve to show that Straus always had considerable skill in dance music, even though he came to include it only within stage and screen works. Indeed, in addition to Die tapfere Soldat (“The Gallant Soldier,” usually known in English as “The Chocolate Soldier”) of 1908, the works for which Straus is best-remembered today are the operetta Ein Walzertraum (“A Waltz Dream”) of 1907 – and his final film composition, for Ophuls’ La Ronde, including the highly memorable waltz that became famous along with the movie.

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