November 19, 2020


Mendelssohn: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Piano Trio No. 1—version for flute, cello and piano. Viola de Hoog, cello; Mikayel Balyan, piano; Marten Root, flute. Vivat. $18.99.

Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 1—Nos. 3, 13 and 17. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $17.98.

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 2; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 8; Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 1. Euntaek Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The use of historic pianos for chamber music – not only for solo-piano works – lends the pieces a sense of historical accuracy that tends to come with genuinely revelatory elements, as occurs thanks to Mikayel Balyan’s use of an Érard piano of Mendelssohn’s time in performances of the composer’s two cello sonatas. Abetted by historic-performance cellist Viola de Hoog, Balyan shows quite clearly on a new Vivat recording why Mendelssohn so esteemed the Érard sound and durability that he said he would find it difficult, after experiencing an Érard, to get used to any other piano. The piano as a construct was still in transition from the fortepiano to the modern-style piano in Mendelssohn’s time, but clearly the light touch and elegant action that Mendelssohn called for in so many of his works were most attainable through use of the then-most-up-to-date instruments. Yet these pianos did not overshadow the instruments with which they participated in chamber music. Mendelssohn was a violinist and violist of some distinction, but did not play the cello, so it would be unsurprising if his two cello sonatas were essentially piano works with cello obbligato. Yet this is not the case: the first sonata, Op. 45, in B-flat, balances the instruments quite well, and the cello’s lyricism is particularly pronounced in the central Andante; and in the second sonata, Op. 58, in D, both the beauty and the virtuosity are more prevalent in the cello than in the piano (which, however, still has a great deal to contribute). De Hoog and Balyan explore these works in finely knitted style, weaving gorgeous sound garments from instruments with which Mendelssohn would have been familiar, and in the process elevating the sonatas to a level of refined beauty that they never quite seem to possess when played on a modern cello and contemporary concert grand. The sonatas are offered on this disc with a curiosity: a version of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 that includes a flute part instead of the violin – because of a request made by the work’s publisher, Edward Buxton, who wanted to reach out to a wider variety of potential purchasers. The flute form of this trio is not often heard, and the version performed here is the first recording it has ever had on period instruments. It actually sounds quite fine this way, even though Mendelssohn himself did not believe the flute could effectively cope with the first and last movements of this four-movement work. What Marten Root contributes to this performance is a series of tonal shadings that give the trio a different aural feeling from the one it usually has – not better or worse than the version with violin, but different in effect. This CD has about it an elegance of performance and respect for the composer’s musical design that together add up to top-notch music-making throughout.

     One person commenting on Mendelssohn’s Op. 45 cello sonata in B-flat was Robert Schumann, who heard distinct echoes of Mozart in it. And interestingly enough, it is Mozart in B-flat that permeates the first volume of a planned cycle of Mozart’s piano sonatas by Orli Shaham. There are many ways to arrange and release such a cycle – simply going through the numbered sonatas from one through 18 is the most straightforward – so it is interesting that the sequencing of Shaham’s cycle, or at least its first volume, is not numerical but strictly musical. This Canary Classics CD includes the three Mozart sonatas written in, yes, B-flat: K. 281, 333 and 570. The first of these dates to 1774, the second most likely to 1784, and the third to 1789; they thus span a considerable portion of Mozart’s compositional life. Interestingly, it is K. 281 that is in many respects the most virtuosic: it packs a great deal of display into its outer movements and considerable operatic emotionalism into its central Andante amoroso. Shaham is not a historic-performance pianist, and she does not hesitate to delve into the warmth and sustained beauty of which modern pianos are more capable than were the instruments of Mozart’s time. Yet she knows when to keep her touch light, as in the outer movements of this sonata, and she certainly knows how to handle ornamentation, which proliferates under her hands in this sonata and throughout the CD. There is perhaps a bit too much sustaining pedal in the finale of K. 281, but the overall lightness is there – despite being harder to achieve on a modern piano than on an instrument of Mozart’s time. In K. 333, the longest of these three sonatas, the operatic elements are most prominent in the opening movement, which glides along like a sweet little cabaletta until Mozart makes it something more pianistic. The second movement also has a singing quality – it is actually marked Andante cantabile – and Shaham makes the most of this element, just as she pays close attention to the gracefulness of a finale marked Allegretto grazioso. In K. 570, Shaham elegantly and warmly accentuates the gentle rocking motion underlying the first movement; presents the central Adagio in slow, lullaby-like manner, slightly lengthening the pauses between phrases; and brightens matters up significantly in a sprightly final Allegretto. These are very fine modern-piano performances, generally on the slow side compared with other readings of these works: Shaham enjoys exploring the emotional impact of the music and does not hesitate to select tempos and pianistic effects that enable her to do so. There is something charmingly old-fashioned about the result – which, among other things, shows quite neatly the many ways in which Mozart used the key of B-flat to bring out different feelings and emotions in these three sonatas.

     The most-prominent key on a new MSR Classics release featuring pianist Euntaek Kim is D minor – the key of both Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2 and Rachmaninoff’s No. 1. This is Kim’s solo recording debut, and he certainly takes the measure of both these rather sprawling sonatas – and of Scriabin’s more-compressed No. 8 as well. What is not quite as well-done on this (+++) CD is a perception of the significant stylistic differences among the composers: Kim focuses on surmounting the technical difficulties of the works, but offers interpretations that are on the bland side and not especially distinct from each other. True, these are all sonatas of the same period: Scriabin’s dates to 1912-13, Prokofiev’s to 1912, and Rachmaninoff’s to 1908. But nothing in any of these works should really sound much like anything in another of them. Rachmaninoff’s is essentially a sonic exploration, with a highly virtuosic third (concluding) movement and a second movement whose long melodic lines need to be carefully sustained for maximum effect. Kim gets through everything well from a technical standpoint, but produces a rather mannered overall effect. Prokofiev’s sonata, half the length of the Rachmaninoff despite being in four rather than three movements, requires attentiveness to a very wide variety of moods. This is a work of extreme contrasts – more than in any of the composer’s other piano sonatas – and while it certainly overflows at times with Romantic lyricism, it is also filled with dissonances and parodistic elements, even including a sendup of cabaret music. Since there is little emotional development in the sonata, the work sounds best when played with a kind of attentive superficiality, allowing each of its many elements to come to the fore and then recede into the background. In the main, Kim does well with this work, notably in keeping a steady tempo in the second-movement Scherzo and ensuring the power of its strong and abrupt ending. In emotional contrast, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 8 – written in a single movement, and the shortest work on this disc by a significant margin – is a mixture of tragedy, apathy and resignation; the difficulty for a performer here is that there is a sense of urgency in the music, but its underpinnings are simultaneously unsettled and serene. The complexity of the work somewhat eludes Kim, whose performance is fine from a technical standpoint but ultimately communicates less than this distinctly odd music is capable of putting across. As a whole, this CD is quite satisfying from the point of view of pianistic virtuosity, but considerably less so from the viewpoint of pianistic emotional connectivity.

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