March 18, 2021


Haydn: Piano (Keyboard) Concertos—complete (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11). Mélodie Zhao, piano; Camerata Schweiz conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130, transcribed for piano four hands; Schubert: Fantasie in F minor, D. 940. DUO Stephanie and Saar (Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia), piano four hands. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Curt Cacioppo: La promessa di Beatrice; Né più la luce; Gloria; Luce è Donna; Paean; Notturno elidiano; (I, madly struggling, cry). Kristina Bachrach, soprano; William Sharp, baritone; Curt Cacioppo, Debra Lew Harder and Wan-Chi Su, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Although he was scarcely a virtuoso at the level of Mozart, Haydn was a more-than-passable harpsichord player (as well as a capable violinist), and he produced a number of mostly pleasant, if rather unassuming, concertos for harpsichord and other keyboard instruments – specifically the organ, although in a couple of cases, years after creating certain concertos, he indicated that they could also be played on the then-new fortepiano. What Haydn did not do was lay the groundwork for performances on a full-scale modern grand piano, which did not exist in anything like its present form until a century after Haydn wrote the works that Mélodie Zhao plays on just such an instrument on a new two-CD set from CPO. Zhao’s renditions are something of a throwback to a time before historically informed performance: she does not hesitate to use pedaling, crescendo and decrescendo, sustaining /overlapping notes, and other techniques that did not exist in Haydn’s time and are quite inappropriate for his music. However, she uses these approaches mostly in her cadenzas rather than in the written-out portions of the concertos, in which she is considerably more restrained – and considerably closer in approach to Howard Griffiths, who conducts the Camerata Schweiz chamber orchestra with a light touch and a fine sense of Haydn’s balanced and elegant style. So what we have here is a very well-played, if occasionally somewhat misguided, set of performances – and a chance to listen to nine keyboard concertos that are probably the only surviving ones genuinely written by Haydn, whose fame was such that publishers, and other composers, often tried to pass their works off as his and sometimes succeeded. It is now accepted that a concerto listed as Haydn’s No. 9 is definitely not by him, and although No. 7 – not recorded here – is certainly based on some of Haydn’s non-concerto music, it appears to have been changed into concerto form by someone else. Indeed, one work heard here, No. 10 (actually a concertino, and listed as such by CPO), is of dubious origin, although it may be by Haydn and certainly sounds much like his work. Also, No. 6 of these pieces is actually a double concerto, in which Zhao is joined as soloist by violinist David Nebel. Clearly the provenance of Haydn’s keyboard concertos is complex and is still being unraveled; and the works themselves do not show him at his most creative, although several have ebullient and delightful finales – including No. 11, the best-known of these pieces, whose last movement is a bouncy Rondo all’ Ungarese. Zhao is scarcely an expert Haydn stylist, but her performances make up in verve and spirit what they lack in authenticity, and Griffiths’ careful attention to a more-Haydnesque approach keeps the overall recording highly entertaining and quite enjoyable to hear. There is also some genuine interest in Zhao’s cadenzas, which are not suitable to Haydn’s time period but have charm of their own – and do not go on overlong, so at least in terms of timing, they fit the music appropriately. This is scarcely a release for anyone who prefers historically informed performances, but it is a welcome chance to experience some fine pianism in the service of music that may not be Haydn’s best but that is certainly well worth hearing when performed with the skill and élan that it receives here.

     The Beethoven performance by the wife-and-husband duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, on a New Focus Recordings release, seems on the face of it to be even less authentic than Zhao’s handling of Haydn’s concertos. But matters are more complicated than that. Beethoven’s B-flat quartet, Op. 130, is the one for which he famously wrote the Grosse Fuge that he was then persuaded to discard and publish separately, substituting a less-forbidding finale to cap the previous five movements. Beethoven himself arranged the Grosse Fuge for piano four hands, and what Ho and Ahuvia do is perform the quartet with its first five movements transcribed by Hugo Ulrich and Robert Wittmann, followed by the Grosse Fuge in Beethoven’s four-hand adaptation. Clearly Ho and Ahuvia believe this version of the quartet works better than the one with the replacement finale, although it would have been nice if they had recorded the Ulrich/Wittmann version of that movement as well, to give listeners a chance to make up their own minds (it would have fit on the same CD). In any case, the quartet in this guise is fascinating to hear. The piano cannot vary dynamics on sustained notes, as string instruments can, but the keyboard sound works well for this quartet thanks to the care the performers take to prevent any muddiness, especially in chordal passages, and to give the music a welcome level of transparency. The interpretation is unusual in some respects, or at least nontraditional: the very brief second movement is slower here than its Presto designation, which actually makes it easier to hear the syncopations, and the third movement – Andante con moto ma non troppo – ignores the last part of that tempo designation and moves along quite smartly, the intriguing pacing providing a greater sense of suspense than most performances offer. Less successful is the over-fast Cavatine, whose emotion seems more surface-level than usual, although it could be argued that the movement’s comparative lightness of character in this reading better sets up the grandeur of the Grosse Fuge than would a darker approach. That vast last movement is played particularly impressively, and although it does indeed tend to overbalance the quartet to some degree, it has a magisterial presence that Ho and Ahuvia convey to very fine effect. This quartet transcription pairs very interestingly indeed with Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, which spins out at even greater length than the Grosse Fuge and encompasses in its way as many moods as does the entirety of Beethoven’s Op. 130. Here the tempo choices seem particularly apt, especially in the contrast between the bright and very nicely paced Scherzo and the well-spun-out finale. The differing treatment of fugal writing by Beethoven in the Gross Fuge in 1826 and Schubert a mere two years later is revelatory of the burgeoning Romantic era in piano music, and Ho and Ahuvia do a first-rate job of exploring both the differences between these two important fugal works and the similarities between them.

     The use of the piano by Curt Cacioppo (born 1951) on a new MSR Classics CD is less distinctive and more indicative of its usage by many composers in the 21st and late 20th centuries. The disc includes two solo-piano pieces, Paean (2015), a kind of nocturne-with-dissonance played by the composer, and Notturno elidiano (1998), a similar but somewhat more delicate piece played by Debra Lew Harder. Those piano solos are placed midway on the disc, as interludes of a sort, between a set of four songs for soprano and piano, with text by Luigi Cerantola, and a single song for baritone and piano, with words by Walt Whitman. The vocal dominance of the piano and of the disc as a whole produces a verbal emphasis for the CD that creates expectations of emotional communication that the music never quite fulfills. The four Cerantola-based songs, written between 2008 and 2019, are rather old-fashioned both musically and in their somewhat exorbitant (that is to say, somewhat overdone) emotional expressiveness, which places them more firmly in the realm of Italian opera than in that of art song. Cacioppo is apparently aware of this: the third song, Gloria, includes a lovely oboe part (played by Evan Ocheret) that gives the audience (as well as soprano Kristina Bachrach and the composer/pianist himself) some respite from the rather hectic intensity of the first two songs. And then the fourth song, Luce è Donna, which is really a scena and is longer than the other three put together, appears – with the subtitle/designation, Parodia alla Sestina: “Operistica.” The works are all well-made but are rather rarefied in their intended appeal. And then, after the solo-piano works, there is a piece from 2018 with a title that, for no particular reason, is given in parentheses: (I, madly struggling, cry). Here clear-voiced baritone William Sharp and pianist Wan-Chi Su fit rather oddly together: Sharp alternately speaks and sings, while Su produces keyboard material that tends to sound as if it comes from some other work altogether – it does not exactly underline or contrast with Whitman’s words as Sharp delivers them, but skitters here and there as if seeking respite from the intensity of the vocal material. The disc as a whole shows Cacioppo’s versatility as a composer plus his skill as an interpreter of his own piano music, but it never really gels as a totality, coming across as a (+++) release that adds up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

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