July 08, 2021


Piano Duets for Teacher and Student. Antony Gray and his students, piano. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Barcarolle in F-sharp Minor, Op. 60; Polish Song, Op. 74, No. 12. Chelsea Guo, piano and voice. Orchid Classics. $16.99.

Marian Sawa: Music for Organ. Carson Cooman, organ. Divine Art. $18.99.

     A thoroughly delightful two-CD set that practically begs to be used, not just heard, Antony Gray’s Divine Art release of no fewer than 84 tracks of piano duets for teachers and students to play together is both revelatory and rather overwhelming – not the sort of recording that one listens to from start to finish, but definitely one into which pianists (and budding pianists) will want to dip again and again for inspiration as well as instruction. There is a tremendous amount of insight to be had from these works, starting with Il Maestro e lo Scolare, apparently the first piece of this type, by Haydn – whose extraordinary inventiveness gets further confirmation here. The idea is to produce music to be played simultaneously by teacher and student, the former handling the more-complex material and the latter the less-difficult and/or supporting elements. This helps engage students both technically and musically, and while the works do not, by design, put the two pianists on the same level, they often encourage students to stretch their minds and musicality as well as their fingers in order to practice along with their teachers. Lest listeners think that perhaps only minor composers followed the ever-innovative Haydn into material of this kind, the release includes just about the only works of this type that are heard occasionally as recital pieces: Stravinsky’s Three Easy Pieces and Five Easy Pieces. And there is plenty of music by other notable composers as well: Carl Czerny, Moritz Moszkowsky, Edouard Lalo, Florent Schmitt, Percy Grainger, even Bohuslav Martinů (whose Avec un doigt is a highlight of the release). To be sure, not all the composers represented here will be familiar to listeners: included are works by Leo Ornstein, Jean-Roger Ducasse, André Caplet, Guy Ropartz, John Carmichael, Michael Blake, Malcolm Williamson, Federico Maria Sardelli, Erik Windrich, and Joe McGrail. But there are some real gems to be had among these works: Windrich’s bright and bouncy Jaggamuffin and McGrail’s three-movement Jazz Duets are worth hearing as well as playing. Also offered here is a work arranged by Gray himself: the first piece from Enrique Granados’ Cuentos de la juventud, Op. 1. And there is a genuinely remarkable set of 17 tracks by some of the great 19th-century Russian composers, under the rather unwieldy title, Paraphrases (24 variations et 15 petites pieces pour piano sur un theme favori et oblige). If the designation is inelegant, though, the works themselves are not: they are delightful, often charming, highly expressive miniatures in forms including polka, funeral march, waltz, berceuse, galop, gigue, tarantella and more – by no less than Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Anatoly Liadov, and Cesar Cui. The set even includes a Fughetta on B-A-C-H and a Fugue grotesque (both by Rimsky-Korsakov), plus one movement by none other than Franz Liszt. What a delight this release is – in small doses of listening. Just discovering that so many first-rate composers created music of this teacher-and-student type makes the recording revelatory; finding out just how good much of the music sounds is a bonus. There is nothing here of the “virtuosic showpiece” type to which young pianists increasingly gravitate today to prove their keyboard bona fides. Instead, these are works that can genuinely help piano students progress to new levels of prowess and understanding – while giving their teachers something worthwhile to do with students instead of simply assigning and reassigning the usual finger exercises. The recording will be of much greater interest to pianists than to other listeners – but there is enough solid musicality in it, and enough of a sense of unearthing small, undiscovered gems, to make it a treasure trove of the unusual.

     The primary music on a new Orchid Classics release featuring pianist Chelsea Guo is far, far more mainstream and familiar – but this too is an unusual recording that reflects curiosity, in this case the pianist’s own. It is yet another Chopin album, yes, but one with some unexpected twists and turns. The Op. 28 Preludes are thrice familiar, but listeners are unlikely to have heard them before on an instrument like the one Guo uses: a Steinway built in 1876, which means it postdates Chopin by less than modern pianos do and, despite great richness and resonance, fits his music better than more-modern pianos do (if not quite as well as do the pianos for which he actually wrote). Thanks to Guo’s highly sensitive touch (shown especially, among other places, in Prelude No. 3 in G [Vivace] and Prelude No. 6 in B minor [Lento assai]), the music’s loveliness is ever-present, even if Guo is sometimes a bit too fussy in better-known numbers, such as Prelude No. 7 in A [Andantino] and the longest of the set, Prelude No. 15 in D-flat [Sostenuto]. The cascading sound of Prelude No. 19 in E-flat [Vivace] is a special highlight here, its contrast especially pronounced with the following Prelude No. 20 in C minor [Largo]. Guo’s technique and emotional involvement continue to come through in the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, which she fills with contrast and drama, and the Barcarolle in F-sharp Minor, Op. 60, whose rhythmic gentleness she brings out to fine effect. However, it is the three remaining elements of the CD, all of them short, that pull it into the realm of highly personal expression. Here Guo uses her vocal expressiveness to complement her pianism, delivering exceptionally engaging soprano performances of three songs. The first is Moja pieszczotka, whose pronunciation seems to give Guo no obstacles at all. The second is a Chopin-Ernst Marischka song, In mir klingt ein Lied, delivered with a touch too much vocal vibrato but with undeniable warmth. Finally comes a tribute not to Chopin but to Rossini, in the form of an arrangement of Di piacer mi balza il cor from La Gazza Ladra, which indicates that Guo could certainly consider doing some bel canto if she tires of pianism. The CD is really most worthwhile for the excellence of the Chopin piano works, but on that basis alone it has much competition from many first-rate virtuoso performers. The vocal elements are what make the recording truly special, setting it apart from (if not exactly “above”) other fine Chopin-focused CDs.

     A very well-played recording by a Polish composer far less familiar than Chopin – a disc whose music and instrument make it of somewhat less-general interest than Guo’s – is a new Divine Art release featuring organ music by Marian Sawa (1937-2005). Sawa was quite prolific, writing some 800 works, mostly for organ. He drew both on Polish folk tunes and on Western music dating back to Gregorian chant, writing idiomatically for his chosen instrument in a stylistic mixture of Romantic and 20th-century sound and technique. Carson Cooman, himself a composer of some note as well as a very fine concert organist, presents nine Sawa works on this (+++) CD, giving what seems to be a fair representation of Sawa’s style and thinking from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Sequence I, “Dies irae” (1996) is sonorous and often compelling. Resurrection (1975) and Aria (1971) are much sparer and more dissonant. Passacaglia II (2005) is evanescent, almost otherworldly in sound. Three Dances in Old Style (1996) is rhythmically engaging, if not particularly danceable. The five-movement Suite (1980), the longest work on the CD, makes considerable demands of the performer as it moves through a variety of moods and tempos; however, it sounds more like an exercise than a work of deep feeling – the central Tranquillo and galumphing Con brio that follows are its most appealing movements. Fantazja Jasnogórska (1996) is on the portentous, even overstated side, sounding a bit like music for a suspense film. Łomza Prayer (2004) is quiet, gentle, essentially atonal, with a feeling of the cosmic – again, in something of a film-like sense. Finally, Sequence II, “Victimae paschali laudes” (1996) returns to the mood of the opening Dies irae with effective, dramatic handling of the thematic material and a mood that looks back to earlier times. Listeners interested in undiscovered organ music (of which there is quite a bit) and in hearing from a modern composer with strong roots in the past and fine command of his chosen instrument will gravitate to this disc and likely find themselves seeking out additional works by Sawa. This may be a small audience, but it is likely to be an enthusiastic one.

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