October 21, 2021


Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler, piano. Steinway & Sons. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Chopin: Ballade No. 4; Mazurkas, Op. 6, No. 1; Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 2; Op. 17, No. 4; Op. 24, Nos. 2 and 4; Op. 33, Nos. 1, 2 and 4; Op. 63, No. 3; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Op. 68, Nos. 2 and 4; Études, Op. 25, Nos. 1 and 2; Preludes Nos. 4, 7, 10 and 18; Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2; Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2; Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, No. 4. Irina Feoktistova, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Here are a couple of recent releases characterized by beautifully considered and emotive piano playing combined with some peculiar presentation decisions. Liszt’s complete, 80-minute-plus set of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1847) is not heard particularly frequently, which is a shame: inspired by the poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine, whose work also underlies the famous symphonic poem Les Préludes, these 10 pieces go beyond virtuosity to bring out tonal color and harmonic experimentation in ways quite different from what the composer did elsewhere. They are more inward-looking than the superficially similar but more-popular, more-externally-focused first two books of Années de Pèlerinage (1848-1854 and 1837-1849) and less dark-hued than the third book of Années (1867-1877). The dates of composition (not publication) are noteworthy, because they show that although Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is a comparatively early work, it was created when Liszt had already attained the same mastery of form and technique put on display in the first two Années, but without the near-mystical darkness of the third of those suites. Harmonies poétiques et religieuses is intensely personal Liszt with pervasive spiritual underpinnings, not solely in the overtly religious Ave Maria, Pater Noster and Funérailles (the most-often-heard piece from this set), but throughout. It is a very difficult suite to perform complete and in some ways a difficult one to hear from start to finish: there is just so much going on, with such great intensity of feeling. It is nevertheless rather peculiar that the new Steinway & Sons release of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses splits the 10 pieces between two pianists, giving five apiece to Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler. Both performers are quite fine, certainly equal to the suite’s numerous technical challenges and equally well attuned both to Liszt’s expressiveness and to his structural creativity. But Liszt did not write Harmonies poétiques et religieuses to be played as a collaborative exercise, and although there is nothing particularly jarring here when one pianist is succeeded by the other on the next track, the whole performance-mixture concept comes across as more than a little strange. Tendler plays Nos. 1 (Invocation), 4 (Pensée des Morts), 5 (Pater Noster), 8 (Miserere d’après Palestrina), and 9 (Andante lagrimoso), which means, among other things, that he handles the intense lament in No. 4 but does not get to compare and contrast it with the mood of No. 7, Funérailles. Jenny Lin handles No. 7 along with Nos. 2 (Ave Maria), 3 (Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude), 6 (Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil), and 10 (Cantique d’amour). Thus, Lin presents the simple beauties of Ave Maria, but Tendler handles the expanded versions of older forms in Pater Noster and Miserere d’après Palestrina. There is certainly nothing wrong with any of this, and in fact the playing throughout is first-rate, the performers in such close emotional harmony with the music and each other that this recording is an easy one to recommend with enthusiasm. It is nevertheless inescapable that if either Lin or Tendler had recorded Harmonies poétiques et religieuses in its entirety, there would have been differences of style and emphasis from what is heard here – most likely subtle ones, true, but ones that would have provided additional insight into the way a single pianist, either Lin or Tendler, had accompanied Liszt on a journey more inward than that of the first two books of Années de Pèlerinage.

     When it comes to the MSR Classics release of Chopin works performed by Irina Feoktistova, we certainly do have the viewpoint and interpretative approach of a single performer, although not in a particularly recent recording (the performances date to 2010-2011). The oddity here, though, is the choice and arrangement of material. This is a very personal selection of Chopin’s works, more than an hour and a quarter of presentation of music that clearly has considerable meaning to Feoktistova but that comes across in this sequencing as if the recital is tossed together rather than carefully curated. These pieces are all standard-repertoire works both for pianists and for audiences, and it may very well be that listeners who have often heard these mazurkas, preludes and other short pieces will simply sit back and enjoy listening to them in the pretty much miscellaneous order in which Feoktistova chooses to present them. It can also be argued that each work here can be viewed independently rather than as part of a set, so there is no reason to play pieces in a particular grouping just because they were written and/or published that way. Still, there is something about this (+++) CD that does not quite work, despite the polished skill and emotional surety with which Feoktistova performs all 25 pieces. It does make sense to open and close the disc with more-substantial material: the first work (and the longest) is Ballade No. 4, whose gentle flow is winningly presented; and the last is the Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, No. 4, whose intensity and complex note runs provide a strong conclusion to the disc. But everything between the first and last pieces here seems rather arbitrarily arranged. At one point there are three separate A minor mazurkas in a row, for example, and elsewhere there are two in C major framing one in A minor, so key relationships may be part of the sequence determination here – but the moods of the works do not admit of performing them this way to strong effect, and they are followed by an étude in A-flat major that is jarring in key after the comparatively extended A minor. Furthermore, there are pieces here whose order does not seem explainable either technically or emotionally: there are more mazurkas offered than works in any other form (15 out of 25), but the final four pieces are prelude-waltz-prelude and the Fantasie-Impromptu. The tile of this CD, “Chopin the Enchanter,” is presumably intended to explain its organizing principle, but although so much of Chopin’s music is certainly magical – including what is heard here – the is something less than complete enchantment in the specific order in which Feoktistova chooses to play these pieces. Listeners who find themselves in tune (so to speak) with the pianist’s thinking about juxtapositions of some very different works from very different sets of pieces will certainly enjoy this disc. And anyone already familiar with Chopin’s music in general and these pieces in particular will find much to like in the individual performances here, even if the totality of the disc produces a somewhat quizzical effect.

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