November 24, 2021

(++++) PIANO, PLUS

Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65; Introduction and Polonaise Brillante; Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2; Nocturne No. 20; Chopin and August Franchomme: Grand Duo Concertant on Themes from “Robert le Diable.” Anne Gastinel, cello; Claire Désert, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Victoria Bond: Illuminations on Byzantine Chant; Ancient Keys; Black Light; Traditional: Byzantine Chant. Paul Barnes, piano and chanter; Slovak Radio Orchestra and Philharmony “Bohuslav Martinů” conducted by Kirk Trevor. Albany Records. $16.99.

     On the face of it, there appears to be something almost unseemly in adapting Chopin’s piano music for other instruments. Chopin is inexorably and understandably associated first and foremost with the piano, in all its expressive lyricism and ability to establish and sustain a multiplicity of moods and great beauty. But that is precisely what makes the new Naïve CD featuring cellist Anne Gastinel and her frequent duo partner Claire Désert so attractive. There is no attempt here to minimize the piano – instead, the idea is to accentuate its lyrical powers by combining and contrasting its sound with that of the cello. This works, on the whole, very well indeed, thanks to sensitive arrangements by several hands. The disc opens and closes with a nocturne. Op. 9, No. 2, in E-flat, is highly expressive, although arranger David Popper takes the cello a touch too far into its highest range from time to time. No. 20, in C-sharp minor, is arranged by Gregor Piatigorsky, and not surprisingly exploits the cello’s expressiveness to the fullest degree. These short pieces bookend more-substantial works that Gastinel and Désert handle with exceptional sensitivity. The Introduction and Polonaise Brillante is heard here not in its original form but as edited by Maurice Gendron to give the cello a more-substantial, more-central role than it has in the original work, in which it plays second fiddle (so to speak) to the piano. Pianists may not approve of losing some of the virtuoso, concerto-like elements of their part, but the combinatorial balance of the instruments here makes for some very effective give-and-take. Highly effective in a different way is the set of variations on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, composed by Chopin and his cellist friend Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884). This is an extended work of considerable power, requiring equal but differing virtuosity of the two players, and it is quite impressive both in its handling of the opera’s themes and in the division of labor: clearly Chopin and Franchomme had great respect for each other’s abilities as performers, not just composers, and the piece gives each player plenty of chances to shine and an equal number to cooperate. Gastinel and Désert here show a level of refinement that is quite exceptional. Franchomme’s influence and friendship are also central to the most-substantial work on this Naïve CD: the Op. 65 sonata for cello and piano. This is one of only nine works published in Chopin’s lifetime that were not for piano solo, and indeed is the last work published during his all-too-brief life. The sonata was specifically written for Franchomme, who is its dedicatee, and it beautifully complements the Robert le Diable variations by showing the cello-piano balance in a very different light. Chopin goes out of his way here to let the cello take on primacy, allowing the piano to weave beautiful sonic tapestries around the stringed instrument but making it clear, again and again, that this is a cello sonata. Intriguingly, the third movement, Largo, makes the most-visceral impression even though it is the shortest of the four. This is a thematically focused sonata, lacking the discursiveness found in some other Chopin works, and its emotional structure is interesting, with the inner movements (including the Largo) in major keys and the outer movements in G minor (although the work ends in G major). Gastinel and Désert make marvelous musical partners throughout this work and through the whole disc, which makes it clear that although Chopin was first and foremost piano-focused, his expressiveness is not diminished one whit when heard on cello as well as piano.

     The very well-made music of Victoria Bond (born 1945) is combined not with a single stringed instrument but with an orchestra in two works on a new Albany Records CD – and, more intriguingly, with the human voice, courtesy of pianist Paul Barnes, who is also a professional chanter in the Greek Orthodox Church. The four works on this disc – one for piano alone, two for piano and orchestra, and one consisting of Barnes offering four traditional Byzantine Chants – fascinatingly combine religious elements (including some drawn from Bond’s own Judaism) with secular ones. The four hymns chanted by Barnes take up a total of less than five minutes, but their influence pervades most of this more-than-hour-long release. This is clearest in Illuminations on Byzantine Chant (2021), which here receives its world première recording. The three-movement solo-piano suite is tied explicitly to specific hymns, which are expanded and explored in ways reminiscent of, yes, Chopin: it is fascinating to hear this work in juxtaposition with the Robert le Diable variations, and not just because of the contrast between the devilish and godly implied by the material. Bond asks a lot of the performer in these Illuminations, requiring sensitivity to the underlying material and also an impressive amount of virtuoso display that, far from trivializing the underlying hymns, gives them even more expressive power. Barnes’ knowledge of the foundational material surely helps him produce this very sensitive interpretation of the music, as his pianistic skill lets him bring forth the power of Bond’s keyboard writing. Barnes is also called on to chant at the beginning of Ancient Keys (2002), which was commissioned by Barnes and conductor Kirk Trevor – who leads the Slovak Radio Orchestra in accompanying Barnes for this performance. An air of solemnity hovers over this extended (17-minute) single-movement work, which incorporates neo-Romantic orchestral gestures into an attractive framework that skillfully utilizes both the massed orchestral forces and individual sections – and occasionally single instruments that complement and contrast with the piano. There are effective elements as well in Black Light (1997), in which Trevor again leads an orchestra – this time the Philharmony “Bohuslav Martinů” – and Barnes again displays his considerable performance ability. The work itself, though, is the least interesting on the CD. The inspiration here comes partly from African-American music and partly from a Jewish hymn. These are more-common sources than Byzantine chant, and Bond’s treatment of them, while professional and skillful, is not especially revelatory: there are percussion clashes, dips into jazz rhythms and jazz-like piano runs, a second movement whose insistent contrast between massed orchestra and delicate piano recalls the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, and a finale mixing string pizzicati with pianistic syncopation. It is all well-crafted but sounds like many other works drawn from similar sources. Black Light is pleasant enough to listen to, and certainly performed very well, but while everything else on this disc is indeed illuminating, this piano concerto shines less brightly than the rest of the CD.

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