December 02, 2021


Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20; Rondos, K. 382 and K. 386. Sergei Kvitko, piano; Madrid Soloists Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tigran Shiganyan. Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Rachmaninoff: Songs (transcribed for piano); Debussy: Nocturnes and L’Enfant Prodigue—Prelude (transcribed for piano). Alfonso Soldano, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Schubert/Hilary Demske: Journey for One—A Winterreise Fantasy for Solo Piano. Hilary Demske, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Wolf-Ferrari: Overtures and Intermezzi from “Le donne curiose,” “I quatro rusteghi,” “Il segreto di Susanna,” “I gioielli della Madonna,” “L’amore medico,” “La dama boba,” and “Il campiello.” Oviedo Filarmonía conducted by Friedrich Haider. Naxos. $13.99.

     Surprise is Sergei Kvitko’s stated intention with the repertoire he performs on a new Blue Griffin Recordings disc: aware that the three Mozart piano-and-orchestra pieces offered here are familiar, he is determined to get listeners to hear them in new ways by presenting them differently from the way they are usually approached. It is easy to overdo this sort of thing. The obvious places to do things in unexpected ways are in the cadenzas: by definition, cadenzas are places to go beyond the written-out portions of the music, to demonstrate one’s pianistic ability, to reframe and reinterpret some of the composer’s themes and ideas and present them with an additional touch (or several touches) of virtuosity. Just how far to take this, though, is a matter of opinion as well as a matter of style: doing Mozart-based cadenzas in microtones or on a prepared piano, for example, would really seem a bit much. Besides, as it happens, the Rondo K. 382 has actually come down to us with Mozart’s original cadenza – showing what the composer would have found suitable and, by extension, what he would not have done (with the whole situation complicated by the fact that pianos of Mozart’s time bore little resemblance to the modern one used by Kvitko). The way Kvitko handles all this is quite intriguing: yes, his cadenzas, in the concerto and also in the two rondos, go substantially beyond anything that Mozart himself or his contemporaries would likely have offered to 18th-century audiences; but the connections to the music are kept clear and respectful, and while Kvitko certainly does not improve on Mozart in any way, he does manage to shed some new light on the communicative possibilities inherent in some of the composer’s themes. And thankfully, Kvitko gives the non-cadenza parts of the music the treatment they deserve: he and the first-rate Madrid Soloists Chamber Orchestra under Tigran Shiganyan set tempos aptly, balance the solo and ensemble material carefully (the CD’s sound is excellent), and highlight the many beauties and clever elements of the scores to fine effect. A major challenge in Concerto No. 20 comes in the last movement: a hitherto very serious D minor work has a final-movement second theme that is almost flighty, and after plumbing all the depths of minor-key emotionalism in most of the movement, Mozart throws all intensity out the window and speeds to a light and bright finish that can all too easily sound misplaced or awkward. A few concertos later, in No. 24, Mozart retains the music’s dark C minor sound and emotional impact to the end, but in No. 20, the question of what to do with the sudden sunshine is a difficult one to answer. Kvitko and Shiganyan figure it out: they make it a point to emphasize the lightness of the finale’s second theme when it initially appears, and then turn the movement into a dark-and-light balance that makes the eventual triumph of sunshine more than acceptable. All this comes on the heels of first and second movements that take their material quite seriously and are presented with plenty of inward-looking power. By any standards, this is a very fine performance that includes a few new ways of handling some of the material. The accompanying rondos are actually world première recordings, not of the basic music but of Kvitko’s own new editions of K. 382 in D and K. 386 in A. The changes in these editions are more for the connoisseur than for the casual listener: they are not exceptionally apparent in the performances, except in the relatively brief cadenzas. However, audiences that know these works well will hear differences of emphasis and ornamentation as Kvitko seeks to elucidate some elements of the scores more thoroughly. The alterations and rethinkings may be on the esoteric side, but the quality of the performances and the commitment to the underlying effect of the music are quite apparent and very welcome.

     Alfonso Soldano is after something else in his piano transcriptions of music by Rachmaninoff and Debussy on a new (+++) Divine Art CD. Soldano is a strong advocate of Rachmaninoff’s piano music, but here he appears to have arranged 15 songs for piano solo simply because the music sounds pretty. It does sound pretty, and often more than that, given Rachmaninoff’s propensity for grand gestures and unashamed (even overdone) Romanticism. And Soldano makes an effort to communicate, without words, the emotions that Rachmaninoff sought to produce with words in three songs from his Op. 4, three from Op. 8, three from Op. 14, two from Op. 21, two from Op. 26, and two published posthumously. The arrangements are pleasantly done and the performances are well-paced and sensitive, although the songs are not given in any discernible sequence and do not relate particularly well to each other except in a very general stylistic sense. These were not intended as songs without words but as songs with words, and in the absence of verbiage, what Soldano brings forth is essentially 40 minutes of background music: everything sounds nice, nothing sounds particularly memorable, and there is really nothing in these Rachmaninoff arrangements that makes them worthy of foreground attention – they are fine for listening to while also doing other things. More interesting and involving on the disc are Soldano’s four arrangements of works by Debussy: the prelude from his early cantata L’Enfant Prodigue and the three well-known Nocturnes. These four pieces were always intended to communicate through instruments, not voice, and Soldano’s arrangements show his concern for using the piano to bring forth the same kinds of effects that Debussy sought through the orchestra. This works, on the whole, rather well, with the impressions of clouds and the sea, in particular, conveyed to good effect through Soldano’s sensitive presentations. The Debussy works, though, remain more communicative in their original form, their colors more delicately blended and contrasted than on the piano. It is pleasant to hear these familiar pieces in a way that is different from the usual, and Soldano certainly shows himself to be a careful arranger as well as a caring interpreter. The works on the CD as a whole, though, are considerably less convincing than in the forms in which the composers intended them to be heard.

     Hilary Demske’s beautifully played but rather quixotic Journey for One—A Winterreise Fantasy for Solo Piano, heard on a new (+++) Navona CD, is not exactly a transcription of Schubert’s song cycle but not an entirely original work, either. It is a fascinating experiment: Demske does not simply remove the vocal line from Die Winterreise to create a solo piano piece – that would not work at all – but instead uses the song cycle as the basis for compositional modifications that sometimes incorporate the vocal elements into the flow, sometimes use them as points of departure, and sometimes try to obtain the effects of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry by employing the sort of tone-painting at which the piano can be so effective. Journey for One is indeed effective, and the rethinking of Schubert’s bleak song cycle is bold and at times quite clever. Certainly Demske’s heartfelt performance of the 24 lieder in her re-setting (which is not exactly a transcription or arrangement) is often impressively emotional and always in keeping with the spirit of what Schubert was seeking when he composed this cycle near the end of his very short and musically very productive life. But it is difficult to decide for whom Journey for One is intended, unless the “one” refers to Demske herself (Schubert’s song cycle is designed for two to perform, but chronicles a journey that is already for just one: the disheartened protagonist of the wintry tale). Listeners who know Die Winterreise already will likely find Demske’s work an intriguing sidelight, a different way of looking at what is essentially (but not entirely) the same musical material. Listeners who do not know Die Winterreise would be well advised to steer clear of Demske’s rethinking until they familiarize themselves with Schubert’s original: Journey for One is more of a commentary on the song cycle than a fully independent piece that can stand well on its own. As a composer, Schubert was above all a song master, creating more than 600 – and his ability to mingle the human voice with instrumental accompaniment remains unmatched. So hearing a major song cycle such as Die Winterreise without the voice is, on the whole, rather strange. It is easy to admire the sensitivity and sheer nerve of Demske in her creation of Journey for One, and to enjoy with few reservations the beauty of her performance of what she offers in this almost-80-minute keyboard work. But there is something a bit too rarefied in the whole project for it to be fully satisfactory: it is hard to imagine many listeners returning again and again to Journey for One, no matter how much one respects Demske’s originality of thought and pianistic skill – although repeated returns to the beauties and heartaches of Die Winterreise itself are almost a forgone conclusion for anyone who knows the music.

     The originality in evidence on a Naxos CD featuring music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari comes more from the composer than from the performers. Wolf-Ferrari was determined to restore levity and gaiety to Italian opera in the first part of the 20th century, a time when seriousness and verismo tended to get all the attention. He certainly knew how to do verismo itself – his one foray into it, I gioielli della Madonna, is so over-the-top as to be almost a parody of the form. But it was in lighter fare that Wolf-Ferrari excelled, his transparency of orchestration particularly welcome in complementing a series of witty comedies that often used the works of Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) as their foundations. Friedrich Haider leads this variety of orchestral excerpts from Wolf-Ferrari attentively, and the Oviedo Filarmonía – of which Haider was music director when the recordings were made, between 2006 and 2010 – plays well for him. But there is a certain fleetness missing in this (+++) recording, which comes across more as dutiful than as enthusiastic. This is especially easy to discern in the lightest and heaviest music. The four excerpts from I gioielli della Madonna are atmospheric enough, but their musical charm – a deliberate contrast to the sordid story in which they appear – is insufficient. At the other extreme, the exceptionally bubbly and very well-constructed overture to Il segreto di Susanna, a small masterpiece in less than three minutes, never takes wing here: everything is in its place and everything is presented properly, but there just is not enough sheer fun in the whole endeavor. The CD is curiously and incorrectly titled “Complete Overtures & Intermezzi,” which is far from the truth: it contains music from only seven of Wolf-Ferrari’s 13 completed operas (those 13 including five based on Goldoni works, two based on Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, and one based on Shakespeare). Haider leads everything appropriately, and the orchestral playing is fine, especially insofar as careful treatment of individual sections of the ensemble is concerned. What is missing, though, is a sense of conviction in Wolf-Ferrari’s determination to move Italian opera in a different direction from the one to which it was mainly devoted during his lifetime (1876-1948). The music comes across sounding comparatively ordinary, which was not the composer’s intention and is not the music’s effect when it is presented with a greater sense of abandon than it receives in these well-controlled readings.

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