June 09, 2022


Mozart: Nine Variations on a Menuet of J.P. Duport, K. 573; Ten Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” by C.W. Gluck, K. 455; Gigue in G, K. 574; Scriabin: Five Préludes, Op. 15; Five Préludes, Op. 16; Sonata No. 3, Op. 23; Sonata No. 10, Op. 70. Zlata Chochieva, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Saint-Saëns: Variations on a Theme of Beethoven; Danse Macabre; Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune; Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos; Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye. Baron & Navarro Piano Duo (Michael Baron and Priscila Navarro). MSR Classics. $14.95.

Music for Viola and Piano by Joseph Ryelandt, Marcelle Soulage, Arthur Foote, and Granville Bantock. Hillary Herndon, viola; Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The reasons for combining certain specific pieces in a concert, recital or recording, and performing them in a specific order, are as numerous and varied as the performers, impresarios and producers who make decisions about what audiences will hear. Considerable thought sometimes goes into decision-making of this sort, but sometimes the decisions come across as rather capricious – or at least so highly personalized as potentially to limit the size of the audience to which the set of works will appeal. Pianist Zlata Chochieva’s new Naïve CD of music by Mozart and Scriabin certainly offers intriguing juxtapositions, and is certainly played with a high level of commitment and skill. The choices of specific pieces and their sequencing, however, are rather on the odd side. Chochieva says she wants to contrast the essential brightness of Mozart with the basic darkness of Scriabin, but whether that formulation works for an audience – and whether it is adequately communicated by these specific works in this specific order – is very much a matter of opinion. Chochieva opens with Mozart’s Nine Variations on a Menuet of J.P. Duport, and certainly this work is mostly bright, cheerful, even childlike – despite being a product of Mozart’s maturity (it dates to 1789). But the notion of some sort of uncomplicated brightness is belied by the Adagio variation in D minor, whose depth of sadness – admittedly out of character with the rest of the piece – casts a pall over the entire work. Next on the CD are Scriabin’s Five Préludes, Op. 15, which are scarcely deep or dark: they are on the introverted side, but the mood is more a quiet and peaceful one than anything truly dark. Then comes Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3, which the composer referred to as “States of the Soul” and which does include elements of drama, sorrow, even defeat and despair – here indeed is the darkness in Scriabin that Chochieva chooses to highlight. But then she turns, rather wrenchingly for listeners, to Mozart’s Ten Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” by C.W. Gluck, which takes the rather frivolous tune from a very light moment in Gluck’s opera Die Pilgrimme von Mekka and turns it into something witty, even elegant, serving as a tribute not only to Gluck but also (in the ninth, longest variation) to Bach and Scarlatti. So there is lightness here, yes, but this is also a sophisticated and particularly well-constructed work. Chochieva follows it with more Scriabin préludes, this time Op. 16, a significantly deeper yet more-elevated work than Op. 15. Indeed, the contrast between Mozart’s K. 455 and Scriabin’s Op. 16 is the most interesting element on the CD, even though it does not fully reflect the disc’s thematic concept. Next, Chochieva plays Scriabin’s final sonata, No. 10, a strange, highly chromatic, tonally shifting work whose trills and tremolos are especially memorable. Scriabin called it “a sonata of insects,” and it does to some extent sound like one; but dark it is not, and Scriabin even said, rather mystically, that insects are “the kisses of the sun.” The sonata has an unusual sound but not really a dark or downcast mien. Chochieva then follows it with the final work on the CD, Mozart’s brief Gigue in G, K. 574, which looks back toward Bach and Handel and also forward, not directly to Scriabin but in a sense to Tchaikovsky, who based the first movement of his “Mozartiana” suite (No. 4) on this work. The little two-minute piece is pleasant but not exactly upbeat – it fits Chochieva’s organization primarily because it has bolder harmonies and more forward-looking rhythms than are typical for Mozart, thus to some extent knitting together his 18th century with Scriabin’s 20th. Listeners will need to decide for themselves whether the excellent pianism on display here is in the service of a legitimately interesting and valid theme for the recording, or simply one that tries too hard to find common ground and contrasting emotions at the same time.

     The underlying concept of an MSR Classics CD featuring the Baron & Navarro Piano Duo is more straightforward and easier to understand: Michael Baron and Priscila Navarro simply play five French works for piano duo, most of them quite well-known. But matters are not entirely simple, since the best-known pieces here are generally unfamiliar in two-piano form. The first work on the disc is Saint-Saëns’ substantial Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, based on the trio of the third movement of Beethoven’s “La Chasse” piano sonata (No. 18 in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3). This is a work requiring each pianist to be patient while the other takes center stage – there are many places where only one piano is heard – and it is also a work with some very clever interplay between the instruments: the sixth variation, for example, is nothing but scales, with one piano playing a rising scale and the other countering with a falling one. The work is exciting throughout and in some ways feels like a series of interconnected études, giving the pianists a chance to show off their technical prowess. This is followed on the disc by the composer’s own two-piano arrangement of the thrice-familiar Danse Macabre, which has a different weight and sense of balance here when compared to its sound in more-familiar guise – an interesting listening experience. Next is a different composer-arranged two-piano version of a highly familiar work: Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune, which loses none of its delicacy as heard here and gains some interesting cooperative elements between the pianos. More striking, though, is Poulenc’s duo arrangement of his D minor two-piano concerto – a fascinating work in its own right, combining effects derived from the Balinese gamelan with ones clearly tied to jazz. In the more-often-heard version for two pianos and orchestra, the soloists play almost continuously, so hearing this work as a piano duo is not much of a strain or surprise. This is a work of dialogue, and Baron and Navarro handle that element in just the right way, tossing material back and forth, cooperating in unison passages, and generally showcasing the overall charm and rhythmic liveliness of the piece. Its lightness nicely complements the feeling of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, which is almost always heard as an orchestral work (often in its expanded form as a ballet) but which in fact was created as a five-movement suite for piano four hands. Ma Mère l’Oye was written for two children, ages six and seven, and it has a simple charm that should not be overdone or turned into anything grander than it is. This requires Baron and Navarro to pull back their rather sophisticated approach to the other music on this CD by a notch, and they do so quite effectively, offering Ma Mère l’Oye in a bright, straightforward presentation that serves the music well. Pleasantries abound throughout this disc, whose organization by nationality and instrumentation is not particularly original but serves to provide some basic connective tissue for some generally pleasant music.

     The foundational structure of another MSR Classics release, this one featuring violist Hillary Herndon and pianist Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, is more unusual – and results in a disc featuring four composers from four countries: Belgium, France, the United States, and England. The underlying idea here is to pay homage to the 1919 Berkshire Festival Competition, where 72 viola works were presented – with ones by Ernest Bloch and Rebecca Clarke declared the best. Exactly which other pieces were offered for judging at the time is uncertain; this CD includes three that may well have been submitted, plus one movement from a fourth work as an encore on the disc. This is a rather abstruse organizational concept, to put it mildly, even though many violists will be familiar with the Berkshire event. For audiences in general, the CD is simply labeled as “1919,” and the four pieces on it treated as representative of (and presumably created in) that year. Outside the viola genre – and to some extent even within it – these works are not particularly well-known, but all are certainly well-constructed and partake of the sensibilities of their time, including considerable sensitivity to the warmth and singing tone of the viola. The three-movement sonata, Op. 73, by Belgium’s Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965), is conventional in structure, with a passionate opening, very lyrical second movement, and brightly upbeat finale with contrasting expressive sections. The four-movement sonata, Op. 25, by France’s Marcelle Soulage (1894-1970), starts with a thoughtful movement that feels slower than its Allegro marking, continues with a rhythmically striking Scherzo, then moves on to a plaintive slow movement before a rather puckish finale. The large-scale, three-movement sonata, Op. 78a, by America’s Arthur Foote (1853-1937), has a dark, broad, almost Brahmsian opening movement, a tender and somewhat Tchaikovskian slow movement, and a light and curiously inconclusive-sounding finale. The disc ends with the third movement of a sonata by England’s Granville Bantock (1868-1946), which proves to be the liveliest and most rhythmically emphatic piece on the entire disc, with a distinct Irish-dance flavor. None of these works could be called an undiscovered masterpiece, and the “1919” connection is a weak (because highly specialized) one; but Herndon and Lo play all the music with gusto and understanding, on a CD that will be of considerable interest to violists, if not nearly as engaging for listeners in general.

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