July 07, 2022


Bruckner: Symphony No. 3, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Symphonic Prelude in C Minor, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Johanna Doderer: Bruckner Window IV. Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $14.99.

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Burkard Schliessmann, piano. Divine Art. $25.99 (2 CDs).

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—Ten Pieces for Piano; Liadov: Biryul’ki; Prelude in B Minor; Nicolai Medtner: Piano Sonata “Reminiscenza”; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4. Violetta Fialko, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

     The delightful, if quirky to the point of being somewhat wacky, project to transcribe Bruckner’s symphonies into organ works, and have Hansjörg Albrecht perform them on various instruments for Oehms recordings, continues its wholly unjustifiable but unarguably engaging way with Symphony No. 3 – whose Erwin Horn transcription proves as involving and frequently fascinating as have Horn’s other organ versions of Bruckner’s symphonies. One thing this series shows incontrovertibly is that it really is possible to think of Bruckner’s symphonies as reflecting the composer’s fascination with the organ – on which he was a much-admired extemporizer, although he actually wrote almost nothing for the instrument. The version of the Third Symphony used by Horn is not really the best – it is the 1888/1889 one, which brings in this monumental symphony at well under an hour – but certainly the sonorousness of the work comes through fully fledged in Horn’s transcription; and certainly Albrecht, whose playing is expert throughout this whole series and at times approaches the miraculous, brings out the symphony’s many nuances and complexities with tremendous skill. It is almost irrelevant to speak of this as an “interpretation,” since the real point here is to showcase the sheer sound of the symphony and the remarkable extent to which the piece actually works on the organ, even though playing it on organ is certainly nothing that Bruckner ever did, ever intended, or would likely ever have wished to have happen. This is a performance to be experienced rather than analyzed: just as it is possible to let the “Bruckner sound” wash over an audience in waves, so this organ version of the Third gets to the heart of the music and highlights the rhythms and harmonies with unerring expertise, offering an experience as exhilarating as it is objectively wrong-headed. The added items on this CD are particularly well-chosen to go with the symphony. The Symphonic Prelude in C Minor dates to 1871-1876, the time period of the first version (1873) of Symphony No. 3; and here Horn gives the work a high level of grandeur that actually makes it sound as if it could have been composed for the organ – it has the right monumentality and processional feeling about it. And then there is the fourth of the 10 newly created contemporary compositions collectively called “Bruckner Windows,” each by a different 21st-century composer and each planned to accompany the symphony with which it is paired. This one, called PINUS, is by Johanna Doderer (born 1969) and is more reflective of Bruckner – and more of a reflection on his music – than has been the case with the other “Windows.” It is a 10-minute piece that has a 21st-century version of the “Bruckner sound,” using the mass of the organ in much the same way that Horn uses it in his transcriptions. There is discord in Doderer’s work, but that is not its major point, nor is it pervasive. In fact, PINUS sounds a bit like an extension of Bruckner’s own tonal experimentation in his Symphony No. 9: it is not exactly a work that Bruckner himself might have written, but it is one that pays a clear tribute to him and that possesses some genuinely thoughtful musical elements.

     Burkard Schliessmann is very thoughtful too in his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but his recording, originally dating to 2007, is a highly polarizing experience, and the very fine re-release on the Divine Art label only confirms the difficulty of knowing just how to react to it. This work remains a litmus test, or perhaps a Rorschach test, for keyboard players – and often for listeners as well. The issue with Schliessmann’s interpretation is not just a matter of his use of a piano – a historically inappropriate decision, to be sure, but one made by many performers and sure to continue being made by plenty more – nor even his willingness to employ the very Romantic and post-Romantic piano sound and capabilities to emphasize various elements of the music. In fact, Schliessmann actually does use period practices here and there, as in runs of short-value notes; but when he does so, the attentiveness seems grafted onto a very different sort of performance and does not come across as a genuine attempt to be somewhat historically informed. For example, one reason Schliessmann may adopt that particular short-note-value element – in Bach’s time, notes in such runs were played somewhat unevenly – is that the performance as a whole has a rhythmic freedom, a willingness to stretch and compress elements in the service of emotional communication, that goes well beyond what is usually incorporated into the Goldberg Variations. To give Schliessmann his due, it seems that he wants, above all, to make contemporary listeners comfortable with Bach’s music, to have them hear this piece not as a museum piece and not as a doorway to an earlier time, but as a work with as much to say in the 21st century as in Bach’s own time. The difficulty, though, is that Schliessmann’s is scarcely the only way to make this sort of connection with modern listeners. The rhythmic freedom that Schliessmann adopts deliberately is so pervasive that it seems, after a while, to become a mannerism. Tempo changes are another issue: Schliessmann does not really employ rubato, which would involve speeding up an element and then slowing down another to compensate – instead, his tempo choices often seem rather arbitrary, interfering with the sense of flow and forward motion of the music in an attempt to make it more expressive and involving. Also, there is an unevenness to Schliessmann’s handling of ornamentation, so that it seems crucial in some variations and an afterthought elsewhere. What the performance lacks, then, is consistency. This is clearly music about which Schliessmann has thought carefully, and which he wants to present in a way that today’s audiences will find congenial, meaningful, and salutary. To Schliessmann, that turns out to mean handling it sometimes with neo-Romantic (or proto-Romantic) flair, sometimes with a kind of diffidence that downplays the elegance of the work’s construction. Certainly this (+++) recording shines some new and different light on a very-well-known piece, a cornerstone of the keyboard repertoire. And listeners looking for something unexpected from the Goldberg Variations should find at least occasional elements of Schliessmann’s performance intriguing. But taken as a whole, it is hard to take as a whole: it is a collection of individual elements that often engage, sometimes misfire, but rarely connect effectively as parts of a total experience.

     A new (++++) Divine Art recording featuring Violetta Fialko offers personalized pianism of a very different sort – devoted to music that, although far less significant and meaningful than Bach’s, nevertheless has many pleasures of its own to offer. Nearly half of the 70-minute disc is devoted to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—Ten Pieces for Piano, a work that proves just about perfect to highlight the variegated sounds and expressions that Fialko elicits from the piano. She manages, for example, to maintain the old-style underlying rhythm of Minuet: Arrival of the Guests, while overlaying the material with 20th-century expressiveness; there is naïve enjoyment aplenty in Juliet as a Young Girl; the inherent drama of the well-known Montagues and Capulets comes through strongly and contrasts interestingly with Friar Laurence; and so on. Fialko is quite comfortable with this music’s essentially down-to-earth elements – but she is also well-attuned to the far more evanescent, near-mystical beauties  of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, and handles the almost-jazzy rhythmic elements of the second movement to fine effect. The other works on this CD, which are less familiar than the Prokofiev and Scriabin, receive equally fine readings. The Piano Sonata “Reminiscenza” by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) has delicacy and an inwardness of expression quite different from those of Scriabin’s No. 4. And the Op. 2 miniatures by Anatoly Liadov (1855-1914), collected as Biryul’ki and sounding like a series of 14 études, are snippets of enjoyment from start to finish – less elaborate and portentous than the Prokofiev movements, but filled with little touches of delight of a salon-music sort. Fialko does especially well with the somewhat-more-intense movements, including the fourth (Allegro con fuoco), the fifth (Vivace), and the sixth (Allegro), but without giving short shrift to the delicate ninth (Allegretto tranquillo) and sweet 11th (Tempo di valse). Fialko also offers Liadov’s Prelude in B Minor, the first of his Trois Morceaux, Op. 11, with warmth and sensitivity. Indeed, everything on this disc has a feeling of being warm and sensitively interpreted, displaying Fialko’s considerable talents to very good effect in music that may be of no great consequence but that produces very considerable feelings of pleasurable enjoyment.

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