October 06, 2022


Haydn: Piano (Keyboard) Concertos—complete (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11); Piano Trio in G: Finale (arrangement by Ettore Prandi). Matthias Kirschnereit, piano and conducting the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn. Berlin Classics. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Émile Naoumoff: Piano Music. Bogyeong Lee, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Anthony Cheung: All Roads; Elective Memory; Character Studies; All thorn, but cousin to your rose. Gilles Vonsattel, piano, with the Escher Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Brook Speltz, cello); Miranda Cuckson, violin, with Anthony Cheung, piano; Paulina Swierczek, soprano, with Jacob Greenberg, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Music for Flute and Piano by Tania León, Alvin Singleton, Julia Wolfe, David Sanford, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Valerie Coleman. Jennifer Grim, flute; Michael Sheppard, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The playing is delightful but the musical delivery on the quirky side in the new Berlin Classics release of all the keyboard concertos known to have been composed by Haydn. Figuring out which ones those are is a longtime preoccupation of music scholars and a nuisance for listeners, who will undoubtedly notice that numbers 7 and 9 are missing from the sequence (they turned out not to be by Haydn despite being catalogued as his) – and who will learn from this Matthias Kirschnereit set that No. 6 is actually a double concerto (for violin and keyboard). Furthermore, these really are keyboard concertos (unlike the ones by Bach that are sometimes labeled as such but are really out-and-out harpsichord concertos). In Haydn’s case, some of these pieces were written for harpsichord, some for organ, and only one – No. 11, the best-known of the series – was certainly intended for a piano in the way pianos were known in Haydn’s time. Kirschnereit manages to confuse an already confusing situation further by presenting the works in a thoroughly illogical order arranged neither by chronology nor by number: Nos. 4, 8, 2, 5, and 10 on the first CD and Nos. 1, 3, 11, and 6 (the double concerto) on the second. He also throws in an encore in the form of an arrangement of the speedy Rondo all’ongarese from a piano trio in G – but for some reason, the encore is at the end of the first CD, not the second. This is all rather strange. Kirschnereit, who both plays as soloist and conducts the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn, presents all the concertos using a full-scale modern concert grand piano, which is thoroughly inappropriate for the music and has a tendency to overwhelm the orchestra – by design, we must assume, since the pianist is also the conductor. Kirschnereit is restrained when it comes to the cadenzas, which is a good thing: no original cadenzas have survived, and it is certainly possible to overweight these extended solo passages in creating them, but Kirschnereit exercises good taste and care in producing ones that in most cases fit the music well and display a modicum of virtuosity without sounding overblown. The performances themselves are well-paced and sound quite good for ones focusing on a modern piano. There is nothing especially revelatory in any of them, certainly nothing to elevate these concertos in listeners’ minds to the level of even the earlier ones by, say, Mozart (or concertos by Handel, for that matter). The works come across as pleasantries rather than significant pieces, sounding very good – Haydn always sounds very good – but carrying much less musical meaning than many of the composer’s symphonies and quartets. Listeners unfamiliar with the keyboard concertos would do better to hear recordings that pay closer attention to period style and period instruments; but listeners who already know how Haydn intended these works to sound will find much to enjoy in Kirschnereit’s personalized reinterpretations of them.

     The Steinway Model D that Kirschnereit uses for Haydn is a much better fit for the piano music of Emile Naoumoff (born 1962): a different Model D is used by Bogyeong Lee for the Naoumoff works heard on an MSR Classics release. Several of these pieces draw explicitly on the composer’s Bulgarian heritage, including Danses Bulgares (1972) and Bulgaria 1300—Theme and Variations (2016). The dances are straightforward, pleasant and unassuming folk material in the mode of works by Bartók and Kodály in Hungary; Bulgaria 1300 is a much more ambitious work – at nearly 15 minutes, the second-longest piece on the CD – that possesses considerable grandeur and intensity, well brought forth in Lee’s performance. Other pieces on the disc often reflect Bulgaria indirectly if not explicitly. Valse pour Nadia (1996) is soft and gentle. Flowing Souletude (Souletude No. 24) (2015) has a Romantic-era sensibility and does indeed flow effectively throughout. Nocturno—Silent Ancient Alley of Tryavna (1970) is quiet and thoughtful, intended as a window into a distant past time. Pastorale (1970) has much the same mood: it is quiet and thoughtful rather than bucolic. Burlesque Brillante (1974) is bouncy and bright and over rather too quickly, lasting less than two minutes. Quatre Préludes (1988) are thoughtful and Impressionistic, showing the influence of Naoumoff’s teacher, Nadia Boulanger – they are somewhat static, with the exception of the third, marked “Tourbillonnant” (“Whirling”). Four Inventions (1972) are vaguely reminiscent of Bach, but with more-modern harmonic language, although as a general rule, Naoumoff’s piano pieces are tonal and rather charmingly old-fashioned. Requiem (1969) has a tentative, stop-and-start feeling to it, with more pathos than tragedy in the material. Seven Sisters Ballade (2012), which at 16 minutes is the longest work of all on the disc, is thoughtful and carefully constructed, but seems somewhat over-extended. In contrast, Menuet (1969), which runs barely more than one minute, packs plenty of charm into its very brief duration. Naoumoff is scarcely a household name, and the works heard here show little stylistic difference or progress despite being written during a period of almost half a century. There is a certain degree of monochromaticism to Naoumoff’s piano music that makes it less than gripping, although always pleasant. Lee is a strong advocate for this material and gives listeners plenty of chances to find enjoyable elements within these uniformly well-crafted pieces.

     The piano is used very differently by Anthony Cheung (born 1982) in the four works on a New Focus Recordings CD. It is combined with string quartet in All Roads, an eight-movement piece that takes the instruments hither and thither without apparent rhyme or reason until the final and longest section, “Convergence” – which, however, does not really bring the strings together with each other or with the piano, opting instead for a kind of dramatic, atonal, arrhythmic insistence that is ultimately inconclusive. Elective Memory contains references to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, but seems mainly concerned with tearing apart a work characterized by calm and beauty and reassembling it as an avant-garde, vaguely experimental-sounding piece that is wholly lacking in lyricism and emotional connection. Miranda Cuckson, who handles the violin part of this work with Cheung himself on piano, is on her own for Character Studies, a two-movement piece that first bounces up and down and sideways as if trying to characterize multiple people at once, then becomes somewhat more continuous in sound, although remaining ultimately rather characterless. The piano is back for the final work on the disc, All thorn, but cousin to your rose, a contemplation of the art of translation in which a soprano sings, speaks, declaims and otherwise puts forth words by Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Pushkin, and Edgar Allan Poe, with snippets generated by Google Translate thrown in here and there. This is the most interestingly conceived work on the disc, but the interest is a purely intellectual one: there is no seeking of emotional connection with listeners, no sense of the verbiage of the authors as having any significance except as building blocks – a particular violation of the intent of the excerpt of Poe’s The Bells included in the piece. The piano has little of significance to do here: the work is essentially a lecture (and not always an intelligible one), with Cheung combining an interest in translation itself with his own attempt to translate the works of Nabokov, Pushkin and Poe into a musically trenchant piece. It never becomes one, but Cheung’s attempt is at least interesting as an intellectual exercise.

     The piano is only an occasional presence on another New Focus Recordings CD, this one featuring flute performances by Jennifer Grim of seven pieces of music – some including piano – by six different composers. The piano appears in two works by David Sanford, the only composer heard more than once on the disc, and in pieces by Tania León and Valerie Coleman. Sanford’s Klatka Still (2009) is a two-movement piece where the flute, which dominates the material, has a certain circularity of expression in the first movement, then provides a level of linear calm above rather disconnected piano material in the second. Sanford’s Offertory (2021), also in two movements, offers near-lyrical thematic flow in the first and greater fragmentation in the second. León’s 2009 Alma (“Soul”) meanders here and there, focusing on flute techniques more than flute-and-piano relations, although the piano does have more to say later in the work. Coleman’s Wish Sonatine (2015) is one of those “social consciousness” works whose background the audience must know in order to be able to make any sense of the material – in this case, the piece is a meditation on the Atlantic slave trade. One of the flute-only pieces is similarly concerned with societal matters: Allison Loggins-Hull’s Homeland (2018) is a rather screechy response to various disasters, both natural and human-created. Neither of these pieces stands effectively on its own as music, and apparently neither is intended to: they are advocacy works more than musical ones. Of the two remaining pieces, Alvin Singleton’s Argoru III (1971) is a periodically interesting exploration of flute technique, while Julia Wolfe’s Oxygen, for 12 flutes (2021) uses overdubbing to include Grim performing on piccolos, alto flute and bass flute as well as the standard flute heard elsewhere on the CD. A certain richness of texture is available through the overdubbing technique, as well as the ability of a single performer to have a dialogue (and a “trialogue” and more) with herself. But Wolfe does not take much advantage of the opportunities offered by the technique: the work is repetitious and uneven in its exploration of the different-but-related sonorities of the instruments, and seems often more focused on exploration of technique than on instrumental sound, much less any sort of expressiveness. At 15-and-a-half minutes, Oxygen is the longest piece on this disc, but it does not use that extended time period or the multiple similar-but-different instruments played by Grim to any particularly strong effect. Grim’s playing itself is exemplary throughout the CD, however, and the disc should be of interest to other flute players – although not particularly to pianists, despite Michael Sheppard’s game attempts to make more of the piano parts than the composers themselves do.

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