January 12, 2023


Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty—excerpts (arranged by Mikhail Pletnev); Chopin: Rondo in E-flat, Op. 16; Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit. Tetiana Shafran, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 2; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5; Nikolai Medtner: Sonata in E minor, Op. 25, No. 2 (“Night Wind”); Danza Festiva. Kenny Broberg, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Bartók: Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; George Lewis: Endless Shout; Chopin: Four Mazurkas, Op. 41; Wang Lu: Constellations Apart; Janáček: In the Mists. Jacob Greenberg, piano. Furious Artisans. $16.99.

     Let it be stipulated that there is a never-ending supply of wonderful piano music out there, some familiar and worth hearing/interpreting again and again, some unfamiliar and well worth the acquaintance. Let it be further stipulated that there appears to be a never-ending supply of absolutely first-rate pianists waiting to deliver the music to audiences – pianists with fine technique, interpretative skill, insightful approaches, and welcome confidence in projecting their readings for audiences to enjoy and think about. What is interesting is the combinatorial aspect of these stipulations: many new recordings eschew standard pairings or combinations of works, avoid traditional arrangements such as chronological sequences, and invite audiences to journey with performers into their personal views not only of interpretation but also of the way otherwise unrelated pieces can fit together to produce a satisfying recital. The personalization has obvious benefits in giving audiences insight beyond the norm; it also has obvious limitations in requiring audiences to accept and appreciate the juxtapositions of works from different times, different aesthetics, different structures, in the same way the performers do. Without this sameness of interest and orientation, the personalization of performance falls a bit flat.

     Two new and very fine Steinway & Sons recordings show different aspects of a personal approach to piano recitals. Tetiana Shafran offers two extended suites of differing sensibilities, separated by a single work from an earlier time – and all three pieces are ones that listeners will likely find familiar, although not in this specific combination. The Mikhail Pletnev arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is a charmer, created knowingly and often cleverly by a pianist/conductor with a fine sense of the ways in which a piano reduction of an opulent score can (and cannot) hope to reproduce the effects of a fully orchestrated ballet. The contrasts between chordal passages and runs are handled particularly well by Shafran, who tends perhaps to overuse the sustaining pedal from time to time in the piano’s lower range – but who, for that very reason, offers exceptionally effective distinction between the heavily dramatic and lightly lyrical elements of the score. Shafran is actually at her best in the more-delicate portions of the music, with a sure sense of the rhythm and an effective way of maintaining the sense of a ballet while also allowing Pletnev’s strictly pianistic touches to come through to good effect. Next on the CD, as a sort of palate cleanser, is Chopin’s Rondo in E-flat, Op. 16, in which Shafran is particularly good at contrasting the lighter upper-register elements with the more-emphatic ones lower on the keyboard. If there is a criticism here, it is that the performance is a touch episodic – the “building blocks” of the work are quite clear, but some listeners will likely prefer a stronger sense of straight-through flow. And then there is Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, one of the most-often-played showpieces from its time period and one whose opening Ondine is ideally suited to Shafran’s style and sensitivity to nuance. The genuinely spooky elements of Le Gibet are less effective here, although Shafran’s willingness to play sections of this tone painting very quietly does a good deal to increase its atmospheric power. The opening of Scarbo is quite effective as well, with the rests producing a strong sense of anticipation. Shafran negotiates the stop-and-start elements of the score and its constantly flickering quality with understanding and apparent ease, although the totality lacks a certain demonic quality to show that the sprite is something less than innocently mischievous. Still, the pianism here and throughout the CD is first-rate, and for listeners interested in this specific performer and this specific choice of repertoire, the disc has much to recommend it.

     If Shafran casts a fairly wide net for her repertoire picks, Kenny Broberg chooses one that produces a much more tightly knit program. Everything he performs is Russian and from the early 20th century, so this disc has a cohesiveness that enables Broberg all the more effectively to differentiate among the specific pieces and their composers. Broberg plays the second (1931) version of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2, and clearly relishes the dramatic elements of the work, which stride forth with power here and form a very strong contrast with the more-lyrical sections – which, however, sometimes get short shrift by comparison. One key to effective performance of this sonata is appreciation of its unifying elements, with portions of the first and second movements reappearing in the third; and Broberg is clearly aware of this, playing in a way that allows the sonata to sprawl (as it sometimes does) while still communicating its foundational structure. Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 dates to 1907 (the original version of the Rachmaninoff is from the same time period: 1913) and is the composer’s first in a single movement. Its very considerable technical difficulty appears to pose no challenge to Broberg, and its highly compressed form fits Broberg’s interpretative skills even better than does the much-more-expansive Rachmaninoff. The musical complexities are quite evident in this reading, coming across not as virtuosic per se but as necessary to communicate the sonata’s underlying ideas. Nikolai Medtner’s vast “Night Wind” sonata, the second of the 14 he wrote, dates to 1911 and is on an even larger scale than Rachmaninoff’s, which is really saying something. It is a two-movement work whose 18-minute first movement is in 15/8 time – possibly the longest-lasting piece with that time signature ever written. As Rachmaninoff did, Medtner establishes linkages within the sonata that create an underlying unity, but the sensibility of Medtner’s work is quite different: the first movement is in sonata form, with a recurring triplet figure at the opening that becomes a unifying feature of the movement itself and the whole sonata – while the second, 15-minute movement is in effect an improvisation-like fantasia based on the first movement’s introduction. This is not only a difficult work to play but also a difficult one to hear, because it is so big, so complex and so unremittingly forceful. There are flashes of beauty throughout, but the main impression of the music is one of unrelenting drama. Broberg is at his best in the sonata’s headlong sections, seeming impatient in its slower and more-reserved elements to get back to all the intensity. He carries the work forward with admirable attentiveness to its moods throughout, and takes the very unusual label of the second movement to heart: Allegro molto sfrenatamente (“fast and very dissolute”). This is an exceptional sonata that is heard less often than it deserves, likely because of its prodigious technical and emotional difficulty – Broberg’s highly impressive performance makes a very strong case for the best pianists to undertake it more frequently. The CD concludes with another Medtner work as a short encore: Danza festiva, which is No. 3 from the composer’s eight Forgotten Melodies, Op. 38. Dating to 1918-1920, this modestly scaled little work contrasts strongly with everything else on the disc: it is unassuming, pleasantly rhythmic, possessing its share of virtuoso elements – but with a clear intention to entertain above all. In Broberg’s performance, it does that very well indeed.

     In contrast to Broberg’s focus on a single nation and time period, Jacob Greenberg is all over the place both geographically and temporally in a new Furious Artists recording. More than Broberg’s recording or Shafran’s, Greenberg’s requires the audience to resonate to the performer’s very individualistic selection of works – some of which may be familiar but some of which certainly are not: Constellations Apart by Wang Lu is a world première recording. Greenberg seems to have chosen the pieces here because they reflect the cultural elements underlying the work of various composers, but that is a pretty thin connection: listeners will probably do best with this recording by simply absorbing the highly varied sounds of the music on offer and making up their own minds about ways in which the pieces relate to or reflect each other – or don’t. In any case, Greenberg’s performances do full justice to the works. Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, dating to 1920, is a set of eight movements nominally drawing on folk music but in fact expanding it into new realms: the third movement, for example, is polytonal, while the dissonant sixth is bitonal and features one hand playing only the piano’s black keys while the other plays only the white ones. Next on Greenberg’s CD is George Lewis’ Endless Shout (1994/2018), a four-movement jazz-based work whose first and last movements have the catchiest titles (Smashing Clusters and Doin’ the Hicty-Dicty). Some grounding in jazz is necessary to get the full effect of what Lewis is after here, since the piece is in part a tribute to jazz pianists of several types, with the movements varying in style accordingly. However, even without familiarity with those specific pianists, listeners will enjoy Greenberg’s handling of the quicksilver mood changes of the movements and their differing styles. The piece does follow the Bartók somewhat uneasily, though – and having it followed in turn by Chopin’s Four Mazurkas, Op. 41, is genuinely jarring. If the cultural underpinnings of the Bartók pieces are Hungarian and those of the Lewis work essentially African American, then those of Chopin are distinctly Polish – but it is not the “Polishness” of these dances that attracts pianists or audiences to them, and indeed the cultural provenance of the material is merely a jumping-off point for works that, despite being well-known and frequently played, still offer performers and listeners alike new and frequently surprising things to hear. Chopin’s music, which dates to 1840, is followed by the Wang Lu work, an extended single-movement piece written as recently as 2021 and dedicated to Greenberg. The Chinese cultural underpinnings of Constellations Apart are not easy to discern from the music itself, and they do not really seem to be Lu’s point in any meaningful way. Although inspired by the technique used for the qin, which is played by pressing a string with a finger of the left hand while plucking with the right, Lu’s music does not and really cannot duplicate that effect on the piano. Instead, what we get here is a contemporary attempt to treat the piano as both a stringed instrument and a member of the percussion family – an intriguing concept, actually, although the work makes its points fairly early and then continues somewhat longer than the material can justify. Greenberg concludes this highly individualistic CD with Janáček’s In the Mists, a four-part cycle from 1912 that is filled with frequent rhythmic changes and that justifies its title by being written entirely in keys with five or six flats and hence a “misty” sound. Impressionistic and atmospheric throughout its 14 minutes, the cycle certainly reflects Czech culture – Janáček generally based his music on the sound and accentuation of the Czech language. And Greenberg certainly plays the music with feeling and careful attention to its harmonic language and rhythmic structure. But the “cultural underpinnings” element of this CD nevertheless feels like a stretch in terms of giving listeners a reason to hear these particular pieces in this particular sequence. Like the Shafran and Broberg discs, Greenberg’s is most likely to appeal to people who, for reasons of their own and because of their own taste, find their own musical interests and feelings to be in accord with the ones that led these artists to select these specific works for presentation in these specific sequences.

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