December 07, 2023


Chopin: Ballades Nos. 1-4; Nocturnes—No. 2, Op. 9, No. 2; No. 4, Op. 15, No. 1; No. 9, Op. 32, No. 1; No. 15, Op. 55, No. 1; No. 17, Op. 62, No. 1. Jonathan Phillips, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Brahms: Theme with Variations in D minor, Op. 18b; Variations on a Theme by Paganini—Books I and II; Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma; Ravel: La Valse; D. Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor, K. 217. Gabriele Micheli, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Fred Lerdahl: Inner Life—A Cycle for Two Pianos. Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace, duo pianists). Bridge Records. $16.99.

     There are so many recent recordings devoted to unknown, little-known, should-be-better-known and who-knew? composers that it is a genuine pleasure, once in a while, to encounter familiar repertoire that is exceptionally well-performed and makes no apologies for its popularity. This is perhaps particularly true for piano music, so much of which has emerged from obscurity in recent years or has been written in our own time. Jonathan Philipps’ Chopin ballade cycle for Divine Art is a fine example of highly skilled, nuanced playing of music that is extremely well-known but still leaves plenty of room for personalization of response and interpretation. Phillips brings out the majesty and dynamism of Ballade No. 1 to fine effect, and pays particularly close attention to the work’s varying time signatures – it is the only one of the four ballades with a level of structural variability, the three others all being written in 6/8 time. The quiet opening of Ballade No. 2 is highly effective here, and it contrasts suitably sharply with the subsequent Presto con fuoco material. In Ballade No. 3, which is more tight-knit than the others, Phillips again excels with contrasts, here between the extended opening dolce material and the later chordal passage that in turn gives way to both right-hand and left-hand runs. Everything flows easily and naturally while upholding the underlying organizational elements, but without drawing overmuch attention to them. The quiet opening of Ballade No. 4 is noteworthy in Phillips’ reading, and the work’s contrapuntal nature comes through clearly while in no way diminishing its emotional expressiveness. And then, having taken the measure of these works, Phillips complements them with five selected Nocturnes, whose comparative structural simplicity and emotive directness stand them in good stead as comparable to, but very different from, the longer pieces. No. 2 flows gently, its familiar lines unfurling with care and consistency; it is followed by No. 9, which has a bit of a stop-and-start quality that comes across as an emotional balancing act; next is No. 4, nostalgic and sweet; then No. 15, the only minor-key nocturne chosen by Phillips and a work whose pervasive melancholy here seems tinged with world-weariness; and finally No. 17, longest of the five heard here, which spins itself into a kind of cradle song of gentility and warmth. Phillips’ impeccable musicality is everywhere apparent throughout the recording, and his love for Chopin comes through clearly as he manages all this music almost caressingly, allowing the feelings it evokes to flow freely from the piano to the listener.

     Another very fine Divine Art recording offers more-varied and somewhat less-familiar fare, but by and large still in the Romantic tradition. Gabriele Micheli’s primary focus here is Brahms, but before that, the CD offers the only non-Romantic piece on the disc: a Domenico Scarlatti sonata that does not quite fit on the modern piano (or any piano), and that is played with greater warmth and a bit more of the sustaining pedal then is really appropriate for music of the early 18th century. The inclusion of this work as a curtain raiser is something of a mystery, since Micheli is clearly more at home in interpreting the rest of the pieces on the disc. The Scarlatti is followed by another slightly odd choice that, however, fits Micheli’s style better: Brahms’ piano arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet No. 1, transcribed for piano by the composer as a birthday gift for Clara Schumann, who had asked him to do so. The movement is a noble one, mixing elements of proclamation with the sound of a solemn march, all within variation form. It is a touch on the heavy side in Micheli’s performance, which is a bit slow and which seeks the emphatic more than the emotionally expressive. The playing is first-rate, however, which makes the overall reading a convincing one. What follows on the CD comes across even better. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books I and II, based on the famed Caprice No. 24, manage to straddle the worlds of theme-and-variations on the one hand, and étude on the other – Brahms actually called this work Studies for Pianoforte. Each of the two books starts with the caprice itself and then presents 14 variations, the last of which is the most virtuosic in both sequences. Micheli really goes to town with this material, attacking the keyboard with abandon that is nevertheless carefully controlled – and handling the considerable technical challenges of the variations with tremendous skill and a certain panache, especially in the second book. Pianistically impressive, the performance is not particularly deep, but unlike much other Brahms piano music, Variations on a Theme by Paganini is primarily a display piece, not a profound one. Micheli clearly enjoys a certain level of showing off, as is apparent in his handling of Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma, which takes the dramatic core of Bellini’s opera and turns it into a piece of great power and concentrated drama. Not incidentally, Liszt also makes the work a grand showpiece for the pianist; and again, Micheli relishes the challenge and rises to it in a performance of considerable sweep and intensity. After the Liszt, this CD concludes with Ravel’s La Valse, originally an orchestral work but transcribed by the composer for two pianos and subsequently for a single one. There is a subtle, bittersweet character to the music, whose implied irony – or lack thereof – continues to be a source of debate. Micheli plumbs the depths of the piece, quite literally in the growling way he handles the opening, and while he allows some of the “gradual illumination” of dancers that Ravel said the work includes, the general feeling here is a dark one – the eerie material in the work’s second half sounds especially disconcerting in this performance. The impressionistic nature of the music is less apparent in Ravel’s piano versions than in the orchestral one – the odd playfulness of flute, glockenspiel and triangle at one point, for example, falls a bit flat on keyboard. But the lighter elements of La Valse are not Micheli’s focus in any case: he highlights the restless and grandiose elements rather than the tender and sweet ones. The result is a rather dour La Valse – a justifiable interpretation, certainly, and a very well-played one, but perhaps not quite as sensitive to the many internal contrasts that Ravel built into the work as other readings have been. As a whole, this is a (+++) disc, characterized throughout by excellence of playing but also by somewhat quirky, if not quite ill-considered, handling of several of the pieces.

     The quirkiness is of an entirely different kind on a (+++) CD featuring a single extended work for two pianos by Fred Lerdahl (born 1943). This is Inner Life, which was composed from 2020 to 2022 and written for and dedicated to the duo Quattro Mani, which plays the cycle here. The three-movement piece is actually carefully and rather intricately constructed, the vast majority of its musical argument occurring in its first two sections (which take up 42 of the total 47 minutes). But what listeners actually get here is more a series of individual sections of varying length, not obviously connected to each other either emotionally or musically, played with considerable aplomb by Steven Beck and Susan Grace – but not in any way repaying the length of time needed to experience the totality of the material. Embedded Loops, the first movement, mostly has the two pianos playing different material that connects only sporadically and not especially convincingly. The whole “different pieces combined into one” approach is fairly standard in contemporary classical music, but in this case the actual material proclaimed by one piano or the other is insufficiently engaging to encourage the audience to wait to find out what happens to the music either separately or with the two instruments together. The second movement, which gives its title to the entire work, is one of those pieces that makes far more sense if listeners know where it comes from – which is not obvious from the music itself. Lerdahl used internal monologues from James Joyce’s Ulysses – a notably abstruse and difficult work – as the basis for this movement, and ended up creating some music that is indeed suitably abstruse, if not really difficult to hear. It does, however, go on for a very long time, almost 23 minutes, and does not flow so much as it stops, starts, re-stops, re-starts, combines, pulls apart, and so forth – a technique actually rather effectively reflective of Joyce, but not one that repays attentiveness for those unfamiliar with the complexities of its inspiration. The final movement, Solitude, is the most-effective of the three, partly because it communicates with clarity, partly because it has a single mood of thoughtfulness tinged with melancholy, and partly because it lasts just five minutes – enough to establish and explore feelings but not spun out to such an extent that it belabors them. The CD will certainly intrigue listeners already familiar with Lerdahl’s music, much of which is available from Bridge Records – this is the label’s seventh volume of Lerdahl’s works. But although the disc is short by clock time, it seems dragged-out because of the nature of the material and Lerdahl’s determination to explore most of the elements of Inner Life at somewhat too-considerable length.

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