February 01, 2024


Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1; Fantasy on Polish Airs; Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise brillante. Abbey Simon, piano; Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heribert Beissel. Vox. $16.99.

Yu-Hui Chang: In Thin Air; Germinate; Mind Like Water; Alter Ego. Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble; Composers Conference Ensemble; Lydian String Quartet; Rhonda Rider, cello. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The notion of playing one instrument against another, or against several others, or of producing contrasting themes, harmonies, rhythms and tempos to be juxtaposed with the aim of working out their similarities and differences, is an essential building block of a great deal of music – and, as a result, is handled very differently by various composers in different time periods. This posed an interesting issue for Chopin, whose only real interest was the piano but who lived at a time when works setting the piano against the orchestra were highly popular and expected by audiences. Chopin duly tried his hand at the piano-and-orchestra approach, but produced only six works in that form before devoting himself 100% to piano-only composition. All of Chopin’s piano-and-orchestra works have become repertoire standards, and it is easy to understand why in light of their tunefulness, elegance, and the ways in which Chopin keeps the piano dominant while still allowing it to merge and contrast with other instruments. An excellent digital remastering of a release from the Vox catalog of the 1970s includes three of these Chopin delights in poised, elegant performances by Abbey Simon (1920-2019) with the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra under Heribert Beissel (1933-2021). Although both Simon and Beissel lived until quite recently, their handling of Chopin is in an older, refined and sophisticated style that fits the music exceptionally well while allowing plenty of opportunities for pianistic grace as well as fireworks when appropriate. Simon approaches the first-published of Chopin’s two piano concertos (actually written in 1830, shortly after No. 2 of 1829) with dash and √©lan, giving the first movement – which is as long as the other two put together – considerable scale, warmth and beauty. The central Romanza functions here as a comparatively extended interlude, flowing well and with touches that are more dainty than profound. It is perhaps more pretty than beautiful, but it certainly glows with sincerity. And the finale is all bounce and enthusiasm, with Simon and Beissel neatly showcasing the ways in which Chopin keeps the piano front-and-center even when the orchestra is at its most dynamic. The sound of this 1972 recording is warm and well-balanced and fits the very Romantic approach to the material well. And the two additional works on the CD complement the concerto quite nicely. Fantasy on Polish Airs (1828), which incorporates three folk songs between an extended introduction and brilliant coda, is bright and quick in this reading – a very effective display piece. And Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise brillante (1835) is equally captivating, the gentle rippling of its earlier portion (“spianato” means “level,” “even,” or “smooth”) contrasting very effectively with the bright and outgoing dance material. It is arguable whether this version of the work or the one for solo piano that Chopin published at the same time is more engaging – but the fact that there is a solo piano version of a piece that fits so well in piano-and-orchestra guise certainly underlines Chopin’s compositional preferences.

     The chamber works by Taiwanese composer Yu-Hui Chang (born 1970) on a New Focus Recordings CD use dialogue of a very different sort, in a musical idiom quite far removed from Chopin’s – showing how contemporary composers continue to have an interest in forms of contrast, within modern compositional styles. In Thin Air, for violin, piano and percussion, is mostly a percussion work – using the piano in its percussive guise rather than in Chopin’s lyrical and expressive one (which Chopin actually produced in his determination not to have the piano sound percussive). Still, there are emotive elements in the second and longest of the three movements of In Thin Air, contrasting expressiveness in the violin with more-pointed percussive material; while the finale produces a kind of sound cloud anchored by piano chords that are contrasted with the more-evanescent material from the other instruments. Germinate is a single movement for winds, strings, piano and percussion, in which the main contrasts are between very small snippets of tunes and fractured sounds at the work’s start and lengthier treatment of aural material as the piece progresses. Mind Like Water, another single-movement work, is for string quartet and, instead of distinctions among instruments, revolves largely around contrasts between sound of any type and silence: the instruments emerge briefly, subside quickly, return in differing guise, and so forth. The three-movement Alter Ego, being for solo cello, has no choice but to eschew instrumental disparity as a tool, so here the intended duality involves the performer and the instrument – as indicated in the movement titles, “Affectionate,” “Expressive, Yet Somewhat Distant,” and “Methodical.” The first of these is largely a series of fragments; the second is comparatively lyrical, but within a modern tonal landscape that remains mostly remote from warmth of feeling; and the third is strongly accented and underlined by ostinato passages. This is a (+++) CD that will appeal mostly to listeners who enjoy hearing some up-to-date ways in which contemporary composers continue to explore the notion of musical contrast within soundscapes that differ substantially from those that earlier creators explored.

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