March 14, 2024


Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 5—Nos. 7, 9 and 10; Volume 6—Nos.14 and 15. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $29.98 (2 CDs).

Ravel: Complete Works for Solo Piano, Volume 1—Miroirs; Jeux d’eau; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Sonatine; Pavane pour une infante défunte. Vincent Larderet, piano. AVIE. $19.99.

George Crumb: Complete Music, Volume 21—Processional; Kronos-Kryptos; Sonata for Solo Violoncello. Gilbert Kalish and Marcantonio Barone, piano; Curtis Institute of Music Ensemble 20/21; Timothy Eddy, cello. Bridge Records. $16.99.

     Orli Shaham’s Mozart sonata cycle concludes with the same consistency it has shown throughout: lithe and limpid playing with a mild Romantic veneer, with the sonatas presented in no discernible order – and with a dollop of numbering confusion, carried over from an earlier volume, that thankfully does not affect enjoyment of the performances. The numbering issue lies in identifying the D major sonata, K. 311, as “No. 8” in the latest Shaham release, although it is most often referred to as No. 9 – while K. 310 in A minor, most often designated No. 8, was performed in Shaham’s Volume 2, where it was identified as No. 9. It happens to be true that K. 311 was written some months before K. 310, and some other pianists use Shaham's designations, including Malcolm Bilson and Anthony Newman, whose renditions on fortepiano show more concern for historical accuracy than does Shaham's on a modern concert grand. And it is certainly true that the numbering peculiarity has no impact whatsoever on the quality of Shaham’s performances. But it does provide additional evidence, if any is needed, that in producing a complete cycle of these sonatas, it would be helpful to have some rationale for the sequencing on the CDs. In any case, Shaham’s performance of K. 311 is one of her more Romantic-leaning ones, with the central Andante con espressione having considerable warmth and with her pedal use in the concluding Rondeau giving the movement some extra weight. K. 311 is offered between two C major works. The first of these, No. 7, K. 309, gets one of Shaham’s best readings: fleet and delicate, with a piano sound that is close to that of the fortepianos of Mozart’s time – Shaham makes no attempt to provide historically informed performances, but this sonata has some of that feeling, even in a central Andante un poco adagio that proffers courtly elegance rather than deep emotion. The CD designated as Volume 5 concludes with the popular Sonata No. 10, K. 330, which is better heard as part of the three-work cycle in which it appears (K. 330-332) but which sounds fine anytime. Shaham’s interpretation is expansive, thanks to her careful tempo choices and her observance of repeats. This sonata’s three movements are quite close in tempo indication: Allegro moderato, Andante cantabile, Allegretto. Shaham keeps them distinctive by making the slow movement a bit overly slow and, more significantly, by making the finale quite speedy – an approach that works in its own right even if it somewhat changes the balance among the movements. The last CD in Shaham’s cycle, designated Volume 6, contains just two sonatas. Sonata No. 14, K. 457, gets a broadly conceived performance consistent with its large scale and the unusually emotive thematic material befitting its home key of C minor. Shaham’s sensitivity to the mood of the first movement is welcome; the contrasting gentleness she brings to the Adagio is well-considered; and the unusually intense finale comes across particularly well, from its quiet opening to the chords that interrupt its headlong drama. This performance and that of K. 309 are two of the best in Shaham’s entire cycle. The last sonata offered in Volume 6 is No. 15, K. 533, an F major work that can sound somewhat standoffish, although perhaps Olympian is a better and more-positive adjective. Shaham spins it out at very considerable length – the performance lasts a full half-hour, more because of the welcome attention to repeats than because of the tempos, which are judiciously chosen and not unusually slow. This is a sonata that is more pretty than profound, being very well-made but a trifle on the cool side. Shaham’s tendency to bring small Romantic touches to Mozart is actually absent here, with the result that her performance is stately and elegant without being particularly moving. Throughout her Mozart cycle, Shaham has shown herself to be a thoughtful interpreter with a close personal relationship with the music – making her set of the Mozart sonatas one to which listeners will find themselves returning with pleasure again and again.

     It is too early to know for sure whether Vincent Larderet’s planned four-disc cycle of Ravel’s complete solo piano music will be a must-have, but certainly the first of these AVIE discs points in a very positive direction. All the music on the CD will be quite familiar to Ravel aficionados – but not necessarily in the form in which it is heard here. In particular, Larderet offers the original solo-piano versions of Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) and Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899). There is an angularity and insistence, rather than the typical underlying delicacy, to Larderet’s handling of the opening of Valses nobles et sentimentales, which gives his altogether gentler approach to Assez lent and Modéré a greater-than-usual contrast. The dissonances of Presque lent come through quite clearly here, and the overall impression of the entire work is of a not-altogether-fond set of reminiscences of a bygone age, with the Épilogue having something of a funereal cast about it. Pavane pour une infante défunte, on the other hand, is pervaded by gentleness and a berceuse-like sense of relaxation. The other works on this CD receive equally personalized and equally convincing readings. Miroirs (1904-05) is the longest, its five movements lasting more than half an hour. The very carefully considered pauses at the start of Oiseaux tristes show just how sensitive Larderet is to the nuances of Ravel’s style, while the rhythmic vitality of Alborada del gracioso is particularly notable. Larderet plays Jeux d’eau (1901) with exceptional grace and fluidity, and the Sonatine (1903-05) comes across with easy elegance and a pervasive touch of foundational sweetness that conveys a strong sense of Impressionism even without any specific scene-painting. Throughout this release, Larderet demonstrates impeccable pianistic technique combined with an unusual level of sensitivity to Ravel’s tonal colors and his free and variable treatment of rhythm and harmony. If the remaining recordings in this planned cycle are performed as tastefully and with as much style and understanding as this one, Larderet will have established himself as an absolutely top-of-the-line interpreter of Ravel’s works for solo piano.

     The six-volume and projected four-volume sets by Shaham and Larderet certainly represent respectable-size versions of complete cycles of their respective works. But they do not hold a candle, in terms of completeness, to some sets of CDs that aim to encompass a truly enormous amount of music. The ongoing Vivaldi Project on Naïve, at 69 releases and counting (and counting and counting!), is the champion for sheer enormity and ambition – but it has been in process only since 2000, and in terms of sheer longevity, it does not measure up to Bridge Records’ truly amazing commitment to recording and releasing the complete music of George Crumb (1929-2022), which has been an ongoing project since 1982. The final volume in this amazingly extended series, No. 21, is now available, and while nothing on it will likely bring a new audience to Crumb’s oeuvre, the works on this (+++) CD can serve as an excellent introduction to elements of Crumb’s style for those who do want to explore it – and a confirmation of his importance for those who are already aficionados. What is interesting is that Volume 21 includes Crumb’s second acknowledged composition and his second-to-last: Sonata for Solo Violoncello (1955) and Kronos-Kryptos (2019-2020), respectively. Crumb’s mother was a cellist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, so his three-movement solo cello work must have had personal resonance for him, but what is most evident in it is the extent of Webern’s influence and some early instances of Crumb’s preoccupation with unusual ways of playing standard instruments – most evidently here in the concluding Toccata, which Timothy Eddy performs particularly enthusiastically. As for Kronos-Kryptos, whose title means “Time-Secret,” it is subtitled “Four Tableaux for Percussion Quintet” and is done to a turn by the Curtis Institute of Music Ensemble 20/21 (Yoonseo Kang, Tae McLoughlin, Hamza Able, Griffin Harrison, and guest artist Andrew Malonis – the work is intended for four players but played here by five). This piece is an In Memoriam for Crumb’s daughter, Ann, who had recorded some of his music and who died at Crumb’s home in 2019. The four movements’ titles are typical of contemporary works (not just Crumb’s) and relate at best marginally to the music: Easter Dawning, A Ghostly Barcarolle, Drummers of the Apocalypse, and Appalachian Echoes (Look Homeward, Angel). The personal connection here is certainly clearer and deeper than any in the solo-cello sonata. The music itself, though, evinces no notable personal elements and does not sound especially different from other Crumb works in its focus on timbre and instrumental color, and on the creation of a sound world to envelop the audience. The third and shortest movement, with its vocal interjections amid a cascade of pounded intensity, is the most effective; the fourth, which is surely meant to be the most heartfelt, comes across mostly as a kind of lukewarm “cosmos music” in the Ligeti mode, almost as if Crumb is deliberately holding back some of his strongly felt emotions. In addition to the early and late works on this CD, there are two separate versions of a piece from the middle of Crumb’s compositional career: Processional for solo piano, which dates to 1983. The disc opens with this work in its keyboard version, played stylishly and sensitively by Gilbert Kalish; the CD ends with Marcantonio Barone’s performance of an extended-piano version that includes inside-the-piano touches that add nothing to the music except the sense that it is trying to be more avant-garde than it actually is. Crumb was an intelligent and well-respected composer who is certainly honored by the posthumous completion of the monumental effort to make all his works available on CD. Nevertheless, his music remains highly variable in effect and effectiveness. It is an acquired taste that listeners not already committed to it are unlikely to wish to acquire based on the final disc in this impressive four-decade recording project.

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