June 20, 2024

(++++) LIVE AND LARGE-SCALE

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Sir Colin Davis. BR Klassik. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Nathalie Stutzmann, alto; Tölzer Knabenchor, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $23.99 (2 CDs).

Elgar: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. The Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $32.99 (2 CDs).

     There is something exhilarating about live performances that makes them often more involving (and often more impressive) than studio recordings – even though occasional missteps in the concert hall do occur. However, when absolutely top-notch orchestras are being led by their music directors rather than guest conductors, even the biggest and most-complex works can really shine when performed for a live audience. And recordings that capture those readings can accordingly become some of the best ones available for the repertoire. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is one of the world’s best ensembles, and its live performances with two of its music directors showcase not only the music itself but also the intensity-cum-smoothness of collaboration between the players and the podium. Sir Colin Davis was the orchestra’s chief conductor from 1983 to 1992, and while he recorded Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique with other orchestras, the 1987 Berlin performance now available on BR Klassik is exceptional – even with a caveat or two. There is warmth and beauty throughout the first movement, the strings exceptional in massed sound and the trumpet touches very well-handled: they are just pointed enough for an appropriate level of emphasis. The pacing is excellent, too – in contrast with the second movement, where things go a bit awry. Here Davis starts the dance at quite a slow pace, robbing it of any sense of celebratory verve and bringing in a touch of gloom to the overall proceedings a bit too soon. Later in the movement, he speeds things up significantly to provide contrast, but there is perhaps too much of that. However, in the third movement, matters are on a more even keel. Here Davis extracts just the right pastoral touches, with especially fine woodwinds. The pacing is good, so this longest of the symphony’s five movements does not become disjointed, as it does in some performances. The rolling thunder of timpani toward the end is perfectly paced, the volume expertly modulated, with the result that the natural and sylvan are transformed into something just slightly sinister – a state of affairs on which the fourth movement quickly expands. The first part of this Marche au supplice is paced as a cortège, but with exclamatory brass intrusions that look ahead to the finale. The bassoon touches are particularly well-done, and when the recollection of the idée fixe of the beloved appears, the sound looks ahead to what happens when Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel meets his fate. And as the finale of Symphonie Fantastique proceeds, the dissonances are very pronounced, and Davis manages to make the off-kilter dance tune sound genuinely spooky. The reverberation of the bells is stronger than in most performances, and this proves highly effective, especially when the brass enters. All the movement’s special effects are well done: the glissandi, the pizzicati, the snarls from the brass, the sudden drops to near-silence, the pounding of the timpani. The result is a rousing and deeply affecting conclusion to a symphony that still looms large in the repertoire, retaining its considerable power nearly two centuries after Berlioz composed it – especially when orchestra and conductor are so closely attuned to each other as they are here.

     The same superb orchestra successfully tackles a considerably larger symphonic opus with equal or even greater success on a new BR Klassik release of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 led by Mariss Jansons, who was chief conductor from 2003 to 2019. It is almost impossible to overstate the grandeur of this symphony, which is operatic in length (this performance runs 97 minutes) and covers every possible emotional state that Mahler could imagine and incorporate – this is the work that most thoroughly fulfills his stated objective of having a symphony contain the whole world. In fact, the uplift of the work’s finale lifts Mahler’s Third beyond the world, into heavenly realms – and it is the last movement toward which all the others strive, as is clear both in retrospect and while experiencing the massive symphony in the concert hall. Jansons took the audience on an amazingly moving philosophical and emotional journey in this 2010 performance. The horns are very impressive at the start of the first movement – no surprise with this orchestra – and there is remarkable precision within each section. The march emerges gradually and to very striking effect, but it is the chamber-music-like elements that are truly outstanding in sound, balance and blending. The gradual addition of instruments as the music swells to full-orchestra passages is beautifully handled. By the time the horns return with the opening statement, about two-thirds of the way through this huge movement, there is already a feeling of building to a climax – but then the music retraces its steps while adding new elements, before building to the actual climactic material. Jansons assembles the material with confidence throughout, controlling the monumental movement's many elements sure-handedly.

     Conductors can be so overwhelmed by the sheer scale and scope of Mahler’s Third that they neglect the extent to which the symphony requires moderate pacing after the first movement. Under Jansons, however, the gentle quiet of the second movement and its initial leisurely pace (nicht eilen: do not rush) create a very strong contrast with the first movement; sweetness dominates here. The solo violin provides clear points of emphasis, and there is great delicacy in the scoring – a greater sense of meandering than in the first movement, which is three times the length of the second. Mahler marks the third movement comodo, “comfortable,” and again the pacing must be as careful as Jansons makes it – the composer also says to play the music ohne hast. But there is a perkiness to the themes here and a brightness to the orchestration (through the use of winds and brass) of which Jansons takes full advantage. There is a kind of glossiness in the scoring – and the legato solo trumpet halfway through is especially impressive. The whole movement seems to drift until the very end, when it suddenly achieves full-orchestra coherence and emphasis. The fourth movement continues the carefully controlled speed with which this expansive work unfolds: Mahler marks it sehr langsam, “very slowly,” and durchaus (“absolutely”) ppp. The extreme quiet of the opening is highly effective, with Nathalie Stutzmann’s vocal entry gentle but still surprising and emotionally strong. And again here the solo violin is aptly highlighted for its importance, notably at the words tief ist ihr weh (“deep is her woe”). The fifth, very short movement offers the only immediate launch of brightness in the symphony. But here the words counteract the tone, as in the lament that translates, "I have broken the 10 commandments." And the music, here with strings emphasized, constantly strives toward a happiness that proves elusive. It is left to the non-vocal finale – a real surprise after two movements using voices – to consummate the symphony. Jansons fully understands what Mahler asks for here: Langsam. Ruhevoll. That is, “Slow. Calm.” The sense of warmth and soul-pervading peace comes through clearly in this reading. The music does not so much progress as unfold, building on the final word of the fifth movement: Seligkeit (“salvation” and also “bliss”). This finale seems to meander but actually builds gradually, the music flowing in waves and the waves getting larger as the movement progresses. Recollections of the first movement emerge two-thirds of the way through in a totally different context and with a totally different meaning, but the connection is both clear and germane. The last few minutes reinterpret the first movement in a wholly new manner, turning it as it were inside-out to show that Nature and Love are in fact two aspects of the same thing. The swelling to full-orchestral splendor of the last few minutes is all the more overwhelming because the instrumental totality has been heard so rarely in the previous hour and a half. D major has never been so resplendent, and Jansons allows the movement its full scope and completely involving expressiveness. The result is a deeply meaningful performance on every level.

     Sir Mark Elder’s quarter-century tenure with The Hallé, 1999-2024, is about the length of Davis’ and Jansons’ in Berlin combined. And Elgar was a major symphonic figure for Elder’s orchestra throughout – and, indeed, for many years prior. Elgar’s two symphonies were both written while Mahler was alive (completed in 1908 and early 1911; Mahler died in May) and are both large-scale but scarcely as expansive as Mahler’s, each running about an hour. Elgar’s tonal language also differs significantly from Mahler’s, although late-Romantic elements are apparent in both composers’ symphonies. A new recording on The Hallé’s own label showcases the expansiveness of both Elgar symphonies and the skill with which Elder was able to present them to concert-hall audiences. Elder grasps the similarities and differences between the two woks clearly, understanding the importance to Elgar of the designation nobilmente, which appears in the first movement of each symphony. Those first movements are the longest in each case, but the slow movements (placed third in Symphony No. 1 and second in Symphony No. 2) are also quite weighty. Elgar said his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat reflected “a wide experience of human life,” and if the totality is not quite as wide as in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, it is nevertheless impressive in scope. Elgar, who was and is known for his marches, includes marchlike elements and episodes several times in this symphony, but his focus is more on the march’s rhythm than on its martial elements, as becomes clear at the work’s very end, when the march rhythm is used to enhance a recurring motto that has appeared in various guises throughout. Symphony No. 2 also shares some underlying elements with Mahler’s Third, with Elgar saying that his work deals with “the passionate pilgrimage of a soul” – although, again, without the extraordinary length and intensity of the fourth through sixth movements of Mahler’s symphony. Elgar’s Second is distinguished by a Larghetto slow movement that movingly recounts the composer’s grief at the death of a friend and, at least by reflection (and by audience assumption), sadness at the passing in 1910 of King Edward VII. A march is prominent in this movement, unsurprisingly, but what is surprising is a finale marked Moderato e maestoso and attempting, to some extent like Mahler’s conclusion of his Symphony No. 3, to raise the musical experience to a higher level. This is done in Elgar’s own way, however, including the recurrence of the word nobilmente as the marking of the secondary main theme of the movement – and with a subdued and thoughtful ending that is as different as possible from the brilliant D major with which Mahler’s concluding movement eventually resounds. Elgar’s Second is in E-flat, the key of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” but here the heroic recedes before the pensive and thought-provoking – characteristics that Elder brings forth with great clarity and to very fine effect in a performance that, like that of Elgar’s First, showcases this conductor’s and this orchestra’s expertise with this composer’s music, presenting it to concert-hall audiences with great subtlety and complete understanding.

(+++) CHOICES

Poulenc: Figure Humaine; Songs of the American Civil War. Skylark Vocal Ensemble. Sono Luminus. $15.99.

Liszt: Piano Music. Sandrine Erdely-Sayo, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Paul Pinto: String Quartet No. 4; Marina Kifferstein: String Quartet No. 2; Lewis Nielson: Pastorale para los pobres de la tierra. The Rhythm Method (Leah Asher and Marina Kifferstein, violins; Meaghan Burke, viola; Carrie Frey, cello); Alice Teyssier, flute & voice. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The decision of what music to include on any recording is only part of what is involved in choosing to make a CD. How to present the music is also crucial to whatever the performers are trying to communicate. Matthew Guard, artistic director and conductor of the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, clearly wrestled with this issue when making decisions about a new Sono Luminus disc. The main work here is Poulenc’s 1943 Figure Humaine, which explores war from the perspective of the year of its composition and ends with an impassioned plea for liberté. It is a major a cappella work of its time, but it is a work of its time, for all its considerations of the generalized horrors and depredations of war. And it is in French, setting words by poet Paul Éluard. So to try to make the Poulenc piece more accessible to a 21st-century audience, Guard elected to have the ensemble intersperse its eight movements with eight songs, in English, relating to the American Civil War. The intent is clearly to search for the universality of antiwar messaging, to bridge the language barrier between French and English for those not fluent in both, and to demonstrate the power of massed voices to communicate individualized and strongly felt emotions. The intention is good; the execution, not entirely successful. This is not a problem with the Skylark Vocal Ensemble itself: the group sings with feeling, enunciates the words clearly (although the Éluard texts seem to give the singers a bit of trouble here and there), and sounds thoroughly dedicated to this project and its foundational message. What somewhat undermines the effectiveness of the presentation, however, is that the Poulenc work – which has considerable power as it builds to its final call for liberty – is here broken up into eight sections and then intermingled with the American folk songs, which communicate in a very different way and are in fact part of a different musical idiom. The power of Poulenc is vitiated by the constant dipping into different sensibilities and a different language, and the adjacency of the Poulenc movements in no way elevates the comparatively prosaic expressions of the American songs. Placing Johnny has gone for a soldier between two movements of Figure Humaine may make a kind of sense, but having Abide with me show up within Poulenc is somewhat bizarre, and making the disc’s penultimate track The Battle Hymn of the Republic (followed by the conclusion of Poulenc’s cantata) is just plain odd. Again, none of this takes away from the quality of the performances (although, in truth, the conclusion of The Battle Hymn of the Republic is somewhat overdone here). But the alternation of Poulenc’s complex and highly sensitive music with the much more matter-of-fact English-language material ends up making this well-sung disc a good deal less effective than it would have been if the Poulenc had been presented from start to finish – followed by all the Civil War songs in a sequence calculated to reflect their varied concerns.

     The decisions made by pianists performing the music of Franz Liszt are of another kind: there is so much Liszt piano music, with so many approaches to so many topics on so many levels, that no pianist attempts a Liszt recital without having some overarching form of communication in mind. It is not, however, always clear to listeners just what the “framing tale” of a given recital is intended to be – yet it often does not matter if the individual works are performed with skill and commitment. That is certainly the case with the 12 pieces included on a new Navona disc featuring pianist Sandrine Erdely-Sayo. The works heard here are all over the aural map in terms of their length, intent and effect. The centerpiece of the recording is a thoughtful, elegantly played version of the six Consolations. The delicacy of the first and second – similar in mood but very different in sound – is brought forth with considerable care. The slow third and fourth are thoughtful and on the autumnal side, expressive without pathos. The pleasantries of the fifth and berceuse-like rocking motion of the sixth come through to fine effect. Yet it is worth noting that the Consolations are literally the centerpiece of this CD, being preceded and followed by material of very different provenance within Liszt’s oeuvre. The disc open with Romance in E minor, S. 169, which suggests that a pervasive sense of quiet sadness is likely to dominate the recording. But then comes the longest work on the CD by far – as long as all the Consolations put together. It is Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and it changes the prior crepuscular mood to one of thoughtfulness, uplift and spirituality. Erdely-Sayo gives it an expansive performance, allowing its silences and long-held notes to become an integral part of its communicative style. And she follows it with Saint François de Paule marchant sur les flots, another extended religion-focused piece (although only half the length of the Bénédiction) – and here the use of the left hand to represent the waves on which the saint walks is especially well-done and evocative. It is after all this material that Erdely-Sayo plays the Consolations, thus giving those six pieces a spiritual gloss that is certainly justifiable but not entirely necessary to experience and enjoy them – the context here is completely the pianist’s choice. And after the Consolations end, there are three more works to come, all thoughtful and nocturnal in their own ways but not really partaking of overt spirituality. Liebesträume No. 3 is an understandably famous work for its thematic beauty and the simplicity of its evocation of the dreamlike – although the pianism it calls for is scarcely on the simple side. The nocturne En Rêve – whose title in effect duplicates that of Liebesträume – is quieter and more peaceful, drifting always toward the keyboard’s upper reaches until it evaporates into beauty. And then, at the end of the disc, there is Liszt’s arrangement of the Ständchen (Serenade) from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, in which Erdely-Sayo dwells on the communicative straightforwardness of the themes and the sense of pathos that underlies all the loveliness of the music. In its totality, this very well-played recital conveys a level of sadness and emotional quietude stopping short of despair but seeming to seek comfort in a myriad of ways – without ever entirely settling into it. The disc will appeal to listeners willing to experience an extended period of wistfulness and near-weepiness: an hour-plus of inward exploration courtesy in part of Liszt but to an equal extent of a pianist making careful selections of the composer’s work in furtherance of her desire to emphasize specific elements of Liszt’s vast production of keyboard music.

     The main choice to be made by the members of the string quartet called The Rhythm Method for a New Focus Recordings CD likely involved the disc’s sequence. The three works offered here were all written for the ensemble, and one was composed by a member of the quartet. So everything is contemporary in sound, everything is recently created, and everything is intended to be played by the performers for whom the music was written. Furthermore, everything uses such now-standard sound-and instrument-extension techniques as microtonality, vocalization, and performance approaches outside the long-established norms for strings. This means that the CD is self-limited by choice: it is for audiences already familiar and comfortable with the approach of these composers and these performers, and already well-attuned (so to speak) to the expectations and communicative methods of contemporary music. Such audiences will be ready to engage with Paul Pinto’s String Quartet No. 4, which bears the title “I pass’d a church.” Pinto’s idea is to use the strings to represent the sounds that could be made by a church – that is, by the building itself – as it attempts to recover from damage caused by hurricanes. The scale here is very broad, the pacing very slow, and the sounds frequently unlike anything one would expect strings to produce: sighs, groans, wavelike emissions, wind that sounds like words and actually blends into vocalizations, and more. Scarcely designed to be musical in any traditional sense, the quartet – like many avant-garde compositions – sounds like a performance piece, designed with theatricality that is intended to evoke visual rather than auditory scenes in listeners’ minds. The performers follow this with String Quartet No. 2 by the ensemble’s second violinist, Marina Kifferstein. This piece does open with string sounds, albeit long-drawn-out ones that form the athematic, non-rhythmic “sound clouds” of which so many contemporary composers and performers are fond. Once again in this work there are blendings of string sounds into vocalizations, and vocal sounds back to those of strings. The primary effect here is of an extended and repetitive fade-in and fade-out. The piece does not seem to be trying to communicate anything in particular – instead, it presents an aural experience from which listeners can select what meaning they like and respond to it in any way they wish. Placed third and last on the disc is its longest work by far: Pastorale para los pobres de la tierra by Lewis Nielson. Like the other pieces here, this involves vocalizing blending and contrasting with instrumental sounds – but this piece is actually a quintet, incorporating Alice Teyssier’s flute and adding her voice to those of the string players. Indeed, the vocal element here is in one sense paramount: there are actual words spoken, drawn from works by Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, and St. Francis of Assisi. The dissonant opening pizzicato emphasis and the percussive elements with which the piece begins soon expand into a sound world in which verbiage (by no means always easy to hear or decipher) blends into and contrasts repeatedly with otherworldly instrumental lines that are often very busy but rarely for any specific discernible purpose. Like many other avant-garde works, including the other two on this CD, Nielson’s appears to exist mainly to create a world of sound from which listeners can pick and choose what to hear and what meaning to assign to whatever they choose to experience. Again, this is a theatrical experience as much as an aural one, and quite deliberately goes beyond the bounds of what audiences will expect of music – unless those audiences are already conversant with and appreciative of this form of expressiveness. There is nothing on this disc that will reach out beyond a core group of enthusiasts, but for those who are advocates and supporters of this sort of engagement and entertainment, the recording will be effective in providing a particular kind of soundscape to which those with suitable musical convictions will gravitate.

June 13, 2024

(+++) BITING OFF A BIT TOO MUCH TO CHEW

Mother of Sharks. By Melissa Cristina Márquez. Illustrated by Devin Elle Kurtz. Penguin Workshop. $19.99.

     An intermittently charming book that tries to be three things at once and as a result is never quite any one of them, Melissa Cristina Márquez’ Mother of Sharks strikes an uneasy balance among the real world, a fantasy world, and an advocacy position. Márquez is a marine biologist and wildlife educator, and would certainly be able to get young readers (ages 5-8) interested in the amazing world of sharks if she chose to make that her book’s focus. Certainly there are sharks here: illustrations of more than two dozen types decorate the inside front and inside back covers and their facing pages. And the mako shark, nurse shark, sixgill shark, and Greenland shark make cameo appearances in the book, likely whetting some young readers’ appetites for more information on these fascinating fish – and perhaps sending them to some of the back-of-the-book resources recommended by the author.

     So far, so good. But the sharks are just one of the topics here, and not the major one. The second element is autobiography and, by extension, advocacy. Márquez makes it clear that the book is in large part her own story, the tale of her “childhood memories of exploring the ocean at la Playita del Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.” Márquez uses that personal element as the basis for a diversity-and-inclusion plea, advocating for a greater Hispanic presence in STEM fields such as marine biology. That is the second Mother of Sharks topic, an adult-oriented one that fits at best uneasily with the scientific elements of marine biology in a book for young children.

     And then there is the third element, that of fantasy. In her attempt to sew the other two elements together and get very young readers interested in them, Márquez creates a kind of framing story in which a young girl (obviously Márquez herself) is swept into and under the waters for some firsthand exploration, after meeting a magical crab named Jaiba that introduces her not only to marine life but also to the title character of the book – who, no surprise, turns out to be the young girl’s adult alter ego. Jaiba is a pure deus ex machina, existing solely to give the author a way to bring child-Melissa and adult-Melissa together in a shared scientific and emotional experience that also is supposed to serve as an advocacy position. That is a lot of freight to load onto 48 pages that are dominated, as usual in books for this age range, by illustrations rather than words (and the Devin Elle Kurtz pictures are quite fine, actually providing the book with the majority of its continuity and much of its charm).

     It is perhaps not surprising that packing a short, young-child-focused book with so many themes and ideas results in a neither-here-nor-there work despite the obvious intention of it being both here and there. But it is a bit disappointing that Márquez is not quite sure how to balance her three themes or, if they cannot be balanced, to decide to which of them to grant prominence. The book’s title implies an autobiographical focus: this is the story of how the child that Márquez was became the “mother of sharks” that she now considers herself to be. But young readers are likely to be much more intrigued by the magical crab (despite Jaiba’s total lack of personality) or by the chance to learn about sharks (a squandered opportunity, since they appear here only in passing). Certainly the “you can do it!” element of the diversity advocacy comes through clearly enough, but that STEM focus is an adult concern: Márquez would more effectively bring young readers (of any appearance and background) into the world of marine biology by enticing them with fascinating elements of the water world and, specifically, the diversity of sharks rather than of STEM workers. It is left to the shark illustrations at the book’s front and back to suggest that there is a lot more to sharks than the book’s narrative ever reveals or even implies. Hopefully at least some readers will find the fantasy elements of Mother of Sharks intriguing enough so they decide to explore the science of shark study in much greater detail than Márquez hints at in this well-meaning but overly earnest attempt to knit multiple threads into a single tapestry.

(++++) PINNACLES OF PIANISM

Adolph von Henselt: Piano Concerto in F minor; Hans von Bronsart: Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor. Paul Wee, piano; Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Collins. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60; The St. Gaudens (“Black March”). Donald Berman, piano. AVIE. $19.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Les Mois (“The Months”), Op. 74. Igor Do Amaral, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     The unending pursuit of unattainable perfection has been the lodestar of pianists for centuries, the definitions and musical means always changing but the reaching-out never ending. Today’s pianists continue the impossible quest – and some of them nowadays do so by rediscovering and reviving the music of composers and composer/pianists who themselves sought the heights but, at least in the judgment of posterity, never quite attained them. As the piano evolved to something close to its modern form during the mid-19th century, the prior performance excellence of Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel tended to disappear into the rearview mirror as the likes of Carl Czerny, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, and Sigismond Thalberg took center stage – along with, of course, Franz Liszt, whose combination of personal magnetism and astonishing technique captivated audiences, capturing the very essence of pianistic perfection and remaining its touchstone to this day. But there were other astonishments as well, most now forgotten but many deserving of renewed exploration. It falls to a modern pianist of the first water, Paul Wee, to revive two major works by two minor but still notable composers: the piano concertos by Adolph von Henselt (1814-1889) and Hans von Bronsart (1830-1913). Wee’s recording on the BIS label, in which he is paired with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Michael Collins, practically defines tour de force in its drama, sweep and intensity. Both these concertos are large-scale despite relatively modest total lengths (each lasts just under half an hour, making them much shorter than, say, the two by Brahms); both are emotionally sweeping in a thoroughly Romantic idiom; and both put avowedly excessive demands on the soloist – demands to which Wee, who is something of a phenomenon, appears to have no difficulty rising. The Henselt concerto – given its première in 1844 by no less than Clara Schumann, then published in 1847 – had an influence well beyond its own time period: one of Henselt’s students, Nikolai Zverev, became the teacher of Rachmaninoff, who directly quoted from Henselt’s work while also adapting and further extending its broad lines. Wee accepts the grand gestures and alternating drama and lyricism of the Henselt at face value, knowing not to overdo or over-emphasize its admittedly over-the-top elements – simply presenting them with their superb flow is more than enough to turn the recording into a fascinatingly engaging listening experience. The Bronsart concerto – whose composer was the soloist in the première of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – dates to 1873 and features a gorgeous slow movement and a finale in tarantella rhythm that is repeatedly and often amusingly punctuated by unexpected fanfares. Wee is wonderfully aware of both the soulful and the amusing elements of the work, delivering a bang-up performance that shows how both these display pieces, if scarcely proffering great emotional depth, make for exceptional pianistic expressiveness melded with plenty of keyboard fireworks. Wee’s recording, which also features first-rate accompaniment by Collins and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, is nothing less than exhilarating.

     Splendid pianism does not of course require orchestral accompaniment. Nor does pianistic compositional creativity need any instrument other than the piano itself to offer a fascinating experience for both performers and listeners. And certainly there is no better proof of that than the “Concord” sonata by Charles Ives – which remains, many decades after its creation, so far ahead of its time that it seems music will never quite catch up to it. How many decades ahead of its time the work may be is part of the complexity of its genesis and an underlying consideration of the new AVIE recording featuring pianist Donald Berman – who, not coincidentally, is also president of the Charles Ives Society. Berman has studied and re-studied the “Concord,” including extensively with John Kirkpatrick, who gave the work’s première performance and himself recorded it twice, communicating extensively with Ives for many years about revisions to the piece. Berman made his own edition for this recording, incorporating much of what Kirkpatrick did and some things that Ives himself did but that do not appear in any of the printed versions of the score. How exactly these elements, some considerably more evident than others, affect the sonata will be of greater interest to Berman’s fellow scholars than to a “mere” listening audience; but there is nothing “mere” about being a member of any group experiencing this complex, difficult, endlessly fascinating, programmatic yet purely musical work. It helps to know something about the 19th-century Transcendentalist movement to understand some of the nuances of the sonata, at least from a programmatic standpoint; but the music itself is so complex and captivating that even those who know nothing about Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts or Thoreau – the four subjects of the work’s movements – can be pulled into the ebb, flow and emotional (and technical) difficulties of the music without quite knowing why. The “Concord” sonata is an experience, not merely a piano piece, and Ives was well aware of this – some performances, for example, include Ives’ optional flute and/or viola, and the work features polytonality, sound clusters, un-metered rhythms and other avant-garde techniques that, however, never interrupt its flow or turn it into a display-for-its-own sake piece. Editions and performance techniques for the sonata vary so widely that comparisons among performers’ versions are irrelevant and largely impossible. Suffice it to say that Berman plays the work with firm technique, considerable understanding of its nuances, pacing that seems intuitively right (his performance is one of the quicker recordings), and no shrinking whatsoever from the rhythmic and interpretative difficulties in which the sonata abounds. And Berman pairs it interestingly with The St. Gaudens (“Black March”), a work better known in orchestral guise from the version Ives used in Three Places in New England. Berman makes a less-than-obvious Transcendentalist connection between this work and the “Concord” sonata; but here as with the sonata itself, the underlying philosophical musings matter less than the effects of the music, which are considerable. Transcendentalism took itself very seriously indeed, and Ives and Berman clearly do so too, but it is worth noting that the philosophy was not without its detractors: notably, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience hilariously undermines the pretenses of its British version and those who practiced (or claimed to practice) it – “The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a Transcendental kind,” wrote Gilbert. The meaning of the “Concord” sonata, though, does matter, and does not require acceptance of the foundational philosophy. It does, however, require opening one’s ears to sounds, expressions and techniques that are often extremely complex but that at some level bespeak a degree of simplicity and understanding communicated with almost magical skill by the composer and by sensitive interpreters such as Berman.

     Sensitivity is also a prerequisite for understanding and effectively performing the frequently amazing piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan, the one 19th-century pianist to whom even Liszt was said to have deferred. Reclusive and mysterious to the point of mysticism – one of the only two photos of Alkan shows him standing, facing away from the camera, holding a furled umbrella, his face completely unseeable – Alkan produced music that he knew full well was unplayable, including works calling for notes that did not yet exist on piano keyboards. Nowadays some of the most-accomplished pianists can indeed play Alkan’s works, and a few of his pieces have achieved something approaching fame. However, for the young virtuoso Igor Do Amaral (born 1989), it is a very-little-known Alkan composition that is the highlight of Volume 1 of what is planned as a multi-CD Alkan cycle on the MSR Classics label. Les Mois (“The Months”) is a set of 12 pieces in which not a single movement actually mentions any month of the year – this indirection is the sort of thing in which Alkan reveled. Instead, the pieces have descriptive titles, and it is left up to listeners to figure out to which specific months or seasons those designations and their accompanying music refer. The opening Une nuit d’Hiver (“A Winter Night”) is clear enough, if unspecific to a particular month, but what of movements labeled Promenade sur l'Eau (“A Walk on the Water”), Le Mourant (“The Dying”), and the concluding L’Opera? Each piece in Les Mois is a small gem, encapsulating a feeling if not a specific season or time period, and Amaral gets fully into the spirit of the individual elements and the cycle as a whole, exploring elements of seriousness and levity, intensity and gentleness, with understanding and unfailing skill. The performance certainly whets the appetite for more Alkan from Amaral – but this is a (+++) disc, because the other work on it receives a reading that can most charitably be described as odd. This is one of Alkan’s most-famous pieces, Symphonie pour Piano Seul, which includes four of the 12 Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, Op. 39. Here Amaral’s performance is curiously wrongheaded: it is extremely slow throughout, turning a work that usually takes up 25 to 30 minutes into one lasting 40. If the draggy tempos somehow revealed nuances of construction or communication absent from other performances, the pacing would be justifiable; but the opposite is in fact the case. The expansive opening Allegro moderato here becomes a very, very slow movement, close to an Adagio, while the following Marcia funebre simply comes apart – it is a cortège without rhythm, too disconnected to have any sense of the funereal – and the normally speedy Finale lacks all drama and intensity. It is clear from Les Mois that Amaral has the technique needed to present Alkan’s music effectively, which means that his approach to the Symphonie pour Piano Seul is a purposeful one, not a failing of ability. It is, unfortunately, impossible to discern what Amaral’s purpose here may be. Nevertheless, despite the disappointment of this reading, the high quality of Amaral’s handling of Les Mois is a hopeful sign for his future forays into some of the most interesting and interestingly difficult piano music ever written.