Spring Classical Review Roundup

The musical harvest of last year’s Liszt bicentennial continues even now; this young French pianist (who already, six years ago, gave us an excellent cycle of the Transcendental Etudes) celebrated it by presenting this mighty collection, which amounts to three cycles, in single concerts and then recording this three-CD set. For decades Lazar Berman’s set for Deutsche Grammophon has set the standard in this repertoire for an integral set, but Chamayou equals it.  

Berman’s primary assets, besides his sterling technical skills, are the fiery drama and monumental breadth with which he infused these mighty works. His total time for all three cycles is nearly 26 minutes longer than Chamayou's. The Frenchman by contrast leans towards the music's poetic side and plays with a lighter touch, though when the occasion demands power (the climaxes of "Sposalizio" and "Apres une lecture du Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata)," for instance), Chamayou delivers. Most importantly, in these pieces which in lesser hands can seem discursive, his phrasing, tempo choices, and structural integrity generally keep the lines taut and well-proportioned. His tone is alternately brilliant or pearly as apt, so there is nothing keeping this set from an unqualified and enthusiastic recommendation. Even if you already have the still estimable Berman, which is such a force of nature that I can't imagine it being surpassed on its own terms, Chamayou's vision of the set is so different that having both would not really be redundant.

Nikolay Khozyainov: Piano Recital>Chopin>Liszt (Accord)

"Apres une lecture du Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata)" shows up here as well. Russian prodigy Khozyainov, 19 years old as I write this, was the youngest finalist at the 2010 Chopin piano competition, so of course his debut album features his Chopin. The highlight is his mercurial, big-toned reading of the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35, alternating power and mystery. Tempos and rhythms get pulled about more than some listeners might prefer, which leads to longer first and second movements than the norm, and the always problematic finale comes off even more amorphous than usual, but he's relatively restrained in the funeral march Lento, not milking it shamelessly a la Kissin. If you're sympathetic to this sort of spontaneous-sounding interpretation -- which is rather Lisztian in effect, and includes a broad dynamic range -- it’s well worth hearing. His take on the B-major Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 3, is less momentous; his inclusion of the rarely heard Bolero in A minor, Op. 19, is a welcome departure from normal programming. He similarly includes a lesser-known Liszt work, the Fantasy on Two Themes from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which he uses to conclude the disc on a light note. Before that comes the "Dante sonata," which features the same attributes as the Chopin sonata, sounding even more appropriate in this context. Khozyainov isn't knocking any of the standard recommendations in the sonatas from their perches, but he certainly shows he’s a virtuoso worth following, full of promise. On the "Dante sonata," he’s even already fulfilled some of that promise.

The Gershwin Concerto as played by Earl Wild and the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler (a sonically impeccable RCA Living Stereo recording from 1961) remains the top recommendation, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine that it ever will be bettered. If you don't own it, go get it immediately. But if you’re in the market for an inexpensive alternative reading in excellent sound, rising star Weiss and company are worth hearing, and the other two items here, also for piano and orchestra, make for a more interesting program than the usual Rhapsody in Blue pairing. The Rhapsody No. 2 deserves to be better known; it is a colorful celebration of New York, and gets a joyously sensual reading here. The variations on his most famous tune make a scintillating conclusion. As for Weiss and Falletta's take on the concerto, its jazz elements sound completely natural (never a given), with rhythms sharp and lively, and the languid aspects are played up deliciously in a more tender reading than the norm (33:53 in length, compared to 28:48 for Wild/Fiedler). As Weiss and Falletta shape the concerto, it's a major work of seriousness and weight. That's a welcome approach.

Erdem Helvacioglu: Eleven Short Stories (Innova)

Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu (b. 1975) started out in a prog-rock band (Too Much), switched to electronic music (though he is currently in another rock band, Rashit), and now has made this album of music for prepared piano (at times he also plays inside the instrument, directly on the strings). While Eleven Short Stories inevitably brings to mind the piano music of Henry Cowell and John Cage, Helvacioglu's electronic-music outlook has influenced its sound and process; whether because of that or actual influence, "Shattered Snow Globe" resembles Brian Eno's Music for Airports in its textures and deployment of kaleidoscopic patterns. Helvacioglu's pieces here are very concerned with sound, of course, and the sparely deployed sounds have plenty of room to be appreciated. This space and his careful recording combine to create a sort of sonic halo around his music’s events. Those events come in a wide variety of manifestations, from meditatively tuneful pieces such as "Will I Ever See You Again" (which does get grittier near the end) to "Trapped in the Labyrinth," a series of percussive noises. That's not for everyone, of course, but this is an intriguing album that obliterates genre boundaries and often creates music of quiet beauty.

Grand Piano is a new label from the folks who brought us Naxos, among others. As its name indicates, its focus is piano -- so far, at least, solo piano -- repertoire, and relatively unexplored repertoire at that. Here are four of its recent releases.

Here's a prime example of how valuable this new label's work is for piano connoisseurs in terms of given them access to unfamiliar music: Only one of Christian Gottlob Neefe's sonatas is currently available apart from this new release. Neefe (1748-1798) was one of Beethoven's teachers (starting when Beethoven was nine years old), and was responsible for introducing him to J.S. Bach's music. These sonatas are charming little things, somewhere between Scarlatti and early Mozart, with the exception of the first, where the counterpoint suggests lightweight Bach. The twelve sonatas were published in 1773, but probably were composed over a number of years; ten are in three movements, while two consist of just two movements each, and only two of their thirty-four movements last over five minutes. As appropriate filler, we get a composition assignment Neefe had given his young student, the results of which impressed Neefe so much that he persuaded a publisher to issue it in 1782 -- Beethoven’s first published work, hardly ever recorded. Kagan specializes in music of this era and sounds quite at home, with an appropriately light touch even though using a modern piano. A few slightly awkward moments (though no wrong notes) intrude briefly, but the welcome appearance of this repertoire inclines one to forgiveness. This album is highly recommended to anyone interested in the early Classical period or the early piano sonata literature.

If this really does end up yielding the complete piano music of Saint-Saëns (the supposedly complete Vox set in fact omitted some works), it will be an impressive project: he began composing at age three, lived to the age of eighty-six, and was a prolific composer and virtuoso pianist. His solo piano catalog includes some 60 works or cycles, none of them particularly famous; there are even more if two-piano and piano four-hands works are included. This volume has three sets of etudes: Six Etudes, Op. 52 (1877); Six Etudes, Op. 111 (1899); and Six Etudes for the Left Hand, Op. 135 (1912). Though the first two sets are impressively challenging from a technical standpoint (the last has thinner textures and is less virtuoso, written for a duet partner who lost the use of her right hand, though some movements adroitly disguise their one-handedness), they are fully compelling musically; they could easily have been published without "etude" in their titles. Saint-Saëns's distance from the Romantic period's characteristic freedom of structure is also emphasized: Op. 52 includes two pairs of Preludes and Fugues, and there’s another pair in Op. 111, while Op. 135 is a six-movement suite along Baroque lines. On the other hand, there’s a notable tinge of ragtime in Op. 11’s last piece, a stunningly complex Rondo, based on the finale of his Fifth Piano Concerto, which combines many of the techniques featured in the opus’s first five etudes. Burleson, noted for his set of Roy Harris’s complete piano music on Naxos, handles the technical hurdles with aplomb in superbly polished performances.

Another projected complete set, this time focusing on Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) -- AKA Moishe Vainberg, and various other ways of rendering his name in Polish, Russian, or Yiddish -- who was born in Warsaw but fled to Russia in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. In Russia he began studying composition under Rimsky-Korsakov student Vasily Zolotaryov; Shostakovich also became a friend and mentor. The influence of Shostakovich on Weinberg's music is clear, but the influence may have gone both ways if, as seems likely, Shostakovich's interest in Jewish music was fed by Weinberg’s background (his father was important in Warsaw's Yiddish musical theater). Weinberg’s symphonies are better known than his piano music, which tends to be from earlier in his career, but his sonatas are impressive. Much of this album features premiere recordings: the Lullaby, Op. 1; the Two Mazurkas from 1933 that are his oldest surviving pieces; and the unnumbered Sonata, Op. 49b, that was his 1978 revision of a 1951 Sonatina that in its original form may have been compromised by Soviet restrictions in the post-war era. The Lullaby's chiaroscuro tints make it a strangely unsettling sleep song, and thus quietly striking. There’s no question, though, that the most significant works here are the Sonatas Nos. 1, Op. 5 (1940) and 2, Op. 8 (1942, premiered by Emil Gilels in 1943). Harmonically slippery, by turns ironically wry or darkly elusive, they are excellent works, and anyone who diminishes them by comparison to Shostakovich and/or Prokofiev, as some do, is being too harsh -- and is missing out on some dramatically effective music. Allison Brewster Franzetti, whose modernist bona fides are certainly in order, gives us bravura performances that make an emphatic case for the numbered sonatas’ artistic significance. Of the Grand Piano releases I've heard, this is the most crucial and satisfying.

Gerhard Frommel (1906-1984) was a German composer; the booklet notes for this release take every opportunity to distance him and his music from the Nazis, but also note that he "was a despatch rider in the Wehrmacht in France." The notes also, to start, quote the composer's autobiography: "I see my seven piano sonatas as a compendium of my output in microcosm; they run like a thread through the various stages of my development." Despite this, the first three of his seven sonatas are presented here in reverse order of composition. The Third, written in 1940/41, revised twice thereafter (1962, 1980), and not published until 1992, is in one continuous movement, though with tempo and character/style changes perceivable as movements. Starting out with slightly spiky, modernist harmonies, by the end it sounds like Ravel crossed with Poulenc. The three-movement Second (1935, but the first to be published) is rhythmically lively, but not particularly daring harmonically. The First (1931, revised and published in 1942, and then further revised, though the '42 version is heard here), also in three movements, is, not surprisingly, the most traditional of them. None of them is likely to blow your mind, but all are well-crafted and enjoyable, especially when played with Blome's light touch and rhythmic precision.

Catching up with a few 2011 releases:

I have rarely enjoyed Reich's pieces when he has instruments copy the rhythm of someone's words underneath those words. It's the annoying musical equivalent of somebody talking to you who pokes you to accent some words. It makes the music seem contrived, too self-conscious. Sometimes he manages to make it relatively uninsistent. The three-movement piece WTC 9/11 is not one of those times. "Everybody was running" sounds particularly bad when strings shadow it. The manipulation of eyewitness testimony, cutting it up and repeating it, also comes off as disrespectful. Fellow Minimalist composer John Adams, in his On the Transmigration of Souls, showed that such samplings could be used in a respectful and dignified manner that made the work quite emotionally moving. Reich's usage instead seems to trivialize the words. I like Mallet Quartet much more, and its purely instrumental, ominous thrumming would work better as a depiction of 9/11. "Dance Patterns" is insignificant filler that seems out of place in this context.

Jóhann Jóhannsson: The Miners' Hymns (Fat Cat)

This soundtrack to a Bill Morrison documentary on the history of northern England's coal mining industry is written for electronically treated brass and organ. Sounding like a cross between Giovanni Gabrieli and Arvo Part in its majestic austerity, with a hint of German chorale tunes sometimes seeping in (particularly on "There Is No Safe Side But the Side of Truth," the most sonically forceful track), it is surprisingly engaging if one is willing to grant it full attention, its themes spiraling about in hypnotic fashion.

Brooklyn Baroque
Boismortier: Sonatas for Cello/Trio Sonatas
(Quill Classics)

Brooklyn Baroque is David Bakamjian (playing a Bohemian cello of the late 18th century), Rebecca Pechefsky (an Eckersley/Fisk double-manual harpsichord after Ruckers on some tracks, a Beaupre double-manual after Blanchet and Hemsch on others), and Andrew Bolotowsky (a Peter Noy wooden Baroque flute after G.A. Rottenburgh). Bolotowsky only plays on the two Trio Sonatas. The trio is joined by Christine Gummere (cello by Aegidius Klotz, ca. 1783) in the continuo on the Cellos Sonatas, while Carlene Stober (David Rubio viola da gamba after a Guillaume Barbey seven-string viol) takes Gummere's place in the continuo for the Trio Sonatas. Boismortier aimed to charm, not amaze; the lack of profundity has hurt his posthumous reputation, but anyone who enjoys the lightness and beauty of classic French music should be acquainted with his work. His works for multiple flutes are best known, so this foray into rarer repertoire is most welcome. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.

steve-holtje

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