June Classical Review Roundup

Young Canadian pianist David Jalbert’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations has been growing on me for two months. In the wake of last year’s dazzlingly athletic version by Minsoo Sohn, this seemed less momentous. Well, even if it’s not overthrowing my #1 choice -- Murray Perahia’s supremely refined rendition with its wonderful palette of timbres -- or surpassing a couple of Gould’s, or Sohn’s, it is deeply satisfying: technically and interpretively impressive, imaginative without crossing the line into quirky. 
It has a certain kinship with Gould’s 1981 recording (slow aria, generally sprightly tempos featuring counterpoint of crystalline clarity) but without Gould’s tendency to make his piano as dryly harpsichord-like as possible; Jalbert’s tone is quite pianistic without ever seeming anachronistically Romantic, and he sometimes spins out beautifully legato lines with a singing quality.
Most of all, I quite enjoyed the way he varies ornamentation: his repeats -- he takes all of them except in the Aria -- are not the same as the first time through, sometimes with drastic differences; usually, only harpsichordists are this daring. So after living with this recording for a while, I have come to appreciate both its creativity and its more subtle merits, and would now rank it in my top ten piano Goldbergs.

Lest you think I automatically like all Goldberg recordings, I present this clangorous bit of overplaying. Now, I'm not one of those who dislikes harpsichord; Pierre Hantai and Maggie Cole made two of my favorite Goldbergs on harpsichords. Their instruments didn't sound like Guglielmi's, though; his brings back shudder-producing memories of the monstrosity that Wanda Landowski inflicted on us before period reproductions of authentic instruments were widely available. 

It's not the instrument's fault, though; the microphones were apparently jammed into its innards so closely that it's probably illegal in many states, and then Guglielmi banged away with unfettered abandon. The sound isn't all that's wrong with his reading, however; early on his playing is mannered and garish. After a while he calms down, but the painful tones continue to hammer away at one's ears.

Adam Gyorgy: Plays Liszt, Bach and Mozart (Adam Gyorgy)

Last year I raved about a Gyorgy concert devoted to Liszt. His Liszt, as always, is superb -- first the Rigoletto Paraphrase, then, after the Bach and Mozart, “La Campanella.” Gyorgy’s technique is so secure that he is beyond showing off his virtuosity on this music’s surface; he plays it, without any apparent strain, purely as music, a welcome change in Liszt.

There’s a sort of jazzy insouciance to his rhythms in Bach’s Partita in G major that, combined with his smooth sound even at breakneck speed, makes it sound utterly fresh, though I suppose purists may be aghast at that and how thoroughly pianistic he makes it sound. Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K.330 is a little too smooth.

As, in effect, encores, we get two bits of unabashed virtuosity: Gyorgy’s dazzling arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” and, to close, Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” in a combination arrangement by Liszt, Horowitz, and Gyorgy, which was an encore at the aforementioned concert. Quite an effective calling card, this album is; no piano fan should pass it by. This CD came out in 2011, but -- self-released -- was only sold at concerts; now it's a full-fledged release. It shall tide me over quite nicely while I eagerly await his Liszt Sonata recording.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music has experienced a revival in recent decades; the feverish Romanticism of his early music, similar to pre-twelve-tone Schoenberg, is prominently on display in these chamber pieces. The Sextet, written in 1914-16, especially provokes comparisons to Schoenberg, and not just because it’s the same instrumentation (two violins, two violas, two cellos) as Verklarte Nacht (1899), and was even premiered by the Rose String Quartet plus two, same as the Schoenberg. Its decadently rich harmonies, intricate structure, and complex counterpoint are all in the service of its swooning emotionality, but its intensity is channeled through hyper-expressive melodies that, if not exactly songful -- they switch gears too often for that -- are certainly lushly attractive in their hothouse-flower beauty. The quintet, for two violins, viola, cello, and piano, is a little less feverish.

Some critics have turned up their noses at Perez’s robust and highly dramatized Preludes, finding them gauche. But though there are occasions when I find her rubato overstated, in general I find this set an engrossing listening experience. Technically secure, she’s perfectly capable of making beautiful sounds when it fits her interpretation, and even when she’s playing aggressively, her tone is still not the clangorous banging of some pianists I could mention. Her broad dynamic range and impetuous-sounding tempi are a welcome alternative approach. Even if she’s not about to upend the established hierarchy of favorites in this repertoire, this is well worth hearing. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. 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.