May Classical Review Roundup

Hélene Grimaud
Water: Berio: Wasserklavier: Sawhney: Water: Transitions 1-7; Takemitsu: Rain Tree Sketch No. 2; Fauré: Barcarolle No. 5; Ravel: Jeux d'eau; Albéniz: Almeria; Liszt: Les Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este; Janáček: In the Mist: No. 1; Debussy: La Cathedrale engloutie
(Deutsche Grammophon)
 
Classical purists be warned: almost half the tracks here are not the solo piano recital you might expect from the billing. Instead, Grimaud had composer Nitin Sawhney create electronic bridging miniatures (ranging from 0:56 to 1:41) fitted between the solo piano tracks. This works wonderfully well, changing this album from a traditional presentation into a moody soundscape (though the purist crowd was quick to take offense, witness the extremely snarky review on classicstoday.com). Of course, Grimaud is her usual scintillating self on the solo piano pieces. 
 
The pieces she has chosen for this thematic program are in a couple of cases "usual suspects" -- the Ravel and Debussy -- but are balanced by two more modern composers, Berio and Takemitsu. The Berio is a less abstract piece than much of his output, the most directly evocative of water on the whole album; the Takemitsu is a late-20th century masterpiece, and it is to be hoped that exposure in mixed programs such as this one, as opposed to the complete Takemitsu piano music discs on which it is usually heard, will introduce it to the broader audience it deserves. The Liszt and Fauré pieces, if less obscure to mainstream listeners, are still uncommon generally, and Grimaud makes a good case for them. Gieseking and Moravec are more recommendable in the Debussy, creating a more enchanting atmosphere, but the grandeur with which she plays it makes it a fine conclusion (though there is actually a following track of Grimaud talking about the program concept for nearly eleven minutes, and I would have preferred more space between it and the end of the Debussy). I was prepared to complain about Grimaud only including the Janáček's first movement, but it is the piece in which her playing is least persuasive -- she makes it sound too insistent, too much like Liszt. Other than that, this well-constructed and brave program is a resounding success, and I won't hold one such misstep against this daring attempt to bridge the gap between classical and less elitist styles.
 
The Syred Consort/Orchestra of St. Paul's/Ben Palmer
Lotti: Crucifixus
(Delphian)
 
Venetian Baroque composer Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) is now known only for three settings of the Crucifixus section of the Credo in the Mass. This album aims to put them in context and expose us to more of his music; everything except the two Crucifixus settings here is receiving its recording premiere, and those settings are heard within their original contexts. His Mass movements were stand-alone pieces, as was standard in Venice at the time; however, his pupil Jan Dismas Zelenka (now better known than his teacher) compiled some of them into Masses, one of which, Missa Sancti Christophori, is heard here, with the last three (shorter) movements cobbled together by Zelenka, mostly from music in the earlier movements. Filling out this CD are a different Credo, in G minor, also containing a familiar Crucifixus; a Dixit Dominus in G minor, and a Miserere in C minor. The style is late Baroque shading into the galant style that would become the Classical style, with orchestral accompaniment, and only rarely in the antiphonal choral format that was the norm in Venice.
 
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
Chorus vel Organa: Music from the Lost Palace of Westminster
(Delphian)
 
Delphian has been on quite a roll lately, and these aren't their only excellent releases of the past few months -- there's also a Hebrides Ensemble album of James MacMillan's Since It Was the Day of Preparation. Anyway, Chorus vel Organa is my favorite, taking a look at English music near the end of Henry VIII's reign centered on the Westminster chapel of St. Stephen, which stood where the British Houses of Parliament now stand. Three pieces come from the Caius Choirbook, commissioned by a canon at St. Stephen's: a Magnificat by William Cornysh and the Gloria and Agnus Dei from St. Stephen's College organist Nicholas Ludford's Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum. Other mass movements come from Ludford's Lady Mass cycle for three voices. One of the features of this recording is the incorporation of organ; there are no surviving English organs from this period (largely because they were destroyed during the Cromwell years), but one constructed based on recently discovered organ parts from the period is used on this recording -- not as accompaniment, but improvising on themes or repeating vocal phrases in a sort of call-and-response manner. The results are quite enjoyable. The focus, though, is on the beautiful Ludford movements; the closing Agnus Dei in particular is absolutely gorgeous.
 
Xiayin Wang/Royals Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2/Khachaturian: Piano Concerto
(Chandos)
 
This is an interesting program, for a few reasons. For one, it includes the original version of Tchaikovsky's less-popular Piano Concerto (it used to be considered too long, so Siloti made an abridged version), slightly more familiar thanks to recordings but hardly ever heard in concert. For another, it pairs two works with poor critical reputations -- neither is remotely profound, and critics do tend to prefer profundity (Brahms's Second Piano Concerto) to crowd-pleasing flashiness. They overlook the delights of pianistic bravura (for which these works offer plenty of opportunities), orchestral color, and melodrama. The present performers indulge all those too-often-disdained facets, making this disc a vividly exciting presentation that offers the best case for each unfairly maligned work. I have previously found Wang's solo Rachmaninoff albums impressive, and this is even better. Her sense of phrasing, her feel for the long line, makes her a compelling player of Romantic repertoire. The criticisms of the Tchaikovsky for rambling are not without merit, but the way these forces indulge its waywardness actually makes it more of a colorful voyage rather than some grim tighten-it-up-and-get-through-it attempt to justify it. The Khachaturian is heard much more frequently, and has been recorded by many piano legends; this interpretation, guiltless in its enjoyment of Khachaturian's barbaric splendor stands alongside the greatest thanks to the orchestra and conductor's enthusiastic contributions. It helps that, as usual, Chandos delivers superb sonics.
 
Third Coast Percussion
Reich: Mallet Quartet; Sextet; Nagoya Marimbas; Music for Pieces of Wood
(Cedille)
 
Third Coast Percussion is a decade-old quartet of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. They are joined here by pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen for Sextet, and Matthew Duvall (eighth blackbird) keeps the pulse on Music for Pieces of Wood. They have the deep rhythmic empathy required to make these Minimalist masterpieces sing (Reich often writes so that composite melodies rise out of multiple parts), and whether because of Cedille's engineering or their own style of playing -- or both -- these performances sound a bit warmer and more intimate than those by Reich's own ensemble. The most recent piece, Mallet Quartet (for two marimbas and two vibraphones), is from 2009 and therefore much less familiar than the other compositions on this program. I had not kept up with Reich's output, and this is my introduction to it; the middle movement is magically beautiful, and the piece as a whole is the best thing here.
 
Elizabeth Joy Roe
Field: Complete Nocturnes
(Decca)
 
Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782-1837) was a favorite student of Clementi and wrote prolifically for the piano. His Nocturnes are his claim to fame; he created the form, and Liszt admired these works enough to edit his own edition of them for Schirmer, and to extravagantly praise them in writing; Chopin, of course, took the form to new heights, but Fields's eighteen Nocturnes are wonderful in their own right, and signal the dawn of a new Romantic sensibility in their dreamy (almost literally: they are night pieces) freedom and harmonic daring. This is the first release to include all of Field's Nocturnes on a single CD. I worried that an 86-minute CD might not play on all players, but it worked in both my players, one a rather ancient portable, so apparently that problem has been worked out (though, granted, that's not a valid data sample). Of more interest, though, are that Roe is a fine player and these undervalued works are finally getting some major-label love. While I marginally prefer Benjamin Frith's impeccable phrasing and pellucid touch in his two-disc survey on Naxos, Roe sometimes offers more intense readings, and it is also worth mentioning that she has created her own edition combining aspects of Liszt's, the Peters edition, and others that go unnamed in Roe's booklet note (which is by turns historically informative and poetically articulate, and also quotes Liszt's rapturous praises at length). Music this great deserves multiple and varied interpretations, and Roe's are generally convincing. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was released in August 2015 by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).

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