Classical CD Reviews
Classical CD Reviews, Part 3 of 3
Published on May 1, 2004
We begin this section with two highly contrasted discs involving the piano…
SCRIABIN: – The Composer as Pianist – His Welte Mignon reproducing piano rolls from 1910; other pianist’s rolls of his music: Josef Lhevinne, Constantine Igumnoff, Alexander Goldenweiser, Austin Conradi, Leff Pouishnoff, Magdeleine Brard – Pierian Recording Society 0018:
This usual collection’s note booklet opens with an essay by the great New York Times critic Harold Schonberg which complains “We don’t get much Scriabin anymore,” and “…there does not seem to be any indication of a revival or a reappraisal. This grieves those of us who consider Scriabin one of the most original, fascinating, enigmatic, revolutionary – and, yes, rewarding – composers of the century.” The quote is from over two decades ago and the highly individual Russian composer has received some increased attention since then, though nothing like what happened with, say, Mahler. Count me in as one of those who agrees with Schonberg’s statement about Scriabin. Thus it is quite a thrill to hear for the first time these nine Welte rolls recorded by the composer in Moscow in l910. The German-made recording and playback mechanism was the last word in Rube Goldberg mechanical wizardry, involving a dangerous reservoir of mercury liquid just under the keyboard and a rats nest of rubber tubing for the electro-pneumatic operation of the equipment. The notes include a reproduction of a section of one of the master rolls showing the different lines of wiggles inscribed by the inked rubber rollers as the pianists played, and which were then translated into very accurately-placed holes in the final rolls. Pedaling and dynamic details missed by the other systems were preserved with the Walte system.
Yet though this system was by far the most sophisticated of all the piano roll approaches, there is still an unmistakable robot-like quality to the phrasing. It suffers in a way from a similar condition of skipping over the subtle transitions from one sound to another that afflicts lower-sampling-rate digital recording (and has been conquered in the two new audio formats). However, it’s still 100% better than if Scriabin had cut 78s – especially in Russia in l910! The other performers’ rolls date from l906 to 1926. Aside from a couple of selections from his Opus 57, these are mostly earlier Scriabin piano pieces, meaning the Chopin influence is very strong in them. But most have a mysterious and ethereal/ mystical quality that is not found in Chopin. Take the often-heard Etude Op. 2, No. 1 which is played here by Austin Conradi, who came from a Baltimore musical family. Some of the past stereo recordings of the Welte rolls have had noisy mechanical sounds which compromised the final recordings. (The Rachmaninoff piano roll series on Telarc got around this by converting everything to digital and playing it back on a modern Bosendorfer electronic reproducing piano.) The Pierian CD displays a quiet background without any distracting background noises. Piano student might want to follow the score on some of these Preludes, Etudes and Nocturnes while listening to Scriabin and the other performers. They will note, among other things, that the composer doesn’t always follow the published score.
– John Sunier
DVORAK: Piano Concerto in G Minor Op. 33; The Golden Spinning Wheel – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, p./Royal Concertgebouw Orch./Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Teldec Classics 8573 87630-2:
Why the Czech composer’s only piano concerto is seldom heard on the concert stage is a mystery. It may lack the big finish of the Tchaikovsky or Grieg and the writing for piano is more chamber-like – the composer not having been a concert pianist. But it is a lovely work which warrants more attention. The concerto’s piano part was revised by a couple of people after the composer’s death but Richter championed a return to the Dvorak’s original. It is in the usual three movements, with a cadenza for the soloist in the first. The concerto was recorded at a live performance and has that impact and immediacy which often results from a live recording. The programatic Golden Spinning-Wheel is based on a Czech ballad replete with mayhem that makes the Bros. Grimm look less grim. Not only is it very programatic, but the composer attempted to transpose some of the words of the ballad into music – following, for example, the rhythm of the words.
– John Sunier
SCHUMANN: Symphonies 1-4 – Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim – Teldec 2564 61179-2 (2 CD set):
This would be a match made in heaven were Barenboim half the conductor he once promised to be but has rarely been, at least on record (his transcendent Beethoven cycle with this same orchestra a few years ago was a notable exception). Aside from some occasional weakness in the high strings (which otherwise are very sweet), the Staatskapelle has a warmth and power that rivals its competitor, the mighty Philharmonic. The sound by Martin Sauer and Tobias Lehmann is large and rich in spatial information, especially at high volumes, to such an extent that it could serve usefully as a demonstration set for audiophiles.
For the most part, speeds are middle of the road, and the few rhetorical surprises are usually to the detriment of the music’s flow. At the end of the first movement of the First Symphony, just when he seems to be building up a full head of steam into a very exciting conclusion, he slows up for no apparent reason. True, the beginning of the second movement has a hushed, ethereal quality but conductor and orchestra are generally content to just sound fabulously beautiful (as in the last movement of the Third). Nothing bad about that, of course, but when you listen to Sawallisch’s recent set with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s private label, you hear how much is being missed of Schumann’s unique breadth of thought and sense of beauty. Personally, for all his musical smarts, and a heritage that can be traced back through his teacher Edwin Fischer to the glory days of Furtwängler, I don’t think Barenboim really tunes in to the music he is making.
Angel Carrascosa Almazán’s liner notes are like the performances: straightforward, rich in detail, and largely without curiosity or soul.
– Laurence Vittes
HENRI LAZAROF:Tableaux for Piano and Orchestra, Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 2 – Yukiko Kamei, Violin/ Garrick Ohlsson, piano/ Seattle Symphony/ Gerard Schwartz – Naxos 8.559159:
I received my first kaleidoscope at age ten as a Christmas gift. I am still amazed at how the uniformly sized but different shaped shimmering pieces of colored glass are able to repeatedly fall in place and become wondrously interesting symmetrical patterns. What nature of artist could craft such a device?
Henri Lazarof’s Tableaux for Piano and Orchestra (1990-after Wassily Kandinsky) is kaleidoscopic . It is a thirty minute work for piano and orchestra and piano in orchestra. Between brief opening and closing tableaux for solo piano are seven tableaux for piano/orchestra inspired by the paintings of Kandinsky, who saw a connection between color and musical harmony.
This music contains Bartok-like rhythms and energy amidst the orchestral colors of Debussy. The Tableaux are brief, finely polished tonal paintings. They present a broad range of musical expression and are beautifully performed by Garrick Ohlsson, piano and The Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwartz.
The disc also contains the Violin Concerto from 1985-86 and the Symphony No.2 from 1990. The Violin Concerto is more lyrical and traditional in its use of recurrent thematic elements than the Tableaux. It is at times a strikingly rhapsodic work and is extremely well played by Yukiko Kamei, violin, and the Seattle Symphony. The Lazerof Symphony No.2 in two movements is an expressive and often dissonant work for large orchestra, which remains cohesive within wide ranges of expression.
Henri Lazerof is an important contemporary composer This well-performed and recorded disc presents an excellent grouping of his music. Recommended.
SCHUBERT: Sonatinas for piano and violin – D.384, D. 385, D. 408 – David Grimal, violin/Valery Afanassiev, piano – Aeon AECD0317 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi):
All three of these attractive chamber works were only published after the composer’s death. He composed them at age 19, but cannot be considered early works because he had started composing in 1810 and the previous year had penned some 200 different works. The three Sonatinas were composed almost simultaneously and Schubert probably expected to publish them as a set. The first of the three is highly classical and has only three movements, the second is in four rather dense movements with noticeable chromaticism. The last of the trio of works has also four movements and though in G minor is lively and bounces along with energetic forward motion. The playing of both performers is beautifully melded into a luscious melodic package that carries the listener along. The violin tone is as analog-like and natural as on the best hi-res recordings, and Aeon’s very tasteful and artistic foldout packaging telegraphs ahead of time to the purchaser that this is going to be a superb musical experience. A Schiller poem quoted in the sleeve sums up in it last line the effect of this recital: “…Purity, soothing to the soul.”
– John sunier
To sunny Spain with 12 brass and 3 guitars on our next pair of discs…
Romanza España – Spanish Masterworks for Brass – BIZET: Suite from Carmen; SARASATE: Romanza Andaluza; GIMENEZ: 2 Intermezzos; FALLA: Suite from The Three-Cornered Hat; GRANADOS: Andaluza; CHAPI: Prelude from la Revoltosa; DILORENZO: La lamina de España – Burning River Brass – Dorian HDCD DOR-90316:
Burning River is a 12-man ensemble of 11 brass instruments plus percussion which has been around for eight years now and has two previous Dorian albums under their belt. While one would associate Spanish music with guitars and other plucked instruments, the often brash and lively melodies of much Spanish music adapt well to the brass ensemble sound. For the three arrangers represented here who transcribed the symphonic works to brass it was merely a matter of condensing the larger forces down to the small ensemble. Two of them are brass players themselves, which aided the process.
The Carmen Suite has been done by smaller brass groups, but with this larger ensemble the five familiar movements really sparkle, as do the four sections of the Three-Cornered Hat ballet. The hit of the disc to my thinking is the final three-movement The Blade of Spain. Composer DiLorenzo has among other projects scored the music of over 70 feature film trailers (a rather odd resume listing). The fascinating filmscore-like music describes a story set in Navarre shortly after the Inquisition, concerning a mysterious female avenger who hunts down the enemies who killed her father, lures them “with the guile of the black widow,” and then slashes them with her rapier. A spectacular finish for a collection of rich and exciting brass sounds.
ALBENIZ: Iberia Suite (arr. for three guitars by Christophe DeJour) – Trio Campanella – Naxos 8.557064:
The dozen piano pieces by Isaac Albeniz called Iberia is a recognized masterpiece of Spanish music and has been transcribed for orchestra and other instrumental combinations. Its movements are titled mainly for various areas of Spain, or for events such as the religious procession El Corpus Christi in Seville. One of the three members of this Danish guitar trio transcribed the complete suite for himself and his two cohorts. Being evocative of Spanish life to being with, Albeniz’ music translates beautifully to the guitars, sounding like it was written for them all along. Their suitability to the task is enhanced by their having studied with some Spanish musicians and even working with the great Spanish pianist Alica de Larrocha. The sound of multiple guitars has long had a special attraction for me, and the Trio’s version of the Albeniz classic will probably push aside even de Larrocha’s original piano version in my listening preference from now on.
– John Sunier
A pair of unusual discs of Russian music close out our Classical section for this month…
ALLA PAVLOVA: Symphony No. 1 “Farewell Russia;” Symphony No. 3 – Russian Philharmonia Orch./Konstantin D. Krimets & Alexander Vedernikov – Naxos 21st Century Classics 8.557157:
This disc presents some of the most interesting contemporary Russian music I have heard in some time. Ms. Pavlova is a composer and musicologist who lived and worked in Bulgaria and Moscow until 1990 when she moved to New York. Her spiky chamber symphony “Farewell Russia” expresses her emotional return to Moscow after years of absence, finding it unrecognizable to her. However, the larger work here, the Third Symphony, is a gorgeous four-movement tonal neo-Romantic work inspired originally by the statue of Joan of Arc on Riverside Drive where Pavlova lives in NYC. However, there is no further program to the symphony. The fourth movement sounds a bit like very high quality film score music; it comes to a rather ecstatic climax that reminded me of a Scriabin symphony. The recording, made at the Russian Broadcasting Studios in Moscow, suffers from a rather harsh high end, but this very appealing symphony is well worth the bargain cost of the disc.
ANTON ARENSKY: Three Suites = “Basso Ostinato;” Silhouettes; Variations in C Major – Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky – Naxos 8.553768:
Speaking of Scriabin, his earlier piano music, as well as that of Rachmaninov, were among the influences on Arensky. They combined with his colorful version of the Russian Nationalistic style. There is some similarity to passages in the Borodin symphonies. The three suites are actually numbered 1, 2 & 3 and the second and third originated as transcriptions of suites for two pianos. The second might bring to mind Schumann’s Carnaval (musical characterizations of The Dreamer, The Buffoon, The Dancer, etc.) and the structure of the third is basically an Andante theme followed by nine variations. The first suite takes its name from the fourth of its five movements, a basso ostinato. Splendid stuff, and played with great elan by the Moscow forces. The Russians still prefer recording in studios rather than concert halls or churches, which is unfortunate, but the sound is listenable even if not exhibiting natural acoustics.
– John Sunier