BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles for Piano, Op. 126; SCHUMANN: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6; PROKOFIEV: Sarcasms ‒ Nikita Mndoyants, piano ‒ Steinway & Sons 30075, 64:41 ****:
A study in contrasts, perhaps, but this fascinating recital has the proper glue to hold it together.
I was immediately attracted to this recital album by the program. What a clever choice we have here: Beethoven’s finest piano cycle, if we can call it that, perhaps Schumann’s most personal collection of character pieces, and then Prokofiev at his most uncompromisingly modernist—bagatelles for the 20th century.
Even though the Bagatelles, Op 126, are a disparate group with no program, overarching or otherwise, the notes to this recording tell us that musicologist Lewis Lockwood found “the key relationships between the pieces progress in a succession of descending major thirds.” This is, of course, something an ultra-sensitive listener might intuit, but in any event the pieces, alternating slow-fast, form the same kind of pleasing whole that the composer’s multimovement late string quartets do. That is, a whole on Beethoven’s terms. The pieces are also a fascinating compendium of late-Beethoven compositional traits. The most immediately striking pieces are the fast numbers: No. 2, Allegro, seems like a dialog between two speakers, the first fiery and unquenchable, the second reasoned, restrained. Finally, the outspoken one gets the upper hand as the music devolves into a wild jumble of chords, a passage that alternates with quieter music that still manages to seethe. The first Presto (No. 4) gallops along in the manner of a wild scherzo until out of nowhere comes a gentle passage that proceeds at a jog trot. The two sections alternate, the gentle one winning out in the end. No. 5, Quasi allegretto is Beethoven at his most serene but with more than a hint of longing. The last Presto (No. 6) holds the biggest surprise, the two wild, brief Presto sections bookending a gently dancing central section.
“Longing” certainly characterizes much of Davidsbündlertänze, written shortly after Clara Wieck and Schumann became secretly engaged. In the first number of the set, marked Lebhaft (“lively”), Schumann alludes to a mazurka from Clara’s Op. 6 Soirées Musicales. He confessed his great happiness while he was writing the piece and wrote to Clara of the “many wedding thoughts” the work contains—clearly, this is a highly personal creation, an extended love letter to Clara as so many of Schumann’s compositions are. But at this point in their relationship there was hope along with the longing, reflected perhaps in the very nature of Davidsbündlertänze—a succession of dances. And Schumann’s markings are a key to the general mood. He asks for humor twice: in No. XII (Mit Humor) and No. XVI (Mit guten Humor). Einfach (“simple”) and Frisch (“fresh”) are repeated markings too. And there is only one of Schumann’s favorite markings: Innig (“inwardly”). It’s hard to be withdrawn when you’re dancing! As with the Beethoven work, the pieces alternate between fast and slow, wild and wooly followed by the gently reflective. With Schumann, these sharp contrasts are a function of his two alter egos, the impetuous Florestan and the dreamy, introspective Eusebius. For me, Eusebius’s finest moments come in No. VII, Nicht schnell (“not fast”). The longest piece in the collection, it is in Schumann’s most tender parlando style—a love letter, spoken aloud. Right after this, in No. VIII, Frisch, Florestan kicks up his heals in an almost comical rejoinder. In fact, Davidsbündlertänze seems more the extrovert Florestan’s show than Eusebius’s, though Eusebius gets the last word in the wistful No. XVII, Wie aus der Ferne (“as if from faraway”) and the gently waltzing No. XVIII, Nicht schnell.
If you’d been listening to the disc without a pause, the next sounds you’d hear would be jarring to say the least: machine age music by the young (24-year-old) Prokofiev. The first number in the set, a mad little march marked Tempestoso, is followed by a skittery wraith of a piece, flitting here and there over the keyboard. The third piece is a pounding, motoric jog, while the fourth piece lives up to its marking: Smanioso (“anxious”). The final number, marked Precipitosissimo, starts as a series of banged-out chords but then becomes anything but precipitous: a sluggish succession of chordal passages with a final fade to black. Is this the ultimate sarcasm in the work?
As I’ve suggested, this is an intelligently planned program with tons of contrasting material bound to keep a pianist emotionally engaged. And I feel that Nikita Mndoyants hits all the right notes emotionally, conveying Schumann’s musical love letters with the same integrity as he does Prokofiev’s modernist musings. This is all wonderfully expressive music, in such wonderfully different ways; and while I have other recordings of all of it, I will probably return as often to Mndoyants’ well-crafted interpretations as to those others. Not incidentally, this fine pianist won first prize in the 2016 Cleveland and 2007 Paderewski International Piano Competitions and was a finalist in the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. He also composes; if his compositions are as interesting as his programming, I’d like to hear some of them.
Despite the lack of any information about the piano used in this recording (a Steinway, I’m pretty sure) or the venue, the sound is full and rich. Recommended, certainly.
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