Legendary Artist Michael Ponti, piano = Concertos of RUBINSTEIN, ALKAN, & THALBERG – Doron

Legendary Artist Michael Ponti, p. = RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in d minor, Op. 70; ALKAN: Concerto da Camera No. 2 in c-sharp minor, Op. 10; THALBERG: Piano Concerto in f minor, Op. 5 – Michael Ponti, p./ Philharmonia Hungarica/ Othmar Maga (Rubinstein)/ Southwest German Ch. Orch./ Paul Angerer (Alkan)/ Berlin Sym. Orch./ Volker Schmidt-Gertenbach (Thalberg) – Doron DRC 4026, 60:09 (6/2/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:  

Virtuoso pianist Michael Ponti (b. 1937), winner of the 1964 Busoni Competition, came to my attention in Atlanta, Georgia, when he performed the Bartok Second Concerto, the same work with which he had made his Vienna debut with Wolfgang Sawallisch. When we met backstage, I staked Ponti to a well-earned cup of coffee.  These reissues of relatively rare concert repertory have been licensed from Vox Records, which recorded these works 1968-1979. Ponti made a career – prior to his debilitating stroke that has since rendered useless his right arm – of performing the most fiendishly difficult and often occult concert works, including all of Scriabin and much of the virtuoso Romantic repertory usually consigned to the wayside of the mainstream.

The 1830 Concerto da camera No. 2 of Charles Valentin Alkan (rec. 1979) presents us a one-movement work that bustles in rather perpetual motion from its opening measures. The string tissue alternates between aggressive tremolando passages and silken legatos.  The keyboard part, besides exploiting thundering octaves, offers Ponti some lusciously mesmerizing filigree – in the manner of a nocturne – whose natural lyricism will suggest the best of Saint-Saens, the strings plucked delicately beneath a serene series of arpeggios.  The da capo brings back the urgent and potent leaps and runs with which the piece opened, the string line indulging in long-held notes and short punctuations.

Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) enjoyed an esteem that rivaled that of Franz Liszt.  His Piano Concerto (1829) came to the attention of the young Clara Wieck in Leipzig as a splendid vehicle for her gifts.  Much of the Concerto (rec. 1973) hearkens to a style that rests between Chopin and Italian opera buffa. The Allegro maestoso first movement enjoys an arching melody that loves to imbue trills and appoggiaturas in generous helpings. The orchestral part exists only to highlight the dexterity of the keyboard and add a colorful but peremptory ritornello.  One exemplary sequence pairs the piano with the solo woodwinds. Ponti’s light hand keeps the propulsion as diaphanous as it is brilliantly virtuosic.  The spectacular cadenza and coda share much of the pomposity we know from the Paganini style. The Adagio indulges the woodwinds before the keyboard enters with a reverie we might attribute to Mendelssohn or young Chopin. A horn joins the arietta before a delicate run trails away into the ether. A sprightly dance defines the concluding Rondo (Allegro), easily suggestive of the brilliant salon styles of Paris or Warsaw. The gambols and skips, rather frolics, on a lovely surface of embellished icicles. When the music becomes more militant, it certainly assumes a pompous grandeur of coloratura stage drama.

The 1864 Anton Rubinstein d minor Concerto (rec. 1968) has proved a colorful masterwork for several noted virtuosos, among whom number Sergei Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann, Raymond Lewenthal, and Oscar Levant.  A fine balance exists in the first movement Moderato assai between bravura and genuinely lyrical outpouring, with plenty of opportunities for poetic and grand gestures. Structurally, Rubinstein conforms to the sonata-form format with a natural sense of architecture, the momentum building up so as to set the model for both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Typical of those Russian composers who must assert their “learned” pedagogy, Rubinstein will insert contrapuntal writing that sometimes proves rather static dramatically. But the lyrical writing never fails to communicate effectively. Conductor Maga unleashes a torrent of sound for the potent last pages of this first movement to complement the titanic motions from Ponti.

The latter two movements of the Concerto – a sweet, nocturnal Andante and an Allegro in the style of a Krakowiak –  alternately project salon intimacy and unabashed motor excitement. The middle section of the second movement takes on a Lisztian color as the passions intensify.  The frenetic contours of the last movement may remind some of Mussorgsky for their visceral explosions of color, augmented by Lisztian acrobatics in the keyboard. The fluid playing from Ponti, supported by the fine orchestral detail from Maga, most closely rivals my preferred Levant/Mitropoulos inscription from CBS, which has always served as my personal yardstick for this eminently Romantic concerto.

—Gary Lemco

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