Paganini Variations = LISZT: Grandes etudes de Paganini; BRAHMS: Paganini Variations, Op. 35; LUTOSLAWSKI: Paganini Variations for Two Pianos; RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Tzimon Barto, piano/ Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orch./ Christoph Eschenbach – Ondine ODE 1230-2D (2 CDs) TT: 85:22 (2/25/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Tzimon Barto (b. 1963) rejoins his musical sponsor and conductor Christoph Eschenbach (16 July 2010) for the one orchestral response to the A Minor Caprice from Niccolo’s Paganini’s Op. 1, the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, recorded at the Musik-und-Kongressshale Luebeck, Germany. The Rachmaninov serves as a culmination of a survey of Paganini studies that Barto himself executes on disc one, beginning with Liszt’s six studies (1838; rev. 1851), of which the third, La Campanella, remains the most familiar.
From the opening Preludio, we feel the captivating force of Barto’s potent technique, applied to the G Minor study in predominantly left-hand tremolos. The accompanying arpeggios and scales present seamless surges of powerful sonorities in pearly play and sensuous harmonies. Tonal elegance rules in the E-flat Major octave study, based on the Caprice No. 17. Some find Barto’s rubatos willfully exaggerated but never unmusical. The A-flat Minor La Campanella (“the little bell”) does not derive from the Paganini Caprices but rather from his B Minor Violin Concerto finale. Barto alters the tonal palette of this bravura vehicle in repeated notes, from diaphanous delicacy to a raging maelstrom of grand effects, but I will keep my preferred performance by Nojima. The ensuing Vivo, Arpeggio in E Major recreates Paganini’s First Caprice in keyboard equivalents of the violin’s bariolage technique. A transcription of Caprice No. 9, “La Chasse” allows us to savor Barto’s dolcissimo dynamic, and suave it is in its transition to the galloping sequence of chords that serve as an antiphon. The middle section glissandos project a bluster fully in keeping with Liszt-via-Barto. The A Minor, Quasi Presto, after Caprice No. 24 serves up the theme and its eleven variations in Barto’s polished style, playfully audacious. Barto can play exceedingly fast while maintaining a leggiero touch, a facility he likes to exploit, and rightly so.
Brahms conceived his two books of Paganini Variations in 1863, after his having moved from Hamburg to Vienna. The two sets assume the same compact form: theme, fourteen variants, and a sumptuous finale. The sheer lexicon of difficulties Brahms assembled for his “exercises” had Clara Schumann’s describing the opus as a Hexenvariationen, a witches’ variety. Barto negotiates the challenges in thirds, sixths, octaves, trills, staccatos, and awkward crossed-hands, all with astute aplomb, always hinting that he, Barto, could add yet another hurtle if he chose. What makes Barto engaging remains his color palette, proffering the Brahms demand for molto dolce on one extreme and energico or feroce on the other. The Book I, Variation 11, alla musette, proves as ingenuously captivating as its equivalent in the Handel Variations. Book I, Variation 19 spins a Hungarian gypsy eddy worthy of Liszt. Attaca to Book II, which you can be sure Barto assaults with the same inspired impetuosity that marks Book I. No. 4 of Book II plays as a melancholy waltz, Hungarian gypsy style. The No. 5 adds syncopations and a decisive lilt; then No. 6 runs into playful filigree which might have inspired Saint-Saens. The Tenth Variation propels us into massive chords that seem ready to be transposed into the B-flat Major Piano Concerto. No. 12 proffers a harmonized legato variation that reminds us of the Brahms waltzes and softer intermezzi. The penultimate Variation 13 might have been written in response to the posthumous variants for Schumann’s Op. 13, liquid and vaporous, at once. The coda urges a gallantly demonic conclusion to a set of Paganini Variations meant for bravura display.
Witold Lutoslawskiwrote his Variations on a Theme of Paganini in 1941 for two pianos, and here Barto performs both parts by means of over-dubbing. Acerbically witty, the often modal piece presents a paraphrase from the outset, often employing percussive effects that suggest a xylophone rather than a piano keyboard. The writing can be both thick and diaphanous alternately, juxtaposing competing metrics and sonorities from the two pianos. At moments, the writing clearly imitates boogie-woogie jazz effects. The superheated finale has the theme’s playing against itself in dazzling formation, concluding with a resounding thump. Bravo!
Perhaps the most efficient review of the long-familiar Paganini Rhapsody of Rachmaninov from Luebeck, Germany with Barto and Eschenbach would resort to praising Hans-Michael Kissing on the clarion success of his sound editing. The concept of the work, organized in three tableaux like an improvised sonata with a lovely Andante at Variation 16 (that culminates in Variation 18) and a brilliant set of bravura variants for a finale and coda, has been appropriated as a ballet, with a subtext of love-death, as soon as the Paganini caprice affixes itself to the ubiquitous Dies Irae in Rachmaninov’s ethos of mortality. The principals perform with a tender affection complemented by their absolute mastery of the work’s considerable technical demands.
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