All the Way Back = SMETONA: Capriccio in D Major; BACH: Prelude and Fugue in c-sharp minor, WTC I; BRAHMS: Intermezzo in b-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2; SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17; LISZT: Funerailles; CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23; Mazurka in f minor, Op. 7, No. 3; Mazurka in c-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4; Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2 – Vytautas Smetona, piano – Navona Records NV5992, 76:22 (4/14/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Lithuanian-American pianist Vytautas Smetona had a fairly active career – and one recording – up until 1983, when, after his recital at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, he retired from active concert life. Here, he appears refreshed in a dual role of composer and performer, his formidable technique at the Steinway Hamburg “D” (rec. November 2013-May 2014) applied to music that illustrates various aspects of his artistic prowess. His own Capriccio in D (1982) derives its energy from Bach’s Three-Part Inventions, with that composer quick on the heels in the Prelude and Fugue in c-sharp minor, intoned in clarion and fleet style that rings with the elan of joyful return.
The rainy-day Intermezzo in b-flat minor of Johannes Brahms (1892) long served the temperaments of Rubinstein and Horowitz. Smetona relishes its moody colors, which insist upon dolce and espessivo figures, molded into syncopated and shifting metrics, with a melancholy D-flat Major counter-subject. Whatever penchant Smetona claims for miniatures disappears with the first chords of Schumann’s massive Fantasy in C Major (1836), conceived as a monument both to Beethoven and to Clara Wieck. Beethoven finds his way into the score at points within the first and last movements, with selected quotations from the song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte and in the third movement from the A Major Symphony. The sweep and expansiveness of the musical line – utilizing an ascending fourth motif and a corresponding five-note descent which we ascribe to Clara Wieck – reflect the passions, musical and personal, that consumed Schumann at the time. The “legendary” episode of the first movement speaks to Schumann literary and imaginative persona, which often conceives motion in the form of a folk-march or “crusader’s” fairy-tale.
Smetona has a natural affinity for Schumann; and, as we had already heard in his Brahms, he possesses a piercing, fearsome trill. No less praiseworthy, Smetona’s capacity to project intimacy (innigkeit) in Schumann, becomes a major attribute of his conception, which obeys the mercurial laws of this brilliantly wayward composition. The magnificent, elastic arch of the music Smetona maintains with a sustained aggression that does not preclude Eusebius’ appearance in the midst of fervent, sanguine enthusiasm. In the drooping figures we can already hear intimations of the famous Romance in F-sharp Major, which seems a blueprint for the Schumanns’ beleaguered relationship.
The often clamorous march of the Massig – Durchaus energisch second movement Smetona reins in, although we feel that the restraints on the dotted sixteenths could easily collapse. The counterpoints dance with relatively light feet, given that Beethoven’s Op. 101 treads behind them. The askew accents of the contrasting middle section, for all their dislocations in meter, align themselves to the intimate nature of the angst. The last movement, based on aspects of the Moonlight Sonata and the late E Major, Op. 109, allows us to relish Smetona’s sustained legato, a factor that engages us in the D-flat Major Nocturne by Chopin. The liquid character of the Schumann conforms to the poetic impulse “outside” the music itself – but the engagement of keys: A-flat and D-flat, especially employing a Neapolitan sixth chord in root position, much as Chopin in his Ballade in g minor – keeps the music emotionally unstable, away from C Major, much as Tristan und Isolde avoids the inevitable denouement to this same key. We might claim a rhetoric of desire common to each of these composers, well documented in Smetona’s recital.
The Funerailles (1849) from Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques et religieuses pays homage both to the fallen Chopin and to those Hungarian patriots who perished in their fight against the Hapsburgs in 1848. Smetona performs the opening syncopes as a form of the Dies Irae, and then proceeds to a dolorous processional of two themes of nostalgic character bound by a minor second and sense of drumbeats. For the most demanding third section – and most akin to the Heroic Polonaise of Chopin – Smetona carries off the octaves in three with frenzied resolve, as befits an ethos similar to Tennyson’s ride of the six hundred at Balaclava. Quite a striking performance, and thoroughly in the Liszt style.
The Chopin group opens with two mazurkas, each of which calls for accents on the third beat that sometimes soften into a waltz hybrid. The more massive of the two, that in c-sharp minor, lulls some fine metric and color nuances from Smetona. The keyboard’s capacity to sing bel canto infiltrates the Nocturne in D-flat Major (1836), played by Smetona as though he were well familiar with the inscription by Dinu Lipatti. Redolent thirds and sixths soon evolve into expressive fioritura that rener the piano a vocal coloratura instrument of uncommon beauty. The chromatic line dissolves into a truly fine, diaphanous bubble of double sixth chords. Finally, we have Chopin’s answer to Beethoven’s “Appassionata Sonata,” the Ballade No. 1 (1831) after Adam Mickiewicz. Smetona balances the declamatory and bravura filigree with deft touches on the keys and on the pedals. Smetona takes the E-flat Major theme slowly, con amore, with touches of bells. The slowed down version of the first part of this tune builds a ferocious tension that becomes stratified, presto con fuoco, the fire often transforming into air or liquid. The coda, as per expectation, bristles with inflamed chromatic harmony that at once thunders, cascades, and explodes with all the tempestuous conceits of Byronism.