Pt. 3 of 3  April 2003
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All Music for Keyboards
Starting off with a quartet of international piano CDs, all from Naxos...
AKIO YASHIRO: Piano Concerto; Symphony - Hiromi Okada, p./Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa - Naxos 8.555351:
GRANADOS: Piano Works Vol. 6 - Pieces based on Spanish Folksongs, Three Impromptus and eight other short pieces - Douglas Riva, p. - Naxos 8.555723:
GEIRR TVEITT: Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra; Piano Concerto No. 4 “Aurora Borealis” - Havard Gimse & Gunilla Sussmann, pianos/Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset - Naxos 8.555761:
ERNO DOHNANYI: Piano Works Vol. 2- Capriccio in B Minor; Winter Dances (10 Bagatelles); Six Piano Pieces Op. 41; Three Singular Pieces Op. 44 - Lawrence Schubert, p. - Naxos 8.554800:

If you’re a fan of piano music, you can travel the world musically for over four hours for a total investment of $28 or less with this quartet of recent Naxos releases. Yashiro was a friend of the writer Mishima and the composer Mayuzumi. He studied under Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger in Paris and the Scherzo of his Symphony suggests Messiaen’s melodic approach. A strong Japanese feeling is present in the first movement of the piano concerto and the final toccata-like movement suggests Prokofiev and Bartok. The concerto’s sophisticated contemporary sound has made it very popular in Japan and it has been performed a few times in the West as well.

Although Granados’ colorful orchestral works are best known, he wrote a tremendous number of piano pieces, and this disc presents world premiere recordings of three of them. The longest work on the CD is the collection of settings of Spanish folksongs, running 25 minutes. No edition or manuscript of the music existed, but Granados had cut a Duo-Art piano roll recording of them in l916 and this was the basis for the written music. Most of the others also consist of imaginative re-arrangements of Spanish folk themes.

I recently reviewed Tveitt’s wonderful variations on Norwegian Hardanger tunes, also on Naxos. One of the most individual of his country’s composers of the last century, Tveitt was a pianist himself and wrote colorful and imaginative works featuring the instrument. These are two of them. To give a taste, the initial movement of the piano concerto has the title “The Northern Lights awakening above the autumn colours.”

Dohnanyi is not as well known as his Hungarian compatriot Bartok, with whom he recorded (on cylinder records) folk songs throughout Hungary. Busy as a conductor and teacher (I once attended once of his workshops), he didn’t have time to compose much. His Variations on a Nursery Song is just one of his many Late Romantic works featuring piano. Here are four more for solo piano, embedded with some of the folk songs he collected and others he created in similar style. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Bach Transformed is the subject of our next pair of CDs...

ROBIN HOLLOWAY (after J.S. BACH): Gilded Goldbergs for two pianos - The Micallef-Inanga Piano Duo - Hyperion CDA67360 (2 CDs, 2nd disc free):

Holloway explains his right to recompose Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations as due to first Bach’s practice of frequently transcribing other composer’s music, and second to the widespread re-composing of Bach’s own works by hundreds of composers who have lived since. He began simply, by transcribing some of the canons in the Goldberg which were idiomatic to a double-manual harpsichord but caused hand-collisions on the piano. This encouraged him to try more, the arrangements became more complex and eventually it seemed natural to enlist a second keyboard in the effort. He began to create parodies, to drop in quotes of other famous themes or styles. He felt Bach himself was not a stranger to humor - he says in the original Variation 10 he has his tongue in cheek.

Holloway’s friends played some of the variations with him and they had so much fun that his initial embarrassment about redoing Bach’s Goldbergs fell away and he was moved to intensify the odd things going on in the arrangements - some of which leave Bach’s original score way behind. He told himself “Go for the gilding and lose the guilt!” That’s how the work got its name. You’ll have to follow the notes while listening to appreciate everything in this score. Here’s just a few samples: He saw the original Variation 26 as dull and so pumped up its complexities with fun and games ending in a cascade of notes evoking Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. Variation 17 has cimbalom-like tremolos in homage to Bartok and Legeti. Variation 13 has one piano playing in G Major with the other in E Flat Minor, and both creating a background of bell-like Debussy/Ravel sounds. The British piano duo handle the challenges of this wild work with aplomb and their spirit of fun is apparent to the listener. This one is for the musically explorative with a sense of humor. Purchase Here

BACH: Suites Nos. 2, 4 & 6 - Jean Geoffroy, marimba - Skarbo D SK 1015:

OK, so this one doesn’t involve a keyboard instrument, but it’s certainly one closely akin to the piano - it’s “keys” are arranged the same way, it’s a percussion instrument just as is the piano, and marimba virtuoso Geoffroy isn’t playing a transcription - he is playing all the exact same notes from the keyboard score. Again, as with all the myriad other transcriptions of Bach’s works, it doesn’t loose anything but gains a fresh, more percussive and wooden tone that seems to point up the lines of counterpoint more than any keyboard version. This is not the first album of Bach on the marimba, but the others usually confined themselves to short Bach themes and favorite hits and it is pleasing to hear the three complete suites instead. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Here are Volumes 30 and 31 from the unique Hyperion series on The Romantic Piano Concerto...

SERGEI LYAPUNOV: Piano Concertos No. 1 in E Flat Minor, No. 2 in E Major, Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes - Hamish Milne, p./BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins - Hyperion CDA67326:
ROBERT FUCHS: Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor; FRIEDRICH KIEL: Piano Concerto in B Flat Major - Martin Roscoe, p./BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins - Hyperion CDA67354:

More obscure piano concertos that are well worth hearing, especially for fans of the form. None of these are designated as world premiere recordings, but undoubtedly they are superior in both performance and sonic quality to any earlier discings that may have been issued. Lyapunov was mentored by Balakirev and members of “The Five,” but his mature style was a bit more modern than theirs, yet not as avant as the later generations of Russians such as Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. His Second Concerto especially is in the Late Romantic style, but quite a different form of it from Rachmaninoff’s. Just sit back and be enthralled with all three of his piano-orchestra works so skillfully presented on this disc.

Fuchs was part of Brahms’ circle of friends and responsible for over 100 published works in many different forms. His conservative works - his serenades were especially popular - made him an important composer in the late 19th century, but after Brahms’ death he was forgotten. His concerto became one of Brahms’ favorite works. Its second movement is a beautiful chorale introduced by the strings and continued by the piano.
Kiel was paired with Fuchs on this CD because their stories were so similar. Both only composed a single piano concerto though both were excellent pianists. Both were too modest to really promote their works, and although for a time both were admired for their music, they soon slipped into obscurity. His concerto is in the style of Beethoven with touches of Chopin and Schumann, but stands on its own extremely well. The piano-orchestral balance on these recordings, all made in Glasgow’s City Hall, is exemplary. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Two highly contrasting solo piano discs are next...

SCHUMANN: Carnaval Op. 9; Sonata No. 1 in F Sharp Minor Op. 11 - Evgeny Kissin, piano - RCA Victor 09026-63885-2:

Perhaps because I once struggled to play it myself, I normally find Schumann’s Carnaval a big snooze for me. Not so in Kissin’s spectacular interpretation. He stresses the charm, wit, satire and good cheer of the work that I didn’t even realize was there. The 22 brief character pieces of Carnaval are sort of like a minimalist sketch for Pictures At An Exhibition. The composer was only 26 when he wrote both works, and had fallen in love with Clara Wieck, who was to become his wife. She inspired the very emotional First Sonata. Kissin’s treatment of the work shows great attention to phrasing, timbre and other details to make its structure apparent and avoid the criticism often leveling that the work is rather formless. In both pieces great contrasts of mood are readily heard - Schumann’s alter egos Florestan and Eusebius - heralding his eventual serious mental illness. This a 96K PCM recording and for once Kissin’s piano doesn’t sound 30 feet wide. I found this the most perfect solo classical piano disc I’ve heard in a very long time and therefore highly recommend it. Purchase Here

MESSIAEN: Piano Music Vol. 4 - Les offrandes oubliees, Fantasisie Burlesque, Piece of the Tomb of Paul Dukas, Rondeau, Prelude (1964), La fauvette des jardins (The Garden Warbler) - Håkon AustbØ, piano - Naxos 8.554655:

Those familiar with Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux will find these later piano pieces in a similar vein but much less well-known. His resourceful approach to an alternative to Schoenberg’s serialism often turned to bird song for inspiration, and the half-hour-long three-movement suite inspired by the warbler is a fine example of this. In the Fantaisie Messiaen seems to put aside his Catholic and birdsong leanings and kick up his heels with an honest-to-gosh ragtime-influence. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

GIOVANNI MARIA TRABACI: Keyboard Music, Book I of 1603 = Ricercari, Canzoni Francesi, Capricci, Canti Fermi, Gagliarde, Partite su Ruggiero, Partite su Fedele, Toccate, Durezze & ligature, Consonanze Stravaganti, Io mi son Giovinetto - Sergio Vartolo, harpsichord & organ - Naxos 8.553550-52 (3 CD boxed set):

Neapolitan Trabaci was an innovative composer during the 17 century and wrote some 165 works for the keyboard alone. Naples was under the rule of Spain at the time and some of the pieces show a subtle Spanish influence. As with his contemporary Frescobaldi, Trabaci’s music was designed to be performed on any keyboard instrument. He even makes reference in his notes to the 1603 collection in praise of the use of the harp - though since this was before the invention of the chromatic harp it is difficult to understand how this was possible. Another unusual fact about the music is that it is written on four staves as per Neapolitan practice, which makes sussing out the extensive counterpoint clearer but requires more work on the part of the keyboardist playing it.

The opening dozen Ricercari employ imitative counterpoint using the twelve theoretical modes of the period, and based on varying numbers of themes. Vartolo has at his disposal his own Spinettone, a small organ, and a larger harpsichord. He also plays a larger organ dating from 1556 installed in a church in Bologna which was the venue for all of these recordings. He varies performance of each selection among these four instruments for a variety of timbres, choosing the particular keyboard instruments that seems best suited to the particular piece. The last selection on the second of the three discs is a suite of eight Galliards; this was the dance of the period considered shocking, as the later waltz and tango were to be. It is the dance which Queen Elizabeth is doing in the painting where she is being lifted up in the air by her partner. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Speaking of pipe organ, here’s a pair of discs on that subject...

PETR EBEN: Das Orgelwerk Vol. 1 = Faust; Mutationes - Gunther Rost, organ of St. Martin, Memmingen - Motette CD 12911:

Eben hails from Czechoslovakia and is considered a leading composer in Europe, working in a variety of genres but having a special affinity with the organ and church music due in part to his strong religious conviction (similar to the late Messiaen). He also performs widely as an improviser on both organ and piano. The polarity of good and evil within one person was the idea he wanted to express in his nine-movement major organ suite, Faust. He did it with two completely different and contrasting styles in the one work: one solemn and stately, and the other based on the trivial superficiality of barrel-organ music. It’s best to follow the note booklet - this is not an obvious programmatic work but there are printed words to accompany some sections (they are not sung or declaimed). The penultimate Walpurgis Night movement is a corker with a waltz on the barrel-organ and a thundering Judgement Day finale.

Mutationes is a fascinating work for two organs- a great and a smaller organ. Since St. Martin's had only the one organ, an alternative was worked out with the composer’s assistance: the mics were located differently for the passages on the smaller organ to give a more chamber-music-like acoustic. Only a few registers were used to imitate the small organ vs. the large, and for sections where both organs were to play simultaneously, overdubbing on a four-track recorder was used. Eben’s style is thoroughly modern but generally tonal. Both of these fascinating works should appeal to more than just pipe organ aficionados. Purchase Here

American Works for Organ and Orchestra - BARBER: Toccata Festiva; WALTER PISTON: Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings; LEO SOWERBY: Concertpiece; MICHAEL COLGRASS: Snow Walker - David Schrader, organ/Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar - Cedille Records CDR 90000 063:

Great idea for an album! The Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago mounts a free orchestral series each summer and is the only remaining such municipally-funded outdoor classical series left in the U.S. This is their first CD and as you can see they don’t always play just pop concert favorites. Kalmar is the newly-appointed conductor of the Oregon Symphony.

Barber’s Toccata was created to show off the technical possibilities of a new organ in combination with a symphony and it is a brilliant virtuoso work. Piston’s piece is a WWII composition whose first part expresses the tragedy of the war. We return to a brilliant showpiece for organ and orchestra in the Sowerby work, and Colgrass’ work was inspired by a short time the composer lived with an Inuit family on Baffin Island. The Snow Walker is the Inuit image for both death and resurrection and its spirit is present throughout the five sections of the concerto. The recordings were made in Chicago’s acoustically-fine Orchestra Hall and this is the first recording of the new Casavant Freres organ recently installed there. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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