CLASSICAL CDs , Pt. 2 of 2 - January 2002

Acclaimed Pianist Martha Argerich in two recent CDs...

CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 65; FRANCK: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major (played on cello); DEBUSSY: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor; CHOPIN: Polonaise brillante Op. 3 - Mischa Maisky, cello/Martha Argerich, piano - DGG 289 471 346-2:

The Russian cellist and the pianist I personally feel is the most exciting pianist performing today began playing together as a duo 25 years ago and are still going strong. Both have a certain fire and excitement in their playing that raises their versions of all these duos a cut above even the most perfect recordings by their competition. Recorded during a live concert in Kyoto in 2000, there is an additional air of excitement present, as live recordings often have. Recent improvements in digital recording gear make it possible to have as perfect sonics in a live situation as in a more controlled studio recording, and with performers at the high level of these two there is no worry about having to splice in corrected sections later to cover major clams. The Debussy is a glorious piece, and though I wouldn't be without David Oistrakh's electrifying live recording of the Franck violin sonata, Maisky makes a very strong case for its performance being even better on the lower-pitched instrument.
- John Sunier

Martha Argerich Live Recital - SCHUMANN: Fantasiestucke, RAVEL: Sonatine, Gaspard de la nuit - EMI Classics 57101-2:

Recorded live at the Concertgebouw a little over a decade ago, this unusual program pairs two composers not often sharing the stage. Perhaps the intent was to demonstrate the fantastic mental images and feelings that could be portrayed by genius composers via only the piano keyboard. The Romantic fantasy pieces of Schumann alternately represent his two sides - the strong and active Florestan and the dreamy, introspective Eusebius. The contrasts are clearly delineated by Argerich. Ravel's Sonatine is in an understated classic form free of fantastical pretensions, but Gaspard de la nuit, based on a satanic poetic vision by Aloysius Bertrand, is a masterpiece of theatrical tone-painting. I have several versions of this Ravel gem but Argerich brings to it a depth and dimension not heard in any of the others.

- John Sunier

Two more important additions from the Naxos American Classics series...

GEORGE TEMPLETON STRONG: Le Roi Arthur; Die Nacht - Moscow Symphony Orch./Adriano - Naxos American Classics 8559048:

New Yorker Strong lived a long life from the mid-1800's to l948. He was a friend of MacDowell and taught for a time at the New England Conservatory, but he spent the majority of his life in Switzerland. While, like MacDowell, his musical education occurred in Germany with influences of Wagner, Liszt and even Grieg, he should be considered an American composer. He wrote many orchestral works, chamber works and four cantatas. He loved Richard Strauss, Mahler, Glazunov and Ravel. The two symphonic poems on this CD date from the teens. The work based on the King Arthur legend is strongly influenced by Strauss and becomes practically Strong's own Heldenleben. In three connected movements it has leitmotifs for Arthur and Mordred, representing the forces of Good and Evil. While basically tonal, the work uses dissonance here and there for effect - Strong called it his "cayenne pepper." The suite The Night is a set of four miniatures representing different Romantic nocturnal aspects. They are: At Sunset, Peasant's Battle-March, In an Old Forest, The Awakening of the Forest-Spirits. Thanks to Naxos for bringing us these interesting neglected works by early American composers, previously only sporadically available in semi-professional recordings on small hard-to find labels or subscription services.

- John Sunier

CHRISTOPHER MOHR: From the Realm of the Shadow - Music drama in three acts - Soloists/National Choir and Symphony orch. of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar - Naxos American Classics 8559089-90 (2 Cds):

Composer Mohr began his epic work at the age of 19 and it developed over a period of 20 years. The wordless/vocalise choir immediately attracted me to the two-hour-long piece, as well as the many melodically-haunting tunes in the score. Talk about crossover - the music delves into such divergent styles as medieval, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Indian, early 20th Century, Microtonal, Balinese, folk, and rock. Mohr - a self-taught composer - expands his symphony orchestra to encompass Ukrainian folk instruments, harpsichord, celeste, vibraphones, saxes, synths, pipe organ, exotic percussion, sitar, early music instruments and more. Like Scriabin, this composer thinks BIG - he wanted to create the impression that all the music of the entire world was embraced by his piece. Among the unexpected sounds in the work are the various Ukrainian folk instruments and the 19-tone and 34-tone microtonal instruments.

The music drama explores pre-verbal or super-verbal aspects of human experience. At the beginning the soul is in perfect harmony but that is quickly shattered and for the reminder it attempts to reintegrate itself, eventually making healing connections and dissolving conflicts. The notes cue to the various tracks on the CDs so that a sort of play-by-play progress can be followed with the music. Definitely worth investigating, and at the reasonable Naxos price fully worth the financial risk. After all, it's not something you're going to ever hear your local symphony perform.

- John Sunier


Solo Piano Discs Times Four...

The Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Olga Kern - SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 9 "Black Mass," WAGNER LISZT: Liebestod, BARBER: Piano Sonata, SCHUBERT: Impromptu in B-flat Major, ZAIMONT: Impronta Digital, LISZT: Reminiscences de Don Juan - Harmonia mundi HMU 907289:
Antonio Pompa-Baldi. p. - SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4, POULENC: Caprice italien, CHOPIN: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, PROKOFIEV: Etude in D Minor Op. 2, No. 1; Maxim Phillippov, p. - RACHMANINOV: Preludes Op. 32 (complete) - Harmonia mundi HMU 907292:

How interesting and valuable to both the performers and their audiences to have CDs available right away from the Van Cliburn competition that took place in Ft. Worth this past summer. There should be a peak of interest following the PBS documentary film on the competition that was aired this fall. Of the discs I received, these two pianists - well, three - really stood out. Perhaps I was swayed by two of them including two of the best Scriabin piano sonatas on their programs, but both are very exciting performers from whom we should be hearing a great deal more. Kern has performed world wide as well as in Russia. She has a surety and enthusiasm in her interpretations, yet graced with great finesse in delicate passages. The Barber and Liszt Don Juan are the major pieces here and both shine. Kern was one of the two Gold Medal winners in the competition and was also featured in the PBS documentary.

Pompa-Baldi, while only a Silver Medalist, seems in comparison the more exciting pianist. He opens with a short Neapolitan caprice by Poulenc, leading one to believe he is a native of Naples, though that is not mentioned in his bio. The major work here is the second Chopin piano sonata and what a rousing performance it receives. The Scriabin Fourth is a clever follow-up since it marked a transition by the composer from a Chopin-influenced style toward a wilder, mystical idiom. Its complex and opaque chordal progressions don't faze the pianist in the least. The Prokofiev Etude brings Pompa-Baldi's remarkable program to a smash finish. The single work performed by pianist Philippov makes it difficult to access his approach, but he breezes thru the difficult Rachmaninoff Preludes with a Horowitz-like note perfection.

REYNALDO HAHN: The Bewildered Nightingale, 53 poems for piano - Earl Wild, piano - Ivory Classics 64405-72006 (2 Cds):

We have here the world premiere recording of these miniature sketches, impressions and thoughts penned over a 12-year period between 1899 and 1911 - a sort of musical travel journal kept by the sensitive and sentimental Venezuelan whose family originally settled in France when he was three. Many of the pieces are influenced by various French and German writers of the period; Hahn was also a man of letters and the best friend of Marcel Proust. There are short descriptions following the title of each piece in both French and English or German and English. These charming, beautifully-tailored works reminded me of the miniatures of Mompou. The CD edge reads "Passionate Impressionism" - OK, I'll go along with that. Many are as short as under a minute and by far the longest is eight minutes. They're not trying to scale Mt. Olympus, they're just modest little musical momentos. Kudos to Earl Wild and his CD label for bringing them to us for our enjoyment.

J.S. BACH: The Six Partitas for Keyboard - Andrew Rangell, piano - Dorian DOR-93242 (2 Cds):

Bach was 41 before he published his first work. It was what is now the first of these six partitas - to be followed by five more - one composed each year. The German, French and Italian keyboard styles were all influences on Bach's Partitas. Many of the movements retained their dance forms, but highly refined thru Bach's musical genius. There are a number of recordings of the complete Partitas, both on harpsichord and on the modern piano (plus one on clavichord). These are thoughtful and direct piano interpretations - certainly free of the idiosincrities of Glenn Gould, for example. The piano sound is clean and detailed. You don't need a "name" pianist for this excellent match of music, performance and sonics.

- John Sunier

Mostly Obscure Piano Concerto-rama!...

IGNAZ MOSCHELES: Piano Concertos No. 3 in G Minor & No. 5 in C Major - Ian Hobson, piano & cond./Sinfonia da Camera - Zephyr Z-119-01 (Distr. By Albany):
Prague-based Moscheles was one of the most famous pianist-composers of the first half of the l9th century but later fell into obscurity because of the greater appeal of later Romantic period composers for the piano. He was a close friend of fellow Jewish composer Mendelssohn, and his early piano Studies influence Chopin and Liszt. Hobson here brings us two of Moscheles' eight piano concertos. No. 3 was written primarily to show off the composer's virtuoso techniques on the concert stage and its third movement is an exhilarating romp, but No. 5 is more lyrical and freer. Hobson observes that his music often reminds one of composers not yet born, and that Moscheles' improvisatory feeling and unusual rhythms would have augured well for him as a jazz artist had he been born later. The adagio of No. 5 reminds one of two of the composer's musical heros: Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

HENRY LITOLFF: Concerto Symphoniques No. 3 in E Flat and No. 5 in C Minor - Peter Donohoe, p./BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./Andrew Litton - Hyperion CDA67210:
This CD brings up to 26 the series of this label's valuable contribution to the recorded piano concerto literature, The Romantic Piano Concerto. Litolff, who lived until 1891, was one of the very last of the great composer-pianists of the 19th century. His five piano concertos were spaced throughout his life and are distinguished by an eclectic variety of compositional styles. Litolff has been compared to Berlioz in his penchant for eccentric orchestral timbres and harmonic progressions. No. 3 is subtitled National Hollandais; it opens with a military air and quotes some Dutch folk tunes. No. 5 is a more complex and dramatic work on a grander scale. Its rondo finale is a highly original piece which includes a full fugue. Both concertos have passages alluding subtlely to Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, which was much played and admired by Litolff. Superb sonics and piano/orchestral balance from recording engineer Tony Faulkner.

Danish Piano Concertos Vol. 2 - AUGUST WINDING: Piano Concerto in A Minor; Concert Allegro for Piano & Orchestra in C Minor; EMIL HARTMANN: Piano Concerto in F Minor - Oleg Marshev, p./Danish Philharmonic Orch., South Jutland/Matthias Aeschbacher - Danacord DACOCD 581:
So with the piano concertos just above coming from Czech, Jewish, Alsatian and Scottish cultures; here's what the Romantic piano concerto sounded like in Denmark in the latter part of the 19th century. Winding is remembered today only for a few hymns. He was a close friend of Grieg, Emil Hartmann was his brother-in-law, and though his concerto is in the same key as Grieg's, it resembles more closely the music of Danish composer Niels Gade. It is full of virtuosic passages for the soloist, which often was Winding himself. Hartmann was the son of the famous Danish composer JPE Hartmann and his career was in the shadow of his father's position in music. A German reviewer at the time of the Concerto's first performance in Berlin called it "good German music" with suggestions of Weber. I found both concertos, and the mini-concerto centerpiece, tuneful and expressive works worth a place in the collection of any piano concerto freak like myself. Volume 1 in the same series features concertos by Siegfried and Rued Langggaard.

The Romantic Music of ERIK FUNK: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1996); Symphony No. 2 "Montana;" Rhayader ballet - Philip Aaberg, p./Latvian National Sym. Orch./Terje Mikkelsen - Big Sky Management RS 035:
Eric Funk is based in Bozeman, Montana and many of his over 80 compositions have been performed worldwide. His style generally leans away from the diatonic but these three works are more accessible with interesting structure and orchestral writing. The three movements of the concerto are labeled Prologue, Dialogue and Epilogue. Written for pianist Aaberg, it attempts to portray the high plains of Montana near the Canadian border - an area both composers were familiar with in their youths. There are plenty of opportunities for the versatile Aaberg (who performs rock, new age and country as well as classical) to demonstrate his technical prowess. The Montana symphony uses a neo-Romantic style to depict the pristine beauty of the "big sky" country of the state. The last of its three movements is a country dance. (The composer's own web site is at

- John Sunier

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