Josep Colom — Beethoven Late Sonatas, Chopin-Liszt Nocturnes — Eudora

by | Jul 18, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: The Late Sonatas & Bagatelles – Josep Colom – Eudora 1901- 2019: *****

CHOPIN-LISZT – B Minor Sonatas- Nocturnes Op. 62, Unstern-Sinistre- Josep Colom – Eudora SACD 2002 – 6/2020 – ****1⁄2

The Madrid based label, Eudora has been slowly but steadily producing some of the finest audiophile recordings of our time. Specializing in chamber music and solo piano and guitar recitals, Eudora offerings have unfailingly impressed in terms of auditory refinement, artistic perfection and programming innovation. Producer and sound engineer Gonzalo Noque has been astute in his choice of artists and repertoire. Among the astonishing guitar talents he has recruited for single recitals are the veteran Ricardo Guillen, Bin Hu and Petrit Ceku. In the same vein, another fretted instrument, the theorbo made a supreme statement in Jonas Norberg’ 2015 recording of Robert de Visee, rare auditory delectation in the category of Early Music. 

Eudora boasts a house artist in particular, Josep Colom, who  represents the best aspects of this label on four recordings of solo piano music. All the stars align on these recordings, starting with a marvelous instrument, a 1957 Steinway, the recording venue, the Auditorio de Zaragoza, and Senor Noque’s capable microphones which deliver a lucid sound image with just the right ambient cushion. Both producer and pianist seem inspired by softness; This is impressively in evidence on the recordings of the fretted instruments, but in the piano works, Colom performs wonders with the pianissimo passages, coaxing out serene contemplation simultaneously with the demand for alertness to whispered messages. This sonic delicacy finds its most auspicious application in the case of Chopin’s Nocturnes and the Ballades. 

On the evidence of four recordings, I assert that Colom is a major interpreter of Chopin. When I hear Chopin playing of this degree of sensitivity and polyphonic mastery, I usually hasten off to get my benchmark recordings by Ivan Moravec. In this case the comparison did no damage to the Catalunian Maestro, the same artistic virtues are in evidence– although it did point out a major discrepancy in sound quality. Moravec never had a piano like this in such an auditorium. However, this artist is not content to deliver up the standard recital packages in conventional form: Nocturnes, Polonaise, Mazurkas, etc. Rather he has endeavored to sharpen our ears by placing Chopin in a dialogue with other composers. In two earlier recordings Confluences and Dialogue (reviewed on these pages https://www.audaud.com/bach-chopin-josep-colom-confluences-eudora-review-by-fritz-balwit/ he juxtaposes Chopin with Bach ( in the former) and Mozart in the latter. It is startling to hear a Bach prelude segue into a Chopin Etude, but this is just what he does track after track with a short improvisatory passage that connects the two, like a brief incantation so as to conjure the other into a shared aesthetic space.  In Dialogue the conversation is between Mozart and Chopin. In this case rather more substantial pieces of Mozart are bridged to short Chopin meditations until the end when Chopin has the last work with an exquisite reading of the Ballade in G minor which segues from the Mozart Fantasy in C minor in which beguiles us by sounding so very like Chopin.

In a 2019 release of Beethoven, Colom again wishes to challenge the listener’s expectations. Here in the final three Sonatas, the very works which established the notion of the musical text as sacrosanct; the interpreter must chasten his own individuality in order to “discover” the higher purpose of the Genius. Well, Colom is having none of it. The first surprise is that he places two Bagatelles from the op. 126 set before each of the last three Sonatas. These are not offered as appetizers or filler but rather as a way into the big transcendental works. Finally he plays the final Arietta which is the quintessential moment of musical hypnotism at an uncharacteristically bright tempo. Suddenly we are hearing something like a new piece. Moreover, the playing is of a very high order; there is a crafting of tone that reminds me of Sviatislav Richter playing Schubert.  And at the same time all of the diverse and contradictory elements of Beethoven musical persona come through: raucous humor, despair, soaring affirmation and celebration. In short, this disc is a wonder of newness and reimagination by a considerable artist worthy of far greater attention.

This year Eudora has returned with a new Colom Chopin concept. On offer are the two B minor Sonatas by Chopin and Liszt with a couple of Nocturnes and a rarely heard late piece Unstern-Sinistre     (“Unlucky Star”). The conjunctions and disjunctions of these two composers; the listener is invited to puzzle through these over 82 minutes of challenging and exhilarating music. What do these two composers have in common? They were friends, of course. Each represented and championed the supremacy of instrumental music.  the only major composer with next to nothing for the voice. Chopin wrote just three pieces under the name of Sonata, Liszt just one. Yet these have no easy family pedigree to the classical sonata, the expressive and rhetorical style owe nothing to the language of Haydn or Beethoven.  Rather they exude the aesthetic confidence of Chopin secure in his aesthetic absorption of both Bachian polyphony and his own transcendental lyricism.  Liszt meanwhile doubts everything: his music fulminates and whispers but nowhere is there firm ground. Harmonies are undercut. A lovely melody (and there are many in Liszt) are just as likely to contort themselves into parody. If an ending is demanded, no ending will be given. There is symphonic reach and grasp but not much in the way of rules on how things go together. Perhaps the distinct place the B minor is that it seems relatively coherent and orderly as far as Liszt works. 

The third Chopin Sonata dates from 1844. The four movements sharply differentiate according to mood and techniques. A somber declamatory theme powers the opening Allegro Maestoso. While the Largo seems like a displaced Nocturne which is long enough to cast a deep spell or the kind one associates with this composer’s potent magic. But it is in the short Scherzo that Colom shows his deft touch and his super refined use of pedal and sustain on the lightest of zephyr inspired melodies. In the Finale, Colom ably communicates heady excitement and the piano sounds ravishing on  the many cascading glissandos and upward swooping flourishes. The two Nocturnes of op. 62 are unabashedly lovely; and here we have  the lightest playing ever, with a perfectly measured rubato; any excess here is fatal,  conducing to somnolence rather than wistfulness or rapture, according to the lister’s sensibility. 

Colom begins the Liszt half of the recital with Unstern-Sinistre. It begins with a jagged unison theme framed by the flatted fifth or devils tritone. It is a dark, knot of a theme, tentative and aloof. What follows is a puzzling business: Vehement dissonances, whole tone fragments, augmented chords that express frustration or accusation. There are moments of a slapping and pugilistic treatment of the keyboard which makes one worry about the safety of The 1957 Steinway but it bears up stoutly against such a demonstration. In fact, the dynamics are terrific throughout from the loudest clatter to a hushed almost cathedral conciliation at the end.

Unstern expires with an enigmatic pianissimo and leaves us wondering how this will be an entry way into the famous B minor Sonata which Afred Brendel proclaimed the greatest Sonata of them all and the culmination of the tradition. (The excellent liner notes in the Eudora disc echo this assessment)

 

As it happens the tritone arrives with the first theme an echo of the Faustian theme from Liszt great symphony Faustian theme from the Liszt symphony. However, this time the theme is more inquisitive. It seems to call for a more dialogic unfolding. The brooding Lento is followed by an Allegro energetico filled with drama and struggle. In Colom’s hands it is a joyous romp. The Andante turns the flatted fifth into a melancholic dream. It is one of this composer’s most affecting meditations. The final Allegro revisits the theme which is then treated to a breath-taking fugue with a superabundance of improvisatory gusto.  In the composers younger days as Europe’s most renowned performer, the “Paganini of the Keyboard”, Liszt famously would indulge in antics such as feigning spiritual exhaustion necessitating his managers to lift his depleted body off the piano and carry him off stage, only to have him stumble back after hysterical applause for an encore. There are moments of such furor in his playing that notion of collapse by performer or auditor seems not-farfetched. And yet in the end I believe this sonata leaves all of the demonical virtuosity behind. One feels like the music is both storm and mountain-top, the clash of the battle and the contemplation of the aftermath. In short both 19th century and truly modern. 

In short, Colom’s Liszt is a triumph. Eudora has delivered another superb disc which should find a wide and appreciative audience. 

—Fritz Balwit

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