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Friday, June 23, 2017

Rachmaninov, Rare Piano Transcriptions, Julia Severus, Piano

Yesterday, I spoke a little about how the romantic piano practice of rubato cascading became more harmonically daring in the hands of Scriabin and ended up further extended by a composer like Roslavets, but that by last mid-century modernist pianism had all but jettisoned the stylistic parameters which found its most eloquent practitioner in Liszt.

What such a scenario ignores is the figure of Rachmaninov. (Early Prokofiev aside, who was already very much more the modernist.) Like at least on the surface we think of Bach and his attention to fugal form even if in his later years it was no longer au courant. So Rachmaninov espoused the rolling romantic rubato when many of his compatriots had moved on. I would not want to suggest that Rachmaninov reached the sublime heights of Bach in his anachronistic endeavors. That is no doubt unfair. How many composers would you put alongside Bach in any way? Very few.

Rachmaninov (1873-1943) stayed stylistically where he began, for the most part. Of course he excelled in lyric effusions and left us with some beautiful piano music that transcends time in the best ways.

For those like me who cannot get enough Rachmaninov piano works, there are today a batch of them that you no doubt have never heard, at least not like this. I speak of the recent CD of Piano Transcriptions (Naxos 8.573468). On it is Rachmaninov's transcription of the  "Suite in D minor," which was discovered only in 2002, along with a transcription of the Intermezzo from Aleko, plus 21 of his songs, transcribed for solo piano by Rachmaninov and six other composers, including the pianist on this collective program, Julia Severus.

She is most definitely in her element with this music. A more sensitively romantic but never overly gushing exponent of this rare music would be hard to find.

Many of these pieces, indeed most are in first recordings. The songs in their original form contained involved piano parts, so that the transcriptions carry over the extraordinary pianism and integrate it fully into the solo realm.

Perhaps not everything to be heard on the program is an absolute masterpiece, but then some come close. For those for whom the Rachmaninovian path is one you long to linger on, this small fork into more vistas will doubtless delight you.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Roslavets, Complete Works for Solo Piano, Olga Andryushchenko

Nicolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1881-1944) is currently at best a footnote in the history of Russian 20th century modernism. Yet Stravinsky at one point called him "the most interesting Russian composer of the 20th century." Now there is a chance to explore his work in depth on the recent 2-CD set Complete Works for Solo Piano (Grand Piano 743-44).

Olga Andryushchenko does the duties as the pianist throughout. Her fluid readings seem expressively right for the music. Roslavets was a victim of Soviet disapproval and so never got a lot of exposure or recognition. This complete piano set includes a good deal of undiscovered and reconstructed works that see the light of day here for the first time. Many are first recordings. It is much more involved than one has a right to expect from a long-unknown. There is a kind of pristine coming-into-being to be heard with great profit if you give the music a chance.

The music is programmed to follow roughly a chronological order. The first period of his music, say 1914 through 1916, finds the composer in a rather Scriabinesque mode. From around 1917 through 1923, the influence remains in terms of a poetic rubato, yet further modernizes in terms of an idiosyncratic tonal ambiguity and the use of what Roslavets called "synthetic chords."

To get the maximum out of Roslavets, you need to cast away expectations and let the music itself work its way into your listening mind. It is something a Scriabin enthusiast (such as myself) will see as a further step into a modernism that mostly dead-ended but in the hands of Roslavets convinces and holds its own even though the vibrant currents of modernism by mid-century had largely jettisoned the cascading rubatos that Roslavets embodies in his very own way.

Why the Soviet Union party censors should see this music as objectionable need not detain us much. Clearly they found any kind of formalism, or any kind of autonomous musical striving counter-revolutionary. All must be an arm of propaganda. Sometimes composers were able to satisfy the dictates of social realism or circumvent them and still make great music and keep on. Roslavets could not find a way and more's the pity.

At least with this two-CD set we are treated to some exceptional music that deserves our respect and admiration. I find the music much to my liking. It has a brilliance of its own and that mysterious cosmic quality that Scriabin pioneered. But it stands or falls as Roslavets. It stands.

Recommended for Russophile modernists and anyone interested in the trajectory of modern solo piano, surely.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Stewart Goodyear, Ravel, Piano Music

Some composers and compositions have formed such a seminal part of my life experience that they have become important residents of my "permanent" musical mind. The piano music of Ravel (Orchid Classics 100061) qualifies in very absolute ways. When particular works enter into my imaginary shrine of eternal verities, they usually do so in terms of my memory of specific performances that I either first heard at a younger age or versions that I have since come across that somehow have redefined my vision of what the music is about.

For Ravel's solo opus I fell upon Samson Francois's 3-LP set on Seraphim many years ago and it has ended up as a benchmark standard for comparison. The versions are not in any way flashy but carve out each musical statement with a care and a fidelity that seem close to what the composer himself heard. I have not had time to audition any of the other complete opus recordings, though I've experienced enough Gieseking Ravel that I imagine his set would be ravishing. A real ear-opener was the old Everest Archive of Piano release of Ravel playing his own music on the touch sensitive player piano that was state-of-the-art in his day. The piano roll transcription of "La vallee des cloches" from Miroirs was one of those revelations you can get when you hear the composer's own version of something for the first time. It is the opposite of a virtuoso approach, slow, brooding, atmospheric, lingering over every note so that the "Valley of Bells" as just that came through like never before for me.

With all of the above as a prologue. . .  I was interested to receive pianist Stewart Goodyear's Ravel, a single CD compendium of some of Ravel's most beautiful pieces. Goodyear has fabulous technique which he puts to brilliant use on movements that can be taken much faster than the norm, so that a shimmer of pulsatingly ecstatic passagework transforms the music to something excitingly other at times.

Yet when appropriate Goodyear can dig into the pastoral and/or reflective sort of lyricism that "Le vallee des cloches" or "Pavane pour un infante defunte" demands.

We are treated to the sort of dual polar readings he excels in--with the music of "Jeux d'eau," "Sonatine," "Miroirs," "Gaspard de la nuit," and the "Pavane."

In the end Goodyear brings an exceptional beauty and sparkling dazzle to these works that is nothing short of extraordinary. I still cling to the Francois and Ravel LPs as a sort of bedrock given for these works, yet I find Goodyear opens other vistas for me, other ways to hear much of this music. Anyone who already loves these pieces as I do will find in the Goodyear spirit a new take on it all. It is tour de force pianism, sometimes incredibly exciting.

Recommended with no reservations whatsoever!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bernard Rands, Vincent, Arthur Fagen, Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus

I suppose it had to happen eventually. That is, an opera based on the life of Van Gogh. It took until 2011, when composer Bernard Rands completed the two-act Vincent (Naxos 8.669037-38), now available as a two-CD recording by soloists and the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus under Arthur Fagen. It is a sometimes lyrical, sometimes agitated or otherwise dramatic recounting of Van Gogh's life in essence, from his disastrous experience as a salesman in an art gallery, his struggles to find his style, his closeness to brother Theo, the Arles triumphs and anguish, the fight with Gauguin and Vincent's breakdown and death.

All is handled with taste and appealing musical values, a healthy dash of modernism a la post-Wozzeck and a sure theatrical flair. I will confess that the idea of an opera rehashing the tragic life of the brilliant painter did not on first blush appeal to me. His life story has entered the pop-folk vernacular of the misunderstood artistic genius and in some ways given us a romantic myth that may provide a cautionary tale of how one can never be sure of talent when a great one could possibly be living among us, but otherwise perhaps justifies a kind of collective shrug of the shoulders when it comes to modernism and its supposed inscrutability.

Nonetheless I have immersed myself in the work and come out with a positive feeling about it. It is constructed with the sort of event arc conducive to gaining an absorbed audience attention. And in the end J. D. McClatchy's libretto meshes with the well-wrought score to maintain and grow the dynamic tension necessary to experience the life story and its very sad yet triumphant end points. There are brilliant moments that musically match the anguish of the main character.

Arthur Fagen, the effective soloists and the amassed Indiana University singers and musicians all give us a convincing and intense reading of the score.

This is a good one for you who want to keep abreast of developments in modern opera today.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Vitezslav Novak, In the Tatra Mountains, Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra can be counted on to do justice to late-romantic, proto-impressionist scores. And so they do us a real service handling the ins and outs of composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) and his In the Tatra Mountains (Naxos 8.573683).

As can be heard in this three-work program, Novak was a Bohemian Nationalist who constructed vast panoramas that perhaps owed something to Dvorak but took the music into the 20th century in his own way.

The three works open Novak's musical world with a maturity and a sense of motion and tone color painting that mark him as talented and eloquent.  You can hear echoes of Bohemian folk music but indirectly for the most part, as if reflected by distance and wide spaces in woodlands or mountains.

Each of the three have character and very worthy orchestrations. They seem descriptive but well beyond a literal program. And so as we immerse ourselves in the title work "In the Tatra Mountains" (1902), and the following pieces, "Lady Godiva - Overture" (1907) and "Eternal Longing" (1905). We linger in expressively evocative worlds, now pastoral, now in a terrain of inner feelings and passions, always with a sense of proportion and contrast.

Novak may be pretty well forgotten to most of us, but Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic give us very musical reasons to revel in his rediscovery. The three works give us much substance and pleasure. And so there is a good deal to appreciate on this disk.

Recommended.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bach, The Art of Fugue, Stephanie & Saar

Johann Sebastian Bach's  1748 The Art of Fugue (New Focus Recordings FCR 181, 2-CDs) is one of a handful of his most sublime works. He composed it in his final years, a part here and there unfinished, never specifying the instrumentation or tempo, yet giving us a soaring set of 14 fugues and 4 canons based on a single theme. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the cannon of great works. I've had various versions of it throughout my lifetime. The mostly single piano four-hand version by DUO Stephanie & Saar rivals and possibly surpasses them all,

Why? The utter seriousness of the music, its incredible power is given to us undiluted, aesthetically sound yet not overly florid, tempos seeming just right, now lingering and contemplative, now expressing great depth of feeling and strength. The notes themselves are the central focus, with enough interpretive feeling but never too much. The parts are articulated with a clarity of purpose so that we continually hear the equal unfolding of fugal voices, never missing the contrapuntal whole that is so critical for a full understanding of this masterpiece.

The fugal Bach surpasses its times to speak across all time. Indeed the "Art" is within that select grouping as perhaps the highest of expressions of Bach's razor-sharp otherworldliness. Words cannot begin to do justice to the music.

All I can do is point you towards this version. Your ears will do the rest. Let your mind boggle!






Thursday, June 15, 2017

44 Waltzes on 88 Keys, Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak, Ravel, Peter Schaaf

When you do not know what you want to listen to, you may want to hear pianist Peter Schaaf's 44 Waltzes on 88 Keys (Schaaf Records 102). That may sound facetious but I am quite serious.  It is what the title suggest, waltzes. Little miniaturist gems both familiar and not, by the likes of Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak and Ravel. Everybody will doubtless know the Ravel, much fewer the Dvorak, but all have a special something that takes the music well beyond the salon per se (we do not have salons anymore regardless) and into the realm of pure music (which thankfully many of us still need and demand).

An important key to it all is Peter Schaaf. Most of the waltzes have a periodicity and symmetry that have generally been expected of the form over the years. Excepting Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales" they have brilliance but also a dominant regularity of waltz form. They give a world-class pianist an interpretive set of possibilities that includes rubato, dynamic variations, subtle articulations, varied attacks and whatever else seems fitting to the artist in his or her vision of what a performance might sound like. Of course a supremely endowed pianist may make a love-fest of pretentious over performativity out of works like this, if "taste" is not sufficiently present.

Peter Schaaf has the ability to keep the musical content foremost while engaging in convincing interpretive readings. The Ravel, most inviting to the interpretive arts, has a subtle beauty in Schaaf's hands. Like the more straightforward waltz pieces in this delightful program, the readings wear well and bring to the forefront the brilliance of the composers involved.

Schaaf makes of it all a great pianistic outing. I do not fail to respond to this program, no matter what mood I may be in, and I have been in definite moods lately so I am confident in my reactions.

44 Waltzes is a kind of triumph of musicality. I heartily recommend it! Schaaf makes the experience a true pleasure.