Category Archives: CD

Bartok: Piano Works

 

Andor Foldes (piano)

Eloquence DGG 480 7100 (4CDs)

TPT: 212’ 06”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

 

In the 1950s, South Africa was very far from the main highways of the international concert circuit. So, when Andor Foldes arrived to give concerts in Johannesburg and Cape Town, it was a visit of considerable consequence. His African itinerary began as far north as Kenya and then, travelling ever southwards, there were concerts as well in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – in Bulawayo and then-Salisbury – and then the Union of South Africa (as it was then known).

 

Bartok CDFoldes played concertos with orchestras in Johannesburg and Cape Town – and the works he performed were mainstream – Mozart and Beethoven.  But there was another, very significant, arrow to Foldes’ bow.

 

He’d studied with Bartok and was a passionate advocate for his compatriot’s music, specially that written for piano.

 

In Cape Town, apart from his work with orchestra, Foldes met, and played for, members of the South African Society of Music Teachers (SASMT). Much of Foldes’ repertoire was by Bartok which in those days was considered ultra-modern – and its performers very daring. Those piano teachers who’d attended that meeting and listened to Foldes at the keyboard were agog; it was a startling, completely new sound- and mood-world which Foldes revealed.

 

Its complex rhythmic patterns – and unusual and sometimes grating dissonances –  triggered gasps of astonishment (I was told  later). The sonic and stylistic Bartokian world that Foldes revealed at that long-ago performance was so unexpected, so startling, even shocking, that it made an indelible impression on those present.

 

If Foldes’ intention was to carry the flag for his compatriot, it was an immensely

effective way to do so.

 

Within weeks of his visit, a shipment of some of Bartok’s piano scores (brought by Union Castle Line steamers which plied weekly between Cape Town and Southampton) arrived. Far and away the most popular of these works was Bartok’s Five Rumanian Dances.  To this day in South Africa, it’s very often heard in local eisteddfodau.

 

Foldes’ keyboard wizardry is abundantly present in an Eloquence 4-CD pack. It’s on compact discs for the first time. It is one of most significant and worthwhile re-issues of earlier recordings in the Eloquence series.

 

He does wonders with the material; his recordings have the stamp of the highest authority, a magnificent tribute to the composer’s genius – and one of his chief interpreter’s most significant offerings.

 

Foldes plays Bartok’s Out of Doors suite with an understanding of style and mood which totally engages the listener. (This was a particular favourite of the composer who frequently played it when stressed by health or financial problems. It brought him an inner peace.)

 

Much the same can be said of just about everything in this collection. Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs is pure delight as is a confrontingly muscular account of Allegro barbaro.

Grigory Sokolov (piano)

 

Schubert, Beethoven, Rameau

DG 479 5426

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

SokolovDuring the years when I taught music criticism, I would, early on in the course, ask how many of the students had listened to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier piano sonata, either ‘live’ or  recorded. Not a single student had done so. And during a lifetime of working as a critic, I recall only a very few occasions when I was able to listen to a ‘live’ account of this extraordinary work.

 

Its physical demands are so immense and its ideas so complex and taxing in both physical and emotional terms that only a very select few are game – and able – to traverse its dauntingly challenging terrain with confidence.

 

Decades ago,  at a recital in Cape Town, one of a series devoted to Beethoven’s complete 32 piano sonatas, the Hammerklavier was given a performance which was unforgettable – but for all the wrong reasons.

 

It was only moments into the performance by a pianist who will remain nameless that it became clear – and depressingly clearer as the work unfolded – that physical management of the notes was the sole aim of the performer. So involved in the notational management of the piece was this player that very little attention had been given to revealing the demon lurking behind the printed note. It remained almost totally hidden.

 

What we were given was a race to the end (which faltered increasingly) in purely physical terms. It was a depressing experience.

 

But to listen to Grigory Sokolov is to experience music making at the highest imaginable level. Remember: this is no studio recording allowing for bits and pieces of it to be recorded and recorded again until the soloist feels satisfied by that particular succession of notes. No. This is music that in the most frank and alert way brings the listener face to face with the composer.

 

There’s an immediacy about the playing that that makes one feel that if Beethoven himself had been present at this performance, he might well have wanted to embrace this remarkable Russian. At its most extravert, this is playing that sets the pulse racing; it is a reading of the most authoritative sort – and all the more welcome for its rarity. In this deeply probing, thoughtful reading,  listening to Sokolov becomes a journey of discovery, the playing revealing detail and insights only very infrequently encountered in other, lesser, accounts of the work,

 

There would be very few pianists anywhere on the planet able to match this recording which, in the most meaningful sense, is evidence of greatness. Sokolov makes the unplayable accessible. He reveals its myriad details without losing sight of its overall design as only few can, Sokolov taking the listener into the composer’s idiosyncratic world and makes it accessible, meaningful, unforgettable.

 

The sonata was recorded ‘live’ at a recital given by Sokolov in Salzburg.

Also on disc are Schubert’s Impromptus D899 and Three Piano Pieces D946 as well as encores by Rameau and Brahms.

‘heard this and thought of you”

 

James Crabb (classical accordion) /Genevieve Lacey (recorders)

ABC Classics 481 1874

 TPT:  71’43”

 reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Read This and Thought of You Notions of a wheezing classical accordion in combination with the tweeting tones of a soprano recorder might seem to some a less-than-delightful sonic mixture. But I’d say it would need only a few moments to persuade even the grumpiest listeners that with these two top performers on the job, musical magic is on offer.

 

Indeed, the artistry brought to bear on these instruments is such that these odd musical bedfellows work wonders. The result of their endeavours is frankly a delight in a compilation brimming with charm and gentle sonic ideas, some of the offerings reaching back as far as the 16th century – and a few items which might be thought of as having been composed as recently as yesterday afternoon.

 

Recercada segunda by Diego Ortiz (he died around 1570) is jovial and charm-laden, a delightfully busy item. Recercada primea is its melancholy partner. Where is everybody? –  composed two years ago by Andrea Keller – is very much of the here and now, a sombre and rather depressing utterance.

 

Listen to Damian Barbeler’s Shadow Box (2013-2014). It’s beautifully written, utterly engrossing as if emanating from a piper in some remote, faraway place.

 

Lacey and Crabb are in fine fettle in an arrangement on J.S.Bach’s Organ Sonata No 3 in D minor proving yet again the extraordinary universality of so much of Bach’s music; it sounds just as effective and meaningful in this arrangement for recorder and accordion. Reflective in the slow movement and nimble and accurate in the finale, Lacey and Crabb do Bach proud.

 

Crabb’s arrangement of Sally Beamish’s Lament comes across as an essay in visceral melancholy, music infused with sadness.  A little of Palestrina’s Vestiva i colli goes a long way; it is overlong for its material and outstays its welcome.

 

Two traditional Scottish pieces are a toe-tapping finale. Momentum is most effectively maintained; it‘s an engaging, quirky offering.

LOVE STORY

 

Valentina Lisitsa (piano)

BBC Concert Orchestra

Christopher Warren Green/ Gavin Sutherland, conductors

TPT:

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Love StoryFor many, especially those of a certain age, the often nostalgia-drenched items in this selection of music from the movies will trigger many memories, some carefree and positive but also of consternation, even alarm, written as some of them were during the terrible years of World War 2. The Warsaw Concerto, in particular (and the movie Dangerous Moonlight), drew enormous audiences during those anxious times – and Valentina Lisitsa is stylistically impeccable here and, indeed, in all the other tracks.

 

The writer recalls, as a child, listening to his parents and friends discussing the progress or otherwise of the war – and hoping that we’d not be overrun by the terrible German Nazis.

 

Richard Addinsell’s trashy Warsaw Concerto  unashamedly cribbed Rachmaninov’s romantic style of writing – and it had huge success. People couldn’t get enough of it and it remains especially meaningful to the now dwindling numbers of people who saw the movie Dangerous Moonlight. Pianist Louis Kentner’s 78rpm recording of the concerto sold by the bucket load.

 

Lisitsa sounds in her element in Hubert Bath’s Cornish Rhapsody in Love Story (1944). Bath, incidentally, wrote the score for the first ever British all-talking movie – Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).

 

Unlike today when CDs are freely available at relatively modest prices, the 78rpm shellac records of the war years – and on into postwar years until LPs took over in the mid-1950s – had to be looked after very carefully in case dust got into the grooves

or dropped with usually irreversible damage due to its brittleness.

 

Lisitsa, a first rate pianist, is able to adapt chameleon-like to whatever style and/or mood are required. Whether gentle, romantic, introspective, confrontational or heroic, Lisista is entirely convincing..

 

I liked the Mansell concerto, a gentle, quiet little obeisance to George Gershwin. And the exquisitely lyrical Dream of Olwyn will also trigger memories for many older listeners. It’s beautifully played. But the Rhapsody from Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (starring Marlene Dietrich) hasn’t worn well.

 

The Operatic Pianist

 

 

Andrew Wright (piano)

Divine Art dda 25113

TPT: 64’48”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

The Operatic PianistDuring the 19th century, there was a remarkable flowering of operatic composition. It met a huge popular demand and every European city of significance built an opera house to cater for the genre’s enthusiasts. But for opera lovers living in small towns, say, or in villages, there was almost no opportunity to experience opera, apart from, perhaps, a visit from this or that small touring company. To counter this shortage – or complete absence – of opera beyond the big cities, pianists responded to this need by incorporating into their recitals arrangements of operatic excerpts, most frequently a favourite aria, say, or this or that overture or dance episode.

 

This was a successful development and some pianists were able to maintain careers based largely on these operatic offerings.  And until radio and recordings made opera more widely available, operatic extravaganzas at the keyboard kept many pianists very busy on the concert circuit.

 

Nowadays, operatic excerpts in piano recitals are rare – and Andrew Wright is one of the few musicians to maintain the tradition. This fascinating CD includes not only 19th- century operatic extracts but some composed by Wright himself.

 

They make intriguing listening.

 

Operatic extracts for piano solo or piano duet were also very popular in the drawing rooms of wealthy homes in European cities. This was especially so for young ladies for whom some accomplishment at the piano was considered desirable in the marriage stakes.

 

Numbers of significant composers made arrangements of grand opera for piano solo, the most famous being Liszt. His versions of extracts from Wagner’s operas are still  occasionally encountered in piano recital programs. Israeli conductor Asher Fisch recently brought out a memorable CD of piano arrangements of Wagnerian opera extracts.

 

During much of the 19th century and up until the 1920s, virtuosic arrangements of this type were an ineradicable feature of just about every pianist on the international concert circuit.

 

But in broad terms, the age of virtuoso arrangements for piano of operatic extracts is largely past – but there’s a good deal to be said in positive terms of Andrew Wright’s CD “The Operatic Pianist”.

 

In the grand tradition of pianists playing their own arrangements of excerpts from this or that opera, we can listen to Wright’s own keyboard versions of extracts from, inter alia, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable  in which he seems positively to revel in the many challenges posed by music that was never intended to be played on the piano. I think Meyerbeer would have been chuffed no end by Wright’s keyboard arrangement. It’s a winner.

 

Listen to the version of Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, here in an arrangement by  Sigismund Thalberg (no mean pianist himself). It is most beautifully played, its inherent simplicity of line presented with most appealing tone quality. Wright is no less persuasive in an arrangement of one of Wagner’s most loved arias: The Evening Star from Tannhauser. And the aching beauty of Liszt’s version for piano of Isolde’s Liebestod is splendidly revealed.