Category Archives: CD

Sibelius Piano Trio

Yarlung Records 52630

       reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

As a child working towards a Trinity College of Music piano exam, I particularly liked a short piece – Arabesque – by Sibelius. It is a charm-laden, miniature delight and my first encounter with the Finnish master. It’s one of a considerable number of short pieces that poured from Sibelius’ pen. But how many of Sibelius’ little pieces come to mind as you read this?

 

Sibelius_YAR52638_FrontcoverDuring the interval at a recent orchestral concert, I asked a number of concertgoers at random which works of Sibelius they could call to mind other than the symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the vast works inspired by Finnish legends and Finlandia? No one – and these were folk who were regular and enthusiastic concertgoers – could call any to mind. Certainly, there’s work to be done to make people more aware of at least some of Sibelius’ neglected works.

 

Sibelius’ output as a child (his first piece is said to have been written at the age of ten!) and as a young man is astonishing. At least part of the reason is that he grew up in a home where music was an inextricable – and very important – part of daily life. His siblings played piano and cello. Jean was the violinist of the family. His hopes of becoming a violin virtuoso were never realised. He’d have had to commence fiddle study much earlier to have had a hope of succeeding in that field. As was the case of Schumann, Sibelius’ having to forgo a life as a virtuoso was a personal tragedy – but his work as a composer brought an enduring fame that could never have been equalled as a concert soloist, no matter how gifted.

 

In addition to this, this intriguing compilation encompasses music written by contemporary  Finnish composers whose names could well be new to most listeners living beyond the borders of Scandinavia.

 

Diego Schissi’s Nene, for instance, opens with a terrific, offbeat dance. It radiates gusto, with tricky rhythms and much pizzicato.  Listen to a background of quiet pizzicato across which runs a dream-like cello line. Later, the attention is drawn to the piano with its stab-like utterances. The movements are intriguingly titled: Jumping on the Walls, Dozing on a Hanger; Riding a Mosquito!

 

David Lefkowitz’s Ruminations calls up images of Middle East dances and what might be a folksy Yiddish extemporisation, desperately melancholy and introverted.

 

There’s charm aplenty in Sibelius’ Korppoo Trio. True, it’s not recognisably by the Finnish master: the work is too early for that. But its jejune melodies are beautifully played. The finale. is a jovial, three-in-a-bar knees-up with an obeisance to Brahms and much tinkling from the piano near the top of its range. One could think of it as a trial run for an ascent to greatness.

 

Consider this: at a similar age, Shostakovich was already well ahead in the originality stakes. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written as a teenager:  his style was already fully formed. But with Sibelius, it was a case of good things being well worth waiting for.

 

Recordings like this don’t just happen. And those who have pooled their resources to this excellent end deserve real praise.The focussed work of many has been called upon to bring this CD into being: executive producer Ann Mulally, 100th Anniversary sponsors Randy and Linda Bellous and, crucially, the Sibelius Trio (Petteri Iivonen, Juho Pohjonen and Samuli Peltonen). This initiative is to mark the100th anniversary of an independent Finland.

 

 

 

 

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Andor Foldes (piano)

 

Andor Foldes (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas

Op 13 (Pathetique); opus 28 (Pastorale); opus 31 No 2 (Tempest); opus 53 (Waldstein); opus 57 (Appassionata);opus 81a (Les Adieux); opus 101; opus 109

DGG Eloquence 482 5854 (2CDs)

TPP: 79’26” & 74’09”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

BEETHOVEN_Sonatas_Foldes_masterBeethoven’s Les Adieux sonata is not for faint-hearted pianists. Some of it is the sound-equivalent of finest petit point embroidery done at top speed. Few can do so without, as it were, pricking a finger or two. But Foldes is up there with the best, traversing the finale’s measures without a stumble or three. Foldes is certainly no slouch here.

 

It’s sonatas such as these that Foldes would frequently include in recital programs together with music of Bartok – a painless way to introduce new audiences to what at the time would for many have sounded astonishing, unexpected or even bizarre to listeners in, say, Kenya or Bloemfontein.

 

Foldes also gave recitals in Bulawayo and Harare (then known as Salisbury) in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then thought of as the bread basket of Africa but now a hobbled wreck of a country – a basket case –  due to the arrogant, brutal and possibly mentally unbalanced incumbency of Robert Mugabe who, when he finally shuffles off to the oblivion that he so richly deserves, leaves a country laid waste due entirely to his hideous misrule. But even now, as the country sinks ever deeper into ruin, there are still other African leaders who extol the excellence and wisdom of Mugabe’s ‘vision’!

 

There’s first rate treatment of opus 101, its immensely challenging measures making it a closed book to most pianists. I’m listening to the fugue as I write this. With what effervescence, clarity and momentum Foldes imbues the notes. It is like a paean of joy. In opus109, its quasi-extemporisation quality is conveyed to memorable effect. It often borders on the ecstatic.  And it is so refreshingly free of exaggerations that lesser players offer too often in the name of  ‘interpretation”.

 

Some of the sonatas were originally recorded by Foldes on LP as far back as 1959. Their transfer to CD is timely. It will enable a new constituency of listeners to experience Foldes’ artistry. And for those coming to Beethoven for the first time, this fine compilation might well be an ideal first foray into the Bonn master’s wondrous creative territory.

Songs without Words

 

Slava Grigoryan & Leonard Grigoryan (guitars)

ABC Classics CD 481 5101

TPT: 53’ 34”

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Grigoryan Brothers - Songs Without WordsIf ever you’ve come home after a really tough day at the office, perhaps an accidental wiping of a crucial report that cannot be retrieved and/or encountering a maddening traffic jam on the way home – what might one do?.

 

A few soothing gins and tonic or something a bit stronger might be just what’s needed to soothe frazzled nerves – but there’s another, frankly better,  way to chill out (without any risk at all of a hangover): put the Grigoryan brothers’ newest CD on – and relax to a joint effort that’ll work its magic in mere moments.

 

Seventeen tracks enshrine some of the world’s most loved melodies.

 

Take your pick: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Elgar’s Chanson de matin (a charmladen delight) and a Seguidilla, the bracing urgency of which rivets the attention. It’s from

an arrangement for two guitars of the full set of de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folk Songs.

 

I particularly like the gently lulling quality of Nana which, Falla has pointed out, was a song his mother used to sing to him when very young.  These delights are given near-flawless treatment, not least the first of the set: The Moorish Cloth. It’s beautifully negotiated with its crisp rhythmic underpinning. There’s a lively, lovely account of the Jota, its rhythms irresistible – and the Cancion is finely considered.  The very challenging Polo needs a greater sense of urgency, though.

 

The brothers’ account of Tchaikowsky’s None but the Lonely Heart would surely charm even the grumpiest bird from a twig – and there’s an exquisitely languid account of Ponce’s Little Star.

 

There are sure to be tracks which listeners will happily play over and over  – and over – again. Don’t take my word for it. Get yourself a copy – and feel those nerve knots relaxing.

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.