CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Briefly Noted: Igor Levit drinks the philtre

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Wagner, Act I Prelude from Tristan und Isolde (Henze, Liszt, Mahler), Igor Levit

(released on September 9, 2022)
Sony Classical 886449503582 | 1h41
The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit is on a Tristan und Isolde kick. His new two-disc set, titled Tristan, pairs Hans Werner Henze's ground-breaking Tristan, from 1974, with the Wagner work that inspired it, especially the notorious Act I prelude, transcribed by Zoltán Kocsis. The Henze is an elusive, unclassifiable work, combining piano solo, electronic tapes, and orchestra. This thoughtful rendition, recorded in November 2019, features the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Franz Welser-Möst. An authoritative booklet essay by Anselm Cybinski lays out the work's many other musical quotations and allusions (Brahms, Mahler, and Chopin among them) as well as the multiple layers of meaning encoded in it.

Levit surrounds this enigmatic modern piece with romantic works he sees as related. From Liszt he takes the A-flat major nocturne known as Liebesträum No. 3, derived from a song set to poetry by Ferdinand Freiligrath. The poem, quoted and translated in the booklet, is the antidote to the love-death of Wagner's opera, a plea for lovers to remain alive, and therefore love, as long as they may. The disc concludes with "Harmonies du Soir," the eleventh piece from the same composer's Études d'exécution transcendante, an evocation of the night in which Wagner's lovers try to hide their passion.

This "program of Tristanesque works," as Cybinski puts it, includes Ronald Stevenson's piano arrangement of the first movement (Adagio) of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. One could see this selection as representing the point of view of King Marke on the Tristan story, as Mahler wrote it in the period after he learned of the affair between his wife, Alma, and Walter Gropius. Stretched out to over 27 minutes, this version grows organically from its opening (given to the violas in the orchestral score), that has considerable resonance with the main motif of Wagner's Act I prelude.

Levit returned to Washington this week, for the first appearance since his striking local recital debut in 2017, presented again by Washington Performing Arts. Thursday's excellent concert, in addition to exquisite Schumann and a new piece commissioned from jazz pianist Fred Hersch, added one last Tristan nugget to this program. On the second half, Levit played the Kocsis transcription of the Act I prelude from this recording, following it with a Faustian interpretation of Liszt's vast B minor sonata.

The juxtaposition made me realize, for the first time, that the final measure of Wagner's prelude is identical to the first measure of the Liszt sonata: two short staccato strikes on G in 6/8 meter. Wagner ends up on G without really giving the listener much reason to think of that as the keynote of the prelude, and Liszt immediately obscures the note with the descending scalar pattern that opens the sonata. To draw attention to this conjunction, Levit elided the two pieces, not only eschewing any pause between them, but making Wagner's last two notes simultaneously Liszt's first two.


Briefly Noted: Ying Li

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Mozart, Sonatas / Bartók, Suite, Sonata, Ying Li

(released on October 7, 2022)
Decca 00028948581443 | 61'21"
The pianist Ying Li, a 24-year-old Wunderkind, made an auspicious Washington debut this past week. Born in China, where she received her early musical training, she has completed advanced studies at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School here in the United States, counting Jonathan Biss, Seymour Lipkin, and Robert McDonald among her teachers. Last year she won first prize at the Susan Wadsworth International Auditions, leading to Young Concert Artists presenting her in a solo recital at the Kennedy Center on October 11. She repeats that program this Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.

Ying's debut recording for Decca shows many of the same qualities heard when she played live. Two Mozart sonatas -- K. 281 and 333, both in B-flat major -- frame the disc, clean and spirited in character like the Haydn sonata she played in her concert. Runs, passage work, and trills sparkle, with not a note out of place, but there is considerable sensitivity and dynamic shading as well. She shows admirable patience in the simpler slow movements, with a great variety of voicing and articulation. Although she has impressive virtuosic chops, put to work in the Bartók, she displayed considerable maturity in the understated way she played these sonatas.

Bartók's Piano Sonata is the only piece from this album that Ying played at the Kennedy Center, and it is a blockbuster interpretation. In concert it was perhaps eclipsed by even more demanding pieces like Schumann's Fantasie in C Major, Guido Agosti's suite arrangement of music from Stravinsky's The Firebird, and Qigang Chen's Messiaen-like Instants d'un Opéra de Pékin. By contrast on the disc, the Bartók sonata is the most daunting work, paired with the composer's earlier Suite, full of bouncing jollity. She plays the sonata with ferocious control and percussive touch, but it is far from being only pointed attacks, with the many pulsating parts distinguished from one another by careful voicing. As her concert program showed, there is plenty more athleticism where that came from, as well as poise beyond her years.


Briefly Noted: Solo Telemann

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Georg Philipp Telemann, Fantasias for solo violin, Alina Ibragimova

(released on October 7, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68384 | 65'56"
What can a violinist do after recording Bach's "Sei solo" pieces? There is a lot more repertory for the solo violin out there than you might think. The Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova, whose Bach sonatas and partitas were so excellent, has chosen an excellent follow-up. (At this summer's Proms in Great Britain, where she now makes her home, Ibragimova made clear her opposition to her home country's invasion of Ukraine.)

Ibragimova has recorded all twelve of Telemann's Fantasias for Violin without Bass, published in Hamburg in 1735 as part of the composer's voluminous output testing the solo capacities of various instruments. Each one is a delightful bite-size miniature, three or four movements lasting five to six minutes per fantasia. The fantasia, of course, is defined by its lack of solid form, favoring the imagination and musical variety. In his description of the set, Telemann said that half of the fantasias were contrapuntal in nature, favoring the older style of composition, and half were in the newer galant style.

Ibragimova plays these pieces much as she did the more complex Bach works, with clean technique and impeccable intonation and articulation. This is not to say that the music comes out cold or heartless, as she also manages to play even the most demanding passages with poignant phrasing. Telemann wrote these pieces for people to play in their homes, meaning there is a range of challenges for amateur violinists to confront. The slow movements, often quite simple technically, offer pleasing imaginative turns. Ibragimova mines each fantasia for its various delights, by turns rustic or polished.


Dip Your Ears: No. 268 (Robert Levin on Mozart's Piano)

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W.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas
Robert Levin

The Compleat Mozartean

When historical performance practice performances were just becoming mainstream fare, in the mid- to late 90s, Robert Levin was the first address in most matters fortepiano. Certainly, his cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (with Gardiner) was clearly the one to have and his Mozart concerto cycle-in-the-making (with Christopher Hogwood) was exciting and promising and sadly aborted as so many projects were, back then. (Incidentally, the Academy of Ancient Music is currently working with Levin on having the cycle completed by the band’s 50th anniversary next season!) Levin was the least professorial among the musicologist-pianists that were hammering away at these early instruments… and his instruments tended to sound better than was the low average back then.

Much has changed since these days, with a new generation of concert pianists who grew up natively on historical instruments and of course with the instruments themselves (think Paul McNulty!), which have improved dramatically in quality and sound. This, alas, is not the path that Robert Levin takes in these 2017/18 recordings of Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. He takes a step further (back?) towards historicism: He plays on Mozart’s own fortepiano, which can be viewed and occasionally heard at the Salzburg Mozart Residence. What he gains in authenticity, he loses, alas, in sound, because it might as well be admitted: The most interesting aspect about that instrument is its late owner.

Nor is Levin the kind of full-throttled pianist that many of his modern HIP competitors (Bezuidenhout, Brautigam et al.) are. Granted, you don’t need virtuosic skills to navigate through the Mozart sonatas to perfectly competent results and Levin is still a nimble, graceful performer at the (then) age of 71. But there’s something of a generous, pliable, amicable playfulness in the finest performances (like Bezuidenhout on historical instruments or William Youn on a modern one, to name only two outstanding recent such cycles) that I find missing here… and something of a sewing-machine element – lissome, granted – that I don’t particularly need. What Levin does give us, in terms of uniqueness, is some extra music. Apart from the standard 18 sonatas and the C minor Fantasy, he also adds three sonata movement fragments that Levin completed masterfully: Charming little bonbons that bring the set’s runtime to about seven hours. Whether those bits, along with ECM’s first-rate presentation and essay (or the lure of hearing this works on Mozart’s own instrument; see also “Koncz/Mozart”), are enough of a USP, well, that’ll be up to the most curious among Mozart listeners.

References: William Youn (Oehms); Ingrid Haebler (Denon); Mitsuko Uchida (Philips); Ronald Brautigam (BIS); Christian Zacharias (EMI issues, not Warner re-issue); Kristian Bezuidenhout (BIS)

See also the ionarts Mozart Sonata Cycle Survey


Dip Your Ears: No. 267 (Zimerman’s LvB Piano Concertos, 31 Years Later)

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L.v.Beethoven, PCs 1-5
S.Rattle / LSO
Deutsche Grammophon

Krystian Zimerman returns to the Beethoven Piano Concertos

After 31 years, Krystian Zimerman has recorded the Beethoven Piano Concertos again. „When I was a small boy“, he says in the liner notes, „I remember my feeling that this was an old composer, an old man. Today I am seven years older than he ever was and I [see] him as a younger colleague. Now I can have fun playing this concerto more lightly, with more joy.“ Zimerman’s words promise a new approach, a fresh interpretation – away from the stern, towering Beethoven, towards a freer, more audacious, and perhaps faster performance. On paper, that is true, nominally, for the first concerto’s first movement, where Zimerman, along with his collaborators Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, shave a substantial five minutes off his self-conducted take with the Vienna Philharmonic. But it’s not actually five minutes „faster“: The tempos are only minimally tightened; the timing discrepancy can be explained by Zimerman using the very short early cadenza of Beethoven’s (which is also what Boris Berezovsky plays in his reference cycle on Simax): An apt choice instead of the later, all-too-heavy bravura-cadenza. But other than that, Zimerman’s cycle is surprisingly free from surprises. Influences from the historically informed crowd are, by today’s standards anyway, so nuanced as to be scarcely noticeable. Less, than you would think, anyway, after Zimerman makes it such a point in the liner notes that the action of the piano has been adjusted or switched out entirely to fit each concerto’s demands. Perhaps it can be heard in the bell-like ring and subtly glassy-transparent sound of the first two concertos?

The Andante con moto of the Fourth Concerto, meanwhile, is as baritonal and sonorous as it was three decades ago: creamy gorgeousness reigns. What it isn’t, however, is „con moto“ in any possible sense of the word. No furies of Hades are battling with Orpheus here. The slow(ish) movement, allegedly inspired by the legend of the Maenads, becomes absolute music. If you want absolute contrast: Listen – at your own peril – to what the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra does, accompanied by Kristian Bezuidenhout’s tender fortepiano sounds: It sounds like they are plucking a Late Cretaceous chicken from hell. (It’s really quite fitting, actually.) Simon Rattle, in his third Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle – after one with Brendel in Vienna and a recent one with Mitsuko Uchida in Berlin (my ClassicsToday review here) – accompanies crisply and with routine. The woodwinds sound alive and are nicely balanced against the sometimes garish violins. A good cycle, full of strangely empty promises and perfectly fine playing.

References: Bronfman/Zinman (Arte Nova); Berezovsky/Dausgaard (Simax); Pollini/Abbado (DG); Uchida/Sanderling (Decca); Fleisher/Szell (Sony); Serkin/Kubelik (Orfeo); Levin/Gardiner (Archiv)


Briefly Noted: Kissin plays Salzburg

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Evgeny Kissin, Salzburg Recital (Berg, Chopin, Gershwin, Khrennikov)

(released on September 2, 2022)
DG 00028948629947 | 97'32"
Evgeny Kissin's most recent recital in Washington was scheduled for May of 2020. Because that was obviously canceled, it has been a long drought since the celebrated Russian pianist last appeared here. To fight the withdrawal symptoms, your critic has turned to Kissin's newest recording, captured live at the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg in August of 2021.

The last several years have brought significant changes to Kissin's life. In 2017, during a break from performing, he married a childhood friend and wrote a memoir. In July of 2021, just before Kissin played this recital, his piano teacher, Anna Pavlovna Kantor, died at the age of 98. She was much more than a teacher to Kissin, becoming a member of his family and living with them for the last thirty years. "She was my only piano teacher, and everything I am able to do on the piano I owe to her," Kissin has written, dedicating this recital to her memory.

One imagines that the pandemic shutdowns were difficult for Kissin, who has always seemed to be most at ease while playing on stage, as if music were in a way his first language. "I’m simply more inspired in front of an audience," he is quoted saying in the liner notes of this two-disc set. He played this recital to a full house, something he said was very important to him, even in the face of coronavirus restrictions. Although he once told me backstage at the Kennedy Center that he had no interest in composing his own music, one of the Salzburg encores is his own Dodecaphonic Tango. Composition is now an interest of his: Kissin, who has been vocally critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is also composing a piano trio in response to this unprovoked war.

Among other curiosities, the program opens with a prickly performance of Berg's Piano Sonata, op. 1. A decidedly idiosyncratic rendition of Gershwin's Preludes follows a set of short pieces by Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007), a Russian composer and Soviet functionary. The choice is definitely odd for political reasons, given Khrennikov's consistent holding of the party line during the darkest years of the USSR and even after its dissolution. Listeners are then treated to the palate cleansing of Kissin's inimitable Chopin. Unable to let go of the audience, Kissin offered four encores, as usual some of the most exhilirating moments.