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J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA)

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Haydn/ Berlioz: Barbirolli [Sir John Barbirolli, SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden] [ICA: ICAC 5105]
Haydn/ Berlioz: Barbirolli [Sir John Barbirolli, SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden] [ICA: ICAC 5105]
Price: £10.17

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barbirolli's classic Haydn 'Hen' Symphony and a fevered Symphonie Fantastique, 20 Dec 2013
John Barbirolli included Haydn symphonies in many of his concerts throughout his long career. The very first one he ever recorded -- in 1949 with the Hallé orchestra, which he led for more than twenty-five years -- was Haydn's Symphony No. 83, called 'The Hen' for the clucking sounds in the first movement's second subject. The present recording was made in 1969 in a live concert of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden, one of the really good radio symphonies in the Germany of the time. Strangely he uses the first movement exposition repeat in the finale but not in the first movement; perhaps this was the practice at the time. I actually wanted to hear that first movement repeat because of Barbirolli's delicious shaping of the music. Although Barbirolli is known primarily as a 'romantic' conductor, there is little indication of that in his classically proportioned Haydn. True, he uses a larger orchestra than we hear these days in concert, but the playing of the SWR is delicate yet spirited.

The Hallé had given the very first English performance of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in 1879 and when Barbirolli conducted it with them the first time, in 1933, older members of the orchestra remembered the approach of Sir Charles Hallé, the conductor of the first and subsequent performances. Hallé had been friends with Berlioz in Paris. Over the years Barbirolli conducted the Symphonie many times and often programmed it on celebratory occasions as when the Hallé moved into their new Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1951. He had recorded it twice before this live performance was recorded, also in 1968. To say that this is an emotionally intense performance is more than just. Even in the slow (and in other hands sometimes boring) third movement, Scène aux champs, we are wrung out. The Marche au supplice actually comes almost as a relief until we then realize that this is the March to the Guillotine with its attendant horror . The finale, 'Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat', builds to an almost unbearably febrile temperature. This is a great reading of this great symphony.

Recorded sound is quite good. I was not really aware of its age, now 40-odd years. Those bells in the fifth movement of the Symphonie are startling in their lifelike sound.

This is not just a recording for Barbirolli fans. It's for everyone who loves this music.


Scott Morrison

Reicha: Complete String Quartets [The Kreutzer Quartet] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0022]
Reicha: Complete String Quartets [The Kreutzer Quartet] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0022]
Price: £13.40

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars True Masterpieces Revealed After More Than Two Centuries, 24 Sep 2013
Most of us have heard various of the popular wind pieces by Anton Reicha (1770-1836), a contemporary and friend of Beethovne, but you've never heard any of his string quartets unless you've played in one yourself or have had friends who did. That's because these wonderful works have never been recorded before. This is an example of how set in stone our notion of the classical canon is. Yet, from reviewing thousands of CDs over the past fifteen years, I've learned that there are many masterpieces that simply never get heard. It is to the credit of the Kreutzer Quartet and Toccata Classics that we are beginning to hear Reicha's quartets. This disc is marked 'Volume One'. Since Reicha wrote about forty quartets, we have much to look forward to. This CD contains the first two of Reicha's eight 'Viennese quartets', written between 1802 and 1805. Although modeled to some extent on Beethoven's familiar Op. 18 quartets, they veer off into undreamed of directions, at times sounding like late Beethoven twenty years before there was any late Beethoven. One can only imagine how listeners in the first decade of the 19th century must have scratched their heads at this music. They were, however, published by the redoubtable Breitkopf und Härtel, thankfully, and have come down to us more or less unheard till now.

Reicha was a Bohemian born in Prague; the name was originally Rejcha. His father died when he was a baby and he went from relative to relative, eventually arriving at the home of his uncle Josef Reicha, himself a composer and cellist who wound up in the orchestra in Bonn where young Anton was a schoolmate of Beethoven. He lived for a time in Hamburg and then in Paris, before going to Vienna, and during those pre-Viennese years he wrote about fifteen string quartets, none of them found to have been published. From 1808 he lived in Paris again, a fixture as a composer, musicologist and teacher. During his Paris years his music became more and more conservative just as Beethoven's was got more daring. He was known primarily after his death as the author of a couple of books, Traité de mélodie and Traité de haute composition musicale.

The two quartets on this disc are astounding in their daring. Although Op. 48, No. 1 opens in a Mozartean mode, with limpid melodies and harmonies, there follow some remarkable passages, as in the two-voice polyphony that has first violin and viola playing one line an octave apart while the second violin and cello play the other line and octave apart. This creates a sense of spaciousness I don't recall ever hearing before in a quartet. There is a mosaic of melodies in this movement whose relationships become more complex and absolutely delicious over the course of the movement. The second movement, Adagio, opens serenely but devolves into a storm of passion toward the end of which the calmness of the opening passage discreetly tiptoes back in. There is more tiptoeing in the skittery Minuet that leads directly into the concluding presto Finale that whirls away all care.

The second quartet, Op. 48, NO. 2, in G Major is compared by the brilliant note-writer, Ron Drummond, to the G Major Quartet of Beethoven's Op. 18 only to indicate that it ranges further harmonically and has more complex thematic interconnections. Of the modern première of the quartet (in 2006 by the Coull String Quartet in Cambridge UK) Drummond wrote 'Reicha's G major quartet is elegant and witty, full of such exuberantly effortless invention that it sounds simultaneously familiar and brand new, familiar because melodically tuneful, new because frequently surprising'. Drummond says he at first found the slow movement (II, a set of variations) 'boring' when he first read through it with an informal group six years earlier, but in the Coull performance he found it stately and immensely varied in timbre, texture and accompaniment. The following Minuet is a joyful thing, full of pranks and capering bordering on the bizarre at times. Nothing Haydn or Mozart wrote comes close to the lovable weirdness of this movement. The Finale brings us back to earth with a pastoral lyricism, an almost naÔve simplicity that rounds out this magnificent quartet.

The Kreutzer Quartet is made up of violinists Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Mihailo Trandafilovski, violist Morgan Goff, and cellist Neil Heyde. Skaerved, known to me previously from his marvelous recording of George Rochberg's titanic 'Caprice Variations' Rochberg - Caprice Variations writes, in addition to Drummond's scholarly notes, a long 'The Reicha Quartets From Where We Sit' in which he speaks of the almost unheard of opportunity to work on a masterpiece more than two hundred years old that has no extant performance tradition.

These performances of these undoubted masterpieces have made my week so much richer and fuller than they otherwise might have been. Thank you Kreutzers, Drummond and most of all Anton Reicha.

Scott Morrison

Taneyev: Complete String Quartets Vol.3 [Carpe Diem Quartet] [Naxos: 8573010]
Taneyev: Complete String Quartets Vol.3 [Carpe Diem Quartet] [Naxos: 8573010]
Price: £6.01

4.0 out of 5 stars An Early and a Late Taneyev Quartet, 17 Sep 2013
There are those who avoid the music of Taneyev because they've been told by the experts that he is an academic composer who can't write an attractive melody and who uses too much fustian counterpoint. That's all wrong, of course. There is plenty of gorgeous music in Taneyev's canon and these two quartets give credence to that assertion.

The big surprise here is that the early Taneyev quartet, numbered No. 7 because it was not published in his lifetime and thus is numbered to follow his previously published six quartets, is the most immediately attractive of the two on this disc. He wrote it when he was 24 and studying in Paris. In a letter to his mentor Tchaikovsky he said he had been studying the quartets of Mozart and Beethoven and was following some of their compositional precepts. And indeed the quartet sounds in spots like late Beethoven but just when one settles into that assumption along comes a quintessentially Russian tune that reminds us that this is a Western-leaning Russian composer who lives in both worlds. The opening movement of this Seventh Quartet is a monster -- thirteen minutes -- that uses such classical devices as complex counterpoint, including a four-voice canon, as well as occurrence of thematic inversion but which is songful and formally satisfying. Harmonically it is more advanced than Beethoven but not as chromatic as Wagner. The movement is followed by the heart of the quartet, an Adagio cantabile that is lyrical and deeply felt. There is considerable chordal writing as well as the expected polyphony. The Scherzo has a slow introduction before launching into a rhythmically vigorous main section in triple time, a tarantella. From then on the slow and fast sections alternate and it ends on a serene note. The Finale, Allegro molto, is marked by good humor and sly use of canonic gestures.

The Fifth Quartet in A Major, Op. 13, was written in 1903, twenty-three years after the Seventh. Taneyev's style had matured into even greater mastery but this particular quartet intentionally partakes of Haydnesque lightness both in its geniality and brevity, lasting only 24 minutes as compared to the 38 minutes of the Seventh. The first movement, Allegro con spirito, is highly syncopated and has terse dramatic interjections alternating with dancelike sections. The Adagio espressivo is an angst-ridden cri du coeur followed by the Allegro molto third movement with whimsical syncopations that wipe away any melancholy. This short movement leads into the finale, Presto, which continues the upbeat, playful mood often pitting pithy motifs from the viola and cello against flowing lines in the two violins. The whole thing concludes with exuberant high spirits.

The Carpe Diem Quartet is a young group founded in the mid-2000s and has already had several personnel changes. But they sound to be a mature, musically secure group who are apt promoters of this repertoire that is not so well-known in the West. For some reason the recording by this Ohio-based quartet was made in a studio in Boise, Idaho. The sonics are excellent.

Scott Morrison
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 21, 2013 12:02 PM BST

Grieg: Chamber Music
Grieg: Chamber Music
Price: £10.28

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Brilliant Label's Second Set of Grieg's Complete Chamber Music, 14 Sep 2013
This review is from: Grieg: Chamber Music (Audio CD)
It seems odd, and fortuitous, that this set of three CDs from the Brilliant label -- that marvelous reissuer of worthwhile recordings at marvelously low prices -- is the label's second set of the complete chamber music of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The first, released in 2004, featured members of the Raphael Quartet and others Grieg - Complete Chamber Works and has been positively reviewed here at Amazon, where it is still available. With the exception of the cello sonata, recorded in 1980, the performances were recorded in the 1990s. The performances on this set are by members of the Moscow Trio (Alexander Bonduriansky, piano; Vladimir Ivanov, violin; and Mikhail Utkin, cello), as well as by Alexander Vinnitsky, violin; Vladimir Ovchinnikov, piano; Alexander Rudin, cello; Vladimir Skanavi, piano; and by a string quartet made up of Alexander Tchernov and Irina Popova, violins; Igor Boguslavsky, viola; and Alexander Rudin, cello. The present recordings were made at the Moscow Conservatory in 1991. So these two sets are roughly contemporaneous and feature mostly Russian or Slavic performers. I wonder if this is because Grieg's often neglected chamber works continued to have a life in the concerts of Russian and the former Soviet Union that they don't in the West.

CD1: The Violin Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 8 (1865) is a very early effort by Grieg and is mostly pastoral with some Norwegian folklike elements. The Second Violin Sonata in G, Op. 13 (1867) is considerably more dramatic, even somber, than the First. Its second movement is notable for the delicacy and richness of its ornamentation. Its finale is a springdans, a Norwegian leaping dance for men; its rhythms are invigorating. The CD concludes with the single movement, Andante con moto, for piano trio (1878) that was probably slated to be part of a complete piano trio that was never finished.

CD2: Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 45 (1886-87) features much of what we come to think of as Grieg's lyrical gift. Its form is very much akin to that of sonatas by Beethoven or Brahms; its architecture is easily grasped. Its second movement has a particularly lovely long-limbed cantilena that is played by piano alone for 40-odd measures and then joined by the violin for another 40-odd measures. After a brief intermezzo, the movement ends with the violin playing the melody and the piano accompanying with triplet figures. The finale features two unrelated themes that are never really developed but alternated in various guises. The Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36 (1883) was probably written for Grieg's cellist brother John. It opens with a restless piano accompanying a dramatic yet lyrical cello part. The andante second movement borrows a theme from Grieg's incidental music for 'Sigurd Jorsalfar' written ten years earlier. The sonata ends with a heroic finale with much marcato and insistent rhythms.

CD3: String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 27 (1877-78) is Grieg's only completed string quartet. He wrote a colleague that it 'is not meant for the general public. It aims for breadth, for vehemence, and above all a powerful sound torn from the instruments for which it is designed'. He goes on to say that he had a great deal of trouble with the quartet, struggling over bringing its form into shape. He comments that he had difficulty staying away from his 'weakness for popular styles'. That said, this is a powerful work and yet has oddities. For instance, there are long passages that don't use all four instruments. The second movement departs from the use of counterpoint commonly used in string quartets; rather it is largely homophonic. It is surpassingly beautiful and played wonderfully here. The third movement largely features a concertante part for the first violin. After a slow introduction, the finale is a saltarello (similar in rhythm to the finale of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony). The set concludes with two movements from Grieg's uncompleted Second String Quartet. It was subsequently completed by his friend, Julius Röntgen, but we are given only the two movmeents that Grieg had virtually finished. The first movement uses Hardanger fiddle figurations -- the Hardanger fiddle is a Norwegian folk instrument with a tuning that is completely different from the usual violin tuning -- and the second movement is another lively 2/4 springdans.

I have not heard the 2004 Brilliant set, so I cannot compare the performances. I will note that the earlier set uses Röntgen's four-movement completion of the Second String Quartet. But I am mostly satisfied with this set. I will have to get the other set and make a comparison one of these days. For now, I'm content to listen to this set repeatedly.

Scott Morrison
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 21, 2014 4:37 PM GMT

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons | Islamey [Yefim Bronfman ] [Newton Classics: 8802195]
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons | Islamey [Yefim Bronfman ] [Newton Classics: 8802195]
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant 'Seasons', Incendiary 'Islamey', Short Timing, 17 Aug 2013
This CD was originally issued in 1998. It was recorded by Yefim Bronfman in the legendary acoustics of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy, New York, a site used for many extraordinary recordings. Its sonics are exemplary.

'The Seasons' by Tchaikovsky was written for amateur pianists. It appeared month by month in a Russian periodical. It is likely that, although the music IS Tchaikovsky after all, the composer didn't take it terribly seriously. Indeed the legend is that an assistant had to remind him each month to toss another installment. The works are pleasant and in some cases quite beautiful -- for instance, the luscious piece for June, 'Barcarolle', which sometimes figures as an encore in piano recitals. The music is played with finesse and a gentle touch by Bronfman. He resists any temptation to make these pieces more virtuosic than they actually are. However,my own favorite recording of 'The Seasons' by by Lydia Artimiw but alas it is no longer easily available.

Balakirev's 'Islamey', however, is a virtuosic barn-burner; it used to be said that it is one of the hardest pieces for any pianist to play. That is actually hardly the case but it does take a virtuoso like Bronfman to play it well even though these days it seems every young pianist plays it. I've heard it played gorgeously, as here, but sometimes with a trudging dutifulness, making it difficult to hear. This 'Oriental Fantasy' takes a little less than nine minutes to play. And it has been recorded beautifully by other pianists. Strangely, my favorite version of 'Islamey' is a recording made in 1926 (!) by the young Claudio Arrau, available on one of his 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' volumes Claudio Arrau - Great Pianists of the 20th Century. Another unlikely recommendation comes from that quintessential Brahms pianist, Julius Katchen, who played the bejeezus out of 'Islamey' on HIS Great Pianists volume Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Julius Katchen, Vol.1.

A drawback of this recording is its short timing, only ca. 50 minutes.

Scott Morrison

Hahn: Musique de chambre Vol. 2
Hahn: Musique de chambre Vol. 2
Price: £7.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charming Music You've Almost Certainly Never Heard Before, 16 July 2013
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was a Venezuela-born, Paris-raised musical Renaissance man. He composed, was a remarkably able pianist, sang his own songs in salons and cabarets, conducted, was a music critic and a closeted lover of Marcel Proust. He began writing music at an early age. He wrote probably his most familiar song 'Si mes vers avaient des ailes' ('If my verses had wings'), written to verses by Victor Hugo, when he was only fourteen. It was published in Le Figaro and became an instant hit. His music embodies the zeitgeist of la Belle Époque.

His music, except for a few songs, is not well-known today. The chamber music on this disc is an example of that shameful desuetude. There is a charming, beautifully crafted Piano Quartet whose melodic ease and style immediately worm themselves into one's ear. It is given a knowing reading here by the piano quartet, Quatuor Gabriel, a French group that specializes in music of the ears; they are named for Hahn's colleague, Gabriel Fauré.

Following are eleven 'Premières Valses pour Piano', played with elegance by the Quatuor's pianist, Yoko Kaneko. Then comes an uncompleted cello concerto (with piano accompaniment in an arrangement by a friend of Hahn's, Fernand Pollain) played beautifully by the French cellist, Roland Pidoux, with Kaneko at the piano. It opens with a melancholy Lento and conludes with a playful Allegro repleted with a neoclassic and contrapuntal jeu d'esprit. Violist Vincent Aucante then plays 'Soliloque et Forlane pour Alto et Piano', in two movements, the first gentle and swaying (but with increasingly complex rhythms for the soloist) and the second an allegro scherzando which is a virtuosic tour de force for the viola, all done in style here by the soloist. Aucante has a particularly beguiling tone.

The disc concludes with an arrangement for six cellos (shades of Villa Lobos' Bachiana brasileira No. 5) of Hahn's 'Venezia', a set of six songs originally for voice and piano. In this version Pidoux sings the melodies on his cello accompanied by his colleagues. Lush, sweet, lovely.

This disc is recommended for those who love chamber music and want to hear something a bit off the beaten path. The music is filled with Gallic charm, memorable melodies, and insouciance along with gentle melancholy.

Scott Morrison

Nostalgic Trip - Konrad Skolarski, piano
Nostalgic Trip - Konrad Skolarski, piano
Price: £14.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Skolarski Plays Gentle, Lyrical Pieces, 13 July 2013
The title of this CD is 'Nostalgic Trip' and the booklet doesn't make explicit why it is called that although one notes that the disc is dedicated 'to the memory of my father'. Since Konrad Skolarski's father was a musician, perhaps that is the link to 'nostalgia'. The disc is certainly a trip down memory lane for me -- and I would guess for many experienced musiclovers -- because it contains familiar music (sometimes in unfamiliar versions) that is the aural equivalent of comfort food. And Skolarski serves it up with grace and polish, not to speak of a magnificent technique. Among the most familiar works are several by Chopin, the favorite (No. 2 in A) of the Brahms Op. 18 set and a couple of Rachmaninov works. In unfamiliar garb are Siloti's arrangement of the Bach Organ Prelude in B Minor (BWV 855), Pavel Pabst's arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1, and Leopold Godowsky's wonderful arrangement of Saint-SaŽns' 'The Swan' (from Carnival of the Animals). There was only one piece I wasn't familiar with: Grieg's 'Vanished Days' from his Lyric Pieces which I'm sure I've heard but simply don't recall.

Skolarski's playing is exactly what this collection calls for. I can easily imagine this CD being used for relaxation or background music by those who view classical music as useful for that purpose. But for those of us who listen carefully and critically the disc holds up nicely.

Just recently I had reviewed a disc from the Dux label Homage to Brahms - Ignacy Lisiecki, piano and commented on the awful recorded sound. I note on comparing the booklets of that one and the present disc that they don't share any engineering/production personnel.

There is absolutely nothing in the booklet about the music itself. Rather it confines itself to puffery about the pianist.

Recommended for its intended audience.

Scott Morrison

Balakirev: Complete Piano Works Vol. 1 [Nicholas Walker ] [Grand Piano : GP636]
Balakirev: Complete Piano Works Vol. 1 [Nicholas Walker ] [Grand Piano : GP636]
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £12.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Huzzah! & Hooray! -- Brilliant Music Brilliantly Played, 13 July 2013
Mili Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837-1910) was a very important man in his time, at least partly because he was the leader of that group of five Russian composers -- 'The Mighty Handful' -- that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin. Unfortunately the music he composed has mostly fallen out of familiarity (except for the rightfully popular 'Islamey') and we have British pianist Nicholas Walker to thank for his championing of the composer's works. He has recorded some of the smaller pieces before Balakirev: Piano Music & Piano Music 2 on other labels, but I have not heard them. This disc promises to be the first of a series that will include all his piano music. And if this disc is any measure, we have much to anticipate eagerly.

The works here are related to each other although they span a distance of fifty-odd years from each other. The disc opens with the 1905 Sonata in B Flat Minor, followed by the 1856 Sonata in B Flat Minor, Op. 5 (called the First Piano Sonata) and the unfinished earlier 1855 Grande Sonata in B Flat Minor. Notice that all three sonatas are in the same key. And that is not chance. It turns out that all three sonatas are widely divergent works nonetheless based in large measure on similar materials. One could say indeed that they are three versions of the same work. Each stands on its own.

The 1905 work is easily the most masterful of the lot. Particularly interesting is the first movement which somehow manages to combine classic sonata form and fugue. Underlying it all is an unmistakably Russian flavor; although the melodies are original with Balakirev, they sound like they had arisen from the Russian soil. The second movement, rather than being a Scherzo, is a Mazurka (as is the second movement of all three sonatas). It is a complete rewriting of the mazurkas of both earlier sonatas; it is longer, makes a bigger statement and is simply brilliant in performance. The third movement, Intermezzo, is a musing slow movement that makes a surprise reappearance in the lively finale, thus leading to a serene ending. This work is easily one of the most marvelous Russian piano sonatas of all.

The earliest work, written at eighteen while Balakirev was in Kazan studying for a degree in mathematics -- he dropped out of school and through the help of a benefactor wound up studying music in St. Petersburg -- is a huge work that is nonetheless unfinished. Its first movement is heroic, lasting twelve minutes, and sounds almost improvisatory in spots. It uses a Russian-sounding melody that recurs in both later works. It is somewhat marred by clichéd overuse of rapid repeating notes in the melodic line. The second movement is an early version of the Mazurka heard in subsequent versions. It sounds exceedingly technically demanding; Walker handles its demands with aplomb. The third movement, Andante, is hymnlike. The fourth movement is marked 'Finale: Allegro grazioso' and has great forward drive. Apparently its manuscript is filled with rewritings and corrections and in one spot a fugue begins only to be scratched out. That fugue, lasting 22 bars, is appended to this performance as an epilog to the sonata.

The revision one year later became what is called the First Sonata and was dedicated to his friend, the young military engineer and avocational composer César Cui. The first movement has a slow introduction followed by the main section marked Allegro assai, feroce. It is followed by a somewhat altered version of the Mazurka of the earlier sonata. The third movement, the sonata's finale, is reminiscent of the Intermezzo of the Sonata Op. 3 and presages the Andante of the 1905 version.

Having lived with this CD for several days I am in awe of Balakirev's melodic fecundity and increasing craft over the years. His 1905 sonata can easily be called a masterpiece and I would love to hear it in concert and to see a score. To have heard the earlier works is an unusual opportunity to see the workings of a brilliant musical talent.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Scott Morrison

Eller: Complete Piano Music Vol. 3 [Sten Lassmann]  [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0161]
Eller: Complete Piano Music Vol. 3 [Sten Lassmann] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0161]
Price: £12.50

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Piano Music by Estonia's Heino Eller, 18 May 2013
As the foremost Estonian composer of his era, Heino Eller (1887-1970) is revered in his country. To those of us from elsewhere he is probably best known as the teacher of Arvo Pärt, the current leading light of Estonian music. Thanks to critic turned music entrepreneur Martin Anderson, the founder of Toccata Classics, we are now getting a slew of recordings of music from the Baltic states and discovering some laudable works. This is the third in a series of CDs -- there will be eight -- of Eller's complete works for piano, all played by Estonian pianist Sten Lassmann, an artist in his early thirties.

On this disc are works from what are roughly Eller's early, middle and late periods, including Three Studies (1917-1919), Five Préludes (1929-1930), Ten Lyric Pieces (1942-1943) and his Fourth Piano Sonata (1957-1958).

In their order on the CD:

The Ten Lyric Pieces, formally inspired by Grieg's Lyric Pieces, are mostly somber, even melancholy, pieces written in the period immediately after Eller's Jewish first wife was taken by the SS and a few months later executed. The music here is, in the main, gripping, heart-rending. Interestingly there is a seemingly inappropriate mazurka-like piece, No. 8, which however is secretly apt as a Chopin mazurka was one of the last pieces Eller heard his wife, a pianist, play. The last, and longest, Lyric Piece is a set of variations ending in a quadruple fugue.

The early Three Studies are rather more lyrical than the Lyrical Pieces, sounding to some extent like Grieg or Christian Sinding. Most effective is the third one, in G Flat Major, which has ceaseless sixteenth notes throughout. The second study, also in G Flat, is brief and somewhat jocular. The first, in A Flat Major, is naÔvely pastoral, describing dawn with the rising of a brilliant sun.

The Five Préludes are considerably more spare than the Studies, even cryptic in style. Almost diffident, only one of them even has a key signature or easily discernible pulse. There is an underlying angst in all of them.

The Piano Sonata No. 4, Eller's last, was written in the late 1950s after the composer had gone through the 'Social Realism', 'anti-Formalist' phase in Soviet music during which he had to conform to cultural czar Andrei Zhdanov's edicts about what kind of music was allowed. Modern-sounding without being atonal, the three-movement sonata is somewhat neoclassic, with a first movement in modified sonata-allegro form. The second movement is contemplative, musing, often lyrical. It leads without pause into the vivo finale, a rondo whose themes are graceful, lilting, and light-hearted until sforzando chordal passages lead to a dramatic coda on a pedal point, what the booklet writer, the pianist Sten Lassmann, calls a 'tragic outcry'.

Many of the pieces here are receiving their first recordings. Sten Lassmann is a fine pianist doing a major service to the memory of a composer whose music deserves to be heard.

Scott Morrison
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2013 12:07 PM BST

Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
Price: £10.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A 3 1/2 Hour Feast of Debussy, Brilliant Performances, Budget Price, 4 May 2013
Less than a month after reviewing another outstanding CD of piano duo music by Debussy Debussy: Four Hand Piano Music [Jean-Pierre Armengaud, Olivier Chauzu] [Naxos: 8572979] here comes another, this one with all of Debussy's music for piano four-hands or two pianos. And what a revelation it is! Much of the music on these three discs is fairly obscure but all of it is rewarding. Also rewarding is that the contents of the three discs are in precise chronological order of composition so that one can hear Debussy's style evolve from the Massenet-like 'Symphonie' of 1880, to the impressionism of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-4) and La Mer (1903-5) to the spare, stark En blanc et noir (1915). And in absolutely sparkling performances by the Italian pianists, Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti, who alternate who takes the primo and who the secondo part.

'Symphonie' consists of two movements -- Allegro and Andante cantabile. These two movements are all that remain of a four movement symphony which Debussy never got around to orchestrating. Like many composers Debussy composed at the piano and then orchestrated his music. The first disc continues with stand-alone works, the overture 'Diane' (1880), music from 'Le triomphe de Bacchus: Suite d'orchestre' which not only never got orchestrated but didn't even get finished in piano score (there are two 'fragments' recorded here in addition to the four completed movements) and 'Intermezzo' (1882), and then ends with the four-movement 'Première suite d'orchestre (1882-3) which was only discovered in 2008.

The second disc contains the twelve-minute-long 'Divertissement' (1884), for all intents and purposes a colorful orchestral piece that somehow never got orchestrated. The come three movements from Debussy's Prix de Rome cantata, 'L'enfant prodigue' (1884). 'Printemps' (1887), a two-piece suite which Debussy originally pictured as a suite for orchestra and chorus, really ushers in Debussy's impressionistic voice. It pictures the newly verdant countryside awakening from the long winter. (I first listened to this performance while driving in Vermont's newly green spring landscape and had one of those synesthetic experiences that can happen sometimes with music. I didn't want the music to end.) Next comes of the most familiar of Debussy's piano duo works, the piano-four hand 'Petite Suite' (1886-9) of four movements. It was never intended to be orchestrated, but of course a later composer, Henri Büsser, did so in 1907 and that may be how it is best known (except for us four-hand fanatics who have played it many times with a partner at the keyboard). 'Marche éccossaise' (1891) was written for an American ambassador to France who has Scots forebears and it features a song sung by his Ross ancestors. The disc ends with the popular 'Prélude à l'après-midi dun faune' (1892-4) in a marvelous performance. One does miss Debussy's better-known orchestration, especially the plaintive flute heard at the very beginning of the piece, but on repeated hearings its charms grow.

The third disc starts with a work I hadn't even known existed, 'Lindajara' (1901), a Spanish/Moorish-inflected work that has some similarities to Ravel's 'Habañera'. Then comes a piano four-hands version 'La Mer' (1903-5) which I also had not known of. Somehow one can hear the work's marvelous orchestration in one's mind's ear from this quite wonderfully written (and played) version. Even with the piano's slightly percussive sound one can hear the waves and the wind. More amazing is the two-piano version of 'Danses sacrée et profane', better known in its harp-and-strings orchestration which Debussy wrote on commission for the manufacturer of the newly invented chromatic harp. It is evocative, shimmering. 'Six épigraphes antiques' (1914) were written in Debussy's newly evolved spare style but it began life as a 1901 set using two flutes, two harps, and celesta to accompany poems by Pierre Louˇs' 'Chansons de Bilitis' which Debussy completely recast in the four-hand version. (He later arranged it for solo piano and then Ernest Ansermet orchestrated it in 1939. Lots of lives for these six descriptive pieces!) Finally comes what many consider to be Debussy's two-piano masterpiece, 'En blanc et noir' (1915) (originally entitle 'Caprices en blanc et noir'), a three-movement suite that many commentators suggest was inspired by both the horror of World War I and by Goya's black-and- white 'Caprichos', etchings depicting the ghastliness of war. Debussy quotes a foreboding version Luther's 'Eine feste berg' and inserts a palimpsest of the 'Marseillaise' and Stravinsky's 'Firebird'.

Although I had never heard of Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti before, clearly they are artists of the first rank and these performances are magnificent. I cannot recommend this three-disc set enthusiastically enough. I immediately loaded it onto my iPod so that I can listen to it wherever I go, something I do only with discs I really treasure.

So, within a month's time I have heard two sets of Debussy four-hand music that are highly recommendable: the Armengaud/Chauzu disc mentioned above and this one. One will have to make a choice as which to have based on the pieces contained on each of them. This one has everything Debussy wrote for two-pianists; the earlier disc has a one-disc selection.

Scott Morrison

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