Thursday, November 20, 2003

[11/20/2011] Not a review, but some thoughts prompted by Anne-Marie McDermott's recent New York piano recital (continued)


Sviatoslav Richter plays the first two movements, of the Prokofiev Ninth Piano Sonata, Allegretto and Allegro strepitoso, in a live performance from 1951, the year he gave the premiere. (The third movement, Andante tranquillo, is here; the fourth movement, Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto, here.)


It was part of a live music series, subdivision classical music, offered by the Rubin Museum of Art, which is devoted to "Art of the Himalayas." The late-Sunday-afternoon classical series, produced and hosted by popular WQXR radio host Elliott Forrest, has the overall rubric "Resonating Light," drawn from a Schumann quotation, "Music is nothing more than resonating light." I suppose this has the ring of a thematic link to the museum's Himalayan art, but I didn't hear any connection, and in fact, at least out of context, "Music is nothing more than resonating light" is utter nonsense.

Both in the program and in a conversation with Elliott Forrest following the intermission, McDermott talked about her excitement at viewing the Rubin's Himalayan artworks, and slides of specific artworks that inspired her program choice were projected during the performances. More to the point, McDermott talked about her belief in music's ability to express things that can't be expressed in words. She talked particularly about musical story-telling, which was certainly at play throughout her program, and she talked about her pleasure in story-telling that comes around to the stories' starting point, which for her connected to some of the artwork that had inspired her.

This struck me as arguable in the extreme, but so what? If it inspired McDermott in building what was unquestionably an interesting program, and even inspired her in approaching the music, isn't that plenty?


McDermott's opening work, the last of Prokofiev's nine piano sonatas, certainly made sense, both as a piece of programming and as her program opener, given that she has recorded all of the Prokofiev sonatas for Bridge. (I haven't heard any of those recordings, or any of her other recordings that I can recall. I really didn't have much previous familiarity with her playing, which is one reason I was curious about the recital.)

The piano sonatas aren't (to put it as delicately as possible) the portion of Prokofiev's output I listen to most often, and I can't say that I've ever really warmed to No. 9. In some ways it seems to be aiming for a stripped-down simplicity of expression (hence its suitability as a program-opener), but in other ways it seems to me notably more austere than, for example, its celebrated predecessor, the Eighth Sonata. (I would note that while Sviatoslav Richter gave the first performance of the Ninth, in 1951, as far as I know he didn't play it much thereafter.)

I've stitched together two performances here.

PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonata No. 9 in C, Op. 103:
i. Allegretto
ii. Allegro strepitoso
iii.Andante tranquillo
iv. Allegro con brio, ma non troppo presto
i.-ii. György Sándor, piano. Vox, recorded c1966
iii.-iv. Yefim Bronfman, piano. Sony/Brilliant Classics, recorded April 1995
[audio link]

I enjoyed some of the physicality of McDermott's playing here -- there's lovely strength and evenness in her fingerwork -- but I didn't make much progress toward "getting" the piece. And then, I have a built-in resistance to the work that filled out the first half of the program: Ferruccio Busoni's piano rendering of the mighty Chaconne from Bach's D minor Solo-Violin Partita.

Some of Busoni's Bach arrangements make sense to me in terms of making (notably) some of the great organ works accessible to pianists and piano enthusiasts. And I guess I can understand why pianists enjoy playing the Busonified Chaconne -- it probably feels good having that glorious music literally at your fingertips. But when all that's hinted at and suggested in that fiercely difficult solo-violin part is filled in, the words that pop into my head run to turgid, bloated, creepy, even repulsive.

Granted, the Heifetz performance we heard before the click-through falls at the opposite extreme, but it seems to me much closer to the spirit of what Bach wrote. Perhaps some other time we can take a closer listen to the Chaconne. If you want to hear the Busoni version, Marc-André Hamelin's video performance soft-pedals the creepiness, though certainly not the bloatedness or turgidness (part 1 here, part 2 here). Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli's audio recording (part 1 here, part 2 here) may please people who aren't revolted by the Busoni version.


After intermission came the conversation with Elliott Forrest. And after the conversation came a decided change of musical pace, in the form of a Chopin group: the four mazurkas of Op. 17 and the first (and most dramatic) of the four ballades.

I'm hoping we've gotten past the notion that only pianists with some mysterious "Chopin sensibility" can be trusted to play Chopin. McDermott didn't seem to have any problem with the kinds of musical expression here, and certainly understood the amazing expressive contrasts Chopin managed to incorporate into this set of mazurkas.
Here's the most-played -- by itself, that is -- of the Op. 17: the last of them, in A minor.

CHOPIN: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4
Ivan Moravec, piano. Connoisseur Society/VAI, recorded 1969 [audio link]
Ivan Moravec, piano. Hänssler Classics, recorded live in Prague, spring 2000 [audio link]

I can't say, though, that I really felt the full individuality of the four pieces, always a challenge with Chopin's mazurkas (and also waltzes and nocturnes). For all their variety, they're all still mazurkas. I'm going to cheat and put together a composite performance using four quite different pianists.

CHOPIN: Four Mazurkas, Op. 17:
No. 1 in B-flat
Alexander Uninsky, piano. Philips, recorded December 1959
No. 2 in E minor
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano. Decca, recorded c1980
No. 3 in A-flat
Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 1965-Jan. 1966
No. 4 in A minor
Murray Perahia, piano. Sony, recorded June 1994
[audio link]

The G minor Ballade is even more problematic for me. It's a piece I adore in theory, but usually not so much in performance, given performers' general feeling that they're not merely empowered but obliged to stretch and compress tempo on a note-by-note basis, so that there's little or no rhythmic backbone, and a piece that seems (obviously!) supremely crafted to build massive momentum, on both a section-by-section and an overall basis, emerges as a patchwork of rinky-dink episodes. I've been wanting for ages to talk about this, and try to illustrate it, but it's hard, especially without positive performance examples for illustration. Here's a performance that at least makes music of the music.

CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Feb. 21, 1960 [audio link]


And McDemott seemed to give herself over to unadulterated physical pleasure, relishing all those fistfuls -- no, armfuls -- of notes. As we've already seen, the exhilaration of this music is all there waiting to be released. Hearing it done is an unabashed pleasure.

The physical high was carried over into the final work on the program, a charming fantasy, Soirée de Vienne, concocted by Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924) around the famous waltz from Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus. Here's Grünfeld himself playing it in a 1910 recording.

So there wasn't any uninteresting music on the interestingly varied program, and nothing that the artist didn't engage on a high level. As I hope I'm suggesting, the music offered lots to think about, and to reengage. But as for sheer musical pleasure, well, those few minutes of "Widmung" are what did it for me.


I don't have better performances to offer than these that we already heard last week: Earl Wild (1915-2010) playing the Liszt, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (born 1925) and Jörg Demus (born 1928) performing the Schumann original. The only difference is that this week I've made my own MP3 dub of the Wild from the CD, in the perhaps overly optimistic hope that it might sound better.

I would be embarrassed to tell you how often I've listened to the audio clip of the performance of the song by Fischer-Dieskau and Demus since I made this dub from my LP copy (with apologies for the surface noise). I might point out that while Demus isn't a favorite pianist of mine, there's evidence of his Schumann credentials in his mammoth early '70s recording of the composer's complete solo-piano music; from that set we heard him play the haunting vignette "Vogel als Prophet" ("Bird as Prophet") in our April 2010 quick glance at this repertory.

To break down Liszt's rendering again: start-0:50 corresponds to the "A" section of the song, and 0:50-1:40 is Liszt's embellishment thereof; 1:40-2:37 renders the central "B" section, "Du bist die Ruh' "; 2:37-3:06 is the repeat of "A," and 3:06-end is Liszt's climactic embellishment.

SCHUMANN-LISZT: "Widmung" ("Dedication")
Earl Wild, piano. Onyx, recorded in New York City, January 1985 [audio link]

SCHUMANN: "Widmung" ("Dedication"), Op. 25, No. 1
You my soul, you my heart,
you my joy, o you my pain,
you my world in which I live,
my heaven you in which I soar,
o you my grave in which
I have buried my sorrows forever.

You are rest; you are peace;
you were destined for me by heaven.
That you love me makes me feel worthy;
your glance has transfigured me;
you lift me, loving, above myself --
my good spirit, my better "I"!

You my soul, you my heart,
you my joy, o you my pain,
you my world, in which I live,
my heaven you, in which I soar --
my good spirit, my better "I"!
-- German text by Friedrich Rückert
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Jörg Demus, piano. DG, recorded c1960 [audio link]


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