Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nelson Freire Plays Liszt

Liszt: Harmonies du Soir
Nelson Freire, piano

Occasionally a CD comes along that is so extraordinary that I must applaud it publicly. The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, born in 1944, has had a distinguished performing career, but his is a name known primarily to connoisseurs as one of the great pianists of his generation. 

His recordings of Chopin and Beethoven are particularly fine. He has appeared with many of the world's great orchestras, and his appearances at the Salzburg Festival are eagerly awaited. His style is patrician, and he programs only the highest quality repertoire.

Unfortunately (and unjustifiably) Liszt's music for the piano sometimes lends itself to "pounding" at the keyboard. But pianists of the highest caliber, for example Earl Wild and Alfred Brendel, performed Liszt's music with taste and sensitivity. Add Freire's name to that "list" of artists who have honored the memory of Liszt in his bicentennial year. 

In his new release on Decca, Harmonies du Soir, Freire resists the temptation to emphasize Liszt's showmanship and bombast. Instead, he plays Liszt's music with delicacy and taste, featuring an extraordinarily beautiful, limpid tone. His technique is impeccable, but the emphasis is on spontaneity of expression joined with a poetic sensibility.

The six Consolations, S. 172 are a narrative in pianistic form. The Sonetto 104 del Petrarca is a personal favorite, but it has never been performed more poetically by anyone else. While his musicianship is everywhere on display, Freire's skill and sensitivity in this recital perhaps are best synthesized in the title track, Harmonies du soir

To top it off, the digital sound of this Decca release is clear, with great depth and a broad soundstage. It is an excellent recording in every respect. It is highly recommended as one of the finest releases of the Liszt bicentennial year. If your taste runs to the Romantic, and you admire superior pianism, look no further.

Nelson Freire performs Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor at the University of Maryland, 1982 


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"French Impressions" Impresses

French Impressions 
Josha Bell, violin; Jeremy Denk, piano
Sony Classics

Good chamber music is a conversation – and French Impressions is just that. A conversation between two old friends enjoying themselves. It’s no accident that both violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk get equal billing. In the three works presented both artists contribute equally to the performance.

The album beings with Camille Saint-Saens' Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, completed in 1885. It's the  most formally constructed of the three works on the CD, but there’s nothing stuffy about it. Bell and Denk play the work with a light touch and real animation. They also don’t mind slightly lingering over the beautiful harmonies, calling the listener’s attention to the sumptuous sound.

Speaking of sumptuous, the Cesar Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major is even more so. Bell and Denk make a compelling case for this often-recorded work, and provide a fresh take on this familiar music.

Maurice Ravel incorporated some American blues into his 1922 Sonata for Violin and Piano. Many performers approach the movement from a classical tradition, and downplay the music’s inspiration. Not so Bell and Denk. They relish the jazz elements, and play them with such elan that the movement positively swings.

Although stylistically diverse, the three sonatas make a cohesive and interesting program thanks to Bell and Denk. It’s difficult to put into words, but they bring out the inherent Frenchness of these compositions.

I never really thought much about these sonatas before. I mean, they were OK, but not especially engaging personally. Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk have changed my mind, giving me a new appreciation for these compositions.That's impressive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Michael Torke's Tahiti: No Trouble Here

Michael Torke: Tahiti 
10/10 Ensemble of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Clark Rundell, conductor
Ecstatic Records

This release pairs two Michael Torke works inspired by the South Seas – “Tahiti” and “Fiji.” Besides the geographical connection, it’s a logical program choice. Both works were written for a small chamber orchestra, and both have a similar feel.

“Fiji” is a 17-minute composition that pulls the listener into a Martin Denny-style Quiet Village world. This bouncy little samba just cooks right along. The sparse orchestration coupled with the steady pulse reminded me of Philip Glass, but Torke’s music is much more animated. And “Fiji” glitters with catchy and attractive melodies that enchant the ear.

The eight-part composition “Tahiti” is something of a musical travelogue. Each movement represents part of the Tahitian landscape. And while the overall mood of the work is more laid back than “Fiji,” each section has its own character.

Moorea (green cliffs) is languid and lyrical, Raiatea (town square) bustles with relaxed activity, while Huahine (under the moonlight) is downright sensual. Torke uses his stripped-down ensemble to great effect. While the music is orchestral in nature, the sound remains very transparent – as clear as the water in a Polynesian lagoon.

While superficially both “Fiji” and “Tahiti” seem to be light-hearted works (on par with Mozart serenades), they aren’t totally lightweight. Both compositions offer enough substance to merit repeated listening. Which means I’ll be returning to "Tahiti" again sometime soon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vivaldi: Return of Angels

Vivaldi: Return of the Angels 
 Ensemble Caprice
Matthias Maute, conductor

“The Return of Angels” is billed as a collection of Vivaldi’s sacred music arranged in an attractive program. The Ensemble Caprice under Matthias Maute perform these works with a lightness and transparency that make for an enjoyable listening experience.

The disc starts with Juditha triumphans, one of Vivaldi’s four surviving oratorios. Originally, this music was performed by girls of the orphanage where he directed the music program. Ensemble Caprice also uses an exclusively female cast, giving the drama a serene, otherworldly feel. By cutting out the long stretches of secco recitative, the Ensemble pares this large work down to a compact and appealing suite.

The motet O qui coeli terraeque serenitas (RV 631) is a study in contrasts, both in vocal style and orchestral writing. Soprano Gabriele Hierdeis floats effortlessly above the busy ensemble, turning in an appealing performance.

In addition to some psalms and the Et in terra pax from the “Gloria” (RV 588), there are also some excerpts from the oratorio Gesu al cavario by Vivaldi’s colleague in Dresden, Jan Dismas Zelenka. Zelenka’s music compares favorably to Vivaldi’s – without looking at the program notes, the casual listener might not hear the difference.

Also included is a Vivaldi concerto for two recorders (RV 566) and another for Trumpet and Oboe (RV563). Both works are ably played by the Ensemble Caprice, and provide a nice contrast to the vocal selections.