Category Archives: CD review

Revelatory late Schubert from Krystian Zimerman

xl1430177I missed Krystian Zimerman’s London concert last April when he stood in for the indisposed Mitsuko Uchida and gave what was by all accounts a remarkable performance of Schubert’s last two sonatas, works written in the dying embers of the young composer’s life yet imbued with nostalgia, warmth, an intoxicating bitter-sweetness and, ultimately, hope.

It’s rare for Zimerman to come to London; even rarer for him to release a new disc. He feels that high-quality digital recordings have created a homogeneous sound and style, robbing art music of spontaneity and leading audiences to expect perfection on disc and in concert (something I largely concur with, based on my regular concert-going). Thus, he’s very particular about what and when he records. This is his first recording of Schubert’s last two sonatas and his first solo album for a quarter of a century – and my goodness it was worth the wait! The recording was made in Japan using a Steinway with Zimerman’s own keyboard (which, incidentally, he made himself) inserted into the instrument (like the great pianists of the past, such as his mentor Arthur Rubinstein, he travels on the condition that his own instruments and/or separate, particularly-voiced keyboards accompany him, to suit the repertoire he is performing). The result is impressive, the bespoke action producing a sweetly singing tone and wonderful clarity. In the liner notes (which take the form of an interview) Zimerman explains that the special piano action “is designed to create qualities Schubert would have known in his instruments. Compared to a modern grand piano, the hammer strikes a different point of the string, enhancing the ability to sustain a singing sound…..

But of course it’s not just the bespoke action which makes Zimerman’s sound so special. No, there is more, much more to this performance. Overall, there is an immaculate sense of pacing, so sensitive and natural; the first movement of the final sonata, for example, unfolds like a great river plotting its final course, the hymn-like first subject theme imbued with joyful purpose which gives the music forward propulsion without ever sounding hurried (it’s a leisurely mässig). In the first movement of the D959, the grandeur of the opening sentence gives way to the wistfulness and intimacy of an impromptu  – and immediately Zimerman’s sense of phrasing is revelatory, shedding light on details hitherto skimmed over by others and demonstrating a complete understanding of Schubert’s architecture and narrative, both within movements and the works as a whole.

Throughout, there is subtle rubato in his contouring of phrases, thoughtful use of agogic accents to highlight intervallic relationships or strikingly piquant harmonies (so much a feature of Schubert’s late music), a Mozartian clarity in the passage work and repeated chords (for example in the development sections of both first movements) and an understanding of Schubert’s very specific rests and fermatas – attention to tiny details which create remarkable breathing spaces and enhance the structural expansiveness and improvisatory character and modernity of this music. Restrained use of the sustain pedal creates transparent textures, most notably in the slow movements: the Andantino of the D959, too often the subject of musical “psychobabble” and emotional wallowing, has a desolate gracefulness in its outer sections which contrast perfectly with the hysteria of the central “storm”. When they come, the Scherzi (both marked Allegro vivace) are light and ebullient, though Zimerman is always aware that Schubert is often more tragic when writing in the major key. In sum, every bar is carefully considered and insightful, yet at no point does this music sound fussy, overly precious or reverential. This is some of the most natural Schubert playing I have encountered and it suggests an artist with a long association with and deep affection for this music

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have spent the last three years studying and learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, D959. It has become something of an obsession for me, initially forming the bulk of my programme for a Fellowship Performance Diploma and now a piece of music I simply can’t let go of. I have heard many recordings of the sonata from Schnabel and Cherkassy to Andsnes, Leonskaja and Barnatan, in addition to five live performances (including by Piers Lane, Andras Schiff, Richard Goode and mostly recently Paul Berkowitz). When one spends so much time with a single piece of music, one can grow fussy, pedantically so, about how this music is presented in concert and/or on disc – so much so that I have stopped seeking out the work in concert because I listen far too attentively and critically for my own good…..and talking of “Goode”, the one and only live performance I really enjoyed, the one which left me with the feeling that this was how Schubert would have wanted his music performed, was by the American pianist Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2016 (of which more here). In Krystian Zimerman I have found my new benchmark, not just for the D959 but as a demonstration of how Schubert’s piano music should be played.

Very highly recommended

Such is the spell of your emotional world that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of your craftsmanship

– Franz Liszt on Franz Schubert

 

Franz Schubert/Krystian Zimerman/Piano Sonatas D 959 and D 960

Deutsche Grammophon

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If you listen to one thing this week……

primafaciepfcd061……make it Kenneth Hamilton’s new disc ‘Liszt, Rachmaninov, Busoni: Back to Bach – Tributes and Transcriptions’

Liszt- Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH. Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’.

Bach/Rachmaninov – Suite from the Violin Partita in E Major.

Bach/Busoni – Choral Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. Chaconne from Violin Partita in D Minor. Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’.

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This rewarding new disc of the music of Bach viewed through the lens of three great Romantic composer-pianists forms the first in the Prima Facie labe’s Heritage Series, which aims to shine a new light on familiar repertoire

Kenneth Hamilton’s imaginative playing is clearly founded on a passion for this repertoire combined with his extensive study of nineteenth-century pianism*, which includes historic recordings by Rachmaninov and Busoni themselves and the reminiscences of pupils of Franz Liszt. Thus one has the sense of very “informed” playing (though it never becomes overly intellectual nor dry). Thus the Bach-Busoni Chaconne features the revisions from Busoni’s own piano roll of the work, while the heartfelt performance of Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen” reflects Liszt’s own performance advice, as well as Hamilton’s assertion that the work is an emotional tribute to Liszt’s children Daniel and Blandine, whose tragically early deaths are depicted in the music. But like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), which this work seems to foreshadow, it ends on a note of hope for future redemption.

The two works by Liszt bookend this satisfying recital disc. Virtuosic in scale, the Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH and Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’ pay tribute to the genius of Bach through Liszt’s distinctive pianistic voice, but these are not show pieces. Here we find Liszt at his most serious and ruminative. and Hamilton’s clean, sensitively-nuanced playing reveals the dramatic contrasts in this music from quiet introspection to impassioned gestures.

This contrasts well with the works by Busoni which are played with warmth and refinement, with clear attention to the sophisticated harmonic details and voicing. The Bach/Busoni Chaconne, too often ponderous in the hands of the less skilled, is here grandly expansive, but never heavy. The interior details and individual voices have a lucid clarity which brings the music to life with ever-increasing drama.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninov’s glittering transcription of the Violin Partita in E major provides a joyful and witty interlude. In a way, this is the closest of all the transcriptions presented here to Bach’s original, but infused with Rachmaninov’s inventive, muscular textures (the Prelude has contrapuntal elements redolent of the Etudes-Tableaux) and piquant harmonies.

This is a splendid tribute not only to J S Bach but to the ingenuity and superlative pianism of three great composer-pianists of the golden age, pianism which is matched by Hamilton’s own.

Highly recommended

 


*Hamilton, Kenneth: After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

 

Kenneth Hamilton is a concert pianist, writer and broadcaster, and former student and colleague of Ronald Stevenson.

Steps Volume 1 – the journey begins

I first encountered the piano music of British composer Peter Seabourne in 2016 when he kindly sent me the scores and recordings of his Steps Volumes 2, 3, 4 and 5. Conceived and organised as “a pianist’s Winterreise”, the music is remarkably varied yet highly accessible and recalls the piano music of Debussy, Janacek, Prokofiev and Messiaen in its piquant harmonies, lyricism, and rhythmic adventurousness. Seabourne describes the series as “a compositional travelling companion” and the collection works more like a cycle rather than a progressional series such as Bartok’s Mikrokosmos.

Although composed over ten years ago, the pieces which comprise Steps Volume 1 have now been released (on the Sheva label), performed by Korean pianist Minjeong Shin. The first volume is not intended as a cycle, but rather a set of pieces in the manner of Grieg’s ‘Lyric Pieces’ or Janacek’s ‘On An Overgrown Path’,  for example, and the works have evocative titles, many of which are drawn from poetry by Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, Rilke and Swinburne. The range of expression, character and emotional power of these pieces is impressive, hinting at a lively, inquisitive and all-encompassing attitude to creating music (as the composer says himself, “I am with Mahler: music should contain all of life!“), and the broad scope of the music, together with its inherent expressivity, lyricism and romanticism, makes it immediately appealing. There are atmospheric etudes, aphoristic miniatures, expansive character pieces, and intimate, poetic preludes. Minjeong Shin’s sensitive response to the shifting moods and myriad soundscapes reveals the music’s astonishing variety and virtuosity.

The CD’s comprehensive booklet was written by the composer himself and contains detailed programme notes for each work, together with biographical information on performer and composer.

In Steps Volume 1, and indeed in the other volumes in the cycle, Peter Seabourne has created contemporary piano music which is accessible and appealing to professional and amateur pianists alike (he has also made the score readily available via his website), and it is most gratifying to have such a varied contribution to the ever-growing repertory of new music for piano.

Recommended.

 

Buy Steps Volume 1

Review of the other volumes in the Steps series

 

 

Meditative stillness: ‘Stations of the Cross’ by Simon Vincent

simon_vincent__stations_of_the_cross‘Stations of the Cross’, a new work for solo piano by British composer and pianist Simon Vincent, was inspired by a visit to Jerusalem in 2015 and by William Fairbanks’ installation in Lincoln Cathedral. Entitled Forest Stations, the installation is a series of sculptures in wood and reflects Fairbanks’ love of timber and his concern about the preservation of forests and trees. The sculptures tell the story of Christ’s death, the ‘Stations of the Cross’ being the places on the route to the place of Crucifixion where Christ is said to have stopped. For the faithful, each station, or stopping point, provides a point of prayer and meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Simon Vincent’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ (2016) is a series of 17 short movements, depicting Christ’s spiritual, emotional and corporeal journey to his death on the cross.

It is intended that the work opens up reflection and discussion of the image of a sole human figure weighed down with burden, an image which for me raises issues of the relationship of the individual to both a society and state which are not only capable of looking away but also of allowing suffering: themes of truly vital relevance to us today

– Simon Vincent

The work is prefaced by an earlier piece, ‘Meditations on Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane’ (2013) whose sombre, reflective mood prepares the listener for the main work on the disc. Musically, ‘Stations of the Cross’ owes much to Morton Feldman, master of stillness and controlled, deliberate silences, while the concept of a cycle of devotional meditations connects this work to Messiaen’s epic ‘Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus’. 

Vincent’s carefully-placed chords are infused with jazz harmonies, while subtleties of tonal colour are achieved through long, sustained notes and the piano’s resonance. It’s the kind of music that demands to be heard live, preferably in an acoustic which allows the timbres and unexpected fleeting clusters of notes and rhythmic fragments to linger in the air like memories.

It was Claude Debussy who declared that “music is the space between the notes”, and the pauses and fermatas which colour ‘Stations of the Cross’ allow one to fully appreciate every single note and chord. Into this void, the sounds reverberate and resonate with a meditative stillness and restrained expressive gravity. The effect is powerfully cumulative, despite the brevity of each movement, with a sense of the music building inevitably towards its contemplative conclusion.

The work receives its world premiere on 18th April 2017 in a concert given by the composer in the Chapter House of Lincoln Cathedral. Further information

A Meet the Artist interview with Simon Vincent will be published shortly.

 

If you listen to one thing this week…….

Sibelius Piano Works, vol 1 – Joseph Tong

I had no idea that Jean Sibelius composed for the piano until Joseph Tong played ‘The Trees’ Op 75 at a concert for my local musical society. I was really taken with the variety and expressive and imaginative qualities of these piano miniatures and rushed home to explore some of Sibelius’ piano music myself. The next time Joseph Tong came to perform at the NPL Musical Society, he gave me a copy of his CD and I have been enjoying exploring the range and variety of Sibelius’s writing for the piano.

Although the violin was his main instrument, Sibelius was also a gifted pianist and his piano music is fresh and original, as this recording will attest. The opening ‘Kyllikki’ triptych has a broad romantic sweep, while ‘The Trees’ and ‘The Flowers’ are intimate, characteristic salon pieces, as evocative as any of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces with hints of impressionist and expressionist writing. The ‘Five Romantic Pieces’ display richer, more textural piano writing and hint at the composer’s growing penchant for orchestral melodies. The ‘Esquisses’ (1929) are the last pieces Silbelius composed for solo piano, but they were not published until 1973 and are not widely known. They represent the composer’s increasingly personal response to nature and utilise devices such as modes and a bold approach to harmony. Wistful and pensive, they hint at darker places beyond their titles.

The album closes with the composer’s own transcription of  his celebrated nationalist work ‘Finlandia’ which loses nothing and indeed gains much in its solo piano version, especially in Joseph Tong’s authoritative handling of the dramatic tremolandos and majestic sonorous chords of the opening measures and the sensitively portrayed chorale which is intimate and tender.

Joseph Tong is a champion of Sibelius’s piano music and his studies have taken him to Finland to the composer’s home in Ainola, where he played the composer’s own Steinway piano. His commitment to this music is evident in his sensitive shaping and pacing of these piano works. The piano sound on this recording is excellent, warm and clear, and there is much to enjoy on this disc. I believe a second volume is planned.

Recommended.

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Jean Sibelius Piano Works, Volume 1

Kyllikki, Op.41
Five Pieces “The Trees”, Op. 75
Five Pieces “The Flowers”, Op. 85
Five Romantic Pieces, Op. 101
Five Esquisses, Op. 114
Two Rondinos, Op. 68
Finlandia, Op. 26

Joseph Tong, piano

Quartz Music

Haydn: Sonatas & Variations – Leon McCawley

sommcd0162Whenever I hear Haydn’s piano music played well, I want to rush to my piano to play it myself. Such was the effect of listening to Leon McCawley‘s new ‘Sonatas and Variations’ disc on the Somm label. Haydn’s piano music is not performed enough, in my humble opinion, so it is a pleasure to have a recording of such quality to enjoy.

A brace each of sonatas in major and minor keys, these works have long been part of McCawley’s concert repertoire, and this shows in his deft and insightful handling of articulation, dynamics and Haydn’s rapid changes of mood. Nothing feels forced nor contrived, and there’s wit and humour aplenty, especially in the C major Sonata (No. 60, Hob. XVI/50) which shows Haydn (and McCawley) thoroughly enjoying his mastery of the instrument and its capabilities. McCawley brings elegance and spaciousness to the slow movements, revealing fine details of inner voices. Haydn’s final piano sonata, No. 62 in E flat Hob. XVI/52, which unlike the last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert was composed some 15 years before Haydn died, rather than at the end of his life, combines grandeur and exuberance in its opening movement, while the slow movement has a stately nobility. The finale is a lively romp, but despite the rapid tempo, there is never any loss of detail or precision.

The F minor Variations are a delight, at once melancholy and wistful in the minor variations, and gracious, playful and warm in the major ones. Interior details are highlighted and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the work is clear. And I am pleased to note that McCawley observes all the repeats, which turns this work into something enjoyably substantial. Throughout there is tasteful pedalling and the piano has a lovely clarity, perfect for this music.

Recommended.

Haydn
Piano Sonatas
No. 53 in E minor
No. 60 in C major,
No. 33 in C minor
No. 62 in E flat major
Variations in F minor Hob. HVII/6
Leon McCawley, Piano

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