034571282602‘Vida Breve’ (Short Life) – Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion CDA68260)

It seems fitting that Stephen Hough’s new album ‘Vida Breve’, featuring music on the theme of death, should be released while we are still in the thrall of the coronavirus. But this album is not a response to the pandemic and was in fact conceived and recorded long before any of us had heard of coronavirus or COVID-19.

Yet its theme is highly relevant to our Corona times when death dominates the news, from the daily tally of COVID deaths and grim predictions from scientific and medical experts. Despite this, as Stephen Hough says in the CD’s liner notes, we are still reluctant to talk about death, a reluctance which has increased over the past 50-odd years during which medical science has made it possible for people survive better and for longer and has led to a greater disassociation from and hyper-sensitivity to discussions about death.

For artists, writers and composers death has always been a central preoccupation, resulting in some of the most extraordinary, exultant and emotionally profound expression in painting, literature and music – amply demonstrated in the works on Hough’s new album. In the nineteenth century people were far closer to death than we are today, and for Chopin (whose short life was dogged by ill-health), Liszt and Busoni, composers whose music is included on this CD, death was understood and accepted as part of the natural course of life.

As a Catholic, I suspect Stephen Hough has a fairly robust attitude towards death, perhaps more closely aligned to that of the composers featured on his new disc (and remember Liszt was a devout Catholic). Hough’s faith teaches us not to fear death but to accept it as the only certainty in life, and his own piano sonata ‘Vida Breve’, the work which lends its title to the disc, explores the brevity of life, a reminder that our allocated time is short. An abstract, introspective work constructed of five tiny motivic cells, which interact contrapuntally and include a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet, ‘Vida Breve’ lasts a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil.

Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor violin Partita opens this recording, in Busoni’s glorious, romantic transcription for solo piano. This epic cathedral of sound is an awe-inspiring, emphatic opener (Hough played it at his Wigmore Hall livestream concert in June 2020), and here Hough gives it an authoritative, multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. It’s opening is dark and sombre, yet the processional nature of this piece, with its sense of building, dying back, then increasing again, brings a remarkably uplifting atmosphere to this music, and of course its final cadence, a Picardy Third, ensures that it closes with a clear sense of positivity.

After the towering majesty of the Chaconne, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is fleet and turbulent, its anxious intensity tempered when Hough lingers over the more lyrical Nocturne-like passages in the opening movement and the Scherzo, or when he allows the essential nobility of the music to shine through over disruptive bass motifs. Like the Chaconne, the famous Marche funèbre is magisterial rather than simply funereal, while the tender, dreamy middle section lends an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme return.

In addition to the thematic associations between the pieces, there are musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne are reiterated in the Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominates, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure is later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles, to which Hough brings an ominous darkness, its slow-march meter suggesting the dead weight of a bier on the shoulders who carry it, before a more reflective, wistful section. The other piece by Liszt, the Bagatelle Sans Tonalité, is a musical gargoyle with its wayward harmonic language and grimacing, dancing rhythms.

The remaining works on the disc are encores of a sort – a reminder that this final recital is not quite over….. Busoni’s Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen uses familiar melodies and motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into a witty concert piece, to which Hough brings a warm romanticism. His own transcription of Arirang, a traditional Korean folksong, is gentle and contemplative, its lyrical melody singing out over a flowing accompaniment. It leads naturally into Gounod’s recasting of Bach’s Prelude in C into Ave Maria (also transcribed by Hough), a popular work at funerals, perhaps because it is both perfect music for the transit to the afterlife and for reflections on life and the inevitability of its end. Death, now where is thy sting?

This album is masterly is its programming; stimulating and provocative, it’s a superb recital disc and, being Hough, the music is thoughtfully chosen and impeccably played.

Highly recommended

FW


‘Vida Breve’ is released by Hyperion on 29 January 2021. 

This review first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist site

Review by Karine Hetherington

Natalya Romaniw’s star has been shining bright on the operatic stage for the past five years as her creamy soprano voice continues to draw an ever increasing legion of fans. A Daily Telegraph critic suggested in February this year that Romaniw was the next Netrebko of her generation.

At Opera Holland Park last season, I was enraptured by her lead performance in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Her Tosca at Scottish Opera and, more recently, her Madame Butterfly at ENO, earned her the highest of accolades from critics and audiences alike. Her Cho Cho San at the Coliseum was unforgettable.

And now away from the heady world of live opera, Romaniw, together with pianist and long time collaborator, Lada Valešová, are bringing out Arion, an album of Slavic song repertoire.

Read more

Romaniw-ORC100131-WebCover-1

For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to an energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.

51elFUJVORL._SS500 “Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists.

So said Fryderyk Chopin to American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, after hearing him perform at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Alkan and Liszt also recognised Gottschalk’s impressive talents, and, perhaps in homage to his European virtuoso counterparts, there are distinctly Lisztian idioms in the Symphonie Romantique “La nuit des tropiques”, which opens Cuban-American pianist Antonio Iturrioz’s new recording ‘Gottschalk and Cuba’.

The Symphonie Romantique is especially significant as this is a world premiere recording of the first American symphony, transcribed in its entirety for one piano, as Gottschalk originally intended it and based on Antonio Iturrioz’s extensive research. The second movement, ‘Fiesta Criolla’, is heard in Iturrioz’s own transcription for one piano for the very first time, thus making this a historic recording. In its solo piano form, the work has a Lisztian grandeur with many complex virtuosic passages and rich textures.

Gottschalk was America’s first important pianist-composer. He was also an extraordinary traveler, giving virtuoso performances in Europe, Central and South America and the Caribbean. He fell in love with Cuba and its music, and lived there for extended periods. As a composer, his music combined his Creole heritage with the American, Latin American and Afro-Caribbean influences he absorbed during his travels – all expressed within the boundaries of classical piano writing prevalent in the 19th century.

The Symphonie Romantique provides the starting point for a chronological tour through Cuban classical music, much of it never before recorded. Piano music by Manuel Saumell Robredo, Nicholas Ruiz Espadero, Ignacio Cervantes, Hubert de Blanck, and Ernesto Lecuona features on this album, revealing Gottschalk’s influence and the high regard with which he was held by those who followed him. Many of the works show the influence of nineteenth-century European virtuoso pianist-composers – Chopin, Liszt, Alkan – shot through with the distinctly Afro-Cuban, Cuban and Creole rhythms and folk idioms. There are hints of ragtime and jazz too – a reminder of Gottschalk’s wide-ranging influence on American music of the 20th century. The album closes with Gottschalk’s El Cocoye, Op 80.

Iturrioz’s own Cuban heritage allows him to really get to the heart of this music, and his understanding and insight is clear from the outset. The sensuous, foot-tapping rhythms feel natural and uncontrived, heady harmonic shadings are neatly caught, while the virtuosic passages are executed with aplomb. The overall sound is warm, romantic, lush and exotic.

A generous introduction to the classical piano music of Cuba and an important contribution to the appreciation and understanding of Gottschalk’s work and influence. Includes detailed liner notes by Gottschalk biographer, Dr. S. Frederick Starr.

Released on the Steinway & Sons label and available as a CD or digital download.

Recommended.

Meet the Artist interview with Antonio Iturrioz

 

Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.

In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.

This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.

As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unit

I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.

As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.

I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.

Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.

Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Odyssey’ is available now on the Sony Classical label.

Meet the Artist interview with Rick Wakeman


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

 

 

debussy-piano-music---stephen-hough-hyperion-1515405549…….make sure it’s Stephen Hough’s new disc of piano music by Debussy (Hyperion).

I read Stephen’s illuminating article about Claude Debussy (New York Times, 2 March 2018) and then listened to his new disc of Debussy’s piano music (Estampes, Images, Children’s Corner, La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse). Here is Stephen writing on Pagodes, the first piece on his new disc:

[Debussy’s] use of its tonal color………is not so much a translation of a foreign text as it is a poem written in a newly learned, fully absorbed language

Stephen could be describing his own playing here (though he is far too modest to do so!). For those more used to hearing him play Liszt with cool yet colourful virtuosity, his Debussy playing is deliciously liquid, lucid, perfumed, sensuous and elegant. The phrasing and pacing is so natural and supple, fermatas and pauses so sensitively judged, touch, articulation and pedalling so clear and carefully nuanced, one has the sense that Stephen has also “fully absorbed” the composer’s language.

Take Pagodes, for example, the piece which opens this disc. Textures and lines emerge, blur and recede with all the ethereal delicacy of watercolour painting (and the suite Estampes is a reminder that Debussy loved art), but there is clarity too, so that every note sounds like a crystalline droplet. Reflets dans l’eau is similarly coloured, glistening and shimmering with subtlety and elegance. There’s nothing fussy or contrived in Stephen’s account of this music, and his assertion in the NYT article that Debussy was a “modern” composer is more than confirmed in his highlighting of the composer’s fondness for piquant or erotic harmonies, surprising melodic fragments (often using the pentatonic scale) and rhythmic quirks.

Children’s Corner proves as much a delight for adults as the young ones: snow dances with feathery delicacy, while The Little Shepherd a study in tender simplicity, tinged with poignancy. Strictly for adults, La plus que lente is wonderfully louche and languorous, with its late-night cocktail bar swagger. L’isle joyeuse closes this fine recording with a sparkling clarity, wit and sunlit joie de vivre

Highly recommended

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) / Piano Music / Stephen Hough (piano) / Hyperion CDA68139

 

Meet the Artist – Stephen Hough