• New Arrangements for Violin and Guitar


    Wild Dance
    Duo Sonidos
    (William Knuth, violin. Adam Levin, guitar.)
    Naxos Records 8.574045
    Total Time:  51:07
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Duo Sonidos launches a three-disc survey of new arrangements for violin and guitar.  The pieces here are mostly arranged by guitarist Gregg Nestor who may be familiar to film music fans as a soloist and arranger.  He has also released albums of his film music arrangements for guitar.  The collection here features his work for various pieces from across the musical spectrum of 20th-Century music.

    Two familiar selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess open the album and invite us into a blend of jazz and classical style first with “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and then with a brief cover of “Summertime”.  The latter moves us into a rather beautiful piece by Szymanowski, “Dawn” (1925) written with and for violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934)—the arrangement here is by Allen Krantz.  It is followed by a work from the same year that also lends the album its title, ”Wild Dance”.  These pieces give us a little window into the blend of aesthetics influencing Symanowski’s style coupled with references to Polish folk music.  The violin takes on the lyrical vocal lines that populate Rodrigo’s Four Sephardic Songs (1965).  The piece is balanced then with a similar approach in Ravel’s Two Hebraic Melodies (1914).  Here one gets a good sense of the more modern style of the former with the chant-like impressions heard in the latter.  Korngold arranged music from his Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Op. 11 (1919) for violin and piano to increase its ability for a wider audience.  The Duo includes the gorgeous intermezzo and the hornpipe.  Two more popular pieces then follow with a transcription of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita, a common occurrence for guitar recitals, and an arrangement of John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List.  The latter is a rather interesting experience that creates an almost folk-like expression of this music in an equally moving performance.  Lukas Foss’ Three American Pieces (1944) comes from that period when Americana explorations were quite abundant in American concert music and that can certainly be heard in the pieces here along with the composer’s sense of wit and integration of folk melodies.

    The program here flows from moments of lyricism to dance and back again.  Other connections can be heard as well from the exploration of Hebraic and Sephardic melodies to other folk melodies.  In many ways, the album explores these various folkish pieces in a way that provides an accessible window into even the less familiar pieces here.  That is what helps make the release a bit more unique as well.  For a transcription to work, the listener must be convinced that this music falls naturally for the forces here.  Indeed, the emotional interpretations of the lyric lines really help to communicate well with this music.  Knuth has a gorgeous tone here that brings a real warmth here when needed and there are a few moments when a little more technical virtuosity is allowed to shine as well.  The guitar becomes both an integral component for harmonic support as well as having times to add even more subtle shaping.  Selections here allow for a wide range of musical experience and taste, many which may invite exploration of other music as well.  The result is a moving program that bodes well for the next two releases.


  • Returning to the Roots of Debussy Performance Practice: French Piano School Release


    The French Piano School: Marius-Francois Gaillard & Carmen Guilbert
    Marius-Francois Gaillard, piano.
    Carmen Guilbert, piano.
    Appian Publications & Recordings 6025
    Disc One - Total Time:  73:10
    Disc Two - Total Time:  76:23
    Recording:   ****/**** (Archival Sound)
    Performance: ****/****

    The advent of recording allows us to experience historical windows into the past often giving us a new sense and appreciation for the performance practices of an earlier era.  Beginning in the early 20th century, a rush to recording the great artists of the time, and those who had begun their careers in the previous century, created a wealth of musical data that we can only now begin to assess and appreciate anew.  For many years, Public Radio explored the recordings of great pianists often giving us glimpses into the performance traditions of Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Debussy.  In this new release, Appian Publications and Recordings has gone back to mine the French Odeon and Pathe catalogs to highlight a specific performance approach.  A distinctive “French” style of piano technique has a long 150-year history centered at the Paris Conservatoire.  This approach was perfectly captured throughout the first 50 years of the 20th Century and this new series of recordings, The French Piano School, intends to explore these early important recordings.

    Marius-Francois Gaillard (1900-1973) has truly been all but forgotten today, but he was a prominent musical figure throughout the second quarter of the 20th Century.  He was a noted pianist but also a conductor and composer (including film scores).  He studied with the great Louis Diemer ( a student of the great Antoine-Francois Marmontel—Debussy’s teacher).  Diemer was a significant concert pianist with works such as Franck’s Symphonic Variations  and Saint-Saens’ fifth piano concerto being dedicated to him among many other works.  His work as a piano teacher reaches far into the 20th Century with two of his students, Alfred Cortot and Robert Casadesus, being the most remembered today.

    Diemer’s teaching focused on the importance of finger dexterity and his students did a great deal of study of Bach.  Here is how we can get a sense of how this concept of line and clarity is still at the heart of early French Impressionism and musical expression.  So, while Deimer himself was a pianist equally at home in the grand piano tradition of the 19th Century, he appreciated the importance of clear expression that also gives equal weight to each component of chords voice in the left hand.

    In Galliard’s performances, many of these aspects are going to be audible.  He would be the first pianist to perform all of Debussy’s then known piano music in public.  The first of these all Debussy cycles was part of commemorations of the composer in 1920 (Debussy had died in 1918).  In 1922, Gaillard would repeat these concerts and then tour South America with this program.

    From the very first recording here of “Jardin sous la plie” from Estampes, one can hear how that attention to line and detail creates very clear textures in Gaillard’s playing.  The use of the pedal is far more minimal here than one might expect otherwise and this removes that sense of “Impressionist” haze that often focuses on the harmonic aspects of the music and blurs the subtle shifts of color.  Debussy tended to think of his music as a variety of independent lines, more in keeping with Baroque compositional practice.  That the resulting harmonies ended up being lush is as much a part of the expanded language of the 19th Century inherited from Wagner and Liszt.  You can still hear how this approach change even as familiar piece as the “Reverie” with its clear melodic line standing out clearly against an equally clear accompanimental pattern.  One then hears these pieces much more closely aligned as a later extension of Chopin’s intimacy with Liszt’s technical virtuosic demands.  This alone might make these recordings all the more revelatory for students of this music. The performances are quite excellent, just a few minor glitches along the way but nothing to detract.  What is stunning is that all the runs and pentatonic lines here feel so natural and closer to a pianistic virtuosity one might hear in Liszt that the music is going to seem fresh.

    The booklet notes here are quite excellent, and were fascinating to read (they inform some of the commentary here).  The recordings are organized in order of their recording dates.  That means that individual movements from Estampes and various preludes are spread out across the discs.  The earliest recordings here were made in March 1928 and the last in October 1030.  Across that span of time, Gaillard recorded a number of selections (many the first on record) from mostly the second book of Preludes, Estampes (the first pianist to record this work), Pour le Piano, Ballade, Mazurka, both Arabesques, Masques, Valse romantique, and music from Suite Bergamasque (you may never listen to “Clair de Lune” the same way again).  These performances are so engaging that one is literally transported back in time.  The style is so different from what we have become accustomed to in Debussy that it is like hearing these pieces fresh.  That said, you can also hear how Gaillard’s approach does begin to differ with the later pieces, but the pedal is rarely overused.  The notes give a very detailed overview of his recordings for each of the pieces here as well.  This alone could recommend the disc, but disc two gives us a chance to sample another performer’s work as well.

    Carmen-Marie-Lucie Guilbert (1906-1964) was a student of Marguerite Long at the Paris Conservatoire.  She also studied with Joseph Morpain—a student of Gabriel Faure.  Guilbert’s performances of Debussy align similarly to those of Gaillard with Long’s own connection to Debussy no doubt being passed along to her student.  More importantly though, are the recordings Guilbert made of Faure’s music.  She is featured on disc two here beginning with three works by Debussy (Preludes, Book 1: Minstrels; Preludes, Book 2: Bruyeres; and the “Sarabande and Toccata” from Pour le Piano—which allows opportunity to compare her interpretation with Gaillard’s on disc one).  The selections here, recorded between 1931-1938, include an impromptu, a barcarolle, two nocturnes, and the Theme and Variations, Op. 73 by Faure.  Guilbert was also a noted pianist of jazz music whose playing was equally admired by Ravel.  It is his “Alborada del gracioso” from Miroirs that brings the second disc to a close.

    For anyone interested in piano performance style of the early 20th Century, this is a must have set.  It features some excellent performances that are, in many cases, the very first recordings of this music.  The approach to playing is quite evident throughout these pieces often making them feel fresh and new.  The sound quality has been realized well in this transfer.  Surface hiss is just part and parcel for these early monaural releases, but this is not distracting with the quality of the recording being quite good as well.  Anyone remotely interested in 20th Century French music should make this a must listen.  The more one hears, the better one can begin to make the connections across other composers of the period often lumped into “Impressionist” categories whose music has fewer layers of accrued gloss.  Highly recommended.