• The Orchestral Piano


    Piano Orchestra 2
    Francois-Xavier Poizat, piano.
    Ars Production 38 249
    Total Time:  61:13
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Before the advent of radio and recorded music, music lovers wanting to experience the latest orchestral music did so through being fortunate enough to hear them in concert, or needed to find piano transcriptions.  Throughout the 19th Century, publishers rushed to fulfill this need, often with pianists and the composers, themselves, creating reductions and editions to be used for this Hausmusik.  French pianist Francois-Xavier Poizat released an earlier album exploring some of these pieces (by Bizet, Liszt, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky) earlier on the label hence the “2” in this collection of pieces that further explore this aspect of piano literature.  Here the pianists who made these transcriptions are as important as the works themselves

    The selections on this release have a more decided 20th-Century, and Russian, bent.  However, the program opens with one of the important nationalist works of the 19th Century, Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Ma Vlast.  One of the seminal works of Czech music, this piano version was adapted by Heinrich von Kaan-Albest (1852-1926).  Across his career, the composer and educator would transcribe and adapt many of Smetana’s works for piano.  This version was not published until 1934.  It is quite fascinating to hear this massive orchestral work reduced in this way, though reduction may not be quite the right word as in the larger moments of the work it would seem the performer might need an extra hand or two.  The writing here is not unlike those of Liszt, showing as much Smetana’s own debt to the composer perhaps.  Poizat manages to take us from the most simple musical beauties as the river moves on its course to the grander statements exhibiting a host of technical skill coupled with moving interpretations of this familiar work.

    Stravinsky chose three pieces from his ballet Petrushka for the pianist Arthur Rubinstein.  A more popular version for two pianos was created, with the composer’s approval, by Victor Babin.  Published in 1922, this five-movement suite by the virtuoso Theodore Szanto appeared the same time as the composer’s version.  Szanto’s pieces are arranged more in keeping with the ballet’s structure and orchestral score.  As one might suspect, these are intended to provide virtuosic showpieces for the pianist but also require moments of restraint and lyrical beauty.  As such, this makes for an engaging work exhibiting the required attention to rhythmic detail and accentuation. 

    The music of Khachaturian has managed to maintain a foothold in the concert repertoire through his music for two ballets, Gayane (1939) and Spartacus (1954).  It is the latter’s gorgeous “Adagio” from Act Two which Poizat includes here in a recent realization by pianist-composer Matthew Cameron.  It demonstrates a continued interest in this genre of transcriptions for piano in the modern era.  But it creates a nice relaxed buffer from the technical skill of the earlier pieces.  Here is a chance for Poizat to exhibit his interpretive style and align himself in the grand piano virtuoso style which he does superbly.  There is also some touching beauty captured in this performance.

    Most of these transcriptions are rather rare on disc and so it is also somewhat surprising that Prokofiev’s Pieces for Piano, Op. 96 (1941-42) tends to appear on only a couple surveys of his piano music.  The music here is a sort of reuse of themes and music the composer would use in his opera War and Peace (1942; “Waltz”, no. 1) and the film score Lermontov (1943; no. 2, “Contradanse”, and no. 3, “Mephisto Waltz”—a sort of perpetual motion challenge).  The music has that angular modernity with sardonic with known to the composer.  Here the grandiose gestures of the opening waltz show off some of the composer’s Neo-Classical tendencies with touches of Romanticism.  These are perfectly captured in Poizat’s performance and one can hope for more Prokofiev from him in the future.

    The excellent sequencing of the album transitions us from the angular style of Prokofiev’s waltzes to the more grandiose parodistic music of Ravel’s La Valse.  This is not the composer’s own transcription but a more recent one by Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin published in 2001.  The version here goes back to the orchestral score and works to be a reduction and realization of that work to piano.  The performance here captures the grandeur and sweep of the work quite well.

    The album concludes with Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 which was originally part of a film score (The First Echelon, 1956).  The piece found new notoriety in the Kubrik film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  This is a more recent transcription by Florian Noack serving as a perfect technical challenge encore for the album.

    Poizat’s program really is an excellent one here that provides opportunity for him to show off technical skill as well as his own personal interpretive abilities for these works.  The multichannel hybrid disc is stunning with a warm sound that complements this music so well.  If one has not picked up his first volume, this may be worth adding as well.  This is a seriously excellent album all around.

    The pianist will be heard in concert at the Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, Sunday, December 2 at 7:30pm.  Those able to secure tickets for the program of Liszt and Ravel will likely not be disappointed.

  • Belcea Explores Shostakovich


    Shostakovich: Piano Quintet; String Quartet No. 3
    Belcea String Quartet
    Piotr Anderszewski, piano
    Alpha Classics Music Alpha 360
    Total Time: 67:47
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    The Belcea Quartet embarked on a concert cycle of the Beethoven quartets which they subsequently recorded with Alpha.  Other recent Alpha releases have focused on Brahms, and the serialist trio of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.  The group has been performing the two works on this album as part of the concert repertoire for some time making both obvious choices for their first Shostakovich album.  It is also a rather unique pairing of two of the composer’s 1940s chamber works.  Shostakovich’s string quartets are rather fascinating works that tend to be overshadowed by his larger-scale symphonic pieces, but they are among some of the composer’s finest work often revealing his own intimate struggles with the ever-changing Soviet regime’s approach to his music.  At present, the Belcea Quartet enters a fairly-crowded field of recordings of these two pieces featured in about three dozen recordings.  The 1940 piano quintet is among the composer’s more popular chamber pieces with his own recording with the Beethoven String Quartet, which commissioned the work, among one of the classic recordings in the catalog.  In the quintet they are joined by pianist Piotr Anderszewski.

    The quintet takes a more unique structural approach from the onset with its more unusual five -movements, rather than four.  Each is also more accessible with identifiable and telling melodic ideas.  The second movement introduces a fugue and there is a dense little scherzo and slow-movement intermezzo before we head into the brilliant finale.  The piece is filled with opportunities for virtuosic playing, especially for the more soloistic piano line.  For these and other reasons, the work’s more populist approach garnered the first Stalin Prize in 1941.  Still, there is something strikingly symphonic when the work is fully scored.  This sits alongside the Neo-Baroque implications of a prelude and fugue of the opening two movements.  This is a full-bodied performance as well with rich tone and dramatic interpretation among the highlights here.  The great lower end of the piano line in the fugue is just miraculous in the most intimate of final few minutes.  Here is some of the quintets most darkly gorgeous music and Belcea manages to meet this gradual disintegration of sound in the work before the warm line returns in all its restrained, intimate glory.  It is a breathtaking moment of beauty in this performance.  After this rather wrenching opening, the piece shifts to an almost celebratory scherzo with great wit.  It is as if we have moved from awe to joyous wonder.  The Belcea players have great articulation here that cuts well in the texture as the piece moves along with an excellent, bright piano line in the opening segments.  The central solo violin solo moves us into the almost folk-like melodic ideas and a very familiar mid-century style.  The plaintive, singing melody of the fourth movement returns us to that melancholy beauty of the composer’s slow movements.  Excellent phrasing and matched tone and articulation here in the violins is really stunning.  What has also struck this listener about the quintet is the way we move from this fuller sound to a gradually thinner one so that by the time we arrive in the final movement we are back in light salon territory.

    Continuing in this unique 5-movement form is Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F, Op. 73 (1946).  The composer has Beethoven in the back of his mind here with an exploration of more interconnected movements that flow from one to the next.  The opening light sonata-allegro first movement features a repeat with an almost devastating double fugue in its development that winds through a variety of harmonic areas.  The second movement brings to the more acerbic style of the fifth symphony shifting to the parallel minor, but this is even more pronounced in the central movement and its violent shifts between a wild waltz meter and a march in quick alternation.  From this, we turn to a slow passacaglia among some of the composers equally more devastating and emotionally wrenching music that starts strong but slowly has its life dynamically drained away.  The final movement seems to ask the listener to consider what they have experience here with its sense of calm, turmoil, and devastation that begs to be justified in the end.  The ideas here are clearly delineated and move us through the Neo-Classical style with his formal flirtations with Baroque forms.  The piece always has this sense that we open in the modern world and end up trying to figure out what might happen next.  This is what provides a rather intriguing undercurrent to the work which is pointedly brought out in Belcea’s performance.

    These are certainly fine performances that pull the album up to the top of the heap.  The sound is crystal clear and really opens up the extreme lower ends of the music here further enhancing the piano’s lower register.  The Belcea group does an amazing job of overall balance here that pulls you into the dramatic unfolding of Shostakovich’s music and helps delineate the structures of these movements so well.  It is obviously a well-thought through performance that manages to find interest and emotional connections still well into their familiarity.  This is especially true when the music needs just a little extra rubato, or biting wit, to occasionally wink at the listener (this is especially true of their performance of the third quartet).  One of the quartet recordings of the year to track down and treasure.