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J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA)

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Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
Preis: EUR 9,21

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5.0 von 5 Sternen A 3 1/2 Hour Feast of Debussy, Brilliant Performances, Budget Price, 4. Mai 2013
Less than a month after reviewing another outstanding CD of piano duo music by Debussy Debussy: Four Hand Piano Music here comes another, this one with all of Debussy's music for piano four-hands or two pianos. And what a revelation it is! Much of the music on these three discs is fairly obscure but all of it is rewarding. Also rewarding is that the contents of the three discs are in precise chronological order of composition so that one can hear Debussy's style evolve from the Massenet-like 'Symphonie' of 1880, to the impressionism of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-4) and La Mer (1903-5) to the spare, stark En blanc et noir (1915). And in absolutely sparkling performances by the Italian pianists, Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti, who alternate who takes the primo and who the secondo part.

'Symphonie' consists of two movements -- Allegro and Andante cantabile. These two movements are all that remain of a four movement symphony which Debussy never got around to orchestrating. Like many composers Debussy composed at the piano and then orchestrated his music. The first disc continues with stand-alone works, the overture 'Diane' (1880), music from 'Le triomphe de Bacchus: Suite d'orchestre' which not only never got orchestrated but didn't even get finished in piano score (there are two 'fragments' recorded here in addition to the four completed movements) and 'Intermezzo' (1882), and then ends with the four-movement 'Première suite d'orchestre (1882-3) which was only discovered in 2008.

The second disc contains the twelve-minute-long 'Divertissement' (1884), for all intents and purposes a colorful orchestral piece that somehow never got orchestrated. The come three movements from Debussy's Prix de Rome cantata, 'L'enfant prodigue' (1884). 'Printemps' (1887), a two-piece suite which Debussy originally pictured as a suite for orchestra and chorus, really ushers in Debussy's impressionistic voice. It pictures the newly verdant countryside awakening from the long winter. (I first listened to this performance while driving in Vermont's newly green spring landscape and had one of those synesthetic experiences that can happen sometimes with music. I didn't want the music to end.) Next comes of the most familiar of Debussy's piano duo works, the piano-four hand 'Petite Suite' (1886-9) of four movements. It was never intended to be orchestrated, but of course a later composer, Henri Büsser, did so in 1907 and that may be how it is best known (except for us four-hand fanatics who have played it many times with a partner at the keyboard). 'Marche éccossaise' (1891) was written for an American ambassador to France who has Scots forebears and it features a song sung by his Ross ancestors. The disc ends with the popular 'Prélude à l'après-midi dun faune' (1892-4) in a marvelous performance. One does miss Debussy's better-known orchestration, especially the plaintive flute heard at the very beginning of the piece, but on repeated hearings its charms grow.

The third disc starts with a work I hadn't even known existed, 'Lindajara' (1901), a Spanish/Moorish-inflected work that has some similarities to Ravel's 'Habañera'. Then comes a piano four-hands version 'La Mer' (1903-5) which I also had not known of. Somehow one can hear the work's marvelous orchestration in one's mind's ear from this quite wonderfully written (and played) version. Even with the piano's slightly percussive sound one can hear the waves and the wind. More amazing is the two-piano version of 'Danses sacrée et profane', better known in its harp-and-strings orchestration which Debussy wrote on commission for the manufacturer of the newly invented chromatic harp. It is evocative, shimmering. 'Six épigraphes antiques' (1914) were written in Debussy's newly evolved spare style but it began life as a 1901 set using two flutes, two harps, and celesta to accompany poems by Pierre Louÿs' 'Chansons de Bilitis' which Debussy completely recast in the four-hand version. (He later arranged it for solo piano and then Ernest Ansermet orchestrated it in 1939. Lots of lives for these six descriptive pieces!) Finally comes what many consider to be Debussy's two-piano masterpiece, 'En blanc et noir' (1915) (originally entitle 'Caprices en blanc et noir'), a three-movement suite that many commentators suggest was inspired by both the horror of World War I and by Goya's black-and- white 'Caprichos', etchings depicting the ghastliness of war. Debussy quotes a foreboding version Luther's 'Eine feste berg' and inserts a palimpsest of the 'Marseillaise' and Stravinsky's 'Firebird'.

Although I had never heard of Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti before, clearly they are artists of the first rank and these performances are magnificent. I cannot recommend this three-disc set enthusiastically enough. I immediately loaded it onto my iPod so that I can listen to it wherever I go, something I do only with discs I really treasure.

So, within a month's time I have heard two sets of Debussy four-hand music that are highly recommendable: the Armengaud/Chauzu disc mentioned above and this one. One will have to make a choice as which to have based on the pieces contained on each of them. This one has everything Debussy wrote for two-pianists; the earlier disc has a one-disc selection.

Scott Morrison

Iberia Books 1,2/Espana
Iberia Books 1,2/Espana
Preis: EUR 3,99

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5.0 von 5 Sternen A Budget Reissue of a Wonderful 1999 Recording, 3. Mai 2013
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Iberia Books 1,2/Espana (Audio CD)
[Es tut mir leid meine Rezension in Englisch ist. Mein Deutsch ist schrecklich.]

Daniel Barenboim, let us remember, was born in and spent his early youth in Argentina although of course he has been completely Europeanized (or globalized) since he left Buenos Aires. I mention this because although he is best known, as a pianist, for his performances of German/Austrian music, his upbringing gives him some insight into Hispanic music as well. And that we get here in his 1999 performances of both books of 'Ibéria' and the six pieces of 'España' by Albéniz. Alicia de Larrocha's performances of 'Ibéria' have for many years been the touchstone for the work and she is still my favorite. But Barenboim comes close although his way with the suite is demonstrably different from hers. He tends to use quite slow tempi, luxuriating in the Spanish impressionistic harmonies of Albéniz's great work. This works. When faster tempi are called for, as in 'Fête-Dieu à Séville' or 'Rondeña', Barenboim's playing coruscates. These performances cause one to appreciate anew Albéniz's ingeniously creative harmonic and melodic genius. The more I play this recording, the more I have come to love it. (And I say that as one who has often had some difficulty with Barenboim's playing of Germanic repertoire.)

The slighter pieces of 'España' are given their full due: charming, characterful, ardent or lighthearted as required.

This is a valuable disc, a reminder that in his day Barenboim was a marvelously poetic pianist.

Scott Morrison

Movimentos Edition: Fantasiestücke Op.12/Fantasie Op.17
Movimentos Edition: Fantasiestücke Op.12/Fantasie Op.17
Preis: EUR 18,99

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5.0 von 5 Sternen A Superb Newcomer, A Superb Debut CD, 1. Mai 2013
[Es tut mir leid meine Rezension in Englisch ist. Mein Deutsch ist schrecklich.]

Annika Treutler is a 22-year-old German pianist who is still in the midst of studying for her master's degree in piano performance at Hanover's Musikhochschule. She was recorded 18 months ago in these performances of Schumann at the Wolfsburg (Germany) Movimentos, a festival in the city that produces Volkswagens, Germany's so-called Autostadt. When I first listened to this CD I was stunned at its beauty, in both the performances and the recorded sound. This is as close to the perfect recording as I ever expect to hear. Further, one does not sense anything in Treutler's performances that suggest she is anything but an absolute master of both technique and art. There is clearly a sense of youthful exuberance but it is always tempered by wisdom and authenticity of style.

The recording was underwritten by the Festival and they actually asked Treutler to record Bach's Goldberg Variations. But she demurred, saying that she really preferred to make her recorded début with Schumann with whose music she feels a particular affinity. Wise choice, although I would love some day to hear her Goldbergs.

The Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, are a set of eight pieces written in 1837 and dedicated to an eighteen-year-old piano student, Anna Laidlaw, with whom Schumann had had a brief relationship, during a time when he was banned from seeing his future wife, Clara Wieck, by her father. Each piece has an evocative name, although Schumann admitted that he didn't think up the names for the pieces until after they had been written. Reportedly the pieces portray both sides to Schumann's personality, the so-called Eusebius (the romantic dreamer) and Florestan (the man of action). The pieces are:

1. Des Abends (In the Evening)
2. Aufschwung (Upsurge)
3. Warum? (Why?)
4. Grillen (Whims)
5. In der Nacht (In the Night)
6. Fabel (Fable)
7. Traumes Wirren (Dream's Confusions)
8. Ende vom Lied (End of the Song)

Treutler plays these disparate pieces with just the right amount of élan or dreaminess.

Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, was written the year before and there is speculation that it may have been intended originally as a sonata. But it has only three movements and the last one is very slow and contemplative, not the usual ending for a sonata. More likely, the Fantasie was a set of evocative pieces whose inspiration was the still-young Clara Wieck (then only sixteen). Schumann considered several earlier titles for the work, e.g. the movements subtitled 'Ruins', 'Trophies', 'Palms', or 'Ruins', 'Triumphal Arches', 'Constellation'. Frankly those titles don't conjure up much for me, but perhaps that's because I learned this piece as music qua music, without any poetic images either conjured or given me by my teacher. Be that as it may, the Fantasie is the cornerstone of Schumann's entire oeuvre, in my opinion, his greatest work. Treutler gives it a transcendent reading and is not bothered in the least by the tremendous technical demands -- I never mastered those godawful leaps in both hands at the end of the second movement -- and imbues the whole with poetry and excitement. Her reading of the last movement is among the most satisfying I've ever heard.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Scott Morrison

Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet
Brahms: The Complete Chamber Music for Clarinet
Preis: EUR 26,99

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Superb in All Respects, 5. April 2013
[Es tut mir leid diese Bewertung in Englisch ist. Ich habe nicht sehr gut auf Deutsch schreiben.]

It is well-known that Brahms was so impressed by the playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, the principal clarinetist of the vaunted Meiningen Court Orchestra, that he more or less came out of retirement and wrote four late works (Opp. 114, 115, and Op. 120, Nos. 1 and 2) for him and even appeared as pianist with him playing those that included piano. It is for good reason that these late works are among the most treasured by Brahmsians, partly because of the mellow sound of the clarinet, and partly because of the serene, wise and autumnal nature of the works. They are not probably the most popular works among the general public. But they are jewels of the first rank. And on these two hybrid-SACDs they are given spectacularly musical performances.

The featured clarinetist is a young Spanish/German woman who was principal clarinetist in the Komische Oper orchestra in Berlin until 2010 when she became professor of clarinet at the highly respected Hochschule für Musik und Darstellenden Kunst (College of Music and Performing Arts) in Frankfurt. Her playing is immaculate and extraordinarily expressive. There are, in Brahms's clarinet works, very wide dynamics and Ruiz Ferreres has mastered them faultlessly. Her pianissimi are particularly beguiling.

She is joined in the trio and sonatas by the young Austrian pianist, Christoph Berner, whose playing matches that of Ruiz Ferreres impeccably. He is no shrinking violet accompanist and it is clear that he and the clarinetist are of one mind musically. In the Trio they are joined by Japanese/German cellist, Danjulo Ishizaka, who is a perfect fit with his colleagues. His extensive solos [late Brahms is replete with marvelous cello parts] are particularly affecting.

For the amazing Clarinet Quintet Ruiz Ferreres is joined by the wonderful Mandelring Quartet, whose recordings I have lauded repeatedly: e.g., Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets, Janacek: Complete String Quartets. Just yesterday I revisited their recording of Janácek's 'Kreutzer Sonata' quartet and was once again enthralled.

The only drawback to this issue is that each CD has a somewhat short timing: CD 1 45:10; CD 2 55:32. To make up for that the price of each SACD is slightly less than one ordinarily pays these days. Recorded sound is exemplary.

Strong recommendation. (This music has already gone on my iPod, which I do only with CDs I particularly like so that I can take the music wherever I go.)

Scott Morrison

Preis: EUR 12,99

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4.0 von 5 Sternen ****1/2 - A Stunning Schubert Sonata in B Flat, D960, 2. März 2013
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Klavierwerke (Audio CD)

Alexander Schimpf is a thirtyish German pianist who came to attention in the US when he won the International Piano Competition in Cleveland in 2011. I heard him recital at the University of Vermont that same year and was impressed with his program of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 111; Nikolai Kapustin's Selections from 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op. 53; and Morton Feldman's Variations for Piano, a program that successfully bridged wide chasms in the piano literature. A friend who had also heard him in Burlington laughingly said that he had convinced himself that there must be a 'pianist farm' somewhere where they grew all the fabulous young pianists we're hearing these days. Schimpf certainly has all the goods for a major career: musicality, fingers, intellectual curiosity and depth.

This CD, however, is a slightly mixed bag. His performance of the first work, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, sometimes just skims the surface of this admittedly surface-y set of baroque-inspired pieces. Sometimes one has the feeling that Schimpf, because he has such digital technique, merely plays as fast as humanly possible. At other times, though, there is tenderness and aching beauty, as in the Forlane. The Fugue is, however, downright plain-Jane.

In the Scriabin one hears a bit more fuzzy pedaling that one might like although these four Préludes, op. 74, also have a hard-edge at times that is a bit jarring.

But when we get to the Schubert Sonata in B Flat Major, D960, we arrive at transcendent playing. This is Schubert's last sonata and it stands apart from all the sonatas that preceded it. It has always struck me that it is the quintessentially private Schubert pouring his heart out, especially in the first two movements. It is a cliché to describe a pianist playing 'as if improvising the music in the moment' but that is exactly the feeling I had with Schimpf in these two movements. Although both movements allow of fairly strict formal analysis, in Schimpf's hands they do indeed sound improvised, heartfelt, musing, impulsive, spontaneous. Harmonically the first movement wanders all over as if the pianist is modulating at his momentary whim. It is startling when the first movement exposition's repeat is basically up a fourth after wandering in various distant keys. The ternary-form second movement is in C Sharp Minor, as far afield as any Schubert inner movement, before modulating in the middle section to A Major. Schimpf conveys these harmonic forays as something personal, distracted, somber, heartbroken. There is, then, a delicately bustling third movement that breaks with the previous moods, exactly what Schubert intended I'm convinced. The finale portrays a plucky insouciance that nonetheless has an underlying, but still detectable, sadness. Schimpf captures this perfectly. This is a magnificent reading of this magnificent sonata and makes purchase of this CD necessary for those who love it, and perhaps even for those who aren't familiar with it.

I've given the CD slightly less than five stars only because I was less than thrilled with the first two works on the disc. But, no mind, the sonata is definitely worth having.

Scott Morrison

Strawinski - Le Sacre du Printemps / Bartók -Sonata for Two Pianos
Strawinski - Le Sacre du Printemps / Bartók -Sonata for Two Pianos
Wird angeboten von SEDIVA Deutschland
Preis: EUR 7,58

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5.0 von 5 Sternen This One is Outstanding!, 27. Dezember 2012
Put simply, these are the best recorded performances I've ever heard of both Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps for Piano Duo and the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Further, they're by a piano duo I've never heard of before: Frank-Immo Zichner and Frank Gutschmidt, along with percussionists Dominic Oelze and Torsten Schönfeld in the Bartók. The Sacre is so alive and immediate that I was actually shocked by it, the same way I was the very first time I heard Rite of Spring sixty years ago. The thing about the piano reduction of the Stravinsky is that it accentuates the score's rhythmic complexities and, for its time, utter novelty. Of course the orchestral score has all kinds of instrumental subtleties but always for me it is the rhythmic ingenuity that makes the score so amazing, and that's what one hears anew in this recording. The recorded sound is outstandingly lifelike and even in the harshest, loudest passages the piano never clatters or clangs. This, too, is amazing given the dynamic range of this performance.

Basically the same thing applies to the Bartók performance. Both pianists and the excellent percussionists play beautifully. The performance is so alive, so filled with subtlety and yet immediacy that it is almost as if I've never heard it before.

I cannot recommend this set of performances too highly.

Scott Morrison

Symphonische Etüden Op.13/Arabesque/Waldszenen
Symphonische Etüden Op.13/Arabesque/Waldszenen
Preis: EUR 11,99

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4.0 von 5 Sternen Poetic Symphonic Etudes, Earthbound Waldszenen, 13. Dezember 2012
Martin Helmchen, not yet thirty when he recorded this disc a year ago, is a pianist I've watched with interest, great admiration, and occasional dismay. I have particularly liked his chamber music contributions. On this disc he tackles some of the works central to the romantic piano repertoire: Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, Forest Scenes (Waldszenen) and the Arabesque.

The largest work here, the Symphonic Etudes, is given a marvelous, poetic, deeply felt reading with technical aplomb (listen, for instance, to Variation VI); it is in mostly luxuriously deep, rich recorded sound -- not so easy with solo piano recordings -- although there is an occasional clangy bit, especially in the range beyond two octaves above middle C. Still, this is a reading I'm sure I'll be listening to again and again. The Symphonic Etudes have been recorded by just about every pianist of any stature (and many who have less acclaim) and among my many recordings I particularly value those by Pollini Schumann: Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 / 5 Variations Op. Posthumous / Arabesque Op. 18 and a no-longer-easily available studio recording by Sviatoslav Richter on the Regis label (you can get it here from an Amazon reseller): Schumann: Piano Works. (I thank Santa Fe Listener for putting me on to this latter recording. Read his review at at Schumann: Etudes Symphoniques / Bunte Blatter / Fantasiestucke Nos. 5 & 7).

Waldszenen is late Schumann but it sounds almost like salon music. There are those who tout it as particularly profound Schumann, but I've never gotten the message. And Helmchen's performance doesn't do it for me. It almost sounds, in fact, like he is trudging, rather than musing, through the forest.

Ah, but the Arabesque, which ends the disc, is a real delight, played in a frisky manner that is perfect for this airy confection.

Helmchen is definitely an artist to watch. I will keep getting his recordings, that's for sure, because the pearls definitely outnumber the less impressive efforts.

Scott Morrison

Dai Asai Plays Chopin
Dai Asai Plays Chopin
Preis: EUR 17,29

3.0 von 5 Sternen Beautiful Bits, Odd Bits and Mannerisms, 10. Dezember 2012
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Dai Asai Plays Chopin (Audio CD)
When one has owned and listened to literally dozens of Chopin piano discs I suppose one can get nit-picky, and I suspect that is probably what I'm doing here. So, first the good things: Dai Asai is a young Japanese pianist living in Germany and this is his first recording as far as I can tell. He is talented, has good technique and is playing an absolutely gorgeous sounding Hamburg Steinway in absolutely gorgeous recorded sound. There are many beautiful moments in this recital. For instance the beginning of the Fourth Ballade is meltingly lovely. But ...

One can be listening along and enjoying the beauty of the playing and then be jarred by what I can only call solecisms, such as suddenly accelerating where the score does not call for it or altering the rhythmic flow in idiosyncratic ways. This is not rubato I'm talking about but rather alterations of flow, even within a measure, that seem arbitrary. Nonetheless one has the sense that each note, each moment is considered; in other words, this is not due to a lack of control but rather a result of calculation. And calculation is what bothers me most about Asai's playing. Not much sounds natural or inevitable. And there are far too many moments of plodding, especially in the bass, as in Fantasie-Impromptu and several of the Nocturnes; one has to be careful in playing Chopin to avoid making this impression and too often Asai doesn't.

I have little doubt that Asai is talented and that he will possibly have a career ahead of him, but on the evidence of this disc I'd have to say that he is trying too hard to sound 'different' and missing the opportunity, often, to play musically and naturally.

Scott Morrison

Schumann in Wien
Schumann in Wien
Preis: EUR 19,62

4.0 von 5 Sternen Fine Schumann, With Some Less Known Works, 29. November 2012
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Schumann in Wien (Audio CD)
Florian Uhlig is a German-born, UK-based pianist who is in the process of recording ALL of Schumann's piano works, including some fragments and reconstructions. He has chosen to divide the 15 CDs into categories like 'Robert Schumann and the Sonata', 'The Young Virtuoso Pianist', and 'Schumann and Counterpoint'. I have reviewed the Sonata CD Schumann & The Sonata 1. The present disc contains music Schumann wrote during the six months he lived in Vienna, having come there from Leipzig in October 1838 and leaving in April 1839. During that time he wrote several well-known works, e.g., Arabeske, Humoresque and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, included here in excellent performances. These three works have had numerous recordings and I certainly can't place Uhlig's above the finest of the lot (Richter, Perahia, Brendel, Horowitz, Nelson Freire, among others) but they are creditable. I doubt it will be for these three works that this disc will be purchased. It will be bought either by people who want to hear the less known works, or by people who are collecting all fifteen of Uhlig's discs.

The pieces that are more rarely heard include Vision in F Major (from Op. 124), Klavierstück in D flat (1838, but never published until 1977), Drei Stücklein from the Op. 99 Bunte Blätter, and the Blumenstück in D flat, Op. 19. These are all fairly brief and given poetic performances by Uhlig.

Recorded sound is quite good.

Scott Morrison

Chopin - Berühmte Klavierwerke
Chopin - Berühmte Klavierwerke
Preis: EUR 17,55

2.0 von 5 Sternen Negligible, Sometimes Odd Chopin, 28. November 2012
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Chopin - Berühmte Klavierwerke (Audio CD)
This twofer comprising previous 1990s releases from Hänssler combines one CD each by pianists Pavlos Hatzopoulos and Vladimir Bunin (the latter not to be confused with the better-known Stanislav Bunin). The Bunin disc is infuriatingly idiosyncratic with wayward (although probably intentionally so) tempi that remind me of that old eccentric of the piano Vladimir de Pachmann at his worst. Clearly Bunin has technique but it is put to use conveying his very odd view of Chopin's music. At first I thought he probably didn't have very good technique because the first cut, the Berceuse, Op. 57, is halting and uninflected enough that it sounds like a student playing. But obviously later on the CD we hear that Bunin has technique to spare. An odd duck, in my opinion.

The disc by Pavlos Hatzopoulos, a name new to me, is less objectionable, but it is also not terribly memorable. The competition among Chopin CDs is formidable and this one simply doesn't suggest more than one hearing.

Scott Morrison

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