By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?
Three recently released recordings reviewed:
Leif Ove Andsnes / Mahler Chamber Orchestra
The Beethoven Journey: The Complete Piano Concertos
Sony 305887 (Released Oct. 27, 2014)
Beethoven’s five pianos concertos are standard repertoire that many pianists have recorded during the last 75 years. Acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes studied and played them over the last four years before recording them all, released first on three separate discs and now as a set.
They are worthy of inclusion among the classic interpretations, standing out among the many complete recordings on several key points.
First is the sheer beauty and clarity of Andsnes’ playing. His tone is richly rounded, his phrasing sensitive and characterful, and his runs and trills always crystalline and precise. Second, his interpretations are straightforward but never dull, projecting power and humor when appropriate, as well as emotional warmth and quiet contemplation.
Andsnes conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the piano, the musical approach more Classical period than Romantic, allowing for a refreshing buoyancy and vividness, stunningly reproduced by the recording engineers.
Purchasing all the concertos by one pianist is convenient but rarely are all equally satisfying. Andsnes sets the standard for No. 1 with his crisp, jaunty playing; combines vigor and delicacy astutely in No. 3; takes a rewardingly lofty view of No. 5; and infuses the bonus “Choral Fantasy” with exciting fervor.
The other two concertos (recorded in a venue with less brilliant acoustics) are fine but not as engaging, Andsnes somewhat cool and uninvolved in No. 2 and overly studied and introspective in No. 4.
Still, all are confident, intelligent portrayals, suitable for a first-time set or for comparing with other favorite interpreters.
Anne Akiko Meyers – The American Masters
eOne Records EOMCD 7791 (Released Sept 30, 2014)
Samuel Barber’s 1941 Violin Concerto was rejected by its commissioning artist but soon became a beloved example of the form. Meyers applies her now-familiar rich, warm tone and subtle, emotional approach to the melancholic first movement and yearning second movement. She takes the third’s buzzing intensity in stride, building relentlessly to its climax. Conductor Leonard Slatkin supplies sensitive, buoyant support with the London Symphony Orchestra. Other recordings are more aggressively interpreted but this lyrical version imminently satisfies.
Barber was a long-time mentor to John Corigliano. In 2010, Meyers commissioned Corigliano to write a lullaby for her newborn daughter, Natalie. Originally for violin and piano, the 5-minute piece was orchestrated in 2014 by the 76-year-old composer and premiered at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. Here Meyers invests the quiet lullaby with loving sweetness, the orchestra underpinning it with delicate dissonances.
Corigliano, in turn, has been mentor to 37-year-old prolific and award-winning composer, Mason Bates. Meyers commissioned him for this 25-minute piece that she premiered in 2012.
Bates uses the Archaeopteryx (a dinosaur-bird hybrid) as his inspiration. The first movement’s syncopated, catchy rhythms percussively underpin the busy, swirling violin line that develops into a heartfelt melody. The second movement takes it into mysterious, exotic mode, floating it along into the third’s bright, fluttery phrasings that speed towards an exciting finish. It’s a confident work that holds up under repeated listening.
A Far Cry – Dreams & Prayers
Crier Records 8-67458-00000-2 (Released Sept 9, 2014)
Music and spirituality have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. Boston-based string orchestra, ‘A Far Cry,” demonstrates that concept beautifully in its new CD, “Dreams and Prayers.” Its creative programming links works from the 12th to the 21st centuries, incorporating varieties of religious mysticism.
First comes “O ignis spiritus paracliti,” a Gregorian chant by Benedictine nun, Hildegard von Bingen, whose constant visions influenced her music. This non-vocal arrangement has hypnotic focus, the melody’s repetitive undulations coaxing the listener into a trance-like state.
Mehmet Ali Sanlikol’s 2012 “Vecd” mimics Turkish Sufi dervishes’ rhythmic vocalizing. Here the phrases gradually overlap and speed up to create an amazingly intense climax, then slowly fade back down to a whisper.
The heart of the disc is Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” originally written for clarinet and string quartet in 1994 but arranged for string orchestra here. This 33-minute, five-movement work was inspired by the 13th century rabbi who wrote about the communal aspects of all things in the universe. Golijov combines traditional klezmer dance tunes with Jewish sung prayers, which clarinetist David Krakauer invests with reverence or abandon, depending on each section’s mood.
The final selection, an orchestrated version of the hymn-like middle movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132, is a fitting end to this musical journey. Titled “Holy Song of Thanks,” the quiet uplift of its harmonious lyricism exemplifies music’s ability to take us into higher realms, away from everyday woes.
[A version of these reviews first appeared in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer]