Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pianos In Context

Beethoven was a pirate. He was all too happy to sell the same work over and over to different publishers in order to reap more revenue from his compositions. One could imagine that were he alive today he would have no problem with multiple recordings of his pieces, as long as he got a cut. But from the listener's point of view, there's always the potential for over-saturation when it comes to music composed centuries ago: How many virtuoso and brilliantly recorded performances of Mozart or Beethoven do we actually need?

Of course, the interpretive possibilities are endless for anything written before the dawn of recording, but it helps to have something extra for me to re-engage with works that are well-represented in the catalogs of every label. Hence, context.

In the case of Leif Ove Andsnes's new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 2 &; 4, this is his second release under the rubric The Beethoven Journey. Like the first, which included Piano Concertos 1 & 3, this features the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Andsnes conducting from the keyboard.

In truth, beyond making "the composer's music the centerpiece of my life as a performer and recording artist," Andsnes has not created any grand structure on which to hang his exploration of Beethoven's music for keyboard and orchestra, which will eventually culminate in a disc of the fifth concerto coupled with the Choral Fantasy. One could even get a whiff of marketing behind the whole thing. But stop sniffing and put the damned disc on, or do whatever you have to do to hear it.

When you do, you will experience some of the most sheerly sublime music-making imaginable. Especially in Piano Concerto No. 2, the transparency of texture, the rhythmic articulation, and the continuity of line put into focus everything you could want from these works. Andsnes seems to demonstrate a stylish self-effacement, managing not to insert himself in an obvious way between the listener and the notes on the page.

While there is no claim to "authenticity" behind Andsnes's approach, the choice of a chamber orchestra was a wise one, avoiding the encrustations of doubled instruments and allowing Beethoven's sparkle to shine through. And there is plenty of sparkle, most notably in the earlier of the two works. About ten years separates the composition of the two concertos and there is a marked difference, with a slightly squarer sound to No. 4, with its big tuttis and sections of churning drama. It seems a bit more "professional," with the merest diminishment in the sense of discovery and joy.

But overall, this is fantastic sounding stuff, flawlessly performed and recorded, and can surely hold its own next any of the great recordings that I've heard. Old Ludwig Van himself might have let the license to this recording go for less than his usual rate, delighted as he would be to hear his music so well presented.

Having grown up in the rock era, I make a distinction between recordings and records, with the former being a more straightforward presentation of the music and the latter involving studio techniques, sequencing or some other kind of artistic intervention between the performance and the listening experience. Perhaps also because of the times in which I grew up, I tend to enter into a closer relationship with records over recordings.The Andsnes Beethoven is most definitely a recording, but David Greilsammer's spectacular Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas is a record - and one of the best of 2014 so far.

Juxtaposition is a fairly common strategy in the world of classical music as a way of injecting new life into old repertoire but rarely has it been employed so well. Greilsammer picked up on the connection between Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage, both as seekers of the new - inventors, he calls them - and men simultaneously in and out of their times.

The program is uncomplicated: Greilsammer carefully selected eight of the more than 550(!) Scarlatti keyboard sonatas and half of the 16 sonatas from Cage's Sonatas and Interludes and goes back and forth between the two composers in a sequence of his own devising. He performs both men's work on modern instruments, although naturally Cage's music is played on a piano that has been prepared with screws, nails and other items.

A beautifully rounded performance of Scarlatti's Sonata in D Minor, K. 213, starts off the album, it's crepuscular introduction seeming to rise out of the ether itself. Greilsammer's mastery of dynamics and the warm tone of the recording makes for a performance so assured and convincing that I can hardly believe he managed to shave 90 seconds off the length of Ivo Pogorelich's benchmark recording. How can it not sound frantic? And then Cage's Sonata XVI & XV starts up, placing stars in the same sky Scarlatti gazed upon over 200 years earlier - and I swoon.

That's the record - startling consonances and dissonances across time, all presented as beautiful music, no ideology in sight. The lack of pedantry should convince listeners from both sides of the fence to hear both Baroque and avant garde sounds as Greilsammer does, as dessert not medicine.

This is not the first time Greilsammer has pursued the "compare and contrast" method of making a record. In 2012 he released Baroque Conversations, which combined a variety of Baroque era piano music alongside modern works. While the playing was as articulate and expert as it is here, it felt like a bit of a stunt. Not so here - focusing on two composers helps and there is real artistry in the sequencing this time around. For example, Greilsammer wisely holds the big block chords of Cage's Sonata I until the middle of the collection, forming a sturdy backbone to the album. And just when you think Cage is the only one who gets to stomp around the playroom, along comes Scarlatti's D Minor, K. 175 a couple of tracks later, throwing bizarre chords left and right and having a high old time - you will, too.

For a sampling of the sounds from Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas check out this video with David Greilsammer literally swiveling between the conventional piano and the prepared one to play bits of the sonatas. 

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