Fantasy: Ursula Oppens (et al) Play the World Premieres of Five Major Works by Laura Kaminsky


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Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).

This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.

While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.

Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.

Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.

The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.

The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.

The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.

It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.

Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.

Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


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It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.

The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.

This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.

The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.

The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.

The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.

The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.

The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.

This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.

This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting

Fatu Duo: Unusual and Beautiful Romantic Gems for Violin and Piano


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No, this is not your typical violin and piano recital disc.  At first hearing it conjured memories (seen on television) of Jascha Heifetz performing his unique selection of virtuosic and popular short works for violin and piano.  The spirit here is essentially the same but the choice of repertoire distinguishes this recording.  Its name “Treasures from home”.  Here they present a very personal selection of music from their Russian and Romanian backgrounds much as Heifetz chose his repertoire.

There are 13 tracks by 13 composers and I seriously doubt you will duplicate anything you may have currently in your collection.  This album is, in a way, an updating of one of those Heifetz recitals in spirit.  Here the focus is on music mostly from the ancestral lands of the performers which includes Russia, Romania, and related regions.  However it is important to view these choices as musical interests, not a nationalist statements.

Mention needs to be made of the intelligent choices made.  We get and Ave Maria but not Schubert’s or Bach/Gounod, we get one by Astor Piazzola.  The too seldom heard Meditation from Thais gets a gorgeous reading.  The Fritz Kreisler piece speaks to a violinist perhaps a half generation older than Heifetz whose tradition inspired Heifetz.  All in all a thoughtful but ultimately enjoyable selection.  This is virtually a calling card for some musicians who are worth watching.

My only complaint here is, perhaps, a minor one.  There are few notes and nothing on the background of any of the composers.  Rather than try to correct this I will simply provide a list of the compositions recorded.  They do stand well on their own as compositions but listeners like your reviewer here thirst for more.  Anyway here is the list:

Jo Knümann: Rumanisch

Bela Kovacs: Sholom Alekhem Rov Friedman

John Williams: Schindler’s List Theme

Isidore Burdin/F. Dobrinescu: Hora Primaverii

Grigoras Dinicu: Hora Martisorului

Jules Massenet: Meditation from Thais

Matthew Jackfert: Hootenanny

Grigoras Dinicu: Ciocarlia

Antonio Bazzini: The Dance of the Goblins

Astor Piazzola: Ave Maria

Fritz Kreisler: Miniature Viennese March

Myroslav Skoric: Melodya

Vittorio Monti: Csardas

Williams, Kreisler, Massenet, and Piazzola are familiar names to this writer.  The rest I shall leave to the curious listener to learn more.  The end result, though, is a thoroughly enjoyable recital played with love and  passion.  It would be a nice addition to any collection of violin and piano chamber music.

 

 

The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

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Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.