CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Ronald Brautigam)

★★★★★ When I hear Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven on period fortepianos I think that, quite honestly, performing the great man’s music on a modern grand piano is an aesthetic crime of some magnitude – right up there with colourised Laurel & Hardy films and microwaving chicken.  Elsewhere in this issue, it’s true, I lavish praise on the fourth instalment of Jonathan Biss’s ongoing cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, praise that is sincere and unquestionably deserved. But Brautigam’s attention to historical form is such that three separate fortepianos have been recalled from the subs’ benches in order to trace the evolution of the instrumental hardware with which Beethoven himself necessarily wrestled. Paul McNulty’s copy of an 1802 fortepiano serves Sonatas 1 through 18, its timbral delicacies and coarse-grained tuning temperament representing a complete game changer. Take, for example, the Moonlight, Beethoven’s most used and abused sonata, lacquered often with cod-Romantic rubato. In Brautigam’s hands we’re reconnected with its eerie oddities – when rhythmic values aren’t pulled around too much, the compulsive harmonic circling of the opening feels as suffocating and disorientating as a Hitchcock stairwell. And anyone worried that the ferocious Finale might not speak on a fortepiano can…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas (Jonathan Biss)

★★★★★ The first three volumes of his Beethoven cycle was released by Onyx, and now Jonathan Biss issues Volume Four via his own label. Beethoven would surely have approved of artists taking control of their destiny. Biss has organised his cycle by type and historical ties so Volume Four spools back to the beginning – to the Piano Sonata No 1 in F Minor – before advancing towards the great Appassionata in the same key, via Sonatas 6 and 19. Biss writes in his booklet notes about the unassuming nature of Sonata No 1 – “can this really be how it all begins,” he asks, ‘it’ being the journey that ultimately led to the late sonatas. In these hands, though, Beethoven’s debut sounds far from ordinary. The fervour and intensity of Biss’s hot-fingered touch is something else. Beethoven’s models were Mozart and Haydn – but Biss persuades us of the unheralded harmonic lawlessness that lay just below the surface. Contemporary with the Eroica, the Appassionata Sonata is full-throttle punk Beethoven, volatile and combustible, like anything from later in the great man’s career. I note, and dig, how Biss leapfrogs into that Alice-like descent towards the bowels of the instrument, smothering…

July 8, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Busoni: The Visionary, Volume 3 (Jeni Slotchiver)

★★★☆☆ Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924) was the outstanding piano virtuoso of his time. Performance activity interfered with his composing, much to his annoyance, but he produced highly individual works.  He also made transcriptions of music by Bach, mainly of organ works. Two such pieces are played here: the Prelude and Triple Fugue in E Flat (St. Anne), and a Fantasia after Bach (1909). The original works, all from Busoni’s later years as he suppressed most of his earlier music, are the exquisite Ravelian Nuit de Noël, the Prélude et étude en arpèges, Variations on a Prelude of Chopin, and Toccata: Prelude, Fantasia and Chaconne. The Toccata was his final composition, a fine example of his unique harmonic sense, as well as the tremendous technical difficulty of his piano music. His Chopin Variations of 1922 give Brahms’s Paganini Variations a run for their money. American pianist Jeni Slotchiver is a Busoni specialist. This is the third disc in her series; earlier issues contain the slightly better known Elegies and Sonatinas. Some unevenness in descending arpeggios aside (in the Etude), she undoubtedly has the necessary technique, and her booklet note attests to her deep knowledge of this music. However, Marc-André Hamelin recorded a 3CD…

July 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: CPE Bach: 6 Organ Sonatas (Ton Koopman)

★★★★☆ With the passing of Gustav Leonhardt, elder statesman of period keyboard performance, the mantle passes to Ton Koopman, a treasure of the early music scene for the last 30 years. His witty approach to a potentially sober repertoire has charmed and illuminated, with several tours of this country and a discography treasured by connoisseurs.  His complete set of the elder Bach’s organ works is one of my desert island discs. As one of many cast-offs from the major labels we can thank Challenge Classics for continuing to record him and this latest release is a delight. Koopman’s musical personality is tailor-made for CPE Bach’s free-wheeling invention and whacky sense of fantasy. His experiments in period keyboard techniques has always given his playing an extra degree of air and space so CPE’s rhetorical stop-starts and flourishes have extra point and lift.   The younger Bach didn’t write much organ music but the six sonatas are delightful works in his mature empfindsamkeit style. Koopman has recorded them on a magnificent restored organ once owned by Princess Amalia of Prussia. She owned a manuscript of these works, so it’s possible the composer played on the very instrument heard here. Recorded in state…

July 6, 2015
CD and Other Review

Review: Grainger: Piano Works (Howard, Stanhope, Parsons)

★★★☆☆ Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was an ambiguous presence in Australian music, both as a man and a composer. A sensational concert pianist in his youth (though not one to take other composers’ score markings too seriously), he befriended Grieg and Delius, and achieved considerable success in America (eventually he took US citizenship). Post-World War II he became the forgotten figure described by Barry Humphries in his memoirs: shuffling around Melbourne, struggling to maintain a Grainger museum that housed his manuscripts, home-made “music machines” and a large collection of whips and sex toys. Grainger saw himself as the future of Australian music. Certainly, he wrote a great number of musical arrangements, or ‘rambles’ as he called them (such an English word!). Most of the 61 tracks on these discs are arrangements of British folksongs, like Shepherd’s Hey, My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone, and famously English Country Gardens. They recall a world of Empire Day, folk dancing, and bland radio programmes for schools that was in its death throes when I was a kid. Imaginatively written for the piano though Grainger’s arrangements are, and as lovingly performed as they are here by Australian pianist Leslie Howard, those associations render…

July 1, 2015