Tuesday, 29 July 2014

CD Reviews - July 2014

I’ve been following the recordings of French pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with great interest over the last few years.  His complete Ravel and Debussy sets were revelatory – and award winning too.  I also enjoyed the treat of him performing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Brighton Festival this year.  But he’s showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that French pianist doesn’t just mean French repertoire.  Regular readers will know that he is part way through two major cycles of Haydn and Beethoven Sonatas, and the Haydn cycle in particular is proving to be a landmark set.  So it will come as no great surprise that his latest set of the five Prokofiev Piano Concertos, with Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, is also a real gem.  The Concertos were written by Prokofiev to be performed by himself, apart from the Fourth, for left hand only, which he composed for Paul Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein rejected the work and it was not performed until after Prokofiev’s death.  The five works amply demonstrate the changes in Prokofiev’s style, from youthful excitement, through neo-classicism, to his weightier, late ‘Soviet’ style.  The Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 10 is the shortest work, at just over fifteen minutes, but Prokofiev packs energy and spark into its three short sections.  The Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 16 in contrast is the longest and is a mammoth challenge, with a notoriously difficult cadenza in the first movement, which Bavouzet makes sound effortless.  After a whirlwind Scherzo, the Intermezzo follows with its dark and disturbingly relentless procession, and Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic, relish this.  The Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 26 is probably the best known and most often performed, and is another barnstormer, with a real crowd-pleasing finale, which once again Bavouzet dashes off with aplomb.  Yet he shows real restraint in the middle movement’s variations, which benefit from his cool and precise approach.  The Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 53 is a tricky work, but it has a beautifully affecting slow movement, played here with great sensitivity.  In a programme note from Bavouzet himself, he reveals that in the 1990s he suffered with functional dystonia, affecting his right hand, and it was only through extensive physiotherapy over two years that his ability in the right hand was restored.  So perhaps the Fourth has particular resonance for him.  The final Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 55 is full of sarcasm and modernism, yet even here, Prokofiev includes a tender lullaby slow movement, before a spirited ride to the finish.  These are wonderful performances, and unlike many cycles, there is much to be gained from listening to these rich and varied concertos back to back – you won’t be disappointed.

Prokofiev, S. 2014. Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda. Compact Discs (2). Chandos CHAN 10802(2).

Next, a disc of New World Quartets by the Brodsky Quartet – well, Dvořák’s String Quartet Op. 96, ‘The American’ is the obvious starting place.  And Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) String Quartet, Op. 11, with it’s famous slow movement, later orchestrated by Barber as the Adagio for Strings (also arranged by the composer for unaccompanied chorus too) makes sense too.  But the Brodsky Quartet fill out the disk with some interesting companions.  There are Two Pieces by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), as well as an arrangement by husband and wife Paul Cassidy (viola) and Jacqueline Thomas (cello) of Copland’s Hoe-Down from the ballet Rodeo. George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Lullaby for String Quartet gets an airing, and the disc ends with a rather beautiful piece, Regret, by Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), arranged especially for the Brodsky Quartet by the composer. Perhaps given the choice of repertoire here, the Brodsky’s playing throughout has a laid back, languid warmth, like a chocolate dessert.  Tempos are on the slow side (particularly in the Adagio of the Barber), and I do miss an element of drive and energy in the last movement of the Dvořák.  However, they bring a touching sensitivity to the themes in the first movement, and the slow movement has suitable pathos.  The outer movements of the Barber have a taut intensity, and the Brodskys are highly convincing, but their Adagio, stretched almost to the limits of not collapsing under its own weight, rather pulls focus from the rest of the work. Their performance of the Gershwin Lullaby is again very slow, but it has a captivating, rather louche feel to it.  Written as a harmony exercise for his teacher, Edward Kilenyi, the piece was forgotten until it was published in 1968.  The Brodsky’s take here lifts it from a mere novelty to a rather enchanting confection.  I have to confess here to a personal aversion to Copland’s Rodeo, which I find too self-consciously ‘folksy’.  However, the Brodskys’ arrangement here is faithful to the original, and performed with great spark.  I much prefer the Two Pieces by Copland, a brightly rhythmic Rondino, preceded by a darker Lento molto, and the Brodskys give them great character and intensity.  The closing Regret by Brubeck is an emotional piece, full of sadness in its falling chromatic lines.  Overall, I would say these are performances that I would love to hear live – the risks the Brodskys take with tempi, and their immediate and engaging style communicate well, but on repeated listening, without the energy of live performance, their laid back approach is not so sustainable.

Various. 2014. New World Quartets. Brodsky Quartet. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 10801.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, July 2014)