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Love Can Be Murder (boxed set of humorous mysteries)
Love Can Be Murder (boxed set of humorous mysteries)
Price: $7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Funny, well-plotted mysteries, May 6, 2013
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Like just about every one else who has written a review here, I enjoyed these mysteries immensely. They aren't great literature, I suppose, but who really wants that in a mystery? And the short story at the end of this set of mysteries was funny and clever. Recommended.

Scott Morrison


Piano Music
Piano Music
Price: $19.72
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4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous Rachmaninov, Disappointing Scriabin, Uneven Prokofiev, May 6, 2013
This review is from: Piano Music (Audio CD)
Konrad Skolarski is a Polish pianist in his early thirties. This is the first recording of his that I'd run into and in the first few seconds of the Rachmaninov Second Sonata in B Flat Minor, Op. 36 (1913, in Rachmaninov's rarely recorded first version, more expansive than his 1931 revision) I really began thinking I'd lucked into something. My initial very positive impression lasted throughout this lush Rachmaninov work. This is as good a recording of this wonderful sonata as I've heard on record. The same can be said for his playing of three of the Op. 23 Preludes and the E Flat Elegy, Op. 3, No. 1 (from the Morceaux de Fantaisie). But then came the Scriabin Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28 (1900-01) and the fussiness of Skolarski's playing rather marred the impressionistic impact of this piece which is, however, not one of Scriabin's stronger efforts even in other hands; it certainly is not in the same league as some of the later sonatas. Then came a rather, to me, disengaged reading of Prokofiev's Second Sonata in D Minor, Op. 14 (1912) which didn't make much impact until the brilliant finale whose glinting colors leapt out of the speakers.

Bottom line: Skolarski is a good pianist, even a marvelous pianist, whose work on this recording is a bit uneven. Perhaps he is not as attuned to Scriabin and early Prokofiev as he is to Rachmaninov. I can only give a hesitating recommendation here, and that primarily for the Rachmaninov and the finale of the Prokofiev.

Scott Morrison


Rene Fleming: Live at the Opera National de Paris
Rene Fleming: Live at the Opera National de Paris
DVD ~ Rene Fleming
Price: $53.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a Singer! What Productions! What a Bargain!, May 4, 2013
The three operas contained here, live performances at the Paris Opera and starring Renée Fleming, are Manon, Rusalka, and Capriccio. I reviewed all three of them at Amazon US when they came out as singles and will append those reviews here:

Manon:

This DVD comes from a June 2001 performance at the Opéra National National de Paris/Opéra Bastille and stars Renée Fleming as Manon and Marcelo Álvarez as des Grieux.

Fleming says that Manon is one of her favorite roles, and I can believe it. She invests the character with a good deal of feeling, and although she seems a little old and not quite giddy enough to be playing the simple school-girl in Act I, she gets better and better as the action proceeds. Her singing, of course, is nonpareil. Indeed, for me the action doesn't really catch fire until the final scene of Act II (although 'Nous vivrons à Paris,' in Act I, is exciting and beautifully sung by the young lovers) when Manon contemplates giving up des Grieux and letting him return to his family, in 'Adieu, notre petite table,' followed by des Grieux's 'En fermant les yeux,' sung gorgeously by Álvarez.

The staging triumphs in the two 'public' scenes--the Cours la Reine scene (Act III, 1) and the gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvanie (Act IV). Each of these scenes is so full of visual stimulation that it might even be easy to miss the main action except for the expert television direction of François Roussilon. The baroque-style ballet (choreography by Ana Yepes, and occurring in the Cours la Reine scene) is an engaging use of the music--a larger group of formal dancers alternating with a trio of solo dancers, each movement fitting Massenet's expert pastiche of 18th-century music perfectly.

The scene (III,1) between the hero's father, Comte des Grieux (sung sympathetically by Alain Vernhes) and Manon is touching and sets up the reconciliation (III, 2) at St. Sulpice between the new Abbé des Grieux (whose 'Ah, fuyez douce image' brings tears to one's eyes) and Manon. If only they could have known that being in love and managing one's money often don't go together! The final act when des Grieux is gotten off by his father from charges of cheating but Manon is found guilty and about to be deported is heartbreaking, and again Fleming and Álvarez outdo themselves.

Lescaut is sung and acted effectively by Jean-Luc Chaignaud, de Brétigny by Franck Ferrari. It was wonderful to see the venerable Michel Sénéchal as the old roué, Guillot de Morfontaine; the old rascal can still act up a storm.

The spectacularly talented Jésus Lopez-Cobos led the musical forces brilliantly. I imagine symphony patrons in Cincinnati still mourn his departure from their city. Sets and costumes, brilliantly effective and richly sumptuous, are by William Orlandi. The inventive staging is by Gilbert Deflo.

I will not forget any of the wonderful recorded Manons I've treasured over the years. My first was Janine Micheau in an otherwise dreadful recording from the 50s. I've more recently come to value the 1929 Opéra-Comique recording with Germaine Féraldy (Manon) and Joseph Rogatchewsky (des Grieux), conducted by Elie Cohen. And the still wonderful recording with Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda. I missed the one with Alfredo Kraus and Ileana Cotrubas, but more recently liked, although a little less, the Italianate 'Manon' with Gheorghiu and Alagna.

Do not hesitate. This will be the 'Manon' to have for, I expect, years to come. It captures one of Renée Fleming's signature roles and shows off one of our rising tenors, Marcelo Álvarez, in a marvelous performance.

2 DVD discs, TT=164 mins

Rusalka:

Dvorák's 'Rusalka' is by far his most effective opera and the only one that has made its way in the non-Slavic world. Based on de la Motte Fouqué's fairytale, 'Ondine,' but with additions from Hans Christian Andersen and the Czech ballads of K. J. Erben, and with a symbolist libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, Dvorák's music captures the story's ecstasy and anguish perfectly. Briefly, it is the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a Prince who visits the lake where she, her three sisters and her father, the Water Spirit, live. She wishes to become mortal so she can be with him and implores the witch, Jezibaba, to grant her that wish. Jezibaba does so but with two provisos: she will become human but lose the power of speech, and if her lover rejects her she will be forever cursed. Well, the Prince initially loves her but, dismayed by her muteness, is soon won over by the blandishments of the evil Foreign Princess, so Rusalka, with her father's help, flees back to the water world. Jezibaba tells her that her only way of extracting revenge is to kill human males by kissing them and when the Prince, who has seen the error of his ways, comes to reclaim her, she warns him (having gotten back her voice) that she cannot come with him because her kiss would be fatal. He says that to 'die upon a kiss' would be the only way he could ever attain peace. They sing a rapturous duet, she kisses him and he dies. Curtain.

Rusalka is a signature role for Renée Fleming; her audio recording of the opera six years ago was a huge hit. This production, from the Paris Opéra, conducted by James Conlon, followed in 2002. The direction of Robert Carsen and set and costume design by Michael Levine emphasize the duality and symmetry of the mortal and fairy worlds. In Act I, which takes place at the bottom of the enchanted lake, the stage set is designed with a vertical symmetry, rather like the reflections seen at the water's surface when one is submerged. In Act II, which occurs in a stylized palace, there is left-right symmetry with the singers on the left side and mute actors mirroring them on the right side. Quite effective, if sometimes unintentionally reminiscent of the famous mirror act done by Groucho and Harpo Marx. Still, it conveys visually the mirroring of the real and fairytale worlds whose inability to merge leads to the final tragedy.

The musical presentation is spectacularly good. Fleming, of course, is superb. Her two main arias, the famous 'Hymn to the Moon' and the Act III 'Vyrvana zivotu" ("I am torn from life") are stunningly beautiful. Her ecstatic final duet with the Prince, sung by Sergei Larin, is equally marvelous. Larin is in very good voice and has the requisite heft to manage the almost Wagnerian tenor role as the Prince. There is not a single weak member of the rest of the cast. Huge-voiced basso Franz Hawlata is touching as Rusalka's father, the Water Spirit. Larissa Diadkova is properly impish as the comic witch, Jezibaba. Eva Urbanova, strangely the only Czech in the cast of this quintessential Czech opera, is scary as the evil Foreign Princess. The three Wood Nymphs, as Wagnerian a trio as one can find outside the 'Ring,' are well done by Michelle Canniccioni, Svetlana Lifar and Nona Javakhidze. The Kitchen Boy, a pants role, is well-done by Karine DeHayes. It is particularly gratifying to see and hear the venerable French tenor, Michel Sénéchal, as the Gamekeeper. The Act II ballet, neatly carrying forward the mirror-image theme of the production, was crisply choreographed by Philippe Giraudeau and danced by the corps of the Opéra Ballet. The video direction was by François Roussillon; it is unobtrusive and natural.

I was both charmed and intrigued by this production. 'Rusalka' is slowly becoming better known throughout the world and I suspect this DVD of the Paris production will help further its spread.

Recommended.

Capriccio:

This 2004 Paris National Opéra production of Strauss's last opera 'Capriccio' is extraordinarily successful. The casting is luxurious: Renée Fleming as the Countess; Dietrich Henschel as her brother, the Count; the fast-rising baritone Gerald Finley as the musician, Olivier; tenor Rainer Tröst as the poet, Flamand; Anne-Sofie von Otter as the glamorous Parisian actress, Clairon; the Wagnerian bass Franz Hawlata as the impresario, La Roche; Annamarie Dell'Oste as the Italian soprano; Barry Banks as the Italian tenor; the big-voiced (and hunky) bass Petri Lindroos as the stentorian Major-Domo; and, still singing extremely well, the venerable tenor, Robert Tear, as the poor sleepy prompter, Monsieur Taupe. Add to that the inventive staging by Robert Carsen, the sumptuous stage sets by Michael Levine and costumes by Anthony Powell (the Countess's gown in her magnificant final scene is gorgeous), amusing choreography by Jean-Guillaume Bart, as well as the rich orchestral accompaniment by the orchestra of the Paris National Opéra under Ulf Schirmer, and you have a real winner. I have not seen the competing version of 'Capriccio' from the San Francisco Opera starring Kiri te Kanawa, so I can't compare the two productions. But I am completely satisfied by this one.

The opera, whose libretto clearly indicates that the action takes place in the 1770s, is set by Carsen in the Nazi years, in German-occupied France. Aside from some jarring anachronisms (references to Gluck and Piccinni as contemporaries, the Count and Clairon going to Paris using 'four horses' [to which Clairon archly suggests she is surprised the Count isn't using 'six horses'] and so on), the setting is reasonably apt. The Nazi presence is not obtrusive or freighted with 'meaning' at all. The costumes and sets are consonant with the early 1940s -- indeed, Renée Fleming never looked lovelier with her 40s hair-do and gown. The other conceit in this production is that it supposedly actually takes place on, rather than being acted out upon, a stage (rather than the libretto's indication that it takes place in the Countess's palais), with some singers occasionally placed in the otherwise empty auditorium of the Palais Garnier. This is more or less appropriate since the subject of the opera is Opera itself and a debate about whether the words or the music are more important. (Olivier: 'Prima la musica, poi le parole.' 'No, no,' answers Flamand, 'Prima le parole, e poi la musica.') And, of course, the Musician and the Poet personify their two arts and vie for the hand of the Countess. It is Strauss's and the librettist's, Clemens Krauss's, masterstroke that her choice, at the opera's end, is left unclear. Renée Fleming, in the long final (and musically stupendous) solo scena, is ravishing, both musically and visually. The Major-Domo's final comment - 'Dinner is served' - serves the same purpose as the appearance of Mahomet in the final moments of 'Der Rosenkavalier', to bring us down to earth and remind us that this is only a play after all. Brilliant dramaturgy.

One cannot say enough about the ensemble aspects of this opera and how they are handled here. Strauss denoted the opera as a Conversation Piece; there are, for instance, three octets in the opera -- one laughing, one quarrelling and, most delicious, the comments of the eight servants after the principals have gone. The opening string sextet (the Overture) and the 'Moonlight Music' (the intermezzo leading to the final scene) are so gorgeous that one wants to hear them again (and I did, using the magic of the remote control -- aren't DVDs wonderful?). The transformation of Flamand's sonnet, 'Kein andres, das mir so im Herzen loht', first declaimed hammily by the Count, then read poetically by Flamand himself, and then set to music by Olivier and sung gloriously in the final scene by the Countess is a marvel. There is just so much to love in this opera, it's no surprise that it has become, after 'Rosenkavalier,' 'Elektra,' 'Salome' and 'Ariadne auf Naxos,' his most produced opera.

If you love Strauss and don't know this opera, you owe it to yourself to get either this 2DVD set or the San Francisco DVD of it. Or, better, get yourself to the next production that is staged anywhere near you. This is front-rank Strauss, and a miracle of his old age.

Scott Morrison


Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
Debussy: Complete Music for Piano Duo
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A 3 1/2 Hour Feast of Debussy, Brilliant Performances, Budget Price, May 4, 2013
Less than a month after reviewing another outstanding CD of piano duo music by Debussy Debussy: Four Hand Piano Music here comes another, this one with all of Debussy's music for piano four-hands or two pianos. And what a revelation it is! Much of the music on these three discs is fairly obscure but all of it is rewarding. Also rewarding is that the contents of the three discs are in precise chronological order of composition so that one can hear Debussy's style evolve from the Massenet-like 'Symphonie' of 1880, to the impressionism of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892-4) and La Mer (1903-5) to the spare, stark En blanc et noir (1915). And in absolutely sparkling performances by the Italian pianists, Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti, who alternate who takes the primo and who the secondo part.

'Symphonie' consists of two movements -- Allegro and Andante cantabile. These two movements are all that remain of a four movement symphony which Debussy never got around to orchestrating. Like many composers Debussy composed at the piano and then orchestrated his music. The first disc continues with stand-alone works, the overture 'Diane' (1880), music from 'Le triomphe de Bacchus: Suite d'orchestre' which not only never got orchestrated but didn't even get finished in piano score (there are two 'fragments' recorded here in addition to the four completed movements) and 'Intermezzo' (1882), and then ends with the four-movement 'Première suite d'orchestre (1882-3) which was only discovered in 2008.

The second disc contains the twelve-minute-long 'Divertissement' (1884), for all intents and purposes a colorful orchestral piece that somehow never got orchestrated. The come three movements from Debussy's Prix de Rome cantata, 'L'enfant prodigue' (1884). 'Printemps' (1887), a two-piece suite which Debussy originally pictured as a suite for orchestra and chorus, really ushers in Debussy's impressionistic voice. It pictures the newly verdant countryside awakening from the long winter. (I first listened to this performance while driving in Vermont's newly green spring landscape and had one of those synesthetic experiences that can happen sometimes with music. I didn't want the music to end.) Next comes of the most familiar of Debussy's piano duo works, the piano-four hand 'Petite Suite' (1886-9) of four movements. It was never intended to be orchestrated, but of course a later composer, Henri Büsser, did so in 1907 and that may be how it is best known (except for us four-hand fanatics who have played it many times with a partner at the keyboard). 'Marche éccossaise' (1891) was written for an American ambassador to France who has Scots forebears and it features a song sung by his Ross ancestors. The disc ends with the popular 'Prélude à l'après-midi dun faune' (1892-4) in a marvelous performance. One does miss Debussy's better-known orchestration, especially the plaintive flute heard at the very beginning of the piece, but on repeated hearings its charms grow.

The third disc starts with a work I hadn't even known existed, 'Lindajara' (1901), a Spanish/Moorish-inflected work that has some similarities to Ravel's 'Habañera'. Then comes a piano four-hands version 'La Mer' (1903-5) which I also had not known of. Somehow one can hear the work's marvelous orchestration in one's mind's ear from this quite wonderfully written (and played) version. Even with the piano's slightly percussive sound one can hear the waves and the wind. More amazing is the two-piano version of 'Danses sacrée et profane', better known in its harp-and-strings orchestration which Debussy wrote on commission for the manufacturer of the newly invented chromatic harp. It is evocative, shimmering. 'Six épigraphes antiques' (1914) were written in Debussy's newly evolved spare style but it began life as a 1901 set using two flutes, two harps, and celesta to accompany poems by Pierre Louÿs' 'Chansons de Bilitis' which Debussy completely recast in the four-hand version. (He later arranged it for solo piano and then Ernest Ansermet orchestrated it in 1939. Lots of lives for these six descriptive pieces!) Finally comes what many consider to be Debussy's two-piano masterpiece, 'En blanc et noir' (1915) (originally entitle 'Caprices en blanc et noir'), a three-movement suite that many commentators suggest was inspired by both the horror of World War I and by Goya's black-and- white 'Caprichos', etchings depicting the ghastliness of war. Debussy quotes a foreboding version Luther's 'Eine feste berg' and inserts a palimpsest of the 'Marseillaise' and Stravinsky's 'Firebird'.

Although I had never heard of Massimiliano Damerini and Marco Rapetti before, clearly they are artists of the first rank and these performances are magnificent. I cannot recommend this three-disc set enthusiastically enough. I immediately loaded it onto my iPod so that I can listen to it wherever I go, something I do only with discs I really treasure.

So, within a month's time I have heard two sets of Debussy four-hand music that are highly recommendable: the Armengaud/Chauzu disc mentioned above and this one. One will have to make a choice as which to have based on the pieces contained on each of them. This one has everything Debussy wrote for two-pianists; the earlier disc has a one-disc selection.

Scott Morrison
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2013 11:19 PM PDT


Iberia Books 1 & 2 / Espana
Iberia Books 1 & 2 / Espana
Price: $6.59
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Budget Reissue of a Wonderful 1999 Recording, May 3, 2013
Daniel Barenboim, let us remember, was born in and spent his early youth in Argentina although of course he has been completely Europeanized (or globalized) since he left Buenos Aires. I mention this because although he is best known, as a pianist, for his performances of German/Austrian music, his upbringing gives him some insight into Hispanic music as well. And that we get here in his 1999 performances of Books I & II of 'Ibéria' and the six pieces of 'España' by Albéniz. Alicia de Larrocha's performances of 'Ibéria' have for many years been the touchstone for the work and she is still my favorite. But Barenboim comes close although his way with the suite is demonstrably different from hers. He tends to use quite slow tempi, luxuriating in the Spanish impressionistic harmonies of Albéniz's great work. This works. When faster tempi are called for, as in 'Fête-Dieu à Séville' or 'Rondeña', Barenboim's playing coruscates. These performances cause one to appreciate anew Albéniz's ingeniously creative harmonic and melodic genius. The more I play this recording, the more I have come to love it. (And I say that as one who has often had some difficulty with Barenboim's playing of Germanic repertoire.)

The slighter pieces of 'España' are given their full due: charming, characterful, ardent or lighthearted as required.

This is a valuable disc, a reminder that in his day Barenboim was a marvelously poetic pianist.

Scott Morrison
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 1, 2013 11:28 AM PDT


33 Variations on a Waltz By Anton Diabelli
33 Variations on a Waltz By Anton Diabelli
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2.0 out of 5 stars Bland Beethoven, May 2, 2013
Although I have admired Jean-Claude Henriot's participation in several chamber music CDs, most impressive of which was the Messiaen 'Quartet for the End of Time' Messiaen : Quatuor pour la fin du temps, I must say that I found his performance of the towering Diabelli Variations to be a bit po-faced. Nothing stands out, there is little humor (even in Diabelli's saucy little waltz) or emotion, all is severe, correct. And I found myself having trouble paying attention as the Variations went along. To give Henriot the benefit of the doubt, I waited a day and listened again, and then again the next day. Same result. Henriot clearly has the technique to play the work, it's just that he doesn't seem to have particularly interesting ideas. In sum it seems gray throughout.

Just to check myself I dipped into Richter's, Pollini's, Kovacevich's and Brendel's accounts and in each case found confirmation of my assessment of Henriot's: it's boring.

So be it.

Scott Morrison


Fantasie Op 12 & Fantasiestucke Op 17
Fantasie Op 12 & Fantasiestucke Op 17
Price: $19.56
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Newcomer, A Superb Debut CD, May 1, 2013
Annika Treutler is a 22-year-old German pianist who is still in the midst of studying for her master's degree in piano performance at Hanover's Musikhochschule. She was recorded 18 months ago in these performances of Schumann at the Wolfsburg (Germany) Movimentos, a festival in the city that produces Volkswagens, Germany's so-called Autostadt. When I first listened to this CD I was stunned at its beauty, in both the performances and the recorded sound. This is as close to the perfect recording as I ever expect to hear. Further, one does not sense anything in Treutler's performances that suggest she is anything but an absolute master of both technique and art. There is clearly a sense of youthful exuberance but it is always tempered by wisdom and authenticity of style.

The recording was underwritten by the Festival and they actually asked Treutler to record Bach's Goldberg Variations. But she demurred, saying that she really preferred to make her recorded début with Schumann with whose music she feels a particular affinity. Wise choice, although I would love some day to hear her Goldbergs.

The Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, are a set of eight pieces written in 1837 and dedicated to an eighteen-year-old piano student, Anna Laidlaw, with whom Schumann had had a brief relationship, during a time when he was banned from seeing his future wife, Clara Wieck, by her father. Each piece has an evocative name, although Schumann admitted that he didn't think up the names for the pieces until after they had been written. Reportedly the pieces portray both sides to Schumann's personality, the so-called Eusebius (the romantic dreamer) and Florestan (the man of action). The pieces are:

1. Des Abends (In the Evening)
2. Aufschwung (Upsurge)
3. Warum? (Why?)
4. Grillen (Whims)
5. In der Nacht (In the Night)
6. Fabel (Fable)
7. Traumes Wirren (Dream's Confusions)
8. Ende vom Lied (End of the Song)

Treutler plays these disparate pieces with just the right amount of élan or dreaminess.

Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, was written the year before and there is speculation that it may have been intended originally as a sonata. But it has only three movements and the last one is very slow and contemplative, not the usual ending for a sonata. More likely, the Fantasie was a set of evocative pieces whose inspiration was the still-young Clara Wieck (then only sixteen). Schumann considered several earlier titles for the work, e.g. the movements subtitled 'Ruins', 'Trophies', 'Palms', or 'Ruins', 'Triumphal Arches', 'Constellation'. Frankly those titles don't conjure up much for me, but perhaps that's because I learned this piece as music qua music, without any poetic images either conjured or given me by my teacher. Be that as it may, the Fantasie is the cornerstone of Schumann's entire oeuvre, in my opinion, his greatest work. Treutler gives it a transcendent reading and is not bothered in the least by the tremendous technical demands -- I never mastered those godawful leaps in both hands at the end of the second movement -- and imbues the whole with poetry and excitement. Her reading of the last movement is among the most satisfying I've ever heard.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Scott Morrison


Piano Concerto No 1 - Barcarolle
Piano Concerto No 1 - Barcarolle
Price: $19.57
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chopin Chopin and Chopin, April 30, 2013
Daniil Trifonov is a Russian pianist who won one of the prizes at the 2010 International Chopin Competition when he was only 19. This CD was recorded back then. He has had a burgeoning career since then and he has recorded two previously released Chopin CDs: Daniil Trifonov Plays Frederic Chopin & Mazurkas Op 56 / Nocturne in B Major to general praise.

The thing that makes the present CD most interesting is the performance of the strings-only re-orchestration of Chopin's First Piano Concerto in E Minor, Op. 11, which was made by the conductor of this performance, Wojciech Rajski. Ever since its first performance in 1830 and its publication in 1833 commentators have remarked on the concerto's awkward orchestration. Actually, the orchestra part for this concerto plays a very secondary role to the brilliant piano writing. Hence, I feel that this version for string orchestra takes nothing away from the concerto and even perhaps mitigates some of the full score's clumsy writing for winds. This is not the first re-orchestration ever made for the concerto. Mily Balakirev made one in 1910 and Robert Hofmann made one for string quartet (plus double bass) in 1870. There have also been myriad arrangements for two pianos and even solo piano, one of them by the virtuoso pianist Carl Tausig in 1890. Be that as it may, Trifonov plays beautifully in this performance, both in the brilliant first and last movements and in the lyrical larghetto Romance. One can hear why Trifonov was awarded a prize at the Chopin Competition, particularly when one hears the solo works on the disc.

The Barcarole in F Sharp Major, Op. 60, is one of Chopin's most intriguing compositions. Although the gently rocking barcarole rhythm is present, this is not your Mendelssohnian gondola-piece; it is Slavic to its melancholic core. It is a full-blown nine-minute workout for the pianist with long reaches for the left hand and pages of finger-twisting sixths and thirds for the right. It was written when Chopin was already quite ill and is the last large-form piece he ever wrote. The Barcarole is not easy to play without it either becoming boring or, conversely, too nervous. Trifonov strikes a wonderful balance, keeping the forward-movement alive in the service of telling this wonderful piece's emotionally moving tale.

The two Impromptus that follow -- A Flat Major, Op. 29, and F Sharp Major, Op. 36 (by the way, this latter impromptu and the Barcarole are the only pieces Chopin ever wrote in this key) -- couldn't be more different from each other. The first has a perpetual motion figuration in triplets in its outer sections that gives it a restless, even histrionic flavor. The second is virtually a nocturne with a gently rocking motion; its middle section is heroic in impact. Again, Trifonov has the measure of both these works. This makes me wish to hear him play all of Chopin's impromptus.

The final work is one not all that characteristic of Chopin, the Tarantella in F Sharp Major, Op. 43. It may have been inspired by Rossini's 'La Danza'. Whatever the case, this is a brief work that is rarely played, even though its virtuosity would make it attractive for pianists with advanced technique I should think. Perhaps the problem with it is that it does not show the usual Chopinesque melancholy. The American music writer, James Huneker, wrote waspishly that Chopin's Tarantella is as Italian as Ravel's Bolero is Spanish. Whatever the case, Trifonov plays the devil out of it, showing that he not only has fingers but a sense of good fun.

This is an outstanding release.

Scott Morrison


Andrey Yaroshinsky: First Prize, 2011 Gabala International Piano Competition, Azerbaijan
Andrey Yaroshinsky: First Prize, 2011 Gabala International Piano Competition, Azerbaijan
Price: $7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Yet Another Prize Winner, April 29, 2013
Andrey Yaroshinsky is a young -- 24 when this disc was recorded in 2012 -- pianist who is the first prize winner in a little-known piano competition in Azerbaijan. He graduated from the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. Unlike some new pianists who choose to make their recording debut with works from the center of the piano repertoire -- e.g. Miao Huang Plays Works By Frederic Chopin & Maurice Ravel -- Yaroshinsky leaps into the fray with small pieces by Tchaikovsky, almost all of them fairly rarely heard. Indeed, I've only heard a couple of them either in recital or on disc -- the Scherzo à la russe and the Polka de salon. And even on repeated listening I can't get too enthusiastic about any of this music by Russia's best-known composer. They're pleasant -- they're by Tchaikovsky after all -- but hardly memorable.

The disc starts with three pieces without opus numbers, three Impromptus, one of them actually never finished by Tchaikovsky but completed by Alexander Taneyev (not the better known composer, Sergey Taneyev, who was a distant cousin. The booklet errs by referring to Sergey rather than Alexander as the composer involved. And while we're at it, the booklet also misspells the last name of noted Russian music publisher Pyotr Jurgenson.) They are followed by Tchaikovsky's Two Pieces, Opus 1, which comprises the aforementioned Scherzo à la russe and another Impromptu, an aggressive allegro. Then come 'Trois morceaux', Op. 9, the most alluring of which is the first, the 'Réverie', which is longer than the other two pieces combined, one of those being the Polka de salon.

All of the pieces up to this point were written for amateur pianists. But now comes the 'Six morceaux composés sur un seul thème', a set of variations on an original theme written for Tchaikovsky's teacher, Anton Rubinstein, in which he wanted to show Rubinstein his mastery of form and compositional technique, e.g. the second movement is a four-voice fugue. Although more difficult for the pianist than the previous works on the disc, it strikes me that this set of variations is rather dull and 'correct'.

Yaroshinsky's playing is certainly adequate and even sparkling in spots -- as in the Scherzo à la russe -- but little strikes one as original or personal. It is for this reason, as well as for the impression made by the music itself, that I give this disc three stars.

Scott Morrison


Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Vol.1 (String Quartets No. 6, Op. 18, No. 11, Op. 95 & No. 16, Op. 135)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete String Quartets, Vol.1 (String Quartets No. 6, Op. 18, No. 11, Op. 95 & No. 16, Op. 135)
Price: $7.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding Beethoven Quartet Concert, April 27, 2013
What a brilliant idea to start what is announced as the beginning of a complete traversal of Beethoven's string quartets with a program that includes one quartet each from his early, middle and late periods. So often these complete sets clump the Op. 18s together, do the middle quartets together and then end with the late quartets. This has its value, of course, but for listening to a CD of quartets in one sitting it is more rewarding, I feel, to mix up the opus numbers. It is also rewarding that this program is being played by the Quartetto di Cremona, a fairly young group that bids fair to succeed the hallowed Quartetto Italiano as the premier Italian string quartet. The Quartetto Italiano's recording of the complete Beethovens was, and remains, a treasure. Beethoven: Complete String Quartets The Quartetto di Cremona was formed ten years ago by students from the Cremonese conservatory, the Accademia Walter Stauffer. Of course, Cremona is sacred ground for string players as it was the home of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati among othes. All the instruments played by the Quartet are Cremonese in origin, including a Guarneri and a Guadagnini. The quartet has been mentored by Piero Farulli, the long-time violist of the Quartetto Italiano, and by Hatto Beyerle, violist of the Alban Berg Quartet.

The CD opens with the last of the Op. 18 quartets, No. 6. This is the most dramatic of these post-Haydnesque quartets at least partly because of the dramatic last movement, 'La Malinconia'. Often, though, Op. 18, No. 6 is played of a piece with all the other Op. 18s and yet it has always seemed to me that is looks to the future and is more boldly expressive than the others. The Cremonas adopt a fairly bold approach and this works marvelously.

Op. 95 is an odd man out in the Beethoven canon, not only because it has no nearby opus-neighbors like all but one of the other quartets. It is an idiosyncratic work which is both concentrated and unique in form. Nicknamed the 'Serioso' -- the third movement has that as its headtitle -- it is certainly that. Beethoven said that it had been written for a 'small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be played in public'. I suspect he was aware that it is the most hermetic of his quartets up to that time. Thank goodness the music world did not take his proscription of public performances to heart. Still, it is one of the least played of his quartets and perhaps the least popular. We Beethovenists, though, love it. It typifies what is so characteristic of Beethoven -- pride, stubbornness, crustiness, and complete originality. The Quartetto di Cremona play it with fervor, sometimes risking ugliness in order to convey the work's anguished expression. This is a towering performance and, dare I say it, I prefer it to the Quartetto Italiano's recording.

The Op. 135 was the last substantial work that Beethoven completed. The only other quartet movement that came after it was the new finale for the Op. 130 that replaced the original Grosse Fuge. It is the briefest of the late quartets. I has the usual four movements -- Allegretto; Vivace; Lento assai e cantante tranquillo (a set of variations played here with serene tenderness) and a finale's whose headtitle is 'Die schwere gefasste Entschluss' ('The difficult decision').Under the opening slow chords of the finale are the now-legendary 'Muss es sein? -- Es muss sein!' ('Must it be? -- It must be!'). Musicologists and music-lovers alike have tried to glean a meaning from those words. One can surmise that it may have to do with Beethoven's declining health. The finale, after the slow introduction, is here given an almost cheerful reading, particularly in the almost flippant coda whose meaning I have always taken as Beethoven's 'after all, why worry?'. This, too, is a beautifully wrought, intelligently thought out and emotionally satifying performance.

This is my first exposure to the Quartetto di Cremona and I've become a new fan. I hope they keep recording. I hope perhaps one day to hear them in person.

An enthusiastic recommendation.

Scott Morrison


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