03 Marc PonthusBeethoven – Hammerklavier Sonata; Stockhausen – Klavierstück X
Marc Ponthus
Bridge Records 9584 (bridgerecords.com)

The French pianist Marc Ponthus is a fascinating individual, devoting much of his career to the performance of the 20th century’s most demanding avant-garde music. Known for presenting monographic recitals in which only compositions by Stockhausen, Boulez or Xenakis are performed, Ponthus has carved a unique niche for himself in a pianistic world overrun by repeated presentations of Mozart, Schumann and Chopin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with canonic repertoire, of course, and Ponthus demonstrates this first-hand with his latest recording, putting Beethoven’s monolithic “Hammerklavier” Sonata on the same program as Stockhausen’s landmark Klavierstück X. Aside from the fact that both works are performed on the same instrument, these pieces – composed nearly 150 years apart – are decidedly different: one is the pinnacle of classical sonata form, while the other is a masterwork of contemporary piano literature, an eruption of ordered disorder.

Ponthus’ performance of Klavierstück X is thrilling, his control of this physically and intellectually demanding score immediately apparent. (There are so many glissandi that the pianist is required to wear gloves with the fingers cut off.) Although the first impression of this music may be of chaos, every component of this music is highly prescribed and structured, and Ponthus wrestles Stockhausen’s complex ideas into a profoundly convincing performance. 

If the “Hammerklavier” receives a shorter mention here, it is only because of its status as one of Beethoven’s most renowned and striking piano works. Ponthus approaches this music like a chameleon, and it is difficult to believe that this is the same person who was tackling Klavierstück  X only a few moments prior. The rhythmic vitality of Beethoven’s writing is brought to the forefront here, and this performance is full of vigour and bravado, while never becoming a caricature of itself.

04 Schubert ImproptusSchubert – The Complete Impromptus
Gerardo Teissonnière
Steinway & Sons 30220 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label/Schubert-the-complete-impromptus-gerardo-teissonnière)

Impromptu means “improvised,” a genre popular in 19th-century salons. It seems to be easily dashed off in one sitting although it’s hard to believe this, given their melodic richness, level of invention and perfection of form. Schubert’s eight pieces are part of the curriculum for any aspiring piano student about grade eight and up and I tried my hand on at least three of them. My greatest accomplishment was Op.90 No.4 in A-flat Major, with those gorgeous cascades rippling down like water with a wonderful melody emerging in the left hand and a passionate Trio I loved playing. But I must admit that the difference between amateur and professional pianists being immeasurable (Somerset Maugham), so this new issue of The Complete Impromptus, all eight of them, under two opus numbers (90 & 142) by a pianist critics regard as an artist of “extraordinary musicianship and rare sensibility,” Puerto Rican-born American Gerardo Teissonnière, is most welcome. In fact, the pianist is having a remarkable career on two continents, recipient of many awards; this recording is his second one on the prestigious Steinway & Sons label.

Some of my favourites are the popular, very impressive No.2 Op.90 in E-flat Major, perpetuum mobile-like, light hearted and fast with an exquisite contrasting Impromptu. No.3, Op.90 in G-flat Major (with 6 flats) is relaxed and introspective with a harp-like mid-register in the right hand that reminds me of Schubert›s ever-present obsession with water and a fearsome undercurrent in the left hand bass.

I loved the most the ambitious Impromptu No.1 Op.90 in C Minor, with its notable key change into major in the Trio that›s absolute heaven, like a dreamy dialogue of questions and answers. No.3 in B-flat Major Op.142 is a set of lovely variations on a simple theme from Rosamunde where the level of invention is amazing. The final piece is No.4 Op.142 in F Minor, a wild rondo that sums up this set that gave me a lot of enjoyment in these bleak winter days.

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05 Schumann Llyr WilliamsRobert Schumann – Piano Works
Llŷr Williams
Signum Classics SIGCD756 (signumrecords.com)

The name Llŷr Williams may not be an overly familiar one, but since his graduation from the Royal Academy of music, this 48-year-old pianist has quietly carved out a name for himself as a soloist, accompanist and chamber musician. Born in North Wales in 1976, he studied music at Queen’s College, Oxford before pursuing further studies at the RAM from 2003 to 2005. His recent recordings have included the complete sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert; he now turns his attention to the music of Schumann on this 2CD set.

The first disc opens with the renowned Fantasie in C Major Op.17, long regarded as one of Schumann’s greatest works. Willliams’ approach is suitably expansive and lyrical, at no time losing control of the shifting parameters within. Papillons, from 1831 is a charming set of 12 kaleidoscopic miniatures. Based on a novel by Jean Paul Richter and intended to represent a masked ball, the successive dance movements flow by in quick succession. Williams delivers an elegant and polished performance, adroitly capturing the ever-contrasting moods. Concluding the first disc is the six-movement Humoresque Op.20 from 1839, a score that has possibly never earned the reputation it deserves.

Williams continues to demonstrate a real affinity for this archly Romantic repertoire in the famed Davidsbündlertanze Op.6 which opens the second disc. The movements here are not true dances, but character pieces aptly showcasing the dualistic nature of Schumann’s personality. The four reflective Nachtstücke Op.23 were composed during a particularly stressful time in the composer’s life owing to the imminent death of his older brother. In contrast is the jovial Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26, a wonderful depiction of a Viennese carnival which Williams performs with much bravado, bringing the set to a most satisfying conclusion.

06 Album LeafAlbum Leaf – Piano Works by Felix Mendelssohn
Sophia Agranovich
Centaur Records CRC 4038 (sophiagranovich.com)

Thanks to YouTube I feel as if I’ve seen and heard this magnificent pianist live whose new recording I am pleased to introduce. In fact I am simply mesmerized by Sophia Agranovich‘s tremendous talent, virtuosity, emotional involvement and thorough musicianship. Fanfare magazine calls her a “tigress of the keyboard” and I could listen to her for hours. Her credentials include concert pianist, recording artist, teacher, computer scientist and vice president of Merrill/ Lynch, no less. This is her 12th recording to date. 

Agranovich is no stranger to these pages – we reviewed her very impressive Liszt recital in November 2022 – and now she turns to Mendelssohn and surely doesn’t disappoint. Her virtuosity immediately becomes evident in the extremely difficult last movement Presto of the Fantasia in F-sharp Minor, a perpetuum mobile that ends the first piece. Her lightness of touch makes the piano sing at the Albumblatt in A Minor, a typical Mendelssohn Lied ohne Worte that the set is named after.

Mendelssohn was probably one of the most gifted composers who ever lived. As a child prodigy he composed a symphony for full orchestra at the age of 12! As the program continues the composer’s immense talent shines through beautiful pieces like the Caprices, a set of Variations Serieuses and the murderously difficult Etudes that rival Chopin. They are all executed in a lovely singing tone, with virtuosity and elegance.

My beloved, since childhood, Rondo Capriccioso, a favourite concert piece where I see elves dancing every time I hear it, ends the program and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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07 Chopin PhillipsChopin – Ballades and Nocturnes
Jonathan Phillips
Divine Art DDX 21111 (divineartrecords.com)

What more can be said about Chopin – all too frequently referred to as the “poet of the piano?”  More than 170 years after his death, his music continues to enthrall connoisseurs and amateurs alike and this disc presenting the four Ballades and a selection of Nocturnes played by British pianist Jonathan Phillips is bound to be a welcome addition. A graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, Phillips was winner of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales Soloist award in 1986. He has performed throughout Europe, but in 1998, began studies for a degree in philosophy, after which he was less inclined to pursue a career as a performing artist. 

Seldom is Chopin’s creativity so evident than in the four Ballades, written over a 17-year period between 1836 and 1843. Phillips’ approach is elegant and understated – his tempos are never rushed, nor does he resort to empty virtuosity, instead letting the music speak for itself. This is no more apparent than in the glorious fourth Ballade. From the calm and hesitant opening measures to the turbulent coda, Phillips is clearly in full command of this daunting repertoire, but never seeks to impress.

Of the five Nocturnes Phillps chose for this program, three – Op.9 No.2, Op.15 No.1 and Op.32 No.1 are early works, while two – Op.55 No.1 and Op.62 No.1 – were written considerably later. Phillips treats this lyrical and introspective music with a sensitive poignancy concluding the disc with a mood of true serenity. 

With his fine musicianship and impressive technique, it seems a pity that Phillips has too often forsaken the limelight, choosing instead to lead a more unassuming life with his family in the English Cotswolds. His talents most definitely deserve greater exposure.

08 Bruckner 7Bruckner – Symphony No.7
London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO00887 (lso.co.uk)

It is said that Otto Kitzler, a decade younger than his student Anton Bruckner, helped inspire a momentous change in his illustrious pupil. The defining moment that enabled Bruckner to find his true musical vocation was when he heard Kitzler conduct a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Linz. 

Bruckner had spent 40 years assimilating every rule of composition. However, Kitzler’s performance of Wagner led Bruckner on a voyage of discovery of Wagner that enabled him to break the rulebook he had so assiduously assimilated. Indeed Wagner, the operatic iconoclast, enabled Bruckner to create symphonic music that mirrored Wagner’s achievements as a master of music drama. 

Nowhere is the newly discovered dramaturgy more evident than in this version of Bruckner’s most enraptured Symphony No.7. It features the long radiant phrase by the cellos and the first horn, which unfolds over tremolando strings. The portentous Adagio presages Wagner’s death with the sombre, glowing tone of four Wagner tubas. The near-demonic and extreme tension generated by the violins’ restless accompaniment in the dramatic Scherzo is evocative of Bruckner’s discovery of the devastating fire that killed 386 patrons in the Ringtheater. This is followed by the near-euphoric airy pastoral character in the climax of the finale.

Sir Simon Rattle’s shaping of Bruckner’s arching phrases, the exactness of his control of the London Symphony Orchestra and the sumptuousness of the orchestral tone majestically reinforce the idea of Bruckner as a master builder.

09 Rachmanioff GindesRachmaninoff Piano Works
Ian Gindes
Navona Records NV6582 (iangindes.com)

The twin centrepieces of Rachmaninoff Piano Works by American Ian Gindes are selections from the composer’s celebrated Preludes and Études Tableaux. These are complemented by Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Zoltan Kocsis’ arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s masterwork, the Vocalise Op.34, No.14. The surprise is the finale: Jerry Goldsmith’s Alone in the World arranged by Jed Distler.

Like Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Rachmaninoff’s comprise a sequence of miniatures in every major and minor key and, as with Chopin, the self-imposed constraints inspired some of the composer’s most original ideas. This selection includes the famous C-sharp Minor Prelude Op.3 No.2 as well as a selection of four from Op.23 and one from Op.32. Melody is the less dominant element, for many of these pieces are built upon rhythmic patterns that lead towards the establishment of a melodic pattern reflecting the rhythmic pulse. 

As with the Chopin of the Ballades, Études and Preludes, the Études Tableaux take a motif or a technical challenge as their starting point, and weave poetic musical fabrics from that. Mordant, terse and visionary in their endless chromaticism, luminously simple and spectrally poignant, they are distinguished by their brevity and a new level of virtuoso pianism.

Gindes’ interpretations fall somewhere between Alexis Weissenberg’s punchy sound and Sviatoslav Richter’s tremendous performances. Gindes’ illustrious renditions reveal a visionary glow behind the eloquent, melancholy virtuosic exteriors of these Rachmaninoff masterworks.

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