Yes, it’s hard to sell a record these days. No matter how good an artist you are, you find that either people already own what you have to offer or that people want it free. That’s in part a consequence of the Internet these past dozen years. One can get a ton of music of all kinds in free downloads or on disc for ridiculously discounted prices. And I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of used album on-line. As a consequence, artists must have a gimmick, a hook to get them in the door. Such is the case, at least in part, with the 2012 Sony release Baroque Conversations. This is not to say the gimmick doesn’t work, however, nor that I disapprove of the approach. Let me explain.
David Greilsammer is a prizewinning pianist as well as the Principal Conductor of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. Born in Jerusalem, Israel, he studied there at the Rubin Academy before entering the Juliard School in New York and making his solo debut in 2004. Apparently, one of the things audiences have enjoyed are his recitals juxtaposing Baroque and contemporary music, as he does in this program. Now, you may object to my calling this a gimmick, which my Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines as “an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, esp. one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.” As I say, people need such an ingenious device these days, and if it works, more power to them.
Anyway, in this album Greilsammer offers four segments comprised of three piano selections each, two Baroque masterpieces as the outer movements and a modern work in the middle. Greilsammer tells us in a booklet note that his intent was “to see opposing worlds meet and converse with one another, in the infinite hope of witnessing the birth of a dialogue between the extremes.” Thus, the album’s title. He goes on to say that “little by little, by expressing all of the lyricism and madness hidden within them, these planets begin to stare at each other, move closer, talk, perhaps even touch one another, slowly, gently.” Fair enough, although I’d say he’s hoping for a little more than a lot of listeners may find in these pieces, because at least for me the contrasts far outweigh the similarities. But, then, I am not a fan of much contemporary classical music, so who am I to judge? Besides, if two planets ever did touch, we’d have a cosmic catastrophe on our hands.
OK, with that introduction you can probably guess what I’m going to say next. Greilsammer is an extremely sensitive, intelligent pianist with a load of talent. The Baroque pieces I found ravishing, brilliant, glowing from beginning to end with poetry and passion. It’s the stuff in between I simply found jarring, out of context. No planets touched; rather, they smashed into one another. Which, I suppose, is part of the album’s objective. Each listener will bring away from the experience something different, for better or for worse. And even if it’s for the worse, the listener should be able to understand why, which is a learning point of its kind.
So, each of the four sets follows the Baroque-contemporary-Baroque pattern. For example, the first set begins with the Gavotte et Six Doubles by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), followed by Piano Piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987), and concluding with the Sonata No. 84 in D major by Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783). The Rameau dance variations are melodious, rhapsodic, falling on the ear gently, like a soft spring shower, even in the more rambunctious second half. Feldman’s Piano Piece from 1964 is likewise gentle, even quieter than the Rameau work, yet without much of the melody, the notes instead of gently dropping down upon us emerging slowly, almost hesitantly, as though creeping up and lying in wait. Whereas Rameau requires only an open heart to appreciate, the Feldman music takes patience. Still, it provides a cozy, slow interlude between the Rameau and the concluding Soler piece, which acts as a kind of closing Scherzo Finale.
In all of this, as with the rest of the album, Greilsammer plays dexterously, with zesty wit, a serious commitment, and a smiling intellectualism. I have to admit, though, that I would rather have heard just his performances of the Baroque material; but I suppose that’s what one can do if one chooses--program the album according to one’s own whims and fancies. This is especially so because sometimes, as in the second set, the modern music of Porat can be so raucously contrasting that it wholly disrupts any mood created by the older music of Couperin. This said, it makes the Handel Suite in D minor that ends the set all the more attractive for its sheer beauty.
If the disc, which also includes Frogerger, Sahar, Gibbons, Frescobaldi, Lachenmann, and Sweelinck, suggests anything, it’s that as music evolves, it doesn’t necessarily get better, just different.
Sony made the recording at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, in 2011. It’s quite lovely, the piano sound sweet, very lightly warm, and resonant. The notes materialize clearly from dead quiet backgrounds, Greilsammer fully understanding the importance of the silent spaces in music and using them to good advantage. The disc displays a reasonably quick transient response, too, with a fairly strong dynamic impact, helping to reinforce a lifelike impression.