Bach, Mozart, and Silvestrov for Piano (CD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

Bach: Goldberg Variations
. Lang Lang, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 481 9701.

The deluxe edition of Lang Lang’s new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations has an imposing physical presence. It looks and feels like a small hardbound book, the cover of which features a photograph of the pianist leafing through the score. Bound within are slipcases for four discs and a booklet of nearly 50 pages in there are printed liner notes in three languages (English, German, and French) plus numerous artistic-looking photographs of Lang Lang in various poses and venues. Clearly, this is a release that is intended to make a statement, and make a statement it does, both in its physical form and more importantly, in its musical content. You can view a promotional video for this release https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55hk75OgWDg.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations represent a musical touchstone for keyboard players, both for the harpsichord and the piano. Over the years there have been many recordings on both instruments (not to mention arrangements for other instruments) by many musicians, both famous and relatively unknown. Among the most memorable recordings are two by the late Canadian pianist Glenn  Gould, which you can read about https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2020/07/a-state-of-wonder-complete-goldberg.html.

There are numerous other fine performances available, of course, and right off the top of my head I can rattle off a few that I have especially enjoyed over the years, including performances on piano by Murray Perahia, Jeremy Denk (whose CD comes packaged with a fascinating DVD inn which Denk comments on the music, demonstrating motifs and other features of the music at the keyboard), Simone Dinnerstein, Andras Schiff, and Peter Serkin, plus harpsichord  performances by Trevor Pinnock, Keith Jarrett (yes, that Keith Jarrett), and Anthony Newman (a fast, energetic, colorful, take-no-prisoners account, a kind of analog of Gould ‘55).

So, where does this extravagantly packaged recording by the relatively young Chinese superstar pianist fit in? The fact that both the studio and live recordings take up two CDs each signals us from the git-go that these are definitely not going to be swift performances in the manner of the 1955 Gould, or even the more mellow 1981 Gould, for that matter. In fact, the total timing for Gould 1955 is 38:26. In stark contrast, the first disc of Lang Lang’s studio recording is 43:29. Yes, in 1955, Gould knocked off the complete Goldbergs five minutes faster than Lang Lang takes to get through the opening Aria and Variations 1-15. Yes, you have to then switch to the second disc to hear Variations 16-30 and the reprise of the Aria. As you might guess, Lang Lang takes repeats that Gould does not. Gould’s more relaxed 1981 version clocks in at 51:14; significantly longer than his 1955 version, but still nowhere near needing two CDs to encompass. Perahia, Denk (who takes the repeats), and Schiff all manage to fit into the space of once disc. In Lang Lang’s versions, however, both studio (91:27) and live (92:56) require two CDs. Yes, Lang Lang lingers.

Lang Lang's lingering is not in itself a bad thing. In his liner notes, the pianist explains that “I’ve been studying this work for more than 20 years, and recording it has been a lifelong dream. I’ve never spent so much time on one piece. You get nearer to it, sink deeper into it, find some distance, and then go back to it again. I worked on the music every day, noting down new ideas all the time in four different scores.” His love of the Goldbergs permeates both performances. He savors this music, dives deeply into it, and wrings as much musical beauty as he can out of it. If that means his performance is going to stretch out over 90 minutes, then so be it. The net result is a performance -- two performances, in this case -- like none you have ever heard before. Slow, yes, but beautiful. Lang Lang lingers lovingly.

Of course, one drawback of his approach is that for those listeners with a single-disc CD player, a break is going to occur in the middle of the session. Those who have multi-disc players or who listen by streaming will not have this problem, but my guess is that most folks reading this review have single-disc players. On the other hand, we might do well to recall that back in the old vinyl days, to play even the superfast 1955 “Gouldbergs” necessitated flipping the LP (“long-playing” vinyl discs did not actually play all that long, we realize now in retrospect). But for those willing to take a quick bathroom break or whatever mid-Goldbergs, the reward is significant, for these are remarkable performances that take the listener deep into the music. Of the two performances, my personal preference is for the live version, which is recorded with, not surprisingly, a better sense of space. Other listeners might well prefer the studio version, which can be purchased for a lower price than the deluxe edition that includes the live version. If you really want to get into the Goldbergs, the deluxe edition is the way to go, Even folks who already own a favorite or three versions might want to give Lang Lang an audition, for he brings a unique, intense, and revealing perspective to this remarkable music. It might well be too idiosyncratic an interpretation to be an appropriate choice for those looking for a first recording (for those listeners, I would suggest the 1981 Gould or perhaps even better the Denk, whose included DVD offers an incisive and educational introduction to the music), but those who are already familiar with Bach’s masterpiece might well find Lang Lang’s version an ear-opening experience.

The Messenger: Works by Mozart and Silvestrov
. Helene Grimaud, piano; Camerata Salzburg. Deutsche Grammophon 483 7853.

Pianist Helene Grimaud has put together an interesting program of works by a composer known to virtually all classical fans (and even a goodly number of non-fans) plus some works by a composer not nearly as widely known. The idea seems to be a noble one, but I do wonder how many Mozart lovers are going to be interested in a program that also includes works by a contemporary composer. I hope there are some music lovers out there who might already be interested in such a program, but for those who are skeptical (or even, heaven forbid, cynical), I will try to do my humble best to make a case for the program that Grimaud has pulled together for this enjoyable recording.

Now, if you happen to be one of those many classical music lovers who are unfamiliar with the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), let me assure that his compositions that are included in this release are neither difficult, dissonant, nor demanding. Indeed, they fit right into the musical soundscape of the Mozart, which is presumably one of the main points that Grimaud had in mind when she conceived of this unusual pairing of composers so widely separated from each other in both time and space.

The disc opens with three pieces by Mozart, all in a minor key. As the opening notes of the Fantasia in D minor unfold, it is clear that Grimaud is giving us a Romantic interpretation of Mozart’s music. The piano sound is big and bold and her playing is highly expressive, with plenty of tempo fluctuations, pauses, and highlighting. Moving from solo piano to concerto, Grimaud brings that same lush, Romantic style to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, one of the composer’s most well-known and well-loved masterpieces (here). The net result is dramatic, but perhaps a touch too expressive. For comparison, I listened to Murray Perahia with the English Chamber Orchestra from his boxed set and played a DVD featuring Mitsuko Uchida, also with Camerata Salzburg. Both performances were expressive, more so than I remembered, not having played either in quite some time. However, neither seemed quite so florid as Grimaud. Some listeners will love her approach, others might find it a bit over the top. Different strokes for different folks.

The remainder of the program comprises music by Silvestrov, beginning with the work that gives this album its title, The Messenger. Actually, this work appears twice, first of which is a version for piano and string orchestra. The piece has a nostalgic, dusky glow that Grimaud underlines with her wistful, expressive approach, much as she did in  the Mozart. Adding to the dreamlike ambience of this version are the subtle sound effects (the rustling of breezes) blended in by the sound engineer, Stephan Flock. Next up is Silvestrov’s Two Dialogues with Postscript. which consists of three short movements. Silvestrov’s intention in this composition is in sync with Grimaud’s intention in putting music from two different eras together. The Two Dialogues are first with Schubert, in a movement that Silvestrov titles “Wedding Waltz,” while the second is with Wagner, in a movement he titles “Postludium.” These are fascinating little pieces, sounding at once dreamlike yet direct. The piano seems to be recorded more distantly than it was in the Mozart, adding to the overall sensation of music originating from somewhere distant in both time and space. Interestingly, Silvestrov gives credit to both Schubert and Wagner, in fact listing them as co-composers. The third movement (the Postscript, by Silvestrov alone), titled “Morning Serenade,” continues in that same dreamlike fashion. The final selection on the album is the solo piano version of The Messenger. As she did in the Mozart, Grimaud tends to linger, to pause, and to heighten the emotional impact of the music. The ending is a quiet chord that just flickers in darkness before being swallowed by silence. It is in its own quiet way an amazing, thought-provoking musical effect. Sigh…

The overall impression made by the Silvestrov compositions after hearing the Mozart compostions is that we are now experiencing the musical mood of the Mozart works from a reflective, nostalgic, half-imagined perspective. Although the Mozart pieces are all in a minor key, they still exude energy and assertiveness, especially as performed with such flair as Grimaud brings to bear on them, while the Silvestrov pieces have a softer, more diffuse form of energy, captured in softer focus. The effect is underscored by the engineering, with the Mozart selections being captured closer more vividly and up-front than the Silvestrov, which are presented in a more diffuse, ambient sonic portraiture. The program makes sense, it satisfies both musically and intellectually, and it invites the listener to explore music both old and new with an open mind and active ear.

Bonus Recommendations
My first bonus recommendation is for a disc that is, sadly enough, apparently out of print. There are a few copies available out there available online for relatively high prices, but you might get lucky as I did and find a copy for two bucks in the clearance section of a used-book/media store. At any rate, Franz Liszt: Transcriptions from the Operas of Richard Wagner by pianist David Allen Wehr (Connoisseur Society CD 4199) is a highly enjoyable, well recorded recital of Liszt’s reworkings for solo piano of the music of Wagner. It includes four “free paraphrases,” a “virtuoso fantasy,” and four transcriptions. As you can well imagine from the idea of a combination of Wagner and Liszt, this is thoroughly Romantic music in a grand style, a feast for the senses. No, I would not recommend you rush out and spend thirty bucks on a copy, if you can even find one, but if you ever see a copy at a reasonable price, grab it!

My other bonus recommendation is, mercifully enough, widely available for a reasonable price. The late jazz guitarist Jim Hall (1930-2013) recorded Concierto (CTI ZK 65132) in 1975 with a dream-team roster that includes Chet Baker on trumpet, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Roland Hanna on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Steve Gadd on drums. The set list includes a couple of Hall originals, a Hall/Carter composition, one tune each from Cole Porter and Ellington/Strayhorn, and one that should be of special interest to classical music fans, a 19-minute arrangement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Tasty, tasty stuff, and very nutritious. My only quibble is with the engineering. It is very clean in the best Rudy Van Gelder style, but lacks bass extension and fullness. Still, this is a wonderful release, one that should appeal to jazz and classical fans alike.

KWN

To hear a brief excerpt from the Bach album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa