Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas - Lively and expressive

Beethoven: The Violin Sonatas
Barbara Govatos, violin; Marcantonio Barone, piano
4 CD Box Set
Bridge Records

Barbara Govatos and Marcantonio Barone have been performing as a duo for over a decade, which makes their traversal of Beethoven's ten violin sonatas so  enjoyable. There's an easy give-and-take between these performers that turn the music into a lively conversation between old friends.

Both Govatos and Barone play with precision, which makes them well-matched. These are very clean performances. And energy isn't sacrificed for accuracy either. The early sonatas -- especially the Op. 12 set -- sound lively and exuberant.

I especially enjoyed the "Spring" sonata (op. 24). Govatos' playing was light and airy. Her bow seemed to just glide over the top of the strings. Another high point of the set for me was the the seventh sonata (Op. 30, No. 2). The duo's smooth execution and full-throttle rush to the big cadence points ramped up the excitement. Contrast that with the hear-breaking delicacy of the slow movement, and you have a real winner.

The "Kreutzer" sonata (Op. 47) sounded a little restrained at first, but the energy level picked up as it went along. Overall, these are solid performances. The drama is there -- it's just not over the top.

The recording quality of this release is quite high. There's not a lot of room ambiance, but the instruments are recorded with enough distance to provide some natural resonance. The result is a very transparent sound that makes it easy to hear the interplay between the instruments.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Constantine Orbelian, pianist

Shostakovich, Mozart and Bach Piano Concertos
Constantine Orbelian, piano
Moscow Chamber Orchestra

Although this is a new release from Delos, it isn't a new recording. Constantine Orbelian is best known today as the innovative conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, but initially he was primarily a concert pianist. This 1992-1993 recording happened at a pivotal point in Obelian's career. He was working with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and their conductor Andrei Korsakov when Korsakov died prematurely at the age of 47. The ensemble asked Orbelian to assume leadership, and he's been their conductor ever since.

With the exception of the Mozart concerto for Two Pianos, all the works on this release were recorded with Korsakov conducting the orchestra. The collection opens with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. It's a sassy and sarcastic reading, its slightly off-skew character sounding a little like Prokofiev. The final movement is an out-and-out romp between the trumpet and piano in a race to the finish.

Orbelian performs two Mozart concertos here. The Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365 features pianist Jonathan Shames. The chemistry between the two soloists is good, and it sounds like they had a rollicking good time playing together. Orbelian's performance of Mozart's Piano concerto No. 12, K.414 is a little lower. The work comes off as somewhat sedate, although Orbelian plays with lightness and sensitivity throughout.

The final work on the album is Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 5, BWV 1056, which Orbelian chooses to perform on the piano. Strangely, the sound for this piece (as compared to the others) sounds a little closed-in.

Orbelian is a talented conductor, and as these recordings show, he's a gifted pianist as well. A welcome addition to the Moscow Chamber Orchestra's extensive catalog of recordings.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Clementi: Gradus Ad Parnassum Vol. 4 - Delightful

Clementi: Gradus ad Parnassum, Vol. 4
Exercises Nos. 66-100
Alessandro Marangoni, piano

Pianist Alessandro Marangoni completes his survey of Muzio Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum with this release. Composed over several years, this three-volume collection of keyboard exercises has become one of the standard teaching tools for pianists. But these works aren't just a series of dull and difficult finger exercises.

True, within each of the short pieces in this collection a pattern of notes will occur over and over, sometimes obsessively. But Clementi underpins those patterns with interesting  and supple harmonies that provides forward motion and musical organization.

Most of the 34 exercises in this volume were grouped by Clementi into suites. Each suite, taken as a whole, aesthetically makes sense. Each suite has collection of contrasting movements. A mid-tempo piece is followed by an up-tempo one. A simple, lyrical movement is followed by a complex fugue, and so on. Although the individual pieces are enjoyable enough to listen to, the suites place the movements in context and provide deeper musical meaning to the whole.

The contrapuntal pieces were the ones I found most interesting -- Clementi had a facility for writing canons and fugues. The fugues don't sound like Bach warmed over. Just as with the counterpoint of Mozart and Haydn, these movements have a strong melodic flavor to them. These pieces work as music and not just intellectual (or fingering) exercises.

Marangoni plays with alacrity and a light touch, making these difficult exercises sound effortless. And more importantly, he makes them sound musical.