Classical Music Reviews

Madeleine Forte, Piano: Ravel, Selected Works


I've never been a huge fan of Ravel's piano music, finding it a bit glacial and much preferring the more extroverted, tonally adventurous works of his fellow French impressionist Debussy. But if there's one disc that has prompted me to rethink that somewhat kneejerk opinion, this is it. Madeleine Forte, a student of the great Alfred Cortot at the École Normale, is one of the few to carry the torch of old-school technique into future generations as the blight of modernist note grabbing continually threatens to snuff it out. Forte's virtuosic command over the composer's variegated colors and idiomatic keyboard figurations allows her Ravel to shimmer and sparkle as limpidly and effervescently as a glass of Perrier.

Her Gaspard de la nuit is a highlight for me, particularly the coy seduction of her "Ondine," whose pearly, glasslike hues conjure up images of the ice witch from the Chronicles of Narnia. With crystalline fingerwork that ripples and flourishes, Forte beckons the unsuspecting seafarer nearer for a fateful look into the watery depths. She has a fine grasp of the piece's classical rises and falls, as exhibited in the way she grandly renders the ascending chords at the central climax without slowing down, as so many pianists (e.g., Ponti) do. Perhaps even more surprising, though, is the demonic, virile energy Forte conveys in the hellishly difficult Scarbo, which may even outstrip that in Francois's fiendish version. Her mordant attack on the repeated notes in this piece crackles like sparks jettisoned by a fire. Nestled between these two diametrically themed tone-poems is the Gibet, which, in its portrait of a man hanging by a noose in the middle of the desert, seems a statement on the banality of death. Of particular note here are Forte's ghostly pedaling effects, which blend the bleak harmonies together in a mist of foreboding doom. My hope, though perhaps a vain one, is that this 
wonderfully translucent interpretation of the Gaspard will stay afloat through the passing years and that Gieseking's and Argerich's flabby renditions will sink to the ocean floor. 

There is much to like in Forte's performances of some of the smaller works as well. Like her "Ondine," her Jeux d'eau
a stand-alone morceau that was heavily influenced by Liszt's piece by the same nameabounds in gracefully executed water effects. In the Sonatine, written in three slight but challenging movements, Forte manages to take flight in a way that Marcelle Meyer, Thibaudet, and even Cortot do not. Her modéré first movement and second-movement minuet could perhaps profit from a freer rubato in places (I might have a similar reservation about her Pavane pour une infante défunte) but, as always, her dynamic control, technical panache, and elfin lightness are admirable. What really caught my attention, though, was her puckish accents and unflagging energy in the final animé, my favorite movement of the three.

Much of the Miroirs leaves me rather cold, especially the first two, Noctuelles and Oiseux tristes, though this may be more attributable to what I perceive as their modern amorphousness than to Forte's playing, which is crisp and fluid throughout. More to my liking is the Barque sur l'ocean, whose waves mysteriously undulate as a lighthouse faintly illuminates a passing ship in the distance. Again, Forte proves more than equal to the task, oscillating up and down the bassline arpeggiations under the ship's hull in masterful counterpoise to the shining beacon portrayed by the right hand. The Alborada del gracioso, which couldn't be a more polar contrast in character to the Barque, may be the only weak point on this disc, which is perhaps not unsurprising given that its flamenco guitar-like effects and forceful staccato seem better suited for the hands of a beefy Spaniard than for a French lady. Here Forte seems a bit sluggish, failing to capture the ethnic feel while getting particularly bogged down in the treacherous repeated-note patterns. (Interestingly, this is one of Richter's more successful and exciting performances of French music; his has a bearlike power even though it lacks Spanish flair too.). She's right back on track with the Vallée des cloches, though, capturing the many permutations of the bell-like effects with ease.

Small nitpicks aside, this disc is a treat for the senses that, in places, could have served as the soundtrack for the movie
Renoir. Forte's remarkly assured, shimmering pianism is at its height in Ravel's deftly orchestrated keyboard textures. And like the finest wines and cheeses, this recording only stands to improve with age.

Joe's Grade: A-

Claudio Arrau, Piano: Chopin, Four Scherzos and B Minor Sonata


This disc exceeded my expectations. Which is to say, it transcends blandness and enters "serviceable" territory. I remain baffled by the bloated posthumous reputation of the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, especially when he's considered alongside other pianists of the past such as Horowitz, Cortot, Friedman, or Rachmaninoff. A big disciple of the fatuous "faithfulness to the score" cult, Arrau seems to prefer preaching to performing, failing to paint color into the musical canvases he's supposed to be bringing to life. Not to mention that he's not all that attentive to the score anyway.

The most disappointing thing about this recording is the almost total lack of "Wow, why'd he do that?!" moments. Arrau had a formidable digital technique to be sure, but he has given us precious little food for the imagination. In the presto portions of the scherzos, for instance, he mostly just rattles off the notes, displaying little of the intensity these pieces call for. The codas are especially tame and mechanical, lacking in fury or panache. Even more exasperating are his soporific middle sections, especially the contemplative folk-like tune in the B minor (first) and the plangent song in the E major (fourth), which are workmanlike and earthbound. In the second, my personal favorite, the fantastic opening theme has no rhythmic edginess; the melodies lack sweep in the ensuing earnest tune set against the undulating, widely spaced bassline. In short, there's no need to settle for this sludgy performance when you can listen to Cortot, Long, or Thibaudet.

Like Richter, Arrau often seems to forget that the ability to physically play a pianissimo in a slow section isn't enough: phrases are important too. But even Richter's sound generally has far more depth and soulfulness. Arrau's third scherzo I found especially wooden. The introductory octaves are slow and rumbling when they should be crisp and pointed. In the middle section, perhaps he thinks these wonderfully noble strains would be better set to philosophical tracts than poetry. And the right-hand filigree that intercedes oozes rather than sparkles. How anyone could choose such a peformance over Barere's or Rachmaninoff's is beyond me.

Although there's almost nothing in Arrau's scherzos that transports my imagination beyond the confines of my living room, his B minor sonata does yield a pleasant surprise. The scherzo is one of the better I've heard, its lightness surpassing that in Kapell's and Ponti's versions while still exhibiting crisply accented touches and some carefully planned dynamic squalls. Too bad that one brighter light can't illuminate a whole avenue. The outer movements frequently call to mind two hippos lunging at each other as they trudge through a muddy river. In his chordal passages in particular, such as those that open and conclude the first movement, his hands frequently seem to plummet toward the keyboard with the force of a falling anvil. His development section in the first movement at least displays rhythmic vigor and energy, but it would be so much better still if it weren't so darn heavy and thick. The third movement is too brittle and heavy, containing little of the heroism the piece requires. And the phrases in the slow movement sounded so static and lifeless that I might as well have rescued my ears from the drudgery by ingesting a sleeping pill.

Rather than worrying about being faithful to the score, Arrau should have been more concerned about being faithful to the music. Chopin's long dead, and no one knows 
what his "intentions" were. I can only guess that he wanted to hear his works performed rather than recited.

Joe's Grade: C+

András Schiff, Piano: Bach, Inventions and Sinfonias

Schiff Bach Inventions

For those who want to take the plunge into piano playing’s more tepid waters, an András Schiff disc is the ideal diving board. From Schubert to Haydn to Mozart, Schiff treats the music of all composers he plays as elevator music. His discography represents a compilation of bedtime tunes that could transport all but the most irremediable of night owls off to the sandman’s land in the time it took Dorothy to tap together her ruby slippers. Perhaps nowhere is Schiff’s sterile approach more celebrated than in Bach, whose music seems to attract more mediocre keyboardists than a porch light lures moths. What people see in this nosehair-tickling approach to Bach’s rhythmically robust, polyphonically complex compositions will, I’m afraid, forever escape me.

These renditions of the inventions and sinfonias boast nary an individual idea or turn of phrase. To be sure, though, there’s lots of smirking self-styling. With Schiff, you’ve come to the right place to hear insistent, heaving hesitations (second invention); twaddly, prissy staccati (third sinfonia); rushed, tinkly passagework (fourteenth invention); and awkward, anachronistic hand breakings (ninth sinfonia)—in short, his superimposition of tawdry ideas on the music to pander to our look-at-how-original-I-am times. Schiff has become a poster pianist for an age infected by musicological bloviating—an epidemic of windbag posturing inflicted on the world by the so-called historically informed.

Schiff and his groupies just don’t seem to realize that his jejeune touches and flaccid dynamics can’t create the illusion that he has something to say. Listening to his bland tone in selection after selection, I felt like a famished dog stumbling around a graveyard, hoping to find some meat on the bones strewn about me. Alas, I’m trapped, starving. And no light can be seen beyond the faceless mass of tombstones, save the sickeningly green glow that surrounds Schiff’s bilious ornaments and touches in such pieces as the third invention or the fifth sinfonia.

Sometimes I wonder whether such recordings are an indication that Bach playing on the piano has become a lost cause. Sorry to say, you can probably do worse with Bach than Schiff—by listening to Simone Dinerstein or Angela Hewitt, for example—two hacks who are now, mirabile dictu, well on their way to becoming forgotten hags. Yes, Schiff may not be quite as crude; his is just cautious, average playing that never pumps the heart or stirs the brain. Even Kissin and Lang Lang have a stronger effect on me: at least they make me laugh.


Joe’s Grade: C


Glenn Gould, Piano: Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II

Glenn Gould WTC

In his 1955 performance of the Goldberg VariationsGould realized Bach's music on the piano in a way that has never been heard before or since. Indeed, I have yet to hear any other piano performances of this music that exhibit anything like Gould's polyphonic differentiation, relentless rhythmic energy, quicksilver speed, and lucid touch. It's just too bad that hardly any of his subsequent Bach recordings approached this pinnacle. And many, such as his 1960s traversal of the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier, were disfigured by eccentricity and a failure—perhaps even a refusal—to communicate his ideas in a way that makes sense to the outside world.

Though Gould's preludes rarely falter in tempo and the voicing of his fugues remains uncannily accurate for the duration of these four discs, his general interpretations are more like rattled-off renditions than performances. His nervous system remains as highly charged as ever, but there are few signs of the dynamic nuance, subtle rubato, and tonal color that helped make his early Goldberg Variations one of the musical miracles of the twentieth century.

A major problem is that Gould's choices of tempi appear to have become increasingly detached from reality as he aged. While his lightning-fast fingers served the music well in the Goldbergs, many of his tempi come across as ill-conceived in the WTC. Not only are they generally overly rigid but, in certain cases, such as the G major preludes from both books and the B-flat major prelude  from Book II, he does little more than flap his fingers over the ivories as fast as possible; accent, structure, and conception crash and burn on the racetrack. Conversely, many of the more lyrical pieces are lugubriously slow. Often, his conception is clumsy and mechanical, as in the mysterious D minor fugue from Book II, or soporific and rhythmically labored, as in the F minor prelude from
Book I. 

Gould's dynamics and touch are hardly more pleasing in these performances. For example, in the grand C-sharp minor fugue from Book I, his texture is too uniform and his attack too brittle, while his C-sharp major prelude from Book II (one of the more lovely Bach pieces on the piano) is clunky, graceless, and lacking in phrasing. He also has a particularly annoying habit of shying away from the endings, such as in his absurd taperings in the C-sharp major fugue or D major prelude from Book I. Fluffy rolled chords and prissy dimenuendos hardly seem an apt way to conclude pieces of such rhythmic verve and architectural grandeur.

Yes, these recordings seem vastly overrated to say the least. Yet one would be a fool to deny Gould a special place in the pantheon of pianists. As Salieri says of Mozart in the 1984 film Amadeus, this wunderkind was no mere "trained monkey." Gould was one of the brightest stars in the pianistic firmament, a once-in-a-lifetime artist and one of the very few to merit the label "prodigy."  It's just unfortunate that he all too often behaved like a bad boy. Still, this WTC recording reveals that even when Gould is at his most tasteless or musically obtuse, he compels you to listen—as I did, almost without interruption. Gould is a "God, he didn't just do that!" type of pianist. Not a so-bland-you-shrug-and turn-it-off performer like Tureck, Schiff, or Perahia. I should be thankful for that, I suppose. I just wish that in his later playing he'd retained more of the vision of the innocent, ubertalented kid he once was and remembered that even a genius ultimately needs to serve his art rather than himself.

Joe's Grade: B-

Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano: The Chopin I Love

Thibaudet Chopin

Ahhhhh, the Chopin I love. Makes me think of one of those treacly classical CD covers picturing an oceanside cliff face staring into the sunset (don't forget to imagine wind whooshing sounds). Strange that all London Decca could come up with is  a gaunt Frenchman sitting on a park bench and staring at the camera with a self-satisfied grin. Pity. Luckily, though, Mr. Thibaudet is much more pleasant to listen to than look at. On the whole, his is a virile, extroverted Chopin. Which quite surprised me coming from a guy who's been known to wear lipstick, bleach his hair, and bedeck himself in Liberace-esque attire.

Thibaudet seems to particularly feel at home in Chopin's larger forms—the A-flat polonaise (Op. 53), the second scherzo, the first ballade, and even the barcarolle are all highly individual interpretations. His "revolutionary" and op. 25, no. 3, etudes are also brilliant, both technically and musically. In some of the smaller pieces, however—notably the mazurkas and waltzes—he sometimes seems tight and hesitant, employing a prissy touch to poke out too-clipped staccati.

But there's certainly nothing fruity about his "heroic" polonaise, a trumpeting statement that fittingly begins the disc. Thibaudet revels in the militaristic dotted rhythms, plunging ferociously into the scale flourishes. He dispatches the middle octave passage with Horowitzian aplomb, building up the intensity calculatedly and letting loose at the climaxes. Saving the best for last, Thibaudet charges into the coda with the energy of a cavalry charge. His brusque treatment of the concluding chords seems just what the leonine Pole intended.

The second scherzo is even more of a highlight for me, At the outset, he convincingly conveys the contrast of the whispering sotto voce triplets against the fortissimo chords in the treble. In the second theme, his left hand gracefully undulates while his melody tenderly sings. His rubato is free without being cloying or awkward. In the middle section, his tone is deep and languorous, a suitable respite from the passion of the outer sections. Once again, he breaks out at the coda, taking us to the edge of a plank without diving overboard into the sea of pounded-out sound that has engulfed so many other performances of Chopin's music in the modern era—including those by Kissin, Sokolov, and Ashkenazy.

While Thibaudet's first ballade and barcarolle are more of a mixed bag than the polonaise and second scherzo, there is still much to like in them. In the ballade, his opening statement is broad, though the waltzlike melody seems a bit too matter of fact—he should listen to what his forebear in the French tradition, Cortot, does with this. Yet in the fast sections, especially the coda, Thibaudet unleashes some fury. Though he never quite captures the piece's quasi-Lisztian grotesqueness, his is a steely rendition that's reminiscent of Horowitz's trailblazing performance. The same strong points he displays in the ballade, however, mar his overall conception of the barcarolle, though I sympathize with him because this is doubtless one of Chopin's most difficult pieces to interpret. Sofronitsky, Cortot, Richter, Marguerite Long, and many others have tried their hands, but no one seems to be able to convey the mix of languidness, passion, and sweep the piece requires. Thibaudet's tone throughout is on the harsh and brittle side, though his edgy nervosity at the climaxes (which reminded me of Sofronitsky) gets the heart pumping. All in all, Thibaudet's barcarolle is a young man's performance—headstrong, impatient, and a bit chary of falling in love—that nevertheless has an unusual intensity that should be a welcome relief to anyone who's been subjected to the wallowing of a Rubinstein.

As generally comfortable as he is with marking his territory in the big stuff, it's funny he couldn't muster more of an individual conception in the mazurka and waltz selections. Like Lipatti, Thibaudet plunks out the "minute" waltz rather metronomically with little color or differentiation of texture. His grande value brillante fares a bit better—the repeated notes are impressively light—but it's generally a pretty standard reading that captures little of the aura of a Cortot or a Rachmaninoff. And the two mazurkas, including the B-flat major (op. 7, no. 1) so boisterously rendered by the incomparable Ignaz Friedman, are bloodless in Thibaudet's hands, suffering from a clipped staccato and displaying little of the mazurka rhythm. 

Thibaudet's E minor prelude, too, like so many others—Pogorelich's and Kapell's come to mind—suffers from montony, an interpretation that is much too straight-laced and lacking in rhythmic and dynamic freedom. Surely this lobotomized performance contains little of the lament or tragedy the piece requires.

With the etude selections, however, Thibaudet is again in fine form. His super-fluid, ultra-clear technique is especially evident in op. 25, no. 3, which he takes at a brisk pace but without even a hint of struggle despite all the treacherous leaps. Though his texture is sometimes too thick in the more forte passages, he makes some capricious dynamic contrasts in the piano ones. Thibaudet's "revolutionary" may not have quite the feverish desperation of a Cortot or the biting clarity of a Saperton, but it's an extroverted performance that displays a rhythmic bite similar to his second scherzo interpretation. In op. 25, no. 1, he strums the "aeolian harp" gently, but at times becomes a bit over-zealous. As with his barcarolle, however, the clarity and phrasing of his approach are a welcome relief given all the soupy renditions out there.

Indeed, clarity—of rhythm, of texture, of phrasing—is one of Thibaudet's greatest strengths, a transparency he probably learned from his immersion in the great tradition of Madame Long. Thibaudet's may not be the grandest Chopin interpretations, but he infuses them with a point and elegance rarely heard among the recent generations of pianists.

Joe's Grade: B+


Dinu Lipatti, Piano: The EMI Recordings


As with his American contemporary William Kapell, the death of Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti as a thirtysomething was, from the perspective of his legacy, both a misfortune and a boon. For, although the death of a musician at so tender an age robs us of later entries in his discography—presumably what would be the exemplars of his age-matured style—it also attaches a certain mystique to his artistic persona. Untimely death aside, the question is whether his recordings merit the legendary status to which many aficionados have elevated them. Granted, he was a refined pianist with a sleek technique. However, having relistened in full to the five discs on this set (which constitute almost his entire discography), I remain quizzical about what prompted so great an artist as Cortot to resign from the jury in protest when Lipatti placed second in the Vienna Competition. In short, I take issue with those who claim his artistry should be compared with a Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Barere—or, yes, maybe even a Kapell.

To be sure, the seamless elegance of his finger technique, which renders nary a note out of place, is admirable. It's just that most of the repertoire he plays requires more than Mendelssohnian salon polish. 

Nowhere is this truer than on the 14 Chopin waltzes, his most celebrated performance and the only complete set in his discography (minus a few of the posthumous ones). Lipatti's ultra-chaste approach might make for a pleasant car ride home after a taxing day at the office, but it rarely sparkles or takes risks to engage the more attentive ear. Nor does it capture the intriguingly offbeat rhythmic pulse of these often wayward dances. In the B minor sonata, he fares somewhat better, especially in the jeux perlé scherzo in which his impressive finger dexterity shines (similarly to his Schubert E-flat impromptu). However, his outer movements lack a recognizable conception: no fire of a Kapell, heroism of a Cortot, or abandon of a Ponti.

One might think that Lipatti's reserved temperament would be better suited to the baroque and classical masters, to whom a disc's worth of music is dedicated, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Lipatti's renditions of the Bach B-flat major partita and Mozart A minor sonata often have been praised by the critics; given the limp-wristed  performances of this music by such modern "specialists" as Murray Perahia and Andras Schiff, it's not difficult to see why. These are safe performances that go through the motions; there's little to argue with for either good or ill because hardly anything happens that's worth discussing. All the notes are correct, it's metronomically accurate, and there's no strain. At the same time, there's little to inspire greater reflection or encourage a second listen. The sonata is lacking in point and accent. And he fails to find much verve in the spiky dance rhythms of the partita, especially the courante and gigue. His phrasing in the middle movement of the A minor sonata is a particular curiosityone wonders how such a plangent line of Mozart's could be rendered so devoid of subtlety or tragedy, a thought that also occurred to me while listening to both his Bach chorale preludes and Schubert G-flat major impromptu. 

Interestingly, the only recordings in which Lipatti seems to emerge from his lethargy are the Grieg and Schumann concertos. Perhaps he was one of those artists who could only come out of his shell for a live event. Under the autocratic direction of Herbert von Karajan in the Schumann and Alceo Galliera in the Grieg, Lipatti attacks dense chordal passages with leonine intensity. In these youthfully romantic works, Lipatti seems most at home, making up for lackluster readings of the more classical Mozart C major (K. 467) and Chopin E minor concertos, both of which pale by comparison to Rosina Lhevinne's august interpretations. In the Grieg, he seems to delight in Lisztian octave displays while dispatching the many filigree passages with aplomb. While his rendition of the Schumann, particularly the third movement, may lack Cortot's virility, its boyish innocence captures the German composer's quintessential innigkeit. So strong are these two performances that they alone are a reason to listen to these discs, if only to wonder at how the same artist can struggle to find any insight in as sublime a work as Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet 104so ethereally rendered by Barere—or Ravel's bristling Spanish-flavored Alborada del gracioso, whose primitive intensity springs to life beneath Richter's great paws. Some would probably argue that Lipatti manages to find some meaning in the sonata of his Romanian countryman Georges Enescu, but I'd rather not attempt to judge, for this piece of modern cobbled-together nonsense is as ugly as the din of car horns at a city intersection.

Alas, these discs reveal how poorly Lipatti understands the German repertoire. In addition to his lackadaisical readings of Bach, Mozart, and Schubert, which sound like little more than sped-up practice sessions, he teams up with the schoolmarmish Nadia Boulanger in a four-hand performance of a selection of Brahms waltzes that's as mechanical as two droids' movements. The duo seem so preoccupied with the perfection of their ensemble that they fail to uncover even a hint of the German master's rich counterpoint or craggy rhythms.

Nonetheless, for the serious pianophile, Lipatti's Chopin interpretations merit a listen or two, if only to marvel at his seemingly flawless mechanism: light, even, crystalline. You'll never hear this kind of effortless playing from the likes of a modern "Chopinist" like Sokolov or Kissin. That quality, at least, justly garnered Cortot's praise. And it earns mine as well, despite my longing for a more individual artistic stamp on his interpretations.

Joe's Grade: B-

Grigory Sokolov, Piano: Chopin, B-Flat Minor Sonata, Preludes, and Op. 25 Etudes

Sokolov pic

I have often heard the pianism of Grigory Sokolov recommended as an antidote to  the barn-storming circus antics of the likes of Lang Lang, Evgeny Kissin, and Ivo Pogorelich. Many see him as a great expressionist as well as a musician who puts poetry and structure before technique. Given the corpulent Russian's discography, it's easy to see why. In addition to a healthy dose of Chopinmusic that any serious professional pianist is expected to study thoroughly and recordthe canonical works of the "three B" Germans feature prominently: Bach's Italian Concerto, Goldberg Variations, and Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven's sonatas and Diabelli variations; and Brahms's sonatas and late piano works. If such apparent intellectual posing impressed me, I'd be willing to join the throngs who have raised him up on a pedestal as the paragon of a Russian musician's musician, one who "puts the music and composer's intentions above his own personality." But music is music; players have their own personalities and take on the music; and, as the great Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor put it, "If one can play in one style well, one can play in any style well." That's because of artistic talent. Sure, Sokolov can wag his fingers and churn out the notes at certain times. At other times, he can act musical by making grotesque rhythmic gestures, slowing down whenever he feels like it, and pounding to get his standing ovation. But poses are just thatposes. Any charlatan who's skilled enough can pose. Forgers can artfully re-create fragments of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. And pianists like Sokolov can flail away at and moon over Chopin as they've done in practice rooms since the instrument's time immemorial. Listening in full to the two CDs in this set, featuring some of the Polish piano poet's greatest works, I felt as one of those Guantanomo military prisoners might feel, tortured by being submerged in water save my head: to write a review, I was compelled to listen to Sokolov's purposeless music-making to the end; there was no escape.

Ironically, his playing of the Chopin B-flat minor sonata started off quite well before rapidly degenerating. The brief grave introduction could have had more grandeur, sounding ponderous instead of noble, but the beginning of the doppio movimento had a quicksilver fire to it and was relatively well-balanced. Imagine my surprise, then, when, as the music became more intense, balance became the fundamental problem that would almost universally plague the rest of the performances on the disc. That and tempo. In the forte passages containing the widely spaced bass figurations, all I could hear was crude, thick texture with little differentiation. Then, in the transition to the tender melody, he jabs out the staccato chords too forcefully. The melody itself (beginning in bar 41) is suddenly way out of his original tempo and is limp, containing little phrasing to convey the foreshadowing of passion that the crescendo marks call for. Nobody would mind a healthy degree of rubato or expression hereor a modicum of speed slackeningbut to slow the overall tempo down so grossly robs the music of the tension that Chopin had built from the outset. Not to mention that there's no indication whatsoever of any such shift in Chopin's markings (only sostenuto, which is not an indication of tempo but of legato sustainment of sound). The chordal triplets that ensue in bar 81 jerkily increase the tempo again and sound prissy rather than exciting before he clumsily sledgehammers his way into the development (after subjecting us to the sonata's repeat). The development is more of the same, as you start wondering whether this man is even capable of holding a tempo at all. 

The second-movement scherzo illustrates some of the same problems, with the addition of over-lush pedalling that mires Chopin's pointed staccati in mud. Granted, he does reflect some of Chopin's dynamic markings here, but that can't compensate for a leaden touch and a nonexistent tempo. And he has nothing original to say with the dynamics anyway; it's all predictably studied. He slows way down in the soft segue (beginning bar 12) back to theme A, which is even more irritating in the context of a tempo that's torpid to begin with. His staccati in the passages in fourths and octaves stick to the keys rather than bounce off them, and what he mainly seems to care about is calculatingly reducing speed so that he can grab every note. (Witness the gross near-pause in bar 28.) All of this results in a movement that proceeds in fits and starts. In the più lento middle section, the sound is attempting to be pretty, but I hear nothing out of the ordinary, and he displays this nauseating modern habit of rhythmically pumping the tops of phrases, simultaneously forgetting to provide any dynamic interest. It's all too bad because this is my favorite movement in the sonatait's so menacing, almost trollish or fantastic. For varying interpretations of how this could be played, listen to Horowitz's wonderfully grotesque approach or Rachmaninoff's elfin-light classical rendering.

As for the third-movement funeral march, doubtless one of the most famous classical pieces ever written, I'll start by admitting that at this point it's going to take an otherworldly performance to convince me. Cortot's and Friedman's magical interpretations have done so (interestingly, Friedman only recorded the latter two movements of this sonata), but I've heard countless students trudge through this as I have countless professionals find it so easy that they don't know what to do with it. Musically, Sokolov is about as slogging as they come. His performance isn't a march, or even a slow walk; it's more like a slug oozing along. Yes, it's lento, but tempos are relatives. This is so slow it could make you want to scratch every orifice at once in the hope of putting more motion in your listening experience. The dotted rhythms are heavy-handed and give the impression of being slightly behind the beat (such a slow tempo makes it hard to even perceive them as dotted rhythms). And dynamically, it's tensionless when it's softno portentousness or sense of dreadand crude and bludgeoning when it's loud. Not to mention the rambling-sounding bass trills and blurred pedal changes. Then, something I could not believe, he plays the dreamy middle section faster! Well yes, of course he does, because it's more the right tempo. But why he didn't see that from the outset is beyond me: I guess he doesn't understand that this remains a march throughout, regardless of mood or section changes, and thus needs an overall consistent tempo to avoid its structure falling. Again, a little restraint might be in order to denote a section shift, but if Chopin had wanted such a drastically different tempo, he would have marked it, and he didn't. It's musically tepid anyway. He plays the notes softly enough but with little line. To hear what this could sound likeI see it as a child in the procession-watching crowd reflecting on the meaning of death but not yet comprehending ittreat yourself to Horowitz or Cortot.

Admittedly, he surprised me in the hyper-difficult presto finale. It's more notey than Cortot's or Rachmaninoff's, and could be lighter, but this is the one performance on the entire set that impressed me, technically at least. Did he achieve what Huneker described as the "wind over an unquiet grave"? No, I wouldn't go that far. For one thing, his prevailing dynamic level is more of a mezzo-piano than the sotto voce Chopin asks for. For another thing, in many places I'm hearing more of the ping of piano hammers and the regularity of triplets than the overall ghostly effect. (Perhaps he could have made it easier on himself by using the una corda pedal; it doesn't sound like he is, but the achievement of sotto voce often demands this.) Yet at least he sounds in command and shows little sign of struggling against the music as in the other movements.

If only I could say the same thing about his preludes or op. 25 etudes. There are so many things wrong with the preludes that either don't make sense or are musically awkward that one doesn't even know where to begin. But let me start by noting the gross slowing to almost a standstill in various places throughout most of the slower preludes, particularly an annoyingly insistent habit of pulling in and parking at the conclusion of the more extended slower preludes, such as 13, 15, 17, and 21. By all means, one should often do a poco ritardando for endings and sometimes a bit more so when the musical expression calls for it, but his frequent molto, molto ritenuto has the uncommon effect of being both tedious and maddening. He also bangs out accompaniments something awful in preludes 2 and 4; sloppily smears the pedal in 6, 7, and parts of 15; and pokes out chords but hears little melodic intent in 9. The fast ones run the gamut from disjointed and inaccurate rhythm in 10 (note the sloppy dotted rhythms and tempo change in the sections of sixths that interrupt the righthand passagework); to gross rhythmic distortion in 12, particularly on the thirds on the second page, where he's altering the tempo almost from one measure to the next; to flabbiness and overgenerous pedaling through every measure in 16, where the scales and bass can only be clear if one pedals in dabs; to piledriver pounding in 14, 18, 20, 22, and 24, which indicate that he has little sense of what the word "accent" means, containing lots of crude volume but exhibiting little sense of pianistic orchestration; to a complete lack of balance and finger independence in 1 and 8. To compare two of the two most difficult preludes, No. 16 is merely predictable note-grabbing and mushy scale playing, but no. 24 is quite unbelievably crude, with its amorphous, almost unhearable bass. Not to mention a ridiculous pianissimo, not marked by Chopin, that he inserts toward the end, making his rendition of this martial, dramatic prelude lose any of the little intensity it had. Speaking of ridiculous, I should not forget his lugubriously slow No. 11, more of an adagio than a vivace; I suppose this is deemed "musical" by today's musical establishment, but I'd retort that such ill-advised mooning and wallowing in such a quick-spirited elegant work is anything but "musical." Likewise in 23, is this even vaguely a moderato? Sounds more to me like it's on the slow side of an andante. His reminds me of alluvial rainwater rather than a rippling brook. Nos. 3 and 19, oddly, do display some sense of balance between the right and left hands, but they're also often rounded off and contrived. Practically every time he changes a dynamic level he seems to have to change tempo along with it. And in 19, he jerkily speeds up about 25 seconds into it for no apparent reason.

The op. 25 etudes didn't irritate me quite as much (I don't know them quite as well) but are not really much better. In the interest of sounding a bit less curmudgeonly, I'll proceed by listing for each piece a better performance against which to compare Sokolov's:

  • No. 1: Cortot is unmatchable here, in rubato, voicing, and color; Sokolov doesn't begin to soar or get this off the ground.
  • No. 2: Try Cherkassky or Saperton, or even Novaes to see the more delicate effect of this piece and compare with Sokolov's notey rendering.
  • No. 3: Sofronitsky's is phenomenal technically, though perhaps too fast. As I remember, Byron Janis was surprisingly good on this. Even at their very different tempos, they get more of a sense of horse canter and gallop than Sokolov even begins to.
  • No. 4: I like Cziffra's devil-may-care flavor. He strikes a little too forcefully at those bass notes, but it's rhythmically and pianistically original in its gypsy-ish quality. Sokolov often mercilessly sinks his claws into the right-hand chords, but does nothing with the left hand, and it's all a big fat bore.
  • No. 5: Lipatti is elegant and sings, though he has less rubato interest than Cortot or Saperton. Interestingly, Horowitz also sounds poetic on this (in his last recording). With its dissonant slurrings, this piece is often called the "wrong-note" etude, and Sokolov's right-hand slobberings and uneven pedaling make his a wrong-interpretation performance.
  • No. 6: As in the last movement of the B-flat minor sonata, the technical challenge is such that he seems to come a bit more alive in this thirds etude, probably the most challenging such etude in the piano literature. But he also fails to elicit any caprice or will-o'-the-wisp quality, and sometimes the thirds could be clearer. Listen to Lhevinne for unnerving metronomic accuracy (and dynamic squalls); Friedman for overall orchestration; and Saperton for sheer lightness and technical panache. Those who want to be a bit more exotic might also try Jeanne-Marie Darré's admirably executed performance.
  • No. 7: I find Sokolov's performance of the "cello etude" a musical embarrassment, suffering from many of the same problems of phrase choppiness and interruption as his slower preludes. Horowitz, on the other hand, is his typical theatrical self but stays within the boundaries of good taste on this quasi-operatic piece, and his conception ultimately works.
  • No. 8: Starts off OK, but egad, what hammered sixths at the climax! Does Sokolov know the meaning of the word "elegance"? The usual suspects are  good on thisCortot, Saperton, even Richter (in one of his better etude performances). Another I like is Ashkenazy's, who interestingly defies Chopin's marking of fortissimo at the conclusion and plays piano instead (but this makes sense as an interesting contrast against the ardent crescendo of the chromatic scale leading into it).
  • No. 9: You won't hear butterflies in Sokolov's performance, only pesky gnats buzzing around your ears with monotonous regularity. The jaunty humor of Hoffman's will perhaps never be topped on this, though Saperton and Friedman are worthy competitors.
  • No. 10: Beyond the first few bars, Sokolov's octaves are almost inflectionless, nothing except buttloads of ugly, thick pounding. He then plays the middle section in such a schmaltzy, mannered way that it made me squirm in my seat to listen to it. Not a smidgeon of the masterful orchestration exhibited by Lhevinne or the accented fury and supple phrasing of Michael Ponti's. 
  • No. 11: If you're like me, you'll spend most of your listening time wondering why his right hand is totally overpowering his leftin short, why he misses the main musical point of the piece. Every note of the right hand is driven home so forcefully, I started to think I was being pecked at by a bird. Lhevinne's is famous, but in my opinion, a bit too reserved. Try Saperton's to hear the hissing of the winter wind in the right hand. Or, for sheer dramatic fire, there's always Samson François.
  • No. 12: Crude, crude, crude. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Notes, notes, notes. That about sums up Sokolov's version. Richter also pounds, but at least he sounds massive and forbidding like the ocean. Even better performances are by Ponti and Saperton.

Overall, in listening to the maladroit and uninspired performances on these discs, I think Sokolov's supporters are mistaking contrivance for sensitivity and affectations for good taste. While Sokolov's playing of Chopin isn't quite as colorless (or as senselessly hero-worshipped) as Rubinstein's, it's alike in that it has such obvious pretense to musicality while often failing to deliver the goods in basic technical or musical respects.

Joe's Grade: C 

Sviatoslav Richter, Piano: Live Recordings of Works by Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff

Richter BBC Legends

Documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon may have described Sviatoslav Richter best when he labeled him an "enigma." Though possessing a robust physique and one of the  most wondrous pianistic facilities in the history of recording, Richter epitomized the neurotic artist, often appearing fumbling, even physically maladroit, both in interviews and on stage. Despite his almost self-defeating perfectionism, he preferred setting live rather than studio recordings to disc. And when he did so, the results ran the gamut from strangely unspontaneous to revelatory. Hot-cold. That's how quickly his blood temperature could change, even in the same performance.

Were all these recordings on the level of the Rachmaninoff, they would be among the finest of the century. Featured here is a selection of 13 preludes from op. 23 and 32 that Richter performed at England's Aldeburgh music festival. 

Rarely have I heard a sadder lamentation than Richter's haunting account of the B minor (op. 32, no. 10), Rachmaninoff's pining for the dacha and steppes of his native land. Certainly Moiseivitsch's staid, punfunctory rendering, though supposedly approved of by the composer himself, lights no candle to Richter's. By a different token, Richter shows us why the B-flat major (op. 23, no. 2) should have been written for him and him alone; the command he has over the chordal fireworks at the climax is jaw-dropping. How can Kissin and Valentina Lisitsa not be embarrassed to play it after hearing this? (Answer: They're too brain-dead and narcissistic to care, so there's a good chance they haven't.) Reminding me of Chopin's disjunct melody in his 19th prelude, Rachmaninoff's A-flat major prelude (op. 23, no. 8) floats like an albatross's wings buoyed by a zephyr; this is a relatively unheralded work that should be played more by people who have something to say about it (i.e., not Ashkenazy), and Richter's has a seamless elegance that is rarely matched in other renditions. These three are the highlights for me, though there are many beautiful moments elsewhere in Richter's prelude performances as well. The famed G minor (op. 23, no. 5) might be the only weak point, but I hasten to add that here he must compete with Rachmaninoff's own version and, well, even the greatest titan is no match for a god. 

While listening to the other performances, I simply mumbled "why." Why, when Richter has such control over nuance, balance, phrasing, and texture in Rachmaninoff, should those qualities be so lacking in the other interpretations represented here? I won't say too much about the Chopin nocturnes, since few would identify him as one of the great performers of the Polish piano rhapsode's works. (Like Horowitz, Richter felt compelled to play a lot of Chopin as most pianists do, but his performances often sound as if he deems it a necessary chore.) Let me just say that his phrasing, while often musical, sounds very tight in places. But it is his performances of the German literature that most baffled me, particularly since this is generally cited as his forte, perhaps even more so than the Russian oeuvre.

I was particularly puzzled by the Haydn. Richter once stated that he preferred Haydn to Mozart, whom he claimed not to understand. Hearing his performance of this E major sonata (Hob. XVI/22, which, incidentally, is not one of Haydn's best), I would posit that maybe it wasn't just Mozart but the overall classical-period style that he didn't grasp. The first movement sounds rushed and slapdash (particularly for a moderato), lacking Haydn's essential geniality. He attacks the chords with ferocity where there should be boldness. In the introspective E minor middle movement, the most interesting of the three, his tone sometimes plumbs the tragic depths but his rhythm is forced, treating phrase endings with constipation rather than assurance. And the minuet has little of the pointiness one would expect of a classical dance; it's too rounded off (his overly lush pedaling doesn't help). One gets the feeling that since playing this pithy work of Haydn's is as easy for Richter as walking is for most other people, he didn't bother to reflect too much on the musical details.

Historically, it would seem that Richter's greatest affinity among the "Big Three" classical composers was for Beethoven. A number of the thirty-two sonatas were in his repertory, and he regularly recycled them for recital programs. However, neither the sonata (B-flat Major, op. 22) nor the weighty "Eroica" variations on this disc bear witness to his stature as a great Beethovenien. Indeed, both Backhaus and Brendel would, in very different ways, put these performances to shame. This is not to say there aren't lovely moments, particularly in the more reflective misterioso sectionsthe slow movement of the sonata, in particular, is wonderfully earnest and intimate. Yet in so many other places, the sonata suffers from bland phrasing and dynamics, and the minuet and allegretto movements are rather graceless and clunky. One would think that the Eroica variations would be right up Richter's alley. I can hear the foundations of a great performance here, but why does he bang so? The characteristic repeated three-note phrase, which emerges in the theme and recurs throughout, should surprise, not piledrive. Again, some of the slower variations succeed, sometimes whispering eerily, but then he botches the contrast by struggling against the music in the faster ones, handling them with bombast rather than nobility. For the epic fugue in the conclusion, he needs a lesson in sorting out polyphonic textures. His countrywoman, Maria Yudina, could have given him one.

Much the same is true of the Schumann symphonic etudes. Sublimity and profundity in the slower, more lugubrious variations often give way to heavy-handedness. In the faster variations, I hear little of Schumann's conquering heroism and brusque vigor as I do in Cortot's interpretation. Yes, Richter's a bear, but a piano-playing bear must  learn to rein in his strength if it wants to make music. The end result is a Schumann that lacks the menacing edge of a mind in the throes of madness. As in the Beethoven Eroica, I hear the beginnings of a masterful conception, but the performance is not bearing fruit because of over-zealous beating of the keyboard into submission. It comes to a head in the majestic coda, where almost all of the dotted rhythms are downright sloppy as a result of an overly fast tempo. Not to mention that little nuance is possible because it's all much too loud. As with so much of the rest of the playing on this disc, if he had relaxed more  and relied on well-placed accents rather than brute volume, his awesome technical equipment would have blown almost all other pianists out of the water on such a piece.

It's a terrible shame to have anything bad to say about a talent of this magnitude. To some extent, I think Richter's greatness was hampered by modernity, the purist critics of the twentieth-century musical establishment who started this silly carping about the letter of the score. So much so that when Richter discovered he'd been playing an F instead of an F-sharp in the middle movement of the Bach Italian concerto, he insisted that the recording be re-released with an erratum. God, how silly. I mention this as an attempt to illustrate why there often seems such angst and tightness in his playing, but who knows? Such hypotheses will remain an attempt, and I'm fine with that. Even when Richter's maddeningly inconsistent, he's never dull. Nothing enigmatic about that. That, I can say with certainty, is a rare thing indeed.

Joe's Grade: B 

Artur Rubinstein, Piano: Chopin, Impromptus and Other Works


Read almost any article about Artur Rubinstein's playing and, in addition to seeing epithets like "ideal Chopinist," you're likely to encounter the adjective "aristocratic" or "patrician." I wonder whether such critics and reviewers ever stop to think about the meaningless fluff they spew. Not just because it's hyperbolic and unreflective, but because, in this case, it's false. Rubinstein, a self-styled humanitarian and pianist of the people, was anything but "aristocratic"—and, more importantly, the by-and-large directionless, limp, and tepid playing on this disc is decidedly plebeian. Regarding Rubinstein's success, I can only conclude that it's easy for the masses to agree on playing that doesn't challenge them to think or form their own opinions. Let's just say that in the opinion of this listener, Chopin should sound like more than elevator music, and I could find nary a note in the performances on this disc that would inspire me to listen again or that made me see anything new about the Polish master. Not only that, but I'd hazard a guess that there is many a current student at Curtis or Juilliard whose playing sounds more technically polished than Rubinstein's, equally pedestrian though it may be.

As for the repertoire represented on this disc, it runs the gamut from "fairly well known to most piano music aficionados" (impromptus, barcarolle, berceuse, and andante spaniato) to "relatively obscure except to ardent Chopinphiles" (bolero, nouvelles etudes, and tarentelle). 

One of the few positive things I can find to say is that it was nice to hear the bolero again—and since there are relatively few benchmark performances to use as comparison, Rubinstein's playing here wasn't quite as disappointing to me as it was in the more mainstream repertoire. Oddly, he also seemed better prepared for the bolero technically (though it's not a particularly difficult piece by Chopin standards). Still, Rubinstein fails to elicit any Spanishness from it. The fantasia-like introduction is girly and wan, and many of the polonaise-like rhythms are imprecise and tubby. In the coquettish slow melodic sections, he's predominantly interested in reassuring himself that he has a pretty sound rather than in making music. This is even more true of the impromptus and barcarolle, which are utterly devoid of spontaneity and passion. 

Further, despite the claims of some Rubinstein groupies about his "natural" approach, his performances of these well-known works are actually marred by excesses of tempo and rhythm. In the barcarolle, for example, there are several instances in which he almost brings the music to a  jarring standstill to mark the transition between sections, breaking the flow of the music. Conversely, when a phrase needs retention, such as in the four noble chords that announce the third impromptu's ending, he speeds up and plays them in a perfunctory and clunky manner. Another illustration of his flabby conception of tempo is the fiorotura passagework in the middle section of the first impromptu and in the first page of the second impromptu, as well as the berceuse filigree; it drags and sputters when it should charm. And his tempo in the fantasie-impromptu is too darn sluggish; there's no storminess or frenzy. Here Rubinstein seems to languish and drool over every note—there's no panache or an overall conception of sound.

The most disappointing aspect of this playing, though, is the complete lack of imagination, particularly on the barcarolle, which is, to be fair, one of Chopin's hardest works to interpret. Richter and Horowitz sound scared of it, Cortot too barging and assertive, and Sofronitsky too frenetic, but at least they all have something to say, and they're all much better than this. This piece contains some of classical music's grandest phrases, which Rubinstein approaches with little intensity or excitement. To be sure, he thumps out those bassline accompanimental chords forcefully, but there's not a whit of amorous abandon. In Rubinstein's hands, it doesn't sound like a love song— it's more like the monologue of a pre-pubescent boy who's conflicted about his sexuality. 

He couldn't even muster any fire in the tarantella. It may partly be because his technique sounds unsure in this tricky piece. Throughout, there are quite a few unevennesses, particularly with the pedal— his use of that tool often makes the instrument sound tinkly when it should sound rich. Technical quibbles aside, Rubinstein's slow, mechanical rendition lacks the piece's quintessential qualities of humor, paranoia, and energy. You won't hear any fear of the eponymous spider here, I'm afraid.

Bottom line: these are often hyped as essential Chopin interpretations, but they'd be lucky to be considered mediocre by professional standards. Indeed, maybe mediocrity is their primary selling point. This is playing for the everyman pianist, interpretations that don't inspire reflection, that are perfect for the uninformed fast-food generation who view the Masterpiece Theatre theme song as the summit of classical music. As for me, I can't understand why, when one can listen to the masterful interpretations of Friedman (second impromptu), Barere (first impromptu), Saperton (nouvelles etudes), Sofronitsky (barcarolle), Hofmann (andante spaniato and berceuse), or Cortot (all of the above), one would ever dignify this disc with a second listen. 

Joe's Grade: C-

Yo-Yo Ma: Bach, Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites

Y-Yo Ma Bach unaccompanied suites cover

Yo-Yo Ma is one of those world-renowned performers whose success puzzles me.  His playing is competent to be sure, but it's also joyless and mechanical, often lacking in dynamics and rhythmic tautness. It doesn't help that Bach's unaccompanied suites leave little room for error. They are arguably the most demanding works for solo cello, replete with treacherous leaps, fleet passagework, and numerous double stops.

Ma just doesn't seem equal to the task. His tone is often scratchy and strident, sounding as if he's slicing at the strings with a hacksaw. His flat intonation is particularly noticeable in the slower, more luxuriant sarabandes, in which the performer sometimes has to negotiate four notes in a single bow stroke. In the faster courantes and gigues, he dutifully grabs all the notes but doesn't seem to understand that there are phrases there too. The dances (minuets, bourrées, and gavottes) are perfunctorily rendered—metronomic rather than lilting. And his renditions are generally too forte, leaving little room for dynamic gradation.

Sometimes the playing is even mediocre on more basic levels. In the courante of Suite 4, some of the sixteenth-note patterns are imprecise and unclear; he tries to cover this up by gushing forward in tempo. Also, there's often too much time between the low bass notes and the accompanimental figurations in, say, the celebrated prelude of Suite 1. The problem isn't necessarily that there's too much of a breath; rather, the leaps sound jerky given his general lack of rubato.

The bottom line: though this may be one of the best-known recordings of these canonical works, you can do much better. If it's precision you crave, try Rostropovich. For phrasing and dynamics, I might recommend Mischa Maisky (though he can also be a bit forceful with the bow). Overall, my favorite performance of those I have heard is Pierre Fournier's, who combines rhythmic accuracy with a sensual tone and sweep.

Joe's Grade: C      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016