There are two points concerning the piano music of Sibelius that I feel need to be kept in mind. One is that the piano was not a natural instrument for Sibelius to communicate his musical thoughts. The other is that his ability to write appealing music extended to his piano compositions. Merging the two points results in attractive music that does not reflect the masterful orchestral works and symphonies that Sibelius composed. Sibelius wrote most of his piano music in response to financial requirements, while his strongest concentration was saved for his large-scale works. The variable quality of the piano music is apparent in any recorded program, ranging from disjointed and rambling pieces to music of dramatic substance and pieces that delight and sparkle. However, you will not find any hidden masterpieces, as the works do not plumb deep emotional issues or offer the structural coherence found in the works of outstanding composers for the piano.
There's a tendency on the part of some performers to play Beethoven's First and Second Piano Concertos as if they were really by Mozart–all elegance, poise, and refinement. Happily, Boris Berezovsky finds the Beethovenian fire burning beneath the Mozartian surface. Right from his vibrant entrance in Concerto No. 1, Berezovsky plays with fierce energy (despite his generally light touch) and a clearly discernible enjoyment. This is matched Thomas Dausgaard's equally electric reading of the orchestral part, which in many ways reminds me of the classic Szell/Fleisher recording. Of course the small-scale sound of the 38-member Swedish Chamber Orchestra cannot possibly equal the full sonority of the Cleveland Orchestra in its heyday, but it's remarkable how Szell's clear textures and crisp articulation match Dausgaard's, who, by the way, is using the new Barenreiter editions. Berezovsky seems to be of like mind with Fleisher, at least terms of his singing tone and mercurial style.
The third volume features live performances of Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Kirill Kondrashin. The Third Concerto is the legendary performance of 1958 which occurred right after Cliburn won the gold medal.
Whereas most musicians seem to emphasize the music's reflective, nostalgic elements, Schneeberger and Cholette are more attuned to the abstract qualities in the music. On balance, I find that I still prefer the traditional approach, exemplified by Shannon and Fulkerson. To my ears, these artists manage to capture something wonderfully magical and mysterious that just eludes Schneeberger and Cholette. However, I should note that some critics have given high praise to this ECM disc. For example, it was awarded five stars in a BBC Music Magazine review. Another bonus: The ECM recording squeezes all four sonatas on a single disc.
Born in Basel but trained in Berlin, Edwin Fischer earned his fame as one of the great piano masters of pieces by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Five full CDs here are devoted to Fischer's brilliant Bach interpretations including Keyboard Concerto in A; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D; Concerto in C for 3 Keyboards; Harpsichord Concerto; Fantasia in C Minor , and Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor . Those join selections from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C; Rondo in D , and Minuet in G ; from Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 and Piano Sonata No. 23 ; from Schubert's 4 Impromptus and 6 Moments Musicaux ; from Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat ; from Furtwangler's Symphonic Concerto in B Minor , and more!
Roland Pöntinen's warm, expansive tone, wide dynamic range, and steady yet flexible rhythmic sense paint Schoenberg's piano pieces in Brahmsian hues that the composer probably would have appreciated. Some of the pointillistic writing, to be sure, does not match the lightness and transluscence of Uchida in Op. 11 No. 1 or Pollini's more sharply etched Op. 25. However, Pöntinen trumps his competitors for the linear clarity with which he projects Op. 11 No. 3's gnarly polyphony.
Apart from Grieg, no Scandinavian composer has written for the piano with more individuality and insight than Nielsen. Right from the very outset of his Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3, there is no doubt that his is an individual voice. The first emerges from a Schumannesque innocence to speak with personal accents, but all five are strong on humour and character. Nielsen’s greatest piano music is clustered into a period of four years (1916-20) with his final thoughts in the medium, the Three Pieces, Op. 59 of 1928 being composed in the immediate proximity of his Clarinet Concerto, music that already breathes the air of other planets. With the exception of Leif Ove Andsnes, no pianist of international standing has championed it on record, and apart from John Ogdon and John McCabe it has been the almost exclusive preserve of Nordic artists. True, the American scholar Mina Miller, who edited the autographs for the Hansen edition, recorded a complete survey in 1995 – also for Hyperion. But although Schnabel was the dedicatee of the Suite, Op. 45, he never broke a lance for it on the international scene. The Suite is not only Nielsen’s greatest keyboard work but arguably the mightiest ever written in Scandinavia. Martin Roscoe is right inside this music and guides us through its marvels with great subtlety and authority.
Anda retrospectives continue to prove salutary. Testament has devoted a number of important re-releases to him, and there is fortunately not much duplication between them and this DG boxed set of five discs – Kreisleriana and the later Symphonic Etudes. The kernel of this set is Schumann augmented by Bartók, though not one of the more well-known Anda recordings, and his famed Brahms B flat major Concerto, and a wartime record of which he was greatly proud, the Franck Symphonic Variations. There’s also the not inconsiderable pleasure of listening to him in Chopin, in the Diabelli variations, a Schubert sonata and in some Liszt recorded at various times during his career.