On Record – Orion Weiss: Arc 1: Granados, Janáček & Scriabin (First Hand Records)

Granados Goyescas Op.11 (1911)
Janáček In the Mists (1912)
Scriabin Piano Sonata no.9 in F major Op.68, ‘Black Mass’ (1913)

Orion Weiss (piano)

First Hand Records FHR127 [74’51”]
Producer David Frost; Engineer Silas Brown
Recorded 22-24 May 2014 at SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, New York

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records issues the first instalment of another planned trilogy (see also The Future is Female with Sarah Cahill), the Arc series being a traversal by Orion Weiss across a century of piano music with intermittent forays into conceptually related pieces by earlier composers.

What’s the music like?

Focussing on music from before the First World War, this first volume is dominated (at least in terms of length) by Goyescas – the cycle of piano evocations in which Granados both paid homage to the illustrious Spanish artist, while extending the potential for large-scale formal design associated primarily with Liszt. That the composer subsequently transformed this into a one-act opera says much for the original’s motivic interconnections, such as Weiss further emphasizes throughout an interpretation in which characterization and cohesion are as one.

The listener is guided from teasing melodic interplay in Flattery, via the (mostly) confiding intimacy of Conversation at the Window then encroaching fear of separation in Fandango by Candlelight and its pained experiencing in Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale. A tragic climax arrives in the ballade Love and Death; after which, Serenade of the Ghost offers an ironic epilogue. Weiss renders this methodical yet visceral sequence with no mean insight, drawing out that pathos seldom far beneath the surface of Granados’s mature music.

If the Spanish composer was realizing his vision despite – or even because of – his success as composer and performer, In the Mists finds Janáček combating those vicissitudes of personal and professional failure. Hence the tonally and expressively oblique nature of its initial three sections, such as Weiss articulates with notable emphasis on their volatile mood-swings and frequent welling-up of emotion. All of this is duly thrown into relief by the final Presto with its gradual yet, as here, inexorable tendency towards ultimate fragmentation and dissolution.

Much has been written over the past century about those occult and even satanic connotations of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, whose Black Mass subtitle was only added after the event and at the prompting of another. Once again, it is the harnessing of such fluid and increasingly violent expression to a formal follow-through as precise as it is fastidious which gives this music its uniqueness. Weiss ensures an audibly cumulative build-up that, in the closing stages, achieves a claustrophobic intensity which could be considered liberating or annihilating as one prefers.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although it is not hard to locate alternative recordings for each of these pieces of at least comparable value, their juxtaposition within this context makes for a programme absorbing in its overt contrasts yet satisfying in its overall cohesion. Whether or not Weiss has performed this in recital, the trajectory towards an even greater self-absorption and inward intensity feels as inescapable as the presentiments of world conflict which lie behind much of what is heard here. Future volumes will doubtless offer a changing perspective and maybe a ‘way forward’.

Is it recommended?

It is. The sound has a lucidity and detail ideal for piano music from this period, with Weiss’s annotations succinct but also pertinent to his interpretations. This series is a notable addition to his extensive discography, further information about which can be accessed at his website.

Listen

For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Orion Weiss, head to his website

Scriabin at 150

Today marks 150 years since the birth of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, one of the most colourful characters in 20th century music – and one of the most original thinkers too.

A lot of that thinking went beyond his music to embrace the universe itself, culminating in the unfinished Mysterium project. This hugely ambitious concept was to be performed in the Himalayas and followed by the end of the world.

That gives an indication of the scope of the composer’s thinking, and you can trace that in his music too, which moves from Chopin-influenced piano works to increasingly complex and dense music, notable for its rich harmony and unusual rhythms. As Scriabin’s music progressed so did his fascination with colour and in particular synaesthesia, which became a primary stimulation for him in his writing.

Arcana intends to look at his work in more detail this year, particularly the ten piano sonatas which stand as a fascinating and innovative cycle of work. For now, though, you can enjoy Prometheus: The Poem Of Fire. Depending on your viewpoint, this tone poem, set in the composer’s favourite key of F sharp major, could be Scriabin’s Symphony no.5, or a second piano concerto. Either way it is an exotic, unbroken piece of music lasting nearly 25 minutes, rich in colour and certainly rewarding repeated listening!

In February 2010 Anna Gawboy, a Scriabin scholar and doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Music, attempted to realize the composer’s ultimate wish of a colour keyboard which would perform the work. She worked towards this with conductor Toshiyuki Shimada, the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the lighting designer Justin Townsend.

You can watch the lead-up to the concert and the performance itself on the documentary below:

On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

On record: David Gordon Trio – Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band (Mister Sam Records)

david-gordon-trio

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Alexander Scriabin died in Moscow at Easter 1915 – unaware that, over the Atlantic, Israel Baline (Irving Berlin) had hit pay-dirt with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The David Gordon Trio here ventures into that potent realm in which ‘musics’ meet in place as so often in time.

What’s the music like?

Praeludium Mysterium evokes Scriabin’s unrealized Himalayan extravaganza in pensive yet probing terms. Integrating his ‘mystic chord’ within the harmonic trajectory of Berlin’s hit in Alexander Scriabin’s Ragtime Band would have given both pause for thought, and Scriabin would surely have been disconcerted by transforming a prelude he never played in public into the incisive modality of Scriabin’s Depressed.

Light relief comes with the Debussian high-jinx of Cakewalk, then the engaging Prelude for Both Hands suggests  Scriabin could profitably have deployed jazz and dance idioms. Famous Etude unashamedly transforms his most famous piece into a rumba, with Antonio María Romeu’s danzón Tres Lindas Cubanas a trailblazing number that was hardly less influential on both its listening and dancing public.

Onward to the bluesy sequences of Nuances that suggest Bill Evans as a future acolyte, then the tensile Choro Mazurka gives a Brazilian twist to this most favoured dance of Scriabin’s output. Francisco Canaro’s tango El Pollito vividly overcomes the musical distance between Moscow and Buenos Aires, with the ethereal Rootless Sonata delving further into a putative Scriabin/Evans union.

Comparable possibilities are pursued with the hard-bopping rhythms of Improbable Hip, followed by the limpid piano study that is Pixinguinha’s Passínha and which opened-up the potential of choro music for non-Brazilian audiences. The programme closes with the diffusion of a mazurka into the caressing harmonies of River, most notable for those myriad timbral shades of which the synatheist Scriabin would surely have approved.

Does it all work?

Yes, because the David Gordon Trio is unafraid to stick out its collective neck in pursuit of a singular fusion. Hopefully it will further investigate the bringing together of artists diverse in aim yet kindred in spirit: maybe a Boulez/Bowie synthesis as a fitting double ‘in memoriam’?

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, as those who missed the trio’s memorable recent gig at London’s 606 Club can judge for themselves. Check out the David Gordon Trio website and also Mister Sam Records for previous releases from this thought-provoking jazz outfit.

Listen on Spotify

On record: Stephen Hough plays Scriabin & Janáček: Sonatas & Poems

stephen-hough

Two of the giants of the piano from the twentieth century lock horns in Stephen Hough’s newest release for Hyperion – which actually brings together recordings made in 2011 and 2013. Scriabin and Janáček complement each other as they both explore rich variants of tonal writing – and in Scriabin’s case, leave tonality altogether.

What’s the music like?

Alexander Scriabin has an output almost entirely based around the piano, which became his primary means of expression. Within that, Scriabin seems to have loved the black keys and in particular F sharp, around which many of his works are centred. The Piano Sonata no.4 and Piano Sonata no.5 both reside in that key, although both make frequent and increasingly exotic bids for freedom, part of the mystical style the composer was working towards.

In Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) he reaches his goal, making a complete break with tonality in music that seems to be flying through the air – apt, really, as Scriabin believed in the concept of levitation. Here he conveys it in musical form.

By contrast the piano music of Leoš Janáček has a remote but incredibly intense form of intimacy that can at times be truly disconcerting. The music of Book I of On an Overgrown Path is fraught with anxiety but also has astonishing power, and it has eerie premonitions of death – the fate tragically befalling the composer’s daughter Olga, who lost her life to typhoid in 1903.

The Piano Sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the street’ has an equally tragic genesis, and would have been lost completely had the pianist Ludmila Tucková not copied two of its movements before Janáček lobbed them into the Vltava river. The date is that of the death of Frantisek Pavlík, a Moravian carpenter killed by Austrian forces for his support of a Czech-speaking university.

Does it all work?

Yes. Stephen Hough gets right inside the worlds of these two differing but complementary composers. He gives a frankly astonishing account of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no.5, notable for its total technical command. This can also be applied to Vers la Flamme, where the fiendish trills reveal a work right on the edge.

Meanwhile the Janáček works thrive on the same levels of clarity, and the vivid picture painting in a piece such as The barn owl has not flown away!, from On an Overgrown Path Book I, lingers long in the memory. Meanwhile the latent anger in the Sonata is undimmed.

Is it recommended?

Without reservation. Stephen Hough is a superb pianist and musician, and plays these works with a command and clarity beyond the reach of most pianists.

Listen

You can get a preview of each track from this disc on the Hyperion website