RECORDS / Double Play: Trolls at the bottom of the garden: Edward Seckerson and Robert Cowan listen to fairy tales from Tchaikovsky and revel in piano music by Grieg
Saturday 24 April 1993
IT'S at times like this that I know Tchaikovsky wrote nothing more enchanting. This is the way fairy-tales sound. Well, not perhaps entirely. Anyone who invested in Gergiev's recent recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet will be attuned to the sound of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg: it's cut-to-the-bone dry, it's covered, constricting, but it does draw you in to this score's untold intimacies, and when the solo playing is as felicitous as it is here, that's quite a bonus.
Minutes into the Prologue and exquisitely veiled strings with attendant horn bring on the fairies and their gifts: the Kirov's limpid clarinet is a real star. The string playing throughout radiates from within, wholeheartedness taking precedence over glamour. Conversely there is dash and piquancy in the character dances. Ideally, the sound needs to open to Tchaikovsky's incomparable elaborations, but the crown of trumpets at the climax of the 'Rose Adagio' assumes stupendous breadth. Likewise the 'Polacca' and final 'Mazurka', grand specimens of dances that are the very essence of Tchaikovskian panache. ES
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY is a glorious amalgam of Tchaikovskian musical gestures, a grand, melodically rich, colourfully scored epic, full of strikingly original ideas. It is Tchaikovsky's finest ballet by far; in fact, it may well be the greatest ballet ever written. So why have there been so few good recordings of it?
Length is a possible reason, and its lavish instrumentation includes plenty of everything, plus a piano. Then there's its multi-faceted musical personality: a stage work of symphonic proportions that demands theatrical flair, a keen sense of fantasy and a veritable fetish for textural precision. Antal Dorati's second recording, with the Royal Concertgebouw, is Gergiev's most powerful competitor. This new arrival gains in impact what it loses in spaciousness; it has something of Dorati's drive, but little of his charisma. The orchestra is selectively brilliant. Gergiev is adept at shaping long melodic lines and engaging the support of important counterpoint, but some of the quieter passages lose in tension. I'm thinking in particular of the first act's closing minutes where, under Gergiev, the music's complexion suddenly pales. Minor technical hiccoughs register only if you're listening out for them, but they're there - and if you seek something resembling perfection, then Dorati will prove a safer bet.
But it can't be denied that, for the time being at least, this musical princess remains in relative slumber, while a genuinely commanding prince is no more than a tantalising possibility. RC
Grieg - Piano Music: Leif Ove Andsnes (Virgin Classics VC 7 59300-2)
THE gifted young Norwegian pays his respects in Grieg's 150th birthday year. It's very much a pianist's tribute. We get to put Grieg in context with earlier pieces where his head was full of Schumann and Chopin. You can see why he suppressed the little Agitato of 1865: that's so Chopinesque, it's embarrassing. But even as early as the Sonata Op 7, he is finding his own lyric voice: the Grieg tune as we know it probably starts right here.
And as Andsnes sustains the eternal final chord into silence, we begin to feel the length and breadth of his artistry. This young man has a ready panache (as witness Grieg's assorted Trolls, marching and dancing) and infinitely fine shadings. The Andantino serioso from Album Leaves reveals a master's touch. But Andsnes - like Grieg - comes into his element with the two books of Lyric Pieces. 'At Home' - so simply, honestly inflected - is a poem of contentment; 'Erotic', though hardly that, makes chastity suddenly alluring, 'Solitary Wanderer' conveys intense longing, probably for spring. As texture and harmony grow richer, so does Andsnes's playing. Innocence grows threatening in the big climactic modulations of the 'Norwegian Dance', and there are the layered resonances of 'Bells', which could be a parody of Debussy were it not that Grieg got there first. ES
GRIEG'S solo piano works, like Mendelssohn's, turn up in countless amateur music folios, yet rarely inspire the level of commitment and artistry they deserve. A few seasoned masters have, over the years, given them with regal advocacy: Gilels, Katin, Gieseking and now the young Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, a remarkable musician by any standards and a really superb pianist. Andsnes's programme sensibly features various types of musical form rather than centring entirely on the exquisite, perennially verdant Lyric Pieces (entrancing though they are, 72 minutes' worth of them would soon pall).
The Piano Sonata in E minor is an early work and a surprisingly confident one. The Poetic Tone-pictures are even earlier, but less memorable; the restless Agitato (1865) is a promising digest of 19th-century Romantic gestures, and the two Album Leaves from Op 28 are already fairly characteristic. But it's still the Lyric Pieces that stay on as permanent tenants in one's musical memory. They're truly wonderful miniatures, and fully on a par with the best of Chopin, Liszt or Mendelssohn. Furthermore, Andsnes's ability to sustain a musical line, to control and colour his tone (try 'Bells'), and to achieve thistle-down lightness in his faster playing, makes for a distinctive pianistic personality - as sympathetic to the mercurial 'Butterflies' as to the soul-searching 'Shepherd Boy'. RC
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