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Houston Symphony music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Auxiliary Input: June 2017

In this month's review of classical recordings Andrew Anderson looks at Houston Symphony's recent Dvořák; Fort Worth Symphony and Vadym Kholodenko; and pianist Alessandro Deljavan.



published Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In Auxiliary Input, which debuted in February, Andrew Anderson, a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library, will review classical and opera recordings, including by local organizations. We hope to tie them to local performances by guest artists with various orchestras and chamber music organizations.

For this fifth edition, Anderson looks the Houston Symphony's March release of works by Dvořák; the Fort Worth Symphony's 2016 recording with pianist Vadym Kholodenko on Prokofiev's Concerto Nos. 2 and 5; and two 2015 recordings of pianist Alessandro Deljavan on works by Chopin.

If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at marklowry@theaterjones.com.

 

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Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World;” Slavonic Dances Op. 46, nos. 3 and 5 (in A-flat and A major, respy.)

Houston Symphony Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, music director

Pentatone Classics PTC5186574

Released: March 24, 2017

 

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It’s risky to put in my hands a recording of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World” (available here). This work figured heavily in my becoming a musician at all—my high school band played a transcription of the last movement at a contest in Oklahoma, the results of which had the director being hired away from my school. I still haven’t gotten over that.

The year we were playing it, I bought the Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony Orchestra recording of the work (on the Columbia Odyssey label, if I’m not mistaken). It may have been a fluke that this was the recording that formed my concept of what all other recordings of this symphony ought to do—or if they don’t, they’d better have a good reason—but, for better or worse, I tend to measure other recordings and performances of this frequently performed and recorded work against that one.

The Houston Symphony’s recent recording of this work—along with a couple of the best of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances from op. 46—excels in several ways and, to my ears, comes up short in a few others.

I’ll begin by praising their performance of the two Slavonic Dances. The two chosen for this recording seem to be two that invite the most outlandish breakneck tempos, especially as they’re coming to a close, and it’s really gratifying that Andrés Orozco-Estrada resists the temptation to enter that contest. The tempos are reasonable, even fast sometimes, and the performances are likewise brisk and…well, reasonable.

As for the Ninth Symphony, I’ll begin by applauding the finale; but coming from me, that’s problematic praise. I’m not sure you could perform that movement so as to put me off. I love everything about it, and the worst lousy performance of it would still delight me, I’m sure. It’s a movement that seems calculated to bring out the best in any ensemble. If the Houston recording’s tempo at the beginning of the recapitulation is a little slow, there’s certainly compensation once the recap really gets under way.

And they really excel at Dvořák’s playing with two-against-three rhythm, a conflict that pervades the entire work. Nowhere is it more prominent, though, than in the third movement. That’s where some disappointments with this recording set in.

The third movement’s tempo is good—brisk, even fun. But some details of the orchestral texture are lost, especially in the crucial retransition to the first material after the lyrical interlude of the second. The horns, reinforced by the low strings and bassoons, ought to roar, ought to make your hair stand on end. In this recording—and in too many others—you can barely make them out. Yes, that’s my take on it, informed by the Walter/Columbia recording from the 1950’s. But I’m convinced that’s the way it should go.

Houston’s performance of the first and second movements are generally commendable, clearer in their delineation of some (frankly) weird rhythmic figures and harmonies than are some other recordings. But the tempo swings in the first movement—the slowest rendition of the flute’s second theme I’ve ever heard—just don’t work, at least not for me. And I’m not fond of the sustained approach to the French horn’s first theme, although I’ll allow its validity. It might take some getting used to, though. I’m delighted that conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada chose to repeat the exposition of the first movement. That’s a crucial point, but I’d be a lot happier if some of the tempo quirks of the first pass through it were adjusted in the second. That seems like a valid approach, and it would have distinguished this recording that, in the absence thereof, takes its place alongside…well, a lot of other recordings of the same great symphony.

 

 

Prokofiev Piano Concerti Nos. 2 and 5

Vadym Kholodenko, pianist, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor

Harmonia Mundi HMU807631

Released: February 2016

 

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The Fort Worth Symphony’s project of recording the five piano concerti of Sergei Prokofiev continues with this release of the Concertos No. 2 and 5 (available here). On this disc, Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya and pianist Vadym Kholodenko perform what are the two Prokofiev concertos I know the least.

The five-movement fifth concerto, Prokofiev’s Op. 55, dates from the year after he completed the all-too-brief fourth (for the left hand), my favorite of the five. Having seen Kholodenko, Harth-Bedoya and the FWSO perform that work in concert, I looked forward to this recording because, having gone over the score for the fifth many times, I was interested in how it would stack up against the first and fourth concertos, against the ballets, and against the symphonies.

The fifth concerto is delightful, make no mistake. What really surprised me was the second, which I had mostly ignored prior to this recording. In some ways, it sounds like a stripped-down version of the famous third, but this is no dry run. This is pure Prokofiev, the guy who gave us that great stuff in Romeo and Juliet, the easily dismissed first symphony, and the incomparable fifth symphony.

It’s interesting how much of the third concerto you’ll hear in the second, from the lyrical first movement to the galumphing third, which at times sounds like it was lifted from the variation movement of the third, but more likely it was the reverse. In Kholodenko’s hands, the second movement’s two-and-a-half minutes come off like a draft of the crazy last movement of the fourth concerto, and the finale—well, it’s hard to get your bearings during most of its eleven minutes, even in the slow parts. It’s a fun ride nevertheless, disorienting as it is even up to the last bar.

Kholodenko, the winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is a marvelously talented interpreter of Prokofiev; the Fort Worth Symphony and Harth-Bedoya are a blast to listen to, and this recording is a great introduction to these two concertos that are not among the composer’s best-known works. Through this collaboration, Kholodenko, Harth-Bedoya and the FWSO have demonstrated that this literature—the Prokofiev concertos, from the least known to the best—is 100 percent theirs. It makes me wonder what they might do with something farther afield, something riskier, like…oh, I don’t know—Paisiello? Hummel? Who knows?

 

 

Frederic Chopin: Complete Ètudes 

Frederic Chopin: Complete Waltzes

Alessandro Deljavan, piano

Brilliant Classics

Release date: November 2015 (Ètudes)

Release date: October 2015 (Waltzes)

 

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Alessandro Deljavan’s recordings of the Chopin Études (Brilliant Classics 95207, available here) and Waltzes (Brilliant Classics 95208, available here) are not exactly new, having been recorded and released in 2015. Now that the dust is clearing from this year’s Cliburn, though, it seems like as good a time as any to take a close look at these two discs by this fascinating performer (whose gig in the Blue Candelight series I missed in February, and I’m still kicking myself—after all, he was playing Scarlatti!).

Deljavan didn’t make it to the final round of the Van Cliburn in either 2009 or 2013. Big deal. Neither did I. The big deal in Deljavan’s case is the number of people that think he was robbed—especially in 2013, possibly in 2009. In both years, he received a juror’s discretionary award, and those have been cited as evidence that it was by a narrow margin that he didn’t rank among the finalists.

Deljavan is not your ordinary pianist, that’s for sure. But rather than use words like “eccentric” or “distracting”—criticizing aspects of his performance that have provoked jabs like that doesn’t belong here at all, and they might be irrelevant anywhere—I’ll just say he’s a real independent. If you want evidence, listen to his recording of the Chopin 24+3 Études.

“Do we really need another recording of the Études?” some have asked—but perhaps that’s the wrong question. We should ask rather “does pianist X need to record them?” An answer to that question hinges on whether the pianist’s interpretive talents are worthy of documentation. My answer is—assuming the pianist is Alessandro Deljavan—a resounding yes.

Don’t regard that answer as unqualified endorsement of every interpretive decision that I hear in this recording, and I hear quite a few. Some of them, such as his decision to back off on the melody at the beginning of the Op. 25/7 in C-sharp minor (sometimes to the extent that the right hand’s countermelody threatens to drown it out), strike me as odd. I have to admit, though, the level of concentration this hypersoftness provokes in me renders the louder sections of that work—such as the fortississimo invocation of E-flat major prior to the turn to B major at the Étude’s halfway point—proportionally much louder still. In other words, his curious handling of the opening has interesting consequences for the way I hear other parts of the piece.

There are other curious decisions, as well. In the Op. 10/3 in E major, Deljavan opts for a controversial reading of the notes in the middle section corresponding to—if I recall correctly—Chopin’s earliest version of the piece, whereas most other pianists prefer the reading that has measures 30-31 and 34-35 turning from major to minor mode. It’s decidedly not the usual way of playing it, and if you’re familiar with the work, you many find the effect somewhat jarring. That’s an unusual effect for this selection, especially at this point. It underscores, however, the fact that we’re here dealing with a performer who is aware of his options and isn’t afraid to choose a path through those options that might not work for some listeners.

Many of his decisions, though curious, are precisely what make this recording an important statement. Deljavan’s knack for bringing out inner voices—often accompanimental or otherwise secondary notes that may form additional melodies if emphasized in a certain way—furnishes us with a focus on Chopin’s voice-leading that all too often goes unappreciated. Listen, for instance, to the Op. 10/2, in A minor, especially in the three returns to the opening phrase. Deljavan highlights notes that may represent Chopin’s compositional instinct more than his conscious choice, but whatever the case, the effect is delightful. That judgement comes from someone who has always seen the Op. 10/2 Étude as little more than a necessary step between Op. 10/1 and 10/3. Furthermore, his handling of the notoriously all-over-the-map accents in Op. 25/12, in C minor, provides another welcome re-thinking of a piece that sometimes suffers at the hands of pianists who think they have to make it sound big, which it would anyway, probably without any help.

Other highlights include Op. 10/4, in C-sharp minor, the driest performance of it I’ve ever heard (it really works, though, and the decision to go dry is supported by the text, which includes very little in the way of pedaling specifics); and Op. 25/1, in A-flat major, a fluid rendition that downplays some inner voices that Chopin specified, in favor of some that he didn’t. And his renditions of the Op. 10/10, in A-flat major, and the Op. 24/2, in F minor, manage to clarify the tricky rhythms to the extent that I can actually hear what I’ve always known was there.

The recording ends with the three “Nouvelle Études,” Chopin’s contribution to an Étude-anthology in 1839 that included works by Liszt, Thalberg, and others. For me, these always come off as something of an anticlimax, at least when they show up alongside Chopin’s Op. 10 and Op. 25 collections. I think they would work better if placed between the two sets of twelve, like an entr’acte; they’re much more restrained than the composer’s earlier Études, and in some ways seem more like cases of retro-fitting a character piece to a point of technique than do their earlier counterparts.

Deljavan does as good a job with them as I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad that comes off as faint praise, but these little works, intriguing as they may be on their own, seem pretty pale when placed near the other 24, especially when the 24 are played with such artistry, intelligence, and…well, courage.

 

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Although I’m not accustomed to taking issue with a Chopin scholar of the caliber of John Rink (author of the notes to Deljavan’s recording of the Chopin Waltzes), I’m probably not alone in disagreeing with him when I consign the Waltzes to the category “fashionable Chopin” rather than “essential Chopin.” And if I find it difficult to get as worked up over a complete recording of Chopin’s waltzes, it’s because they seem to me to be one big (lightweight, though) thing, not 24+3 little—but imposing—things, like the Études.

Having said that—having revealed my nearsightedness in all but saying that one waltz is as good as another—I’m forced to admit that Deljavan’s recording does a better job of differentiating Chopin’s 19 Waltzes than any other recordings I’ve paid attention to recently. Perhaps it’s just a function of the when they showed up; I’ve been listening my way through some works by Sorabji, so Deljavan bearing the Chopin Waltzes comes as a welcome change.

Though they’re inarguably lighter fare than the Études—or perhaps because they are—they’re an even more appropriate subject for this performer’s talents and preoccupations. His evident interest in the workings of inner voices is put to good use here, where there are many opportunities for reinterpretation of material within a single performance. His flexibility with tempo—from microscopic rubato to the most protracted accelerando—is right at home here. And of course he is more than equal to their technical demands.

The Op. 18 “Grande Valse Brillante” is one of the most familiar of all the 19, and yet Deljavan finds a way to take ownership of it. This he accomplishes, in my view, by presiding over the coda (which has always seemed as if the waltz was dismantling itself) as if to keep it from degenerating into an all-out scherzo. And that other most familiar of the waltzes, the so-called “Minute”—Op. 64/1, which Chopin referred to as a dog chasing its tail, and which the publisher appended the subtitle merely as a synonym for “small”—Deljavan takes his time with, allowing it all of two minutes. We’re the richer for it. And its companion, the Op. 64/2 in C-sharp minor, is a perfect showcase for Deljavan’s talent for re-orchestrating the reprises of familiar material.

If none of the performances of these little works are mind-blowing…well, a mind-blowing performance of a Chopin Waltz may not be possible. Deljavan’s renditions work really well. Really well, even when they go a little off-center. At best, they’re about as close to mind-blowing as a waltz will ever get.

It occurs to me that, as clean, precise and fun as his performances of the Chopin Waltzes are, he would almost certainly kick fashionable-Chopin-arse were he to record the composer’s Mazurkas. What do you say, Alessandro?

 

 

» Andrew Anderson is a Fine Arts Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. He holds a bachelor's degree in music composition from Baylor University, a Master's degree in music composition, and a Ph. D in music theory from the University of North Texas, and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.

» Auxiliary Input appears on the third Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.

 

 PREVIOUSLY IN AUXILIARY INPUT 

  • February 2017: A recording by composer Adam Schoenberg; and a Fort Worth Symphony recording from 2016 of works by Lutoslawski and Brahms, the latter arranged by the other Schoenberg
  • March 2017: Two volumes of a set of Wagner music transcribed for solo piano by Peruvian pianist Juan Guillermo Vizcarra; and two albums of songs by Fauré and Flegíer, both featuring bass Jared Schwartz
  • April 2017: Releases from pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin
  • May 2017: Jaap van Zweden with the Hong Kong Philharmonic; and the DVD release of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach
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Auxiliary Input: June 2017
In this month's review of classical recordings Andrew Anderson looks at Houston Symphony's recent Dvořák; Fort Worth Symphony and Vadym Kholodenko; and pianist Alessandro Deljavan.
by Andrew Anderson

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