In Auxiliary Input, 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 the August edition, Anderson looks at the first post CD from South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo after he took the Cliburn Gold Medal; pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Feldman's For Bunita Marcus; and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, which both the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies will perform this season.
If you have a recent or upcoming recording to suggest, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yekwon Sunwoo, piano
Release date: August 18, 2017
I had never heard Cliburn gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo perform prior to listening to the recording of his recital (available here) in the semifinal round of the competition. If I had, I might have been even more excited, since his recital included some of my favorite works, composers and arrangers. He's clearly an unusual talent, which is exactly what some of these works need. I also might have been a little scared of what such a colossal talent might do to some of them.
The first work on the recital, a transcription of Ravel's orchestral La Valse, is a bit of a mystery in that his performance doesn't match up note-for-note with Ravel's version, Glenn Gould's, or Matthieu Cognet's. It's likely Ravel's with a little enhancement by Sunwoo. Whatever the case, it certainly requires considerable skill just to get all the notes in; but the real challenges come later. There seem to be unlimited opportunities for important voices to get lost in the snarl of all that's going on in this huge piece—and every measure is huge—and not to lose any of them constitutes a near miracle. The orchestral version is one of my favorite works (I've been listening to it since I was a kid), but with this performance, I never wish I were listening to the original. That Sunwoo is able to pull so many different colors out of one piano is utterly amazing.
The inclusion of two more arrangements on the program is interesting, to say the least, since neither Percy Grainger's Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier nor Franz Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Litanei is well-known, and neither constitutes much of a showpiece. Programming savvy, however, is part of the competition, and negotiating corners of the repertoire like this—obscure pieces by well-known composers, let's say—can often be exciting, especially when performed as well as they are here. For me, these two works were refreshing surprises (not least because I'm both a Grainger nut and a Strauss nut).
I may also be turning into a Marc-André Hamelin nut. I have known him for a while from his performances, but I'm a relative newcomer to his compositions. I was introduced to them just a few months ago by virtue of the fact that Hamelin was both the Cliburn's commissioned composer and a judge at the competition. The piece that filled the commission, which all were required to include on their recital in the preliminary stage, was Hamelin's Toccata on L'homme armé. It's based on what might be called Europe's first hit song, a melody that has furnished a starting point for many works, from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to our time.
Hamelin makes this ancient tune do all sorts of things that simultaneously sound both crazy and exactly right, and I doubt the work will find an interpreter who can improve on Sunwoo's performance. In fact, hearing how he coaxes such a wide spectrum of colors out of this work is what reassured me that I was hearing so many of them in the Ravel, that I wasn't just projecting them because I like the Ravel so much.
With the Haydn Sonata No. 58 in C major (Hob. XVI:48, if you're keeping score), we come to the part of the recital that scared me most. For someone who may have fast tempo issues—yes, I had heard the rumors about Mr. Sunwoo—this sonata could be a small but significant minefield. It's a strange little work: two movements only, the first S-L-O-W and with no real change of key, the second a fast, fun and quirky rondo.
The enforced restraint of the first movement often seems to be taken as license to exceed the bounds of good taste in the second. It's sometimes exhilarating to hear a performer set a new speed record with the rondo, but I'm not sure that inspires appreciation of the work. Sometimes it's exhilarating to hear a performer play a work like this at what might register as a perfect tempo. Awkward as it may be to say so, he doesn't try to outdo anyone, and in so doing, does just that (for comparison's sake, listen to the 2009 Cliburn silver medalist Yeol Eum Son's rendition of the same sonata).
Scared as I was of the Haydn, I was more concerned about the Rachmaninoff second sonata—the big, thick, final work on the recital. I'll be honest, I'm not a fan of Rach music—some of his schtick just doesn't work for me. Nevertheless, I am able to appreciate, even love some performances of his works (as I did with one over-the-phone performance, when a friend wanted to make sure that one of the Études-Tableaux was performance-ready).
Now, Sunwoo's technically unassailable performance prompts me to reconsider how I feel about this sonata; as he did with the Ravel, he enabled me to hear new things in this piece (such as the different keys of the introductions to the second and third movements, and I don't hear differences in key very readily). I find that the Rachmaninoff and the Ravel works made perfect bookends for this recital; I now hear echoes of La Valse in the last movement of the Rachmaninoff sonata, which is a bit of a problem considering the dates of composition of the two works. That he makes me hear them makes me think we have, in Yekwon Sunwoo, an extraordinarily perceptive performer. Considering what he has accomplished, I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise.
Morton Feldman: For Bunita Marcus
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Release date: July 28, 2017
I can't remember being more excited about the release of a recording. Here we have one of the most important works of 20th-century piano literature by one of the most important composers of that century; for a work as stylistically sui generis as it is, it's surprising how often it has been recorded: nine times since 1995, and seven of those in the last ten years.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes this Hyperion release (available here), though, is the stature of the performer. Marc-André Hamelin is, by a longshot, the best-known pianist to record Feldman's For Bunita Marcus. I probably would have been nearly this excited had the performer been another unknown to me—no offense to Hildegard Kleeb or anyone else who has recorded the work—but Hamelin's doing it gives it a special quality. More about that later.
The work will probably constitute a curiosity to anyone not familiar with Feldman's late works, and this piece is one of the latest (it was composed in 1985, and we lost Feldman in 1987). Lasting over an hour, the texture rarely changes. Most of the music is ultra-quiet, and, except for two significant gestures—they've been called "sobs," but I think of them as innocent little belches—the damper pedal is depressed the whole time, allowing notes to ring seemingly forever. As a result, and depending on the attention you give the listening experience, some subtle changes take on a dramatic quality the score's appearance belies.
With enough recordings available to support a collector's hobby, the number of approaches to the audio engineering can be reduced to two: one is to record at an unusually high level (more or less putting the listener inside the piano), and the other, at a level at which you might record any piano piece. With the first approach, if listened to with the right equipment and played at a higher volume than normal, you hear everything: the piano action, the pages turning, the pianist's breathing—everything. With the second, volume up as high as your equipment will go...it's still quiet.
I like both approaches. In Hamelin's recording, we have the second approach and, to my ears, that gives the recording a not unwelcome detached quality. The work certainly accommodates recording at a level that, in other situations, would be absurd; but hearing everything doesn't necessarily induce intimacy.
The recording level, combined with Hamelin's reputation, makes listening to this recording an altogether different experience from listening to others. It's kind of like watching Steve Martin in David Mamet's film The Spanish Prisoner: throughout, I keep expecting him to break out of character and exclaim "well, ex-CUUUUUSE ME!" But his carefully maintained quiet demeanor (he never even cracks a smile) lends the performance a tension that other performers might not have been able to generate.
Similarly, I listen to Hamelin's performance, and I'm accustomed to hearing him lift eight Chopin ètudes with one hand. For Bunita Marcus, however, seems to require so little of his formidable talents that, at any moment, part of me expects him to start pounding out fistfuls of notes. It's sort of like hearing James Earl Jones whisper his way through Macbeth.
In Hamelin's hands, this glittering, undulating, exquisitely expansive jewel takes on an intimacy and urgency that I don't really expect from any recording. Yes, it's over an hour long, but as soon as it's over, I want to hear it again.
Strauss: Don Juan/Ein Heldenleben
Valery Gergiev, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
Münchner Philharmoniker GBR MPHL0003
Release date: March 31, 2017
The coming Dallas Symphony and Fort Worth Symphony seasons offer something unusual: two major orchestras performing the same major work just a few months apart. The DSO is performing Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben in March of 2018, scarcely four months after the late-October performance of the work in Fort Worth. And a recent release of Strauss's huge symphonic poem by Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic (available here) affords an opportunity to compare the work of our two local orchestras to that recently committed to recording.
Comparison like this isn't meant to culminate in a verdict of good or bad, pass or fail. One way to really get to know a piece is to listen to different versions of it; and in so doing you realize there a lot of ways to play a long, complicated piece like this and make it work. Furthermore, you begin to hear things that you're going to listen for—and sometimes hope don't occur—in the next performance of the work that comes along.
With the recent Gergiev recording, as with many other performances of Heldenleben, the first few seconds tell you a lot about how the rest of the piece might go. The initial attack of the low E-flat has the horns spreading out a little, but the upward sweep of the phrase is clean. And throughout the opening section, whether the horns pass the main motive among themselves or one of them retains it through its entire two-octave span, it always comes out fairly clean. Also, I believe this is a live recording, and we hear thumps now and then throughout the performance, which may be Gergiev's shoes on the podium. This is a little unfortunate, but not too distracting.
What really gives every Heldenleben performance its own personality, though, is the extensive violin solo in the section representing the hero's companion. Munich's concertmaster Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici hurries through parts of it that I would prefer to linger over, and lingers when I would like him to be a more impatient. Now I look forward to hearing Fort Worth's Michael Shih and Dallas's Alexander Kerr take us through this section.
Many other details go into forming a giant work like this into a coherent performance—too many to go into here. But here are some suggestions for listening to Gergiev's recording or either of the upcoming local performances:
• The horn, low string and bassoon chords that punctuate the opening phrase—do they sound like someone cracking a whip? hitting a mattress with a baseball bat? dropping a wet sponge?
• The split-second before the full orchestra's fortissimo entrance as the long violin solo-seems to be fading out—are they so much in-the-moment that you hear the entire group inhaling? Or have they anticipated things enough to draw the breath in silently?
• Does the downbeat at the beginning of the battle scene come after a slight hesitation? Or do the low strings, winds, and percussion emerge out under the material in the preceding measure?
• At the reprise of the opening (about two-thirds of the way through the work), when the eight horns have a gloriously exposed and drawn-out unison ascent to their high E-flat—do they sound like lots and lots of horns, or one giant horn?
Formulate your own questions. Most of mine have nothing to do with anything except characterizing the performance. Anyone who knows the work has probably identified his own set of crucial spots—passages that, for good or ill, make a performance what it is. This new recording with Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic has, for me, more positives than negatives. That's why I bought it. But, as nice as it may be (certainly better than the slovenly 2005 recording by Leonard Slatkin and the Berlin Philharmonic), there's nothing better than a live performance—except maybe two live performances.
» 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
- June 2017: 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
- July 2017: A 2015 recording from Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal featuring a piece by composer Sam Moussa, which the Dallas Symphony will perform in September; the second volume of Alexandre Tansman piano music played by Danny Zelibor; and the much-talked about The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.