|Giorgio Koukl (Horst Dürrschmidt)|
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos No. 4 and 5 (“Emperor’’) Yevgeny Sudbin, pianist Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, conductor BIS Records
The Minnesota Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle, completed in 2008, was a great accomplishment, perhaps the most splendid American set since George Szell’s with the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1960s. Now, the orchestra and its engaging conductor, Osmo Vänskä, have moved on to the piano concertos with the young Russian-born, London-resident pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.
Sudbin’s first recordings were splendid collections of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Scarlatti, and Haydn, and his style — precise and sensuously delighting in textures and colors (think Horowitz without the neurotic drive) — suits all of those composers. But Beethoven, the composer who rattles the heavens? The memory of big-muscled performers Emil Gilels or Leon Fleisher, or austere ministers of the gospel such as Rudolf Serkin, casts inevitable shadows and Sudbin should be allowed his own approach. Nevertheless, the expectation is ingrained in the music: In Beethoven, the pianist is pitted against a monumental orchestra, and one should feel the effort to stand up to it. Sudbin’s touch is light, and his focus is minute. He treats each phrase as an end in itself, rather than a building block in a greater structure. The runs are exquisitely articulated and taken as fast as possible, and become trails of gold dust rather than sparks struck off an anvil. (Listen to the end of the first movement in the Fifth concerto, for example.)
And when Beethoven deliberately eschews beauty — for example, the galumphing moments in the opening solo passage of the Fourth — Sudbin still plays with a Mozartian delicacy. Vänskä takes the orchestra at a stately pace, but seems restrained from making a really thrilling statement. At his entrances, Sudbin seems to have a slightly faster impulse. They hold together, but the two conceptions never seem to meet, except perhaps in quiet movements. Sudbin’s sense of phrasing and touch is lovely in the pastoral second movement of the “Emperor.’’ If only they had thought to let him play Chopin, Schumann, or Rachmaninoff. He is contracted to record the other three Beethoven concertos in Minneapolis, plus the Mozart Concerto No. 24. The Swedish company BIS captures the piano in exquisite clarity, but doesn’t do as well by the orchestra, which sounds fuzzy and without gleam. Turn to Serkin’s 1983 performance with the Boston Symphony (on Telarc) and marvel at the rightness of it all, orchestra, soloist and the wonderful sound. DAVID PERKINS
BOHUSLAV MARTINU PIANO CONCERTOS 1, 2, and 4
Giorgio Koukl , piano
Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra of Zlín
Arthur Fagen, conductor
It’s a mystery why the charming music of prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) still remains so underrepresented in the standard orchestral repertoire. Perhaps the explanation lies in Martinu’s restless life: Born in Bohemia, he studied in Prague, decamped for Paris in the 1920s, fled to America to escape the Nazis, and died in Switzerland. Musically, too, Martinu’s eclectic style eludes categorization. Deeply influenced by his countryman Leos Janacek, Martinu later embraced neo-classicism and jazz. Within a single composition, he can shift styles like an actor changing masks.
This welcome Naxos recording completes a two-disc survey of Martinu’s five-piano concerto with Czech-Swiss Martinu specialist Giorgio Koukl at the keyboard and American Arthur Fagen conducting. While no one will mistake the Martinu Philharmonic of the provincial Czech city of Zlín for a major-league band, the result is enjoyable and fresh. The neo-classical, sunny Piano Concerto No. 1 (1925) engages throughout with memorable tunes and infectious effervescence. The vigorous Second Concerto (1934) recalls Prokofiev’s dynamic wit and dazzling virtuoso solo work. In the less conventional two-movement Fourth Concerto (1956), Martinu adopts a more solemn mood, charged with fateful bells, tense string writing, and modern drama.