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Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Smetana, Gidon Kremer | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Smetana, Gidon Kremer

Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Smetana, Gidon Kremer

Beethoven piano concertos played with affection, a sparkling comic opera and an oblique tribute to a maverick pianist

Leif Ove Andsnes gets frisky with BeethovenOzgur Albayrak

 

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 and 3 Leif Ove Andsnes/Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony)

The best recent cycle of Beethoven piano concertos is Howard Shelley’s, recorded by Chandos with the Orchestra of Opera North.  This first volume of Leif Ove Andsnes’s set might stack up to be a rival. It was taped in Prague’s Rudolfinum and acoustically it’s flawless – this is a recording where you suspect that the engineers have just set up a couple of microphones and sat back, letting the musicians get on with it. Ansdnes has come late to Beethoven, explaining that the project’s genesis came after staying in a Sào Paulo hotel where the lift was playing Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos on a loop. A week of repeatedly hearing brief snippets reawakened his interest. Cynics might scoff at Ansdnes’s claim that Beethoven “believed that changing the world is possible and that music is truth.” They'd be better just sticking the disc on and marvelling. At the lithe, responsive playing of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra – winds full of character and strings capable of reducing their sound to barely more than a whisper. And at Andsnes himself, who captures the burgeoning mixture of cheekiness and grandeur as well as anyone. His reading of the First Concerto (actually written second) is the cheeriest, sparkiest available, with a last movement that will provoke giggles.

The Third Concerto is a weightier work, but Andsnes manages to stir a fair bit of wit and warmth in amongst all the C minor posturing. There are times when it’s like listening to an enraptured teenager discovering this music for the first time. As with the earlier work, it’s the orchestral playing which provides much of the magic. Effortless, affectionate but never slick, it’s as if these musicians were taped in a cosy Viennese café. Andsnes never puts a foot wrong; I was spellbound by his rapt intro to the slow movement. Nice packaging too.

Smetana: The Bartered Bride Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek (Harmonia Mundi)

Deep joy. I can’t remember the last time I sat through an opera which didn’t dish out copious amounts of depression, death and misery. Smetana’s ebullient Bartered Bride does encompass a spot of unrequited love, but in general it brims with good humour. At one point a leading character is disguised as a bear. What's to dislike? Here, the overture’s incessant perpetuum mobile is nicely handled by Jiří Bělohlávek’s BBC forces, so well that you almost fail to notice that the piece barely contains any hummable tunes – just six minutes of exuberant syncopation and rushing semiquavers. This new recording was drawn from a concert performance given at the Barbican in 2011. And it’s very good indeed - has any recent BBC SO conductor managed to make these players play 19th century repertoire so well?

Dana Buresová takes the title role of Marenka, pressured by her parents into marriage to Ales Vorácek’s Vasek instead. He’s this set's highlight, making the famous stammering aria in Act 2 poignant as well as funny. Tomás Juhás as Marenka’s true love Jenik is eventually reunited with her, following a series of plot revelations that wouldn’t be out of place in a G&S operetta. Vasek’s fate, revealed in the closing minutes, is a sweet touch. The BBC Singers provide fruity choral support, and the experienced Czech cast contains no weak links. One of those opera recordings that you’re reluctant to switch off, and the tricky Barbican acoustic never sounds too dry.

 

The Art of Instrumentation: Homage to Glenn Gould Gidon Kremer/Kremerata Baltica (Nonesuch)

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould would have been 80 this year. His compulsive, divisive Bach recordings are still mandatory listening, and have just been reissued again by Sony. Nonesuch’s offbeat tribute came about through producer Robert Hurwitz asking Gidon Kremer if he fancied arranging music associated with Gould for strings. Kremer invited 11 composers to take part, the emphasis to be on capturing something of Gould’s quirky individuality. These composers come from different nationalities and traditions but, as Kremer writes, “at the end of the day, everyone speaks Bach.” The results are as eclectic as you’d hope; I was about to give up on Georgs Pelecis’s initially po-faced arrangement of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations until the vibraphone made an unexpected, magical appearance. Alexander Wustin’s version of the F minor Three Part Invention gives prominent roles to flute and percussion.

Giya Kancheli’s extended Bridges to Bach is the disc’s highlight; more heartbreaking, elegiac tribute than transcription, with one tiny, shocking violent gesture at its centre and an unexpectedly affectionate close. Victoria Vita Poleva’s use of marimba is ear-tickling, and Victor Kissine’s reworking of the same Goldberg extract used by Pelecis features a sample taken from Gould’s famous 1981 recording. Kremer plays solo violin on many of the pieces, and it’s refreshing to hear this occasionally chilly player sounding so emotionally involved. Recording and presentation are immaculate.

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