Pianist Kirill Gerstein’s take on Busoni is exhilarating; the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra serves the forceful music of composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and violinist Elina Vähälä does right by Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
One of the best performances of the Boston Symphony’s (BSO) 2016-17 season featured Kirill Gerstein playing the solo part of Ferruccio Busoni’s visionary, slightly overwhelming Piano Concerto. A kind of summation of the 19th-century concerto tradition, the Busoni crams everything from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Busoni into its seventy-plus-minute duration. By and large, it succeeds, though its mammoth demands (Busoni, a formidable pianist, referred to it as a “skyscraper concerto” and was more than happy to conduct it, rather than take on the solo part himself) make it a rarity, both in the concert hall and on disc.
How happy, then, to find that the BSO’s reading from that March weekend was taped and is now the focus of a new Myrios release.
Gerstein’s account of the solo part embraces Busoni’s frenzied enthusiasm for exoticism and spastic contrasts. He’s a charismatic pianist, to be sure, and Gerstein’s take on Busoni’s involved writing – itself so extroverted, brilliant, and demanding, even at its most reserved – is nothing short of exhilarating.
The even-numbered movements (especially the fourth, “All’Italiana”) sparkle particularly brightly, while the solo part of the massive first is noble and heroic. The mighty third movement is judiciously paced and brightly colored. So is the mystical finale, with the piano accompanying a male choir in Busoni’s setting of Adam Oehlenschläger’s “Prayer to Allah.”
Conductor Sakari Oramo draws playing of resplendent character and textural lucidity from the BSO. In the performance I attended, the ensemble seemed to be viscerally aware of the epic nature of the piece, and the recording captures this aspect of their reading nicely, especially the night’s particularly fine contributions from the woodwinds and trumpets. A couple of moments of spotty intonation notwithstanding, the BSO’s in fine form and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s last-movement contributions come off stirringly.
In all, then, this new Busoni album is a welcome addition to a select discography; indeed, it must rank, with Garrick Ohlsson’s and Pietro Scaripini’s, among the best.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s may not be a household name, but the 20th-century German composer possessed a forceful, confident voice, one that ought to be more widely known (and heard) than it is. Such is one result, at least, from listening to the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s (FRSO) new all-Zimmermann disc that survey’s music from the composer’s final two decades.
You could hardly ask for a stronger advocate for Zimmermann’s 1950 Violin Concerto than Leila Josefowicz. A champion of the music of today, she’s perfectly at home in Zimmermann’s eclectic style, whimsically tossing off the Concerto’s allusions to Stravinsky and Bartók; plumbing the depths of its big, none-too-hurried slow movement with intensity; and navigating the score’s acrobatic leaps and double-stops with panache.
The FRSO and Hannu Lintu are with her every step of the way. Indeed, the orchestra’s command of the score’s intricate tempos shifts, shades of color, and dramatic shape are breathtaking: clearly, they’ve taken this obscure piece to heart.
Their account of Photoptosis, Zimmermann’s 1968 meditation on shifting tonal colors (and chock full of quotations from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Scriabin, et al.), is likewise striking. Coolly balanced and played with terrific rhythmic precision, it’s a performance that manages to convey at least some of the thrill of hearing this music live (which is no small feat).
Similarly tight is the FRSO’s take of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony. Extracted from his opera of the same title, the Vocal Symphony is a forty-minute distillation of Zimmermann’s nihilistic adaptation of Jakob Lenz’s 1776 play of the same name.
Here, the singing – led by Anu Komsi’s Marie, Peter Tantsits’ Desportes, and Ville Rusanen’s Stolzius – is captivating: undaunted by Zimmermann’s angular writing, this is a vocal performance that overflows with vigor and spirit but, most of all, rests comfortably within the lyrical impulses that fire the composer’s language.
Orchestrally, too, there is much to like. The massed-force episodes, like the grim parade of the “Prelude” and the savage “Interlude,” pack a fearsome punch. But the delicate gestures – the harpsichord filigrees in “Mein göttliche Mademoiselle” or the delicate percussion figures in the Notturno – are equally robust.
Lintu presides over it all with a sure hand, neither driving the music too hard nor letting its intensity abate by lingering over Zimmermann’s arresting textures. Expressively and tonally this is hard stuff: dark, violent, sometimes dour. But it’s grippingly executed, all the same, and recorded in terrific sound.
There’s much to admire in violinist Elina Vähälä’s new recording of Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1. Her intonation, for one, is spot on; tone, pure like a blue Arctic sky; rhythm, tight as can be. A slightly sprawling piece, this account of the Szymanowski doesn’t feel at all long-winded, instead flowing with a strong sense of direction and energy.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is the heat Vähälä’s playing generates. Written in 1916, this Concerto is essentially an anti-Romantic essay but with strong Romantic undertones, full of sweeping lyric gestures that sit cheek-by-jowl with knotty phrases and surging dissonances. Vähälä gets the former – like the big, soaring main tune – to speak, while fearlessly punching out the latter. But she never sounds too gritty in the process. Hers is an approach, in the end, that suits the music supremely well and results in a compelling, emotionally forthright performance.
Vähälä’s accompanied by Alexander Liebreich and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (PNRSO) and the larger ensemble turns in an accompaniment that’s shimmery when it needs to be (like during the orchestral introduction) and potent – but not overpowering – at the climaxes. Soloist and orchestra are also neatly balanced in the spots where the violin emerges from the instrumental fabric to a degree you hope to (but don’t always) hear in recordings of this piece.
The PNRSO makes similarly involved work of their part in Alexander Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which fills out the disc. A setting of German-language translations of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, the score dates from the early 1920s.
In the present reading, everything’s nicely balanced and each instrumental family speaks with clarity. This is partly because there’s a bit of a harder edge to the ensemble’s collective tone, which might not be to all tastes; but it does help differentiate the parts and keeps this chromatic, protean score from dissolving into muddle.
Baritone Michael Nagy and soprano Johanna Winkel are the soloists. Both are placed a bit forward of the orchestra and certain of Nagy’s climactic moments (like his first-movement peroration) come across a mite strong. Still, both singers navigate Zemlinsky’s punishing vocal writing with, if not exactly ease, then total command and a good deal of nuance. It all adds up to a largely-inviting entry in the Lyric Symphony discography, highlighted by a lush “Du bist die Abendwolke” and a tender “Sprich zu mir, Geliebter.”
Throughout, Liebreich’s tempos are well-judged and his sense of the music’s dramatic arc is secure. His isn’t an overly-subjective reading, but the conductor knows how and when to enjoy Zemlinsky’s musical vistas. The second movement, accordingly, burbles with Mahlerian charm while the fifth blusters fearlessly, and the finale (“Friede, mein Herz”) unfolds with tender radiance.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.