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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

La Chronique du Disque (May 2015)

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For those unfamiliar with our monthly recordings review - If Sound Quality (SQ) and Overall Impression (OI) grades need further context, feel free to visit earlier posts in this series.

Before I get into my suggestions for this month and in particular my first suggestion, I wanted to say a few words about the evolution of recording technology, and how it can factor into one’s impression – positive or negative – of a specific performance.

A lot of things have happened – and a lot of technological advances have occurred – since Thomas Edison first demonstrated a practical way of recording sound in 1877, but all of these advances aimed to achieve one thing: provide a listener the experience of listening to an audio performance “as if they were there”, experiencing it as if they attended the performance in person. In my mind - however utopic that may be and how close we have come to achieving that aim – that really is what we understand when we talk about “High Fidelity”.

Like I said, there have been many changes in how we “record sound”: we went from recording acoustic impulses to recording electrical impulses off a microphone; we went from recording from the vantage point of a single microphone (mono) to several microphones and juxtaposing them as separate tracks (stereo); we went from wax cylinders to Shellac-laden discs to vinyl polymers to computer files; we went from recording analog signals to recording digital samples of the electrical impulses; and we can go on like this for a while… All this to say that each “improvement” took us one step closer to achieving that “holy grail” of creating a concert experience at home (or on our personal digital device).

I would submit to you that, other than the “quantum leap” of going from acoustic recording to electrical recording, no single improvement has necessarily made recordings “better” or “more true” – the HIFI experience is really the result of all of these things adding to the previous one. It is true, for example, that mono recordings don’t provide the full “physical” dimension of a live performance (as it does not create or conjure a “3D audio image” of the performance) but it still conveys the dynamic of a performance (dynamics in tempo, or in intensity). Those subtleties are rendered with quite a bit of fidelity and this is especially true in the case of a single instrument – like a solo piano performance.

Beethoven - Complete Piano Sonatas - Wilhelm Kempff

This gets us to our first suggestion, the first “complete” set of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by the late great Wilhelm Kempff. Indeed, Kempff recorded two complete sets for the DG label in studio – one from sessions in 1951-56 (mono), and the other from 1964-65 (stereo). This corpus of sonatas has been recorded by many pianists, emanating from many musical traditions but there is little doubt that Kempff’s interpretations are true to the tradition of the great German-Austrian pianists. Some would point to the Stereo set as being “the keeper set”, to which I would say “Not so fast!”. Arguably, Kempff is at the height of his career in the 1950’s, and though the recording technology isn’t quite as sophisticated as in the later set, the late mono sound engineers at DG knew their business, and they capture all the subtlety, all the musicality and, indeed, all the character of these performances. I have compared a few of the mono vs stereo renditions from Kempff for sonatas I happen to own, and I find that the mono ones are to my ear “equal or better”. Let’s not get caught up on sound engineering; the “keeper set” is this one, oif you ask me! SQ = A-, OI = A.

Satie L'oeuvre pour piano 5CDs Aldo Ciccolini

Earlier this month, I put together a podcast of music by Erik Satie, performed by another late great pianist, Aldo Ciccolini. Though I provided a taste of Ciccolini’s “Complete Satie” recordings for EMI from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I wanted to share this link to the complete package. I can safely say that, although he did not write exclusively for the piano, the vast majority of Satie’s oeuvre is for the piano. His works are eclectic, at times satirical and even pretentious, but they are unique and a complement to similar works by his better-appreciatedd contemnporariues, Debussy and Ravel. Ciccolini believes in this music, and he conveys it without sentimentality yet all the charm and quirkiness of the music comes through for all to hear. Satie may not be for everybody, but if you are looking for a reference recording, I think this is it! SQ = A, OI = A.

Tchaikovsky piano works

Let’s go from a composer that is known almost exclusively for his piano music, to another who is rarely thought of as a piano composer. Unlike many of the great Russian/Soviet composers that followed him (namely Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich), Tchaikovsky didn’t have the reputation of being a virtuoso pianist. In fact, the back story about him “playing” his new concerto in B Flat for Nikolai Rubenstein (himself a recognized icon among virtuoso pianists) created a very bad impression on the latter. We acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s great stage scores, his larger-than-life symphonic works and even some of his more intimate pieces, but we often forget Tchaikovsky composed quite a bit for the piano, though not much of it finds its way in the program of recitalists – except maybe for The Seasons. This particular download contains discs by Russian pianists Mikhail Pletnev, Sviatoslav Richter and Victoria Postnikova. For the purpose of today’s blog, I took in Mrs. Postnikova’s “complete” set and, as you would expect, it is an “honest” job by an “honest” interpreter of piano music that sits somewhere between “all right” and “good”. This is really for Tchaikovsky fans looking to complete their Tchaikovsky collection. SQ = A, OI = B+.

Piano Left Hand Recital

We are all familiar with the story of the American pianist Leon Fleisher who, in 1964, lost the use of his right hand, due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. Fleisher continued to concertize, performing and recording the left-handed repertoire and – after botox treatment, he managed to regain the use of both hands and resume a career as a “two handed” pianist. What is interesting to note is that Mr. Fleisher’s dexterity issues aren’t uncommon: Peter Oundjian suffered from repetitive stress injuries that forced him to stop concertizing as a violinist and concentrate on conducting, for example. Like Fleisher before him, pianist Antoine Rebstein's career was just starting to blossom in 2003 when he started to lose the command of his right hand. He quickly discovered that left hand repertoire in order keep a recital date in August of that year. Some of the pieces he performed at that recital are included on this, his debut recording. For me as a music listener, the important thing is that when I hear piano music, that I don’t get the impression that I only “get half” because the performer uses half his hands… The true test is when you listen to a piece and can’t tell that the piece only involves one hand – which is what is exactly happening with the pieces that Rebstein chose here. The works feel complete, and never give the impression that we’re treated to half-measures. This is a testanent to the composer and to the performer. An intriuguing look at a very arcane repertoire. SQ = A, OI = A.

Honegger: Piano Music

A lot like Tchaikovsky and unlike Satie, Arthur Honegger’s output as a piano composer is very limited: according to his music catalog, ten or so works composed between 1916 and 1941. Again, the comparison to Debussy and Ravel is inevitable, as Honegger was a contemporary to both. This music doesn’t have the “inventiveness” of Debussy or the “breadth of imagination” of Ravel, nor is it quirky and eccentric like Satie’s piano music. This, like in the case of Tchaikovsky, is “middle of the road”, honest but not necessarily remarkable stuff. It doesn’t matter how engaged a performer is – and I have to believe that Mr. Bergmann and his friends do their best here – sometimes you are left with what the composer gave you. SQ = A-, OI = B.

May 29, 2014, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will feature a new podcast "En récital: Lortie & Liszt" at its Pod-O-Matic Channel . Read more on our blogs in English and in French.