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Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, December 2009

VIVALDI, A.: 4 Seasons (The) / Mandolin Concerto, RV 425 / Lute Concerto, RV 93 (arr. for piano) (Biegel) 8.570031
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 1 (arr. P. Breiner) - Jenůfa / The Excursions of Mr Broucek 8.570555
JANACEK, L.: Operatic Orchestral Suites, Vol. 2 (arr. P. Breiner) - Kat’a Kabanova / The Makropulos Affair 8.570556
STRAUSS, R.: Rosenkavalier (Der) Suite / Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten / Symphonic Fragment from Josephs Legende (Falletta) 8.572041

Nice. First, Janáček did not make suites from his operas. Peter Breiner arranged these suites. Some of the items he lifted pretty much whole. Others he hunted and snipped and pasted. I’ve got nothing against such procedures per se. After all, it’s done with movie soundtrack albums all the time. However, I really have to wonder why Breiner did it. Whom did he serve?

At one point the answer would have been Janáček himself. The operas weren’t all that well known beyond Czechoslovakia, after all, and such suites might well have introduced many to the music, thus leading to performances and recordings. However, all the operas here have received already recordings (still currently available) and a couple have actually made standard rep. Broucek and Makropulos, I believe, have even been done at the Met, that most hidebound of houses. Consequently, you might think that these suites now introduce the music-lover to the operas. Listeners can dip into the music and decide whether they want to go further.As I mentioned in my first post of gift suggestions (for those on your shopping list, or for yourself when all those gift cards come in), I ended up limiting myself to opera, orchestral and piano. Here are my picks from the last two categories:

PIANO

Two of the most enjoyable keyboard CDs I heard this year both feature pianist Jeffrey Biegel, and both are ever so slightly (and delectably) out of the mainstream.

Even if you’ve got a zillion recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas, you’re not likely to have any that include embellishments of the repeats. In the three-disc Volume 1 of his survey of the sonatas for the E1 Music label, Biegel argues that, given Mozart’s famed improvisational skills, there’s room for improve today when sections of a sonata movement get repeated. Doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to me. Then again, I’m in favor of embellishing repeated sections in Mozart arias, a practice that relatively few singers dare to try. And I think even the repeats in symphonies—not just by Mozart—could stand a little variety, Maybe not actual changes or additions to the notes, but at least variances in dynamics and emphasis. Ah, but I digress.

The modest amount of ornamentation and variation Biegel applies in the sonatas seems just right, adding a welcome dimension of spontaneity and intensified character. That’s not the only distinction. The pianist also demonstrates admirable technical fluency, considerable tonal shading and a great deal of stylish sensitivity to make this a first-rate exploration of Mozart’s ever-rewarding sonatas.

For even more of a left-field excursion, how about a piano transcription of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? I’m so over-dosed on this music that I didn’t think any version of it would awaken my senses, but Biegel won me over with the first notes of his own keyboard version, contained on a Naxos release. Although Vivaldi’s seasonal-themed collection of descriptive violin concertos would not seem, at first glance, to translate easily to the piano, Biegel provides the color, nuance and virtuosity to make it work. He fills out the disc with Andrew Gentile’s classy arrangements of Vivaldi’s C major Mandolin Concerto and D major Lute Concerto. Again, the experience proves thoroughly winning.

ORCHESTRAL

Sure, you can find the usual symphonies and such among current recordings, but how about something a little different? I was very impressed with three releases, all on Naxos, devoted to orchestral suites from stage works by Strauss and Janáček.

The Strauss collection, with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta (yes, Virginia, there is another very talented American female conductor besides Marin Alsop), contains one truly familiar item, the Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier,” which gets a sturdy workout. What makes the disc more appealing is the inclusion of a less-often encountered suite from another opera, “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” and a suite from the relatively obscure ballet “Josephs-Legende.” Falletta secures vibrant responses from the orchestra in both of these richly layered scores.

Even farther a field are the premiere recordings of orchestral suites fashioned by Peter Breiner out of the potent operas of Janáček. Breiner captures the flavor of the composer’s sound and dramatic instincts so well that it’s easy to imagine Janáček. penned the suites himself. At more than a half-hour each, there is a lot of action in these pieces, and the New Zealand Symphony digs deeply into to the material with the guidance of Breiner on the podium. The first release pairs “Jenůfa” with “The Excursion of Mr. Broucek.” The second contains suites from “Katya Kabanova” and “The Makropulos Affair.”

These three discs would be perfect for the opera-shy person on your shopping list. Not a note of vocal music, but a strong sense of each opera’s melodic and emotional power.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

If you’re having a tough time deciding on a classical music gift, you can’t go wrong with a hefty collection—six CDs, 111 tracks, 111 artists—released by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate its 111th anniversary. The selections are arranged alphabetically by performer, so it means that the repertoire is constantly varying—orchestral, vocal, solo instrumental, chamber. The one constant is quality, since the musicians include the likes of Argerich, Caruso, Furtwängler, Heifetz, Maazel, Michelangeli, Segovia, Rostropovich and Wunderlich. The set wouldn’t necessarily be for the classical music purist, who may well frown on miscellaneous excerpts, but it’s a handsome compendium of (and a possible introduction to) the art form and those who have served it nobly for more than a century.

However, Breiner’s suites give you very little idea of the power of the operas. At most, I can say that they’re well-fashioned and make for a pleasant listening experience. But, to take one example, Kát’a Kabanová is not a pleasant opera, and you miss the tragedy in Breiner’s suite. Breiner fails to catch the eccentricity of Broucek, and I don’t see how he could have done so. Janáček’s operas depend on text and singing actors as well as the music to make anything near their full effect. So I’d take the plunge and buy a complete opera instead. The Cunning Little Vixen introduced me to Janáček’s operas and hooked me, so that I wanted to hear as much as I could. And, by the way, get the operas sung in Czech, rather than in German or in English. You will probably understand nothing without a gloss in front of you, but in general, singing translations notoriously suck and diminish the poetry of the text.

Other than those caveats, these CDs comprise an afternoon of agreeable listening. Breiner and his kiwis do very well. I’ve never really listened to the New Zealand Symphony before, mainly because their repertoire interested me to the exclusion of their performances. Now that they play something that interests me less, I can focus on them: a lovely string sound and capable of sustaining large spans of music. I can’t tell how much Breiner has contributed to this, but obviously the capability lies within the players. The sound is acceptable without crossing over into the super-spectacular.




Mary Kunz Goldman
The Buffalo News, October 2009

The piano also makes you appreciate Vivaldi’s moments of sublimity—the slow movement of “Winter,” for instance, which shines in its genius and simplicity. Biegel…shows you new things in them. As a follow-up to “The Four Seasons,” he plays a lute concerto and a mandolin concerto, both arranged by Andrew Gentile. This is a great novelty at a bargain price, and a bright new look at a composer we thought we knew inside out.



Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2009

I know, I know. It’s the forfeit one pays as a reviewer to receive another arrangement of the Four Seasons to listen to, and despair over. But wait—wrong! This is a fabulous exception, so don’t pass over this review until I’ve convinced you to buy a copy or to give it a go, at least.

This is the Ricordi arrangement, made anonymously, as augmented and arranged by pianist Jeffrey Biegel. You’ll wonder how the verdant chirpings, guttural barking and chilly, warming, and other topical seasonal states come over on a piano and I will tell you: very nicely indeed, believe it or not. If I came to scoff, I stayed to enjoy, and so will you, unless you’re made of sterner stuff. The recording quality, let me add, is first class.

The thing that impresses throughout is the variety of articulation that Biegel summons up. He is crisp, bright, even, sustains the writing through deft voicings (Spring’s Largo) and through clarity and variety of timbre. There’s real buoyancy to his finales. He generates amazing drive and animation in, say, the Presto finale of Summer. Nor does he stint the wit inherent in, say, the Allegro finale of Autumn which, I must say, I find defter and genuinely funnier than any orchestral performance. I’m not sure I should—but I do. The opening of Winter is powerfully compelling, and the trills and decorations in the slow movement are equally diverting; I wondered if its sparseness would defeat Biegel but it doesn’t; he flecks the writing with great felicity. And the Allegro finale of Winter sounds like an organ fantasia at its start; like a Bach-Siloti spectacular. Terrific stuff all round.

The two extra items are in the same mould, though these are original adaptations and arrangements by Andrew Gentile. Vital and exciting, with free embellishments in the Largo of the Mandolin Concerto, I equally defy you to find these unattractive. The delicacy and lyricism embedded in this transcription of the Lute Concerto’s slow movement is considerable. There’s textual depth here and no mistake.

So I began with a feeling of weary subjugation and ended elated. What more do you want from a disc?



Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, October 2009

Familiar music in an unfamiliar guise: Vivaldi’s piano-Four-te Seasons

If Spring is my favourite season, I could quite happily pass the remainder of my days without ever hearing again Vivaldi’s musical representation of it. But I could not resist investigating this intriguing new disc. After all, there is no solo keyboard music by Vivaldi—a strange omission by such an industrious composer—and I cannot recall another recording of any of his music played on the piano. Do Vivaldi’s bucolic impressions come across on a concert grand? How successfully have the two (American) transcribers translated idiomatic string-writing into the language of the keyboard?

The answer is most effectively, perhaps surprisingly so.

Jeffrey Biegel’s hyphenated seasonal cycle is based on the solo piano arrangement published by Ricordi (the transcriber is anonymous) with his own minor additions and broadenings of textures—not wholly literal transcriptions (as Liszt commented, “in matters of translation here are some exactitudes that are the equivalent of infidelities”) but unadorned adaptations of the originals. At times you might be listening to a Scarlatti sonata (the repeated notes in the athletically executed outer movements of Summer, for instance). Andrew Gentile’s arrangements show greater pianistic imagination, exchanging registers, adding new contrapuntal voices and embellishing passagework, while remaining faithful to Vivaldi’s style and spirit.

Biegel’s performances are right on the money and quite transcend the oddity factor, offering a fresh and original take on these much-loved scores. The recording (produced and engineered by Joseph Patrych) is out of the top drawer.

A disc, dare I say it, that put a spring in my step.




Jed Distler
ClassicsToday.com, August 2009

Why transcribe Vivaldi’s ubiquitous Four Seasons for solo piano when a gazillion recordings of the orchestral original can be had? That’s a question pianist and transcriber Jeffrey Biegel eloquently addresses in the booklet notes he provides for his own performance. In essence, Biegel elaborates upon and embellishes the unaccredited solo-piano Four Seasons arrangement published by Ricordi with a keen sense of style and keyboard deployment. His vivacious, gorgeously detailed, thoroughly committed, and beautifully engineered piano playing constantly delights.

The wealth of tone color Biegel squeezes from the endless violin trills in high registers precludes any danger of the music turning percussive or tinkly, while rapid repeated notes and double notes effortlessly fall from his fingers (the G minor’s Presto is quite a tour-de-force in this regard). Listen also to how adroitly Biegel weighs the dissonances in the F minor first movement’s churning accompaniment.

Andrew Gentile’s two concerto transcriptions are no less effective, mainly due to Biegel’s ear for detail, such as the varied articulations and dynamic contrasts he brings to echoed passages (the C major mandolin concerto’s finale, for example). What easily could have been a gimmick turns out to be no less than one of 2009’s most enjoyable piano recordings. Don’t judge it before you hear it!



Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, June 2009

This sounded like an intriguing novelty, and I approached this stranger—dogwise—warily, but with tail wagging. I’m happy to report that I was immediately won over. Mr. Biegel has it all: his arrangements are tasteful, his grasp of the Vivaldi idiom profound, and all that wedded to a simply stupendous technique. The addition of the two other little concerti rounds out this thoroughly delightful excursion into immediately accessible esoterica. Bravo, bravissimo!



David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

The American pianist, Jeffrey Biegel, has used, as the basis for his transcription, a published piano version by an unknown hand of Vivaldi’s popular violin concertos known as The Four Seasons, though I guess others are in existence. Lovers of keyboard music will find a great deal to enjoy in such a literal view of the original, Biegel avoiding spurious thickening of textures, and keeps within the limited dynamic range that is appropriate. You could never doubt the American pianist’s affection for the music, and throughout he plays in something approaching the style of a harpsichord. What, of course, we do totally miss is the tonal interplay that Vivaldi created between the sound of the soloist and the accompaniment, that solo line here merging into the general texture. Tempos throughout are well chosen, phrasing nicely handled, fingers rippling through the fast passages in total clarity, and Baroque ornamentation added with sobriety. Of course to make himself some easy money, Vivaldi would chop and change his music as the purchaser required, though the sound of plucked instruments is not transferrable to the piano. So I have rather more reservations regarding the Lute and Mandolin works from Andrew Gentile, though they will also be welcomed by pianists. Admirably clear and clean playing in very good sound quality.



Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, June 2009

Some of the great masterworks of the baroque period have long been subject of a diverse array of transcriptions by later composers—Bach’s Art of Fugue, for example, has been rearranged for string quartet, wind band, viols, and even accordion ensembles. Bach himself performed keyboard arrangements of Vivaldi concerti, and Busoni followed quite literally in the master’s footsteps by reworking Bach for the piano. Now we have a brand new entry into this tradition, but unfortunately it does not live up to its pedigree. I am not entirely sure why we need a solo piano version of Vivaldi’s legendary Four Seasons when the original is so universally beloved, but Jeffrey Biegel, a pianist who has made several commendable CDs for Naxos in the past, has supplied us with one and performs it himself on a new disc. Apparently Biegel based his performance on a previously-published arrangement for solo piano, making his own additions and embellishments along the way. Even with these changes the transcription is not particularly imaginative, however, so that although this Four Seasons album is valuable as a curiosity, most listeners will find themselves hungering for the vastly more expressive originals.

Biegel’s reworking of the Seasons for solo piano is extremely straightforward—probably too much so. There is very little ornamentation in the baroque style, as one might hear in a period-practice performance, and the few attempts Biegel makes often sound like wrong notes. The solo violin part is transcribed into the piano’s upper registers, the accompaniment given to the left hand, and the writing and playing conspire to keep surprises to an absolute minimum. Maybe a lack of imagination in the transcription process is a good sign in one sense—why would you want to mess with Vivaldi?—but I also think that it creates this album’s main problem, which is that, in the absence of any really compelling piano writing, all that we can do as listeners is recall how wonderful the original version was. This Four Seasons is like a shadow of the one we know and love, a mere teaser for the real thing.

As for the playing itself—Biegel is honest and direct in his pianism, though not exactly perfect technically. There are some very clear missteps in Summer’s thunderstorm and the opening movement of Autumn, among other places. With music this familiar, the miscues are rather hard to ignore.

In Biegel’s hands some of the seasons sound an awful lot like romantic-era miniatures—the slow movement of Spring and beginning of Summer, for instance, sound like gentle sketches from the notebook of Moritz Moszkowski or Anton Rubinstein. (The famous “barking dogs,” in the second movement of Spring, have here been spayed and neutered.) Biegel’s tone is clear and elegant, even when his romantic view results in a little too much delicacy or schmaltz. The disc would be almost perfect background music for sipping on wine at a social occasion and remarking to your conversation partners just how refreshing you always find Vivaldi’s music.

I do think Biegel’s transcription is interesting in one sense. In the nineteenth century, when recordings did not exist and concerts were not open to everyone, most listeners were exposed to music for the first time by piano transcriptions. For instance, Brahms personally arranged his symphonies for piano four-hands, allowing talented amateurs in the comfort of their own homes to discover the latest orchestral masterworks. Amateur pianists today will likely be interested in Biegel’s transcriptions because it will allow them, too, to play Vivaldi’s great masterwork without stretching their technical skills too far. This CD is almost an advertisement for the transcription, offering amateur players everywhere the opportunity to play the Seasons at home like piano players a century ago might have performed Brahms’ latest for their families. The problem is that we no longer live in an age where recordings are hard or impossible to find. I think we can congratulate hobby piano players on their good fortune on this elegant, simple, charmingly romanticized transcription of the Four Seasons for their instrument. As a listener, however, I do not see any special reward in this work. As I listen to Biegel delicately dance through these concerti—in wonderfully intimate sound, by the way—I can’t help yearning for the bracing sound of a baroque ensemble, the thrilling risk-taking of soloists working in the period style, and the big-hearted tone of the solo violin.

Naxos already has a superb recording of the Four Seasons in its original form, with superstar violinist Cho-Liang Lin joining the chamber group Sejong. (The disc has other stars, too: veteran Anthony Newman is on hand to play harpsichord, and one of the Sejong players is violinist Adele Anthony, wife of Gil Shaham and a superb performer in her own right.) If you have that recording, or indeed any good performance of Vivaldi’s signature work, you will likely find yourself returning to it with new appreciation after hearing this one. Pianists will perhaps find this transcription appealing, but I suspect that even some reasonably creative hobby performers could do a more creative job than Biegel has.

The filler works on this disc are perhaps emblematic of its problem: a mandolin concerto, the opening of which sounds unhappily similar to a joke by P.D.Q. Bach, and a very appealing lute concerto. I have heard neither work before, but now I have an irresistible urge to find them in their original forms. It is likely that once I do there will be little or no need for me to return to this workmanlike reduction. Useful, perhaps, and an intriguing return to a forgotten era of piano transcription for home entertainment, but most listeners will find this album uninspiring.






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1:45:32 AM, 19 December 2014
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