, March 2012
SAINT-SAENS, C.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Burleson) GP601
RAFF, J.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Tra Nguyen) GP602
WEINBERG, M.: Piano Music (Complete), Vol. 1 (Brewster Franzetti) GP603
SCHULHOFF, E.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 - Partita / Susi / Suite No. 3 / Variationen und Fugato, Op. 10 (Weichert) GP604
What would you name a label dedicated exclusively to piano music? And not just the standard repertoire, with the obligatory Beethoven Sonata cycle and all the rest, but a label that courageously exploring the less-well-known works of composers such as Camille Saint-Saens, Erwin Schulhoff, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Joachim Raff? What name or image best describes such a label, with such a singularity of purpose, and committed exclusively to presenting the rich, varied and diverse literature written for the piano? As if to remove all doubts, the producers have clearly stated their raison d’etre in naming their new label “Grand Piano.”
Despite an increasingly competitive market, the label announced their first four releases in March 2012, begging the question “Why start another, new classical label?” Such questions are inevitable, but unlike many of their competitors, the makers of Grand Piano have two aces up their sleeves that give this young, upstart a convincing edge.
First, the label has a clear sense of mission and an unambiguous concept. It is immediately clear what you will find here and who will be their (potential) audience.
Second, someone had a passionate vision and realized it without compromise. “Grand Piano” is by no means a “get rich quick” flavor of the month in an already oversaturated market. This label hopes to make their listeners hungry (once again) for something new and unfamiliar.
And so, the Grand Piano story begins, offering us four CDs (two of which offering World Premiere recordings….) making our first meeting a memorable one! Were the cachet of presenting a few World Premieres not already enough, the label further stands its ground in offering programs that are, for most casual listeners, not the standard “crowd-pleasers.” These carefully programmed discs offer a variety that will undoubtedly appeal to the serious collector. Whether it’s Camille Saint-Saens’ virtuoso etudes, or the perpetual melancholy of Mieczyslaw Weinberg – here you will find a joyous celebration for the keyboard connoisseur… and this is just the beginning!
In this way, the Grand Piano establishes itself as a label that demands to be taken seriously. Although the repertoire at first may seem a bit obscure, there can be no doubt that the works presented here are, among the most distinctive keyboard compositions of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, (a possible exception being Saint Saens, whose Belle Époque salon pieces can tend to be a bit over-ripe…).
In particular, the piano works of Schulhoff and Weinberg are more than justified in receiving a second look, both of whom shared tragic lives and equally tragic neglect after their deaths. Also included is the first CD in what promises to be the first complete recorded edition of the piano music by the Swiss composer Joachim Raff. Despite being a contemporary of both Liszt and Brahms, Raff crafted his own rather unusual musical language, sharing some similarities with the music of the young Richard Strauss while at time, sounding like early Sibelius. All in all, a rewarding discovery for the curious, who are looking for some unusual repertoire in the grand, Romantic tradition.
The same care taken with the repertoire selection can also be seen in terms of the high quality of interpretations. Together, Caroline Weichert, Tra Nguyen, Allison Brewster Franzetti and Geoffrey Burleson possess all the requisite technical skills, and musical sensibility to bring each piece to life convincingly. Here too, Grand Piano has opted not to rely on the familiar, rather, they have recruited artists, each of whom have embraced the works of their chosen composers, with a profound sense of artistic mission.
Then again, maybe it’s just the overall appearance of Grand Piano that made the all-important first impression and convinced me that this recording would be good value for the money. Unlike many label “upstarts,” Grand Piano conveys the sense of being a complete package, from cover to cover. Now THAT is something worth mentioning!
The production qualities are uniformly solid throughout, not that recording a single piano is a particularly ambitious project – pace audiophile collectors. Rather, the focus of Grand Piano is to offer their listeners superb recordings of first-class performances, featuring rare and unusual repertoire recorded in more than acceptable sound.
From a personal perspective, I hope Grand Piano will test the waters with a few SACDs in the future, just as many other prestigious classical labels such as cpo, Alia Vox, ALBA, Tudor, Divox, Channel Classics, Pentatone and Harmonia Mundi have done for quite some time. This would undoubtedly increase the value of these high-quality productions even more and would no doubt, lure a few die-hard audiophiles to give the label a second look. Last but not least, it should be mentioned that Grand Piano will be distributed by Naxos, ensuring wide availability.
Overall, all of us at www.the-listener.de were mightily impressed by these first four titles and are eager to see how it goes. Starting strong can be a blessing, a curse, and really just leaves two options: either Grand Piano continues to build upon these four discs and blossoms into the collectors’ keyboard “go to” label, or it fails to meet the mark. Either way, www.the-listener.de will continue to follow the future developments and will be certain to write about it. For now however, Hats off! Anyone who is seriously interested in piano music should check out Grand Piano for an extended test drive in their home CD player. © 2012 The Listener