GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924): Ballade in F sharp major for Piano Solo, Opus 19 and MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937): Piano Concerto in G major and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major—Yuja Wang, piano; Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Lionel Bringuier, conductor [Recorded in Tonhalle, Zürich, Switzerland, in April 2015 (Ravel) and Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, in May 2015 (Fauré); Deutsche Grammophon 479 4954; 1 CD, 50:15; Available from DGG, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
 ALEXANDER NIKOLAYEVICH SCRIABIN (1872 – 1915): Nuances – Works for Solo Piano, 1885 – 1912—Valentina Lisitsa, piano [Recorded in Britten-Pears Studio, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK, 15 – 17 December 2014; DECCA 478 8435; 1 CD, 76:56; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
It is difficult to imagine three composers of relative chronological proximity whose methodologies were more fundamentally different than Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, and Alexander Scriabin. Born in the picturesque south of France, Fauré, the elder statesman in this artistic triumvirate, was a product of the traditional French conservatoire system of education and a star pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns, from whom he learned the rudiments of Western music from Bach to Wagner. Ravel, too, was a native of the south of France, in his case a Basque town near the Spanish border, and a student at the world-famous Conservatoire de Paris, where Fauré became director in 1905, but his formal educational experience was more one of rejection than of beneficial tutelage. A native Muscovite, Scriabin studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where he successfully matriculated as a pianist but not as a composer because, like Ravel, his recalcitrant unconventionality failed to please his tutors. The foremost point of intersection of the careers of these diverse composers is music for the piano. Fauré enlarged the piano’s solo repertoire with a body of work that remains under-appreciated and lamentably under-explored by pianists of quality. Ravel’s music for piano, though limited in quantity by the notoriously slow rate at which he composed, exhibits all of the originality for which he is renowned. Spanning his entire career, Scriabin’s piano music collectively traverses as broad a spectrum of styles and ambitions as any composer’s efforts in any genre have done, his Sonatas as significant a benefaction to the piano literature as Beethoven’s and Brahms’s. As with recent recordings of unexpectedly complementary works by Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, and Lutosławski, new discs on Universal labels likewise disclose unanticipated parallels in the piano music of Fauré, Ravel, and Scriabin. Like the composers whose music they espouse, Yuja Wang and Valentina Lisitsa are very different pianists, technically and temperamentally, but these discs, both of which are engineered and produced with meticulous attention to the acoustics needed to give every detail of the composers’ writing its due, confirm that these talented ladies epitomize an abiding commitment to approaching the scores before them with fresh eyes, ears, and fingers. In their hands, the kinships among the dissimilar works of Fauré, Ravel, and Scriabin are made remarkably apparent. Beauty often dwells in strange places that the layperson can reach only with the aid of a guide capable of discerning what others overlook or ignore. Yuja Wang and Valentina Lisitsa guide the listener into the elusive nuclei of the piano music of Fauré, Ravel, and Scriabin, and what beauties they discover there!
Beginning with a performance of Ravel’s daunting, high-spirited Concerto in G major, Wang makes a valuable contribution to Deutsche Grammophon’s initiative to record all of Ravel’s orchestral music with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and young French conductor Lionel Bringuier, who possesses qualities that are infrequently encountered among conductors of his generation. He consistently displays an ability to discern among the ledger lines of composers’ scores the elements of the music that transcend the notes. In music as emotionally chameleonic as Ravel’s, he intuitively senses which passages need fire and which need finesse, and he manages instrumental timbres with acuity akin to Baroque masters’ manipulation of counterpoint. It is unfortunate that, in a post-Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan environment, designating an individual a promising conductor can have pejorative connotations, sometimes deservedly so, but Bringuier is a truly promising conductor without willfulness or damaging idiosyncrasies. His approach to conducting Ravel is not unlike Ernest Ansermet’s, his emphases on clarity and delicacy never overriding surges of power when required by the music. The Tonhalle musicians play excellently under Bringuier’s direction, here spotlighting the most minute details of Ravel’s orchestrations without shifting focus away from the overall structure of the music or from the soloist. In the Concerto’s first movement, marked Allegramente – Andante – Tempo I, Wang, Bringuier, and the Tonhalle players balance virtuosity with restraint, refusing to bruise the music with the pomposity with which many performances have assaulted it. Wang’s confident mastery of the tricky writing for the piano is extremely impressive, and she proves herself to be an assured mistress of negotiating the almost schizophrenic, jazz-influenced shifts of mood in the music. The core of tranquility in her playing of the Andante section, answered by instinctive conducting by Bringuier that ideally serves both Wang and Ravel, contrasts with the return to the movement’s initial Allegramente. The Adagio assai second movement receives from Wang and Bringuier a performance shaped by the pianist’s crisp but deeply affectionate phrasing of the extended melodic line. The offensive stereotype of Asian artists focusing on the metronome markings rather than the meanings of music sadly persists, but the Beijing-born Wang’s playing of Ravel’s music reveals the incredible stupidity and shortsightedness of that notion. The brisk Presto movement that ends the Concerto inspires Wang to an exhibition of technical prowess that is far more than a pyrotechnics display. Bringuier and the Tonhalle-Orchester build pedestals of sound upon which Wang places the cornerstones of her interpretation. Then, she and her colleagues string garlands of jubilant sounds across Ravel’s music that illuminate the genius of his writing for both piano and orchestra. Wang and Bringuier offer an unmistakably youthful reading of the Concerto that lacks none of the lucidity and drama of classic interpretations by Jacqueline Blancard, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Martha Argerich.
Commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein after his right arm was lost in the Great War and premièred by him in Vienna in 1932, the Concerto for the Left Hand in D major was, like the G-major Concerto, strongly influenced by jazz, very much en vogue in France in the entre-deux-guerres years. The architecture of the Concerto for the Left Hand remains baffling to many musicians, some advocating a clearly-delineated three-part interpretation and others adhering to Ravel’s assertion that the work was conceived and created as a single, through-composed entity. In their performance on this disc, Wang and Bringuier leave academic analyses of the score to scholars with nothing better to do and simply perform the music. Wang’s visceral account of the opening Lento – Andante – sequence is defined by the pianist’s athletic execution of the opening cadenza, her chiseling of the broad swaths of thematic material from the fine-grained stone of Ravel’s music uncovering surprising niceties of sentiment exegesis. The explosive power of the central Allegro – episode ignites a conflagration fanned by both Wang’s wrists and Bringuier’s baton, the conductor stirring the flames in the orchestra and the pianist soaring through them with the determination of a Brünnhilde of the keyboard. The return to Tempo I redoubles Wang’s already formidable focus, and she and Bringuier build the Concerto’s final pages to an exhilarating climax.
The valley between the peaks of Wang’s performances of the Ravel Concerti is a flexible but rhythmically-taut reading of Fauré’s impeccably-wrought Ballade in F sharp major (Opus 19). The transitions of tempo, beginning in Andante cantabile and moving through Allegro moderato, Andante, Allegro, and Andante before resolving the piece in Allegro moderato, are handled with panache, but the real hallmark of her interpretation of the Ballade is an entrancingly Gallic charm. Whether playing music by Ravel or Fauré, with this disc Wang expands her reputation as an artist capable of fashioning a tremendous range of colors with her palette of black and white keys.
Few composers have covered more stylistic ground in their work for a single instrument than Scriabin did with his music for solo piano. Strongly influenced at the outset of his career as a composer by Chopin, Scriabin worked in virtually all of the forms that his Polish predecessor essentially redefined: etude, mazurka, nocturne, polonaise, prelude, and waltz. As his career progressed, Scriabin increasingly integrated into his music elements of the mysticism and philosophical interests that characterized his life, moving ever further from mainstream, late-Romantic tonalism and ultimately developing his own conceptualized system of atonalism both similar to and markedly different from the work of the Second Viennese School. Logically, then, the pianist who successfully plays Scriabin’s music must have at the ready an uncommon versatility, and in this regard the composer could hope for no more qualified an exponent than Valentina Lisitsa. In the early works, the precise articulation of her fingering would be equally effective in music by Haydn or Clementi, and the forthrightness of her playing of the later, more obliquely Impressionistic pieces yields many instances in which layers of emotional depth obscured in many performances are drawn to the surface. Lisitsa obviously deliberated repertory choices for Nuances at length, and her knowledge of, affection for, and connection with Scriabin’s music are audible in every bar on Nuances. Presenting the pieces more or less consecutively in order of composition and sampling twenty-seven years of Scriabin’s career, Lisitsa engenders both an uncommonly intimate portrait of the composer and a sort of musical family tree, tracing its roots into the soil from which he grew as a musician and looking beyond its highest branches into the wider grove of Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century music into which the seeds of his innovation were dispersed.
The pair of waltzes chosen for Nuances are played with unhurried brilliance, every cascade of notes sparkling with its own individual effect but blending organically with its brethren in the settings of sustained melodic arcs. Waltz in F minor (Opus 1) is clearly an early work, sounding like a lost piece by Chopin or even Schubert, but Lisitsa plays both this and the sentimentally ambiguous Waltz G sharp minor (WoO 7) with the same close attention to the singular accents of Scriabin’s musical language that she devotes to the great masterworks of the composer’s maturity. It is again Chopin who provided the models for Scriabin’s Prélude and Impromptu à la mazur from Trois Pièces (Opus 2) and the Nocturne in A flat major (WoO 3), and Lisitsa pays homage to Chopin without allowing the listener to forget that these are Scriabin’s works.
The Scherzi in E flat major and A flat major (WoO 4 and 5) and Klavierstücke in B flat minor (Anh. 16) inhabit the world of Schumann and Brahms, and Lisitsa again honors the inspirations whilst elucidating the flair with which Scriabin synthesized elements of the music from which he learned into his own distinctive idiom. Recalling Bach, the Fugues in F minor (WoO 13) and E minor (WoO 20) demand concentration no less than what is required by Das Wohltemperierte Klavier and, unsurprisingly, receive it from Lisitsa. No less intense is her playing of the Mazurkas in B minor and F major (WoO 15 and 16), but even among a progression of authoritative performances her accounts of the Nocturne from Opus 9 and Prélude et Nocturne pour la main gauche—a foreshadowing of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand—are exceptional. It is interesting that Nuances was recorded at Aldeburgh as, like Benjamin Britten’s performances of works by Purcell, Bach, and Schubert, Lisitsa’s playing of Scriabin’s music demonstrates a fellow composer’s sensibilities. She prefers the alternative version of Patetico, the twelfth of the Opus 8 Études, and the unaffected gracefulness of her playing wholly justifies the choice.
The Two Impromptus of Opus 14 are marvelously differentiated by the pianist’s insightful approach, the Allegretto piece dispatched with dynamism and its Andante cantabile partner distinguished by open-hearted expressivity that is wholly free of artifice. Both the Allegro de concert in B flat major (Opus 18) and the animated Allegro maestoso Polonaise (Opus 21) are pieces that, though not long in duration, ask for great stamina from the pianist, and Lisitsa delivers in spades. She takes Scriabin’s Presto marking in the Opus 46 Scherzo at face value, charging through the piece with the unstoppable momentum of an avalanche. The Opus 41 Poème is far more contemplative, and Lisitsa plays it with unapologetic emotional honesty. This trait, too, molds her performance of Poème, the first of the Deux Pièces that constitute Opus 59.
Closing with the first and third of the Opus 65 Études, Lisitsa’s survey of Scriabin’s music is enriched by a galvanizing performance of the Allegretto Étude, the spirit of Chopin now more distant but still hovering at the peripheries of the music. The frenetic Molto vivace receives from the pianist a performance that encapsulates the essence of Scriabin’s art: respect and a measure of nostalgia for the past, trust in the present, and a vibrantly original vision of the future.
On the surface, there is little to connect the music of Fauré and Ravel with that of Scriabin. As men, the circumstances of their births, educations, and existences were very different, and as artists they pursued their own individual paths. So, too, do Yuja Wang and Valentina Lisitsa come to the piano with vastly varied experiences at the hearts of their artistic identities, but the ladies’ playing of the music of Fauré, Ravel, and Scriabin on this pair of wonderful discs confirms anew that music at its best remains a community of shared ideals.