Warhorses and Wolf Songs

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Boris Berezovsky is a Russian pianist of the Romantic-virtuoso type. There are plenty of those pianists about, and they tend to come from Russia. Mr. Berezovsky was born in 1969, and in 1990 he won the Gold Medal. No, not at the Olympic Games. At the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, which may be seen as the Olympics of classical music.

He has lots and lots of technique, as witness the fact that he sails through the Chopin-Godowsky Etudes. These pieces are the Chopin Etudes revised, and made all the more difficult, by the great pianist Leopold Godowsky. Mr. Berezovsky recorded this set for Warner Classics last year.

He has now recorded two splashy concertos, also for Warner Classics, and with the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitri Liss, conductor. The UPO may not be the finest orchestra in the world, but it is serviceable, and sometimes downright good (as witness its woodwinds).

The first of the concertos is Tchaikovsky’s No. 1 — the birthright of every Russian pianist. Mr. Berezovsky plays it sensibly, not crazily, and he makes an obvious effort to play it beautifully. He is not interested in burning down the house. In Tchaikovsky’s lovely slow movement, Mr. Berezovsky produces an exemplary singing tone. The final movement — Allegro con fuoco — is sharply etched, but could use much more of a peasant swagger, a more nationalist character.

The main interest of this recording lies in the presence of the Khachaturian Concerto.This used to be fairly common on the concert stage, but has virtually disappeared. You simply never hear it — certainly not in this city. In 1946, the brilliant young American pianist William Kapell made a famous recording of the Khachaturian, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. That recording is still very much available, from more than one label.

The Khachaturian may not be a great piece, but it is appealing. It contains some Hollywood (even though it was written in the 1930s Soviet Union), and a speck of jazz.

And Mr. Berezovsky plays it with freewheeling affection. So does the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra. These performers bring out the exoticism, richness, and excitement of the score. They do not condescend to it, and it is not all that silly from them. In fact, it is irresistible, or at least I found so. I wouldn’t want to throw away my Willie Kapell. But Boris Berezovsky has made an old warhorse gallop, cavort, and win.

***

This being a Shostakovich year — the composer was born in 1906 — we have had many Shostakovich recordings, including of the string quartets. For example, the Quatuor Danel has recorded all 15 of them, for the Fuga Libera label. The Brodsky Quartet has done the same, for Teldec.

From the St. Lawrence String Quartet, we have three of the quartets, on EMI Classics.These are the grand and cataclysmic No. 3, composed in 1946; No. 7, written in 1960; and No. 8, the famous “Dresden,” also written in 1960.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet is able to capture Shostakovich’s various, often complicated moods. When the music is fairly tranquil or pleasant, you can sense that something awful is about to occur. In the martial third movement of No. 3, you can really smell the fear. The slow movement of No. 7 expresses deep, deep unease. And the final movement of that quartet is full of little knife stabs.

In addition, the SLSQ plays with remarkable technical expertise and assurance. The entire recording has a rare vibrancy. These players are alive to the music, as the composer was, and this is inestimably important. In playing these quartets, they are journeying along with Shostakovich. Frankly, this is one of the most impressive chamber-music CDs I have encountered in a long while.

***

Ian Bostridge, the English tenor, has recorded sizable swaths of the song literature, and he has now done an album of Wolf (EMI Classics). Antonio Pappano is at the piano. But isn’t Mr. Pappano a conductor, indeed, one of the world’s chief ones, as leader of Covent Garden? Yes, but he is also a pianist, and an admirable one. Not long ago, he recorded the Shostakovich Cello Sonata with Han-Na Chang (also on EMI Classics). He is a formidable musician all around.

I have a somewhat cheeky question: Is Mr. Pappano a better pianist than Wilhelm Furtwängler, who accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a famous Wolf recital at Salzburg? (A recording of that event can be found on several labels.) I believe so, yes. But Furtwängler had other strengths, as you may have heard.

Besides which, I have always suspected that Furtwängler had an off night, with Schwarzkopf in Salzburg.

On the present CD, Mr. Bostridge sings a mixture of Wolf songs, 24 in all. He is in radiant voice, and he knows what he wants to do in every song. Mr. Bostridge’s singing is not to everyone’s taste; he is often not to mine. But then, no one can please everyone, all the time. After a certain point, you pretty much have to accept singers as they are.

For me, Mr. Bostridge is often too bland, smooth, and bloodless in his Wolf. I would appreciate a little more drama. For example, Mr. Bostridge barely lays a glove on “Auf einer Wanderung” — that song has much more music in it, and much more life, than he lets on. But understatement is better than overstatement, I suppose.

Speaking of Schwarzkopf, she died at the beginning of this month, as you probably know. Her stamp was as great on me as on anyone, I guess. I don’t claim that her interpretations of Wolf songs are the final word. But I have to confess: To this Schwarzkopfstamped listener, just about everyone else sounds wrong.


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