Piano Sonatas: in C,
Dena Piano Duo
2L 40 (SACD: 73:08)
Sonata for 2 Pianos in D,
Fantasie in c for Piano,
Altnorwegische Romanze mit Variationen für zwei Klaviere,
Dena Piano Duo
2L 57 (SACD + Blu-ray audio: 59:33)
HOMMAGE À GRIEG
Dena Piano Duo
2L 94 (SACD + Blu-ray audio: 55:26)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
Hommage à Grieg.
Variations sur un Thème de Beethoven
The Mozart/Grieg SACD was reviewed by my colleague Burton Rothleder in
31:2. I like it a whole lot more than he did, perhaps because my history includes playing about with these (rather than playing them, in all honesty) at an earlier stage of my life. Fun was had by all (except anyone unfortunate enough to be listening). One thing is fairly certain: This is the sort of amusement that should be played at home. These players take things to another level, though. The idea of the Mozart sonatas with a freely composed additional part by another major composer (if not one of the same exalted stature) is intriguing in extremis. Whether that fascination lasts over the course of a full disc is another matter, but taken one or two at a time this is life-enhancing music-making, especially with two such accomplished players as this. The pleasure is double (approximately) when the sound is first class, of course, as is very much the case here. The players’ natural clarity, necessary especially in music with added layers such as this, is exemplary, and it is faithfully rendered in sound that is present and close but not claustrophobic, with a natural sense of space. The recording took place in Sofienburg Chuch, Oslo, Norway, in 2006.
As alluded to above, the original piano sonata is retained in one part; Grieg’s charming “other” is taken by the other pianist. It is well known that Mozart was one of Grieg’s favorite composers, and he supplied these particular gems to the repertoire in 1876/77. Grieg’s additions are tastefully handled, with fascinating results. Occasionally Mozart starts to morph into a sort of frilly Grieg (at times in the first movement of K 545); sometimes he’s just plain playful (the finale of the same sonata).
The counterpoint of K 533 is augmented, while the added bass octaves in that sonata’s slow movement add a new measure of drama, counterbalanced by embellishments and fillings out in the finale of the utmost delight. When Grieg really takes the bull by the horns, he fills Mozart out as if he’s force feeding him Christmas pudding, thereby dragging Mozart into his century. At times like this, it is difficult to listen without at least some measure of disbelief (slow movement of K 283). Anyone with leanings towards the authenticist movement should scurry back to their own corner, rapidly: For them, this is surely the dark side. Heaven knows what they would make of the C-Minor first movement, Mozart at his most dramatic anyway. Here Grieg effectively does to Mozart what Busoni did to Bach. The comparison is not quite direct, but it should give an idea of the processes at work. The contrasts are suddenly bigger, and there’s an almost watery element to the counterpoint; fluidity, certainly.
Gripes? The booklet notes are all but unreadable. Whose idea was it to put purple type on a purple background?
Volume 1 came out in 2007; Volume 2 followed on in 2009, issued as an SACD and a Blu-ray together in one case. Both sound absolutely fabulous, with the Blu-ray experience particularly rich. The recital begins with a robust D-Major Sonata, in Mozart’s unadulterated original. This is a nice idea, as one gets to appreciate (add inverted commas if you wish) Grieg’s achievements (again, optional inverted commas); on the other side of the Mozart/Grieg arrangement is a pure piece by Grieg, which balances things out nicely. The Mozart D Major gets a most appealing performance, full of life and light in the opening
Allegro con spirito
(one could probably guess the “con spirito” blind). The Duo’s practice of honoring repeats simply means double the pleasure here. The Secondo’s bass staccato is particularly affecting, as is the Primo’s cheeky acciaccaturas. The sense of flowing dialogue in the central
(taken quite swiftly) is beautiful; as if to contrast with the Grieg-drenched others, there is no dragging at all. All, instead, is beautifully stylish, with all the sense of an aria that one could wish for. Ornamentation is perfectly stylish in the finale
I wish both you and your speakers luck with the opening of the Grieg-enhanced
, K 475. This is like the sound track to a Christopher Lee horror movie, or perhaps it is the lost soundtrack to that black and white classic
. The contrasting calm is qualified by some fascinating additions, but it is drama (really if one is honest, of a mainly televisual nature) that dominates. The original remains a marvel, and it is to that that we must return; but this Grieg edited excursion is most definitely worth making. The most delicious offering of this disc, though, is the
Old Norwegian Melody with Variations
(1890), a piece dedicated to the composer Benjamin Godard. Some of the variations clearly pay homage to other composers (Liszt and Schubert being the obvious ones). But there is no denying this is an appealing piece, wonderfully realized here. The Dena Duo is particularly adept at the tender, slow passages.
Hommage à Grieg
disc features music that is well known, fairly well recorded, and obscure in a good mix. The Brahms and Saint-Saëns come from pens of friends of Grieg; the two other works (by, aptly, Norwegian composers) were commissioned by the Dena Piano Duo. The Brahms Variations are given a warm toned, sensitive reading. Perhaps as I was brought up an orchestral player and have played in the orchestral version of this piece a number of times, my ear does miss Brahms’s way with the orchestra. But one can still, actually, revel in the variety of tone of the two pianists, and also in the stunning recording. The chordal attack of the pianists is remarkable, and the textural complexities are rendered as
-Brahmsian, something that shines through particularly in the finale, with its bell-like scales and its sense of total nobility.
Wolfgang Plagge (born 1960), a professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music, contributes
, written in 2010. The trills of its opening, with their ensuing descending lines, seem to link directly back to the final section of the Brahms. Plagge’s world is more astringent and far more modernist, however. The booklet notes refer to the influence of Paganini (Capriccio, op. 1/24), a piece that has spawned a multitude of variation sets (including by Brahms). Plagge’s strategy is to only let the theme blossom towards the end of the piece; in this case the theme is Grieg’s “Watchman’s Song” from the
, op. 12. The journey (back) to the theme is a delight, especially when the pianists scurry around the keyboard in a manner reminiscent of Lutosławski. The writing is certainly inventive, and there is never any doubt as to the Dena Duo’s expertise in this music. The pianists sound perfectly at home. And how poignant the Grieg original sounds when it is allowed to blossom, oozing nostalgia.
An even newer piece next, from 2011, by Terje Bjørklund (born 1945). Originally drawn to jazz music, Bjørklund moved towards “serious” art music (he teaches composition and music theory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology at Trondheim). Commissioned by the Dena Piano Duo, his
has an interesting premise. It offers an “echo,” in sound and motif, of passages in Grieg’s works. Some of the works alluded to are well known: The Piano Concerto, the Ballade in G Minor for piano, op. 24. Others, less so: The String Quartet (G Minor) is also there, as is the penultimate of the
Norwegian Folk Songs
, op. 66. The composer wanted to convey Grieg meeting “Bartók, Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt.” There are far fewer harsh edges to this piece than to the Plagge. Traditional harmonic structures are more prevalent here, although they can morph into very individual sound structures in an instant. The gesture of droplets of notes which recurs is particularly haunting. Again, the Dena Duo seems particularly attuned to the basis of the piece in question, here a pervading melancholy which, towards the end, veers strangely near an easy-listening experience.
To round off, Saint-Saëns’s little bundle of fun, the Beethoven Variations, op. 35, of 1874. The theme is taken from the Menuetto of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op. 31/3 (Saint-Saëns performed Grieg’s F-Major Violin Sonata with violinist Johan Svensen in 1870). Saint-Saëns produces a virtuoso set of variations. The challenge is to deliver the music with such technical ease that one forgets the challenges, and the charm, fun, and wit come right through. Such is clearly the case here. As the variations process by, it is difficult to know whether to be amused by the composer’s expertise or to revel in the players’ grasp of wit, texture, structure, and pacing as well as by their seemingly infinite variety of tone. The fugue (around 13:30) is terrific, the lines given a Bachian sense of intent, the whole thing full of energy.
Plenty to enjoy in these three issues. The 2L music store (shop.klicktrack.com/2l) offers, as well as traditional hard product, the option of MP3 (320 kbps) or FLAC (CD-quality) downloads.