Tracing the vivid trajectory of Debussy’s solo piano music from 1880, when the composer was in his late teens, to 1917, the year before his death, makes for an especially attractive Hyperion CD (Debussy early and late piano works, Steven Osborne (piano), Hyperion CDA68390, c£12.75). Rarities proliferate, including a ‘Cake-walk’ that’s located a block or two away from Children’s Corner. Steven Osborne plays it with more precision than swagger (he’s among the most pristine virtuosos around, as well as a thoughtful musician) but were I to direct you to a sequence that shows him at his best it would be the smoky ‘Sarabande’ from 3 Images oubliées, music which would subsequently reappear in a revised form in the suite Pour le piano. This is pianism in the Michelangeli class, sonorous and perfectly weighted, though the two popular Arabesquesemerge from the tired shackles of over-familiarity sounding as fresh as a spring morning. The programme closes with Debussy’s last piano piece, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (On evenings lit with the glow of coals), which came to light as recently as 2001. It was a present to Debussy’s coal merchant Monsieur Tronquin who for the bitter winter of 1916/17 came up with a much-needed supply of coal and the music does indeed suggest warmly flickering embers. Not a lot of people know that (as they say), and I certainly wouldn’t have done had it not been for Hyperion’s expert annotator Roger Nichols.
Varied though Debussy’s piano output may be, I can’t think that any of his pieces ‘start like Bach and end like Offenbach’ which has been repeatedly quipped about Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto. A recent CD of this adorable work appears as part of a neat BIS SACD digipack (Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, etc, Alexandre Kantorow (piano), Tapiola Sinfonietta, Jean-Jacques Kantorow, BIS-2400 SACD c£12.75). The pianist here Alexandre Kantorow, is fully on Steven Osborne’s level, both as a musician and as a piano virtuoso, his sense of rhythm, colour and tonal shading just what this beautifully crafted music needs. Kantorow père (also a celebrated violinist) conducts a well drilled Tapiola Sinfonietta and the same disc – all 84 minutes of it – also features other concerted works, including the First Concerto with its seductive Andante sostenuto slow movement. The Valse-Caprice Wedding Cake is a delightful 6-minute miniature and we’re additionally offered the Allegro appassionato, the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne and Africa, ten minutes’ worth of exotic rhapsodising that recalls the composer’s 5th Concerto, the Egyptian, which the Kantorows have recorded with equal success on BIS-2300 alongside the Third and Fourth Concertos. In the stereo/digital field this is my preferred set of the Saint-Saëns concertos, though in the mono stakes do keep an eye/ear out for the consistently stylish Jeanne-Marie Darré (Warner Classics).
When preparing reviews I’m not usually one to play the ‘I-was-there’ card but in the case of Shostakovich’s 4thSymphony as performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 9th September 1978 (on Shostakovich Symphonies Nos. 4 and 11, BBC Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, 2 cds, ICAC 5169, c£22.50) what made the evening additionally memorable was the inclusion on the programme of what I believe was the British premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (composed during the previous year) and Britten’s Diversions for Piano, Left Hand and Orchestra with Mrs. Rozhdestvensky (Viktoria Postnikova) at the piano. Rozhdestvensky had already conducted the Western premiere of Shostakovich 4 at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival (also released by ICA). The work’s place in Shostakovich’s output is interesting. Regarding the Fifth Symphony, or ‘a Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism’ Alexei Tolstoy remarked, “our audience is organically incapable of accepting decadent, gloomy, pessimistic art. Our audience responds enthusiastically to all that is bright, clear, joyous, optimistic, life-affirming.” Enter the wild-eyed Fourth (1934-1936) which opens with an alarm and ends with a question, ranting and raging in between, playing a Mahlerian card with subtle gags and stunts (reference: Mahler 7) but waging a profoundly uncomfortable undercurrent. It’s a terrific performance too, captured in remarkably good stereo sound given its age. The coupling is the Eleventh Symphony (1957), ‘The Year 1905’ digitally recorded in 1997, a symphony that according to Solomon Volkov is “about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” Simpler and more overtly programmatic than the Fourth, the Eleventh was famously, indeed incomparably, recorded (in mono) by Yevgeny Mravinsky with his virtuoso Leningrad Philharmonic. Rozhdestvensky approaches Mravinsky only in the brutal finale but the rest is at an altogether lower ebb. Still, I urge you to buy this double-pack for the sake of the Fourth, which tells it as it is and more.