It has become fashionable, once again, for concert pianists to release recital albums containing a mixed variety of music, brought together by a particular concept.
I personally welcome this approach, finding that it leads to releases which are generally more enjoyable than listening to the completist’s rendition of a huge raft of music by one composer. But it is certainly a challenge for pianists to put together a programme that is both fresh and familiar.
Where some have failed, Georgian pianist Catherine Gordeladze has brilliantly succeeded on her new release, called Dance Fantasies. And remarkably, about half of the music here was new to me, even though the programme strikes a fabulous balance between novelty and the comfort of the familiar.
A Concept Album
Catherine Gordeladze was born in Georgia and raised in Germany, where she performs regularly, also touring throughout the rest of Europe and beyond – including radio and television recordings in the Australia, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland, the UK and USA. She has won high praise for her previous recording – a CD for Naxos featuring the music of Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin.
The concept of Dance Fantasies is of course clear from the album title, and underlined by the subtitle: Virtuoso Piano Masterpieces. The CD booklet further explains:
“Extreme pianistic virtuosity underpins this CD featuring dance pieces from the classical repertoire. Some of the works presented here are played by Catherine Gordeladze in arrangements by great piano virtuosos including Leopold Godowsky and Sergei Rachmaninov. Other pieces are played in their original versions.”
Rameau old and new…
The album kicks off with four pieces by that colossus of the late French Baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).
Being a harpsichord player, I am ever in two minds about the approach pianists should take to this music, and must confess that I feared the worst when I noticed that the first two pieces – the beautiful Sarabande in E and well-known Tambourin in E minor – are Godowski arrangements, adapting the gracious clavecin music of the French court as high romantic piano showpieces.
I need not have been concerned – in Catherine Gordeladze’s hands these arrangements are marvellous in every way, somehow magically combining the high-virtuosity of Godowski’s piano writing with a keen sense of modern taste and newly rediscovered awareness of Baroque performance practices. The Sarabande is as delightful as it is imposing, and makes a sublime start to the recital, while the Tambourin incorporates an attention to articulation and voicing informed by the best ideals of performance of this music.
Indeed, the Gavotte and Six Doubles from the A minor Suite, and Les Sauvages from the G minor Suite follow on in a similar style, so that one is not distracted by any seem between Godowski arrangements and Rameau originals. There is a tautness to all the playing here, with stylish – often very florid – ornamentation and phrasing. The sense of each dance is well conveyed, and as a quartet of pieces they work extremely well.
Czerny & Chopin
The Rameau pieces are followed by the Variations Op.12 on a favourite Viennese waltz by Carl Czerny (1791-1857), so beloved for his endless piano finger studies, played by students worldwide. Czerny is less well known for his original compositions, but this piece will seem familiar straight away because the favourite Viennese waltz of the title is in fact the popular Trauerwalzer by Franz Schubert (1791-1828).
This is a piece which certainly lives up to the description “Virtuoso”, and puts the composer’s extravagant enthusiasm for exercises into an interesting context. And the pianist here delivers the variations with a gorgeous sense of élan.
Remaining in the waltz genre, Frédéric Chopin‘s (1810-1849) perennially popular Grande Valses brillante opuses 18 and 34/1 and /2 follow seamlessly. Including such well-worn favourites seems a bold move given the stiff competition in the recorded catalogue, but it pays dividends here – Catherine Gordeladze proves more than an equal for the many big name pianists who have committed these pieces to disc. These are, I would say, bravura performances which perhaps emphasise the virtuosic aspect of the music more than is typical elsewhere.
Continuing in similar vein, the next piece is Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) arrangement of the Minuet from the Second Suite of incidental music from L’Arlésienne by Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Here again I did a double-take: this is music that is certainly familiar to me from orchestral concerts I went to as a child, but I had not heard this charming piano arrangement before. And once again, the word virtuoso is wholly appropriate – this would make a fabulous encore!
Rachmaninov is also responsible for the next two arrangements here, both of music by Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962). The Liebeslied and Liebesfreud are hugely popular violin pieces which many listeners will instantly recognise. The pianism of these versions is extraordinary, and Catherine Gordeladze brings every brilliant detail fully to life in these exhilarating performances. The Liebesfreud in particular is simply magnificent.
Leopold Godowsky (1879-1938) was one of the great piano players and composers of the golden age before the second world war. His Alt-Wein, Walzer, like the Kreisler pieces, was originally composed for violin and piano, and appears here in his own piano version. It is a shamelessly nostalgic and romantic piece, but in its simplicity seems a little out of place.
However, it makes a great prelude to the famous Tango Op.165/2 by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909), here in a showy arrangement Godowsky made.
Bringing the recital to near-completion, Catherine Gordeladze next gives us a piece called La Valse triste, which is a short miniature by Hungarian violinist Franz Von Vecsey (1893-1935) – a charming and insouciant piece which, like Godowsky’s composition, seems to hark back to the glories of a former imperial Habsburg age, but here with rather a sense of dramatic loss. It is the only piece to have survived by Vecsey, and suggests he was a composer of considerable talent. The piano arrangement here is by the great virtuoso György Cziffra (1921-1994).
After this fascinating and highly enjoyable potpourri of finger-busters, the recital concludes with a superb performance of La Valse by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), surely one of the most astonishing pieces in the repertoire.
Catherine Gordeladze tackles this immense piece with assurance and clarity, demonstrating commendable mastery of the often dense textures in Ravel’s writing, and never losing sight of the waltz that underpins this self-conscious apotheosis and eventual dismemberment of the Viennese dance. Stunning!
Catherine Gordeladze is helped by a sympathetic recording, which was made on a Steinway Model D at the Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt in December 2016. Piano Technician Andreas Seibert surely deserves a special mention, as does Producer and Engineer Christoph Claßen and his assistant Lutz Keller. The CD booklet is exemplary too, providing interesting and insightful commentary to each work.
As I said at the start, Dance Fantasies is a brilliant success, offering a fabulous selection of familiar and semi-familiar music in a fresh and inspired piece of programming. It is sure to delight all who enjoy classical piano music, and can equally be recommended to those looking for an introduction to the genre.
The recording is superb too, and after repeated listens I must say that this album has one of the best recorded piano sounds I have heard in a while.
As you would imagine, I listen to a lot of piano recordings, and I would recommend this as one of the very best so far this year, very likely to feature in my Best of 2017 shortlist.