One of the more pleasant, if unexpected, consequences of the lockdown here in Paris is having the time to listen to more recorded and streamed music. For recorded music, this means reacquainting oneself with long-gone performers or turning to multi-disc boxes featuring more obscure composers. As for streamed music, many local houses like the Opéra Comique are re-broadcasting lesser-known operas from their last few seasons. Almost always, one finishes these sessions shaking one’s head and wondering why, with such splendid melodic invention and tonal imagination, so many of these composers and works remain so little known.
Carl Maria von Weber, best known for his opera Der Freischütz, was a spectacular pianist and adored the clarinet. Not long ago, his Grand duo concertante, his Clarinet Quintet, and his two clarinet concerti were frequently heard on classical broadcasts—no doubt because of their tunefulness and imagination. This is not canonic music, where every note, rest and phrasing is graven in stone, but a platform for interpretative imagination where virtuosity is needed even in quiet and wistful passages. Sebastien Manz’s gorgeous 2016 recording of Weber’s complete clarinet works combines a silvery tone, sensitive accompaniment, and enormous contained energy. His playing of the seven Silvana Variations is a case in point, especially its beautiful, tapering finale. Michelangelo Carbonara’s recording of Weber’s four piano sonatas, also from 2016, is equally fine. Although the tricky C-major Sonata, the first of the four, is the least played (it is particularly difficult for those of us with small hands), it is full of the best sort of earworms, especially in its obsessional first movement. To round things out, I’d recommend the collection of Weber’s sonatas for violin and piano performed by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov. It amply demonstrates, as if more evidence were needed, the depths of Weber’s ability to invent, penetrate, and evolve a musical idea.
Speaking of virtuosity, Niccolò Paganini’s playing was so technically accomplished that he was said to have been inspired by the devil (conveniently, Paganini means “little pagan”) or, at the very least, self-taught during his imprisonment for some foul crime or another. His caprices are in every concert violinist’s repertoire along with his first two violin concerti. Salvatore Accardo’s elegant but dated performances of the five complete concerti (plus the incomplete sixth) are still available, but, aside from the occasional recording of some of Paganini’s duets for guitar and violin, this is the extent of it. Given the circumstances, the forty-disc box set of Paganini’s opera omnia on the Italian Dynamic label is particularly welcome. A lyricist as well as a technician, Paganini is no stranger to delicious tunes and delightful instrumental dialogues. Besides the concerti and works for solo violin, the box includes charming works like the quartets “for amateur ladies,” trios for different string combinations, the engaging Centone di Sonate for guitar and violin, and instrumental tributes to Paganini by composers such as Liszt and Brahms (of course) and even Johann Strauss. Best listened to repeatedly and over time, this box was the happy idea of the founder of the Dynamic label, Pietro Casaretto, who commissioned the enormous project before his death in 2012.
After his death in 1938, the legacy of Leopold Godowsky suffered several rough generations of critics who claimed that his piano playing was dry, cold, and unappealing—notwithstanding forceful praise to the contrary by Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann. Godowsky’s own music, with its snaky chromaticisms and its astonishing pedaling demands, is the preserve of only the most technically gifted pianists. One of these is Andrey Gugnin, whose elegant new Homage to Godowsky is a single-disc collection of works inspired by him or dedicated to him by other legendary twentieth-century pianists. Gugnin’s performances of music by Hofmann, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Theodor Leschitizky, and Moritz Moszkowski are effortlessly convincing and full of charming surprises.
On May 9, 1965, Vladimir Horowitz ended a twelve-year hiatus from the concert stage when he returned to Carnegie Hall with a recital of works by Bach, Schumann, Scriabin, and Chopin. It had been a miserable absence. In 1953, Horowitz began suffering from depression, which was worsened by his daughter’s serious brain injury in a traffic accident and further compounded by the inept psychiatric treatment he received. Nevertheless, by 1962 he was sufficiently improved to start recording again and two years later began considering a return to the stage. In early 1965, Horowitz began rehearsing in Carnegie Hall, with Columbia Records recording those rehearsals for sound purposes. Its successor, Sony Classical, recently published those recordings in a CD box titled The Great Comeback: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, which also features an interview of Horowitz by Abram Chasins. It is wonderful listening for pianophiles, containing Horowitz’s finger-loosening improvisations, his chats with the recording produces, the asides of his wife, Wanda, and of course his different takes and interpretations of passages in the Schumann Fantasy and other works. What special fun for listeners, caught up in the beauty of the performance, to have Horowitz abruptly conclude and snap us back to the material world. Excellent essays, particularly by Tim Page and Bernard Horowitz, as well as marvelous photographs of the rehearsals and the great day itself, make this a steady and stimulating companion for the next few weeks in confinement.