A couple of releases from MultiPiano Ensemble

I’ve heard of the Israel-based MultiPiano Ensemble before; I remember seeing a couple of their YouTube videos a long time ago. So these 2 new CDs caught my eye. I found it odd, though, that both are older recordings just now seeing the light of day on CD. And from two different labels. Why is that?

The Hyperion was recorded in 2014 but not released until late 2021. The Naxos was recorded in 2017 and just released at the end of 2022. So suspicions were raised before I ever listened to a single note. But I heard nothing (musically or technically) which might explain why both labels would have delayed releasing these recordings for so many years.

​Common to both discs are very good piano playing and excellent orchestral support. Differences, however, are notable. The program of rarities on Naxos sounds slightly under-rehearsed in places, while the Mozart on Hyperion is just the opposite – a bit routine and not quite as spontaneous as I would have liked. The recorded sound follows suit in both instances: the Naxos grabs your attention with bright, immediate sound which is impressively detailed in the orchestra, but perhaps a touch analytical. The Hyperion is predictably more laid-back (yet well focused), full and almost too warm, lacking sparkle.

I listened to the Mozart disc three times, hoping it would eventually inspire me to write a review. But each time I came away thinking it is good, with very good sound, but there is nothing particularly special about it. I can’t fault the piano playing per se, which is technically accomplished and assured. But there is just something missing. It’s the spirit of new discovery and unbridled joy in playing Mozart that I miss from them. It’s there in abundance in the orchestra, which makes the piano playing rather conspicuous in its lack of spontaneity. 

This was more apparent in the E-flat Concerto for 2 pianos, where tempos seem a tad sluggish (although they really aren’t) and the energy level not quite vigorous. Tempos really are not the issue – the first movement is marked merely Allegro (not vivace) and the finale is a Rondo. So they don’t have to be played especially fast. However, at reasonable, manageable tempos, there is a residual carefulness to the piano playing here which tends to diminish the joy and exuberance this music deserves. 

In the opening Allegro, I also missed some body and weight from the orchestra. This is a lightweight reading which ultimately needs a bit more power and vitality. And after an Adagio which did indeed feel a little too slow and pedestrian, the finale is again light rather than exhilarating. It also sounded a bit cumbersome, rather than effortless.

The F-major Concerto for 3 pianos fares better, perhaps because it is not often performed with all 3 pianos (there is a 2-piano reduction which is often utilized instead) and the opportunity for 3 of them going at once likely enhanced the sense of occasion. The sparse textures of the English Chamber Orchestra suit this work better, and they bring marvelous life and freshness to the opening Allegro with crisp, incisive playing, which was a pleasure to listen to. But the rather dull piano tone stifled it somewhat (more on this below). And the finale is, once again, just a bit sluggish, almost heavy-laden. 

Making this disc unusual is the inclusion of a so-called Larghetto and Allegro in this completion for two pianos and orchestra by the group’s founding pianist, Tomer Lev, derived from unfinished sketches Mozart made for 2 pianos alone. There are extended passages of pure inspiration which only Mozart could conceive, along with some filler material which is not. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the orchestral additions which tend to sound rather contrived and inauthentic. But overall it’s interesting to hear what might have been, and Mr. Lev has done an admirable job putting together a cohesive piece of music.

The Naxos program is more adventurous, but ultimately can’t quite live up to the glories of Mozart (except, perhaps, for the perennial favorite Double Concerto of Poulenc). I know it’s not fair to compare this contemporary music to the master, but it is inevitable. Still there is much to appreciate here.

Frank Martin has never been one of my favorite composers, but his Petite symphonie concertante is quite enjoyable in this arrangement for 3 pianos and strings (again made by Tomer Lev). Reading the history of the piece in the booklet was informative. It was originally conceived for piano, harp and “modern” harpsichord, with a double string orchestra accompaniment. Martin quickly realized the unfeasibility of it and eventually rewrote it for orchestra. Mr. Lev went back to the original and devised a working version for 3 pianos instead, reestablishing the essence of the piece. 

The Poulenc Double Concerto is well known and will likely be the main attraction for many. It is well-done here, thanks in large part to Dmitry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic. The orchestral contribution makes a splendid impact, bringing many inner details to the fore and plenty of power and authority. If the first movement sounds a bit disjointed and clunky, the rather forward sound may be partly to blame. The central Larghetto though is nicely singing and the Finale dashes off with plenty of gusto. This reading would not be a first choice in such a crowded field, but it is more than satisfying, welcoming an old friend to a group of newcomers on this program.

The Shostakovich Concertino was originally written for two pianos and Mr. Lev decided it needed a string orchestra as well. Thus his arrangement is played here. Fine enough; and like the Martin, pleasant but not really memorable.

The concluding work, Levanon’s Land of Four Languages, was commissioned by the MultiPiano Ensemble, who gave its premiere in 2012 and made this world premiere recording in 2017. It is lighter and more graceful than the other works and I actually enjoyed it the most. It brings together four folk songs in Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish and Ladino – languages which coexist in Israel. Each of its four movements is characterful, songful and full of life and charm. A lovely work, beautifully played, and certainly the highlight of both discs.

There is one other characteristic common to both discs which is more serious; one which may account for my somewhat tepid response to these recordings. What is conspicuously missing from both discs is a sense of grandness which should come from two (or three) massive concert grand pianos on stage. Instead, all of this music sounds as if it’s just a simple piano concerto played by a single piano. There is no apparent separation, or delineation, of the pianos filling the soundstage, with very little of that titillating bouncing back and forth effect we delight in hearing (especially in the Poulenc). They sound to be bunched up together, side by side, rather than dovetailed toe to toe, and thus sound as if just one instrument is used. Further, particularly on the Hyperion, slightly dull piano tone would suggest the lids are closed, further blunting the impact. These very attributes diminish the sense of occasion and, to a large degree, the majesty of this music. I find it odd that I hear the same results on both CDs, from two different labels, involving many different pieces of music. I must conclude this is the sound they wanted, and I can’t imagine why that would be.

I enjoyed getting to know this group of pianists and both programs are interesting and worthwhile. Both are well played and offer good, if not outstanding, recorded sound. But I was left curiously indifferent by both, for the reasons noted above.

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