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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, Hendrik Andriessen, Soprano Patricia Racette

In this series, Classical 91.7’s music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews pianist Garrick Ohlsson in modern music; a new disc devoted to Hendrik Andriessen’s orchestral music and a dramatic soprano tackles the cabaret style.


LOUIS WEINGARDEN (1943-89): Triptych (1969).  ROBERT HELPS (1928-2001): Shall We Dance (1994).  STEFAN WOLPFE (1902-72): Passacaglia (1936).  WILLIAM HIBBARD (1939-89): Handwork (1986).  OLDRICH KORTE (b. 1926): Sonata (1951-53).  Garrick Ohlsson, piano.  Bridge 9380.

All but one of the five pieces on this disc are atonal; all make huge demands on the pianist, and two of them—as the album’s title, Close Connections, strongly suggests—were written for Garrick Ohlsson.  Ohlsson is an “heroic” pianist in the sense that, say, John Ogdon was—an artist with a huge and ever-expanding repertory, a pianist who seems to be able to play anything and, what is more, every inch an artist with a huge range of color just as much as he is a consummate master of his instrument.  Ohlsson first came to prominence a little over forty years ago, when he won the Chopin competition in Warsaw; later, he went on to record the entire Chopin oeuvre and the complete sonatas of Beethoven—not mere devotional exercises, but  exciting and revealing expositions of the greater output of each composer.  Now, he is in the process of recording all of the piano music of Alexander Scriabin. 

Slovak-born composer Oldrich Korte’s Sonata (1953), the only truly tonal work on the disc and the only work on it by a composer still living (Korte will be 87 this year), has also been taken up by Ivan Moravec and Maurizio Pollini.  The recording presented here is from a concert at Prague nearly seven years ago.  It opens with a robust first movement, with a jaunty, syncopated second subject: it is all organic, classical sonata form handled expertly and with imagination.  The second subject grows out of the menacing octave ostinato figure which animates the movement and thus defines it.  In an even more arrestingly “classical” fashion, Korte lets the second theme disappear for most of the development section and leaves it to the recapitulation and coda to deal with it once again.  The second and third movements flow into one another without a break: the second contrasts tranquility with a Bartókian earthiness, and the finale is a fast-movement crown to the work.

Composers Louis Weingarden and William Hibbard died in the same year (1989) of the same disease (AIDS).  Weingarden met Ohlsson when the pianist was still a high school student, having been brought to the school in New York by a student teacher who had spent his money to get the composer to provide incidental music for a school play.  Weingarden, who at the time was prodigiously obese, challenged Ohlsson to prove to him that he was not the kind of supervirtuoso who played everything fast and loud.  Ohlsson obliged, and Weingarden composed his Triptych for the young pianist—-freely atonal music, almost in places sounding like what Liszt might have sounded like had he tried his hand at free dissonance; and, what is more, stupendously difficult. The three movements are evocations of Biblical narratives.  The first one, taking the Abraham and Isaac story as a point of departure, is superbly idiomatic and uses silence to build tension and to connect musical phrases and ideas.  The music sounds, in places, as if it had been scored on three staves rather than two.  The “busier” the music gets, the more fraught with tension it becomes; the excitement grows when the player is bidden to go all over the keyboard—tremolandi and octaves ringing at top and bottom, in the midst of much passagework and a few glissandi,  almost conjuring up memories of a 19th century dialect satirist’s review of an evening with Anton Rubinstein: “I knowed no more that evening.”  The second movement evokes Psalm 23, sounding like a harp improvisation on a kind of harp known to no mortal.  The third part of Triptych deals with the resurrection of Jesus, beginning bleakly and lugubriously, as Weingarden put it in an explanatory note, with “curtains of early morning mist” as three women make their way to the tomb.  Weingarden continues: “…a gentle angel bars their way and sings to them of their master’s sure and tranquil passage”.  It is, in a way, an atonal Liszt legend.

Louis Weingarden was in his mid-forties when he died; William Hibbard was fifty.  Hibbard’s Handwork (1986) is heard in a 1988 recording done under the composer’s supervision.  It is a piece crafted with great care, and with Ohlsson very much in mind.  The complex rhythms, says Ohlsson, do not sound as difficult to manage as they actually are.  It is a superbly idiomatic work,  full of color and regularly varied textures, dynamics and moods— and in some ways, symphonically conceived. 

Robert Helps’ 1994 Shall We Dance is a kind of encapsulated apotheosis of the dance.  It is also a kind of atonalism overlayed, here and there, with tonality; Ohlsson sees it as a “perfect reflection” of Helps himself. 

The Berlin-born Stefan Wolpe (1902-72) is the only composer represented on this disc with whom Ohlsson was not personally acquainted.  He did study with Wolpe’s second wife after his study at Juilliard.  His Passacaglia, a work from 1936, is based on a “climbing” twelve-tone row.  Ohlsson handles both the subtle and extreme differences of dynamics and textures with aplomb.  This disc gives another piece of the Ohlsson picture, of his enormous stature as a musician and an artist.  This music is not for everyone, but it much of it is a graphic illustration of how the seemingly impossible can be possible.


HENDRIK ANDRIESSEN (1892-1981): Symphony No. 1 (1930); Ballet Suite (1947); Symphonic Étude (1952) and Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Kuhnau (1935). David Porcelijn conducting Netherlands Radio Symphony. CPO 777721-2.

Hendrik Andriessen - Symphonic Works Volume 1Dutch composer Hendrik Andriessen, a man gone from our midst for a little over thirty years, is still comparatively ignored outside The Netherlands.  David Porcelijn and The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra have handsomely served him in what is labeled as part one of a survey of Andriessen’s orchestral output.  Though apparently committed to tonality, Andriessen in 1952 tried out the twelve-tone technique in his Symphonic Étude.  It begins with what seems to be a straightforward, traditional four-voice fugue, working the subject and answer pattern through oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon and then moving on to fuller orchestral textures.  There is much resemblance, using a row that is made up of minor seconds in systematic alternation with various larger intervals, to tonal, “common-practice” music in Andriessen’s dodecaphony.  This can happen: a composer can break the strict Schoenbergian mold and modify  the rules of the game to suit himself, or simply arrange a row in such a way that (vertically or horizontally) it will not jar the ears of most audiences.  The Étude, slightly more than ten minutes long, is a three-movement affair cleverly disguised as a single movement; it is a work of poignant beauty and consummate orchestral skill.  Porcelijn’s sympathetic direction and the superb playing of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra do great credit to this piece.

Andriessen’s Ballet Suite, written just five years earlier, is less overtly contrapuntal and more coloristic (almost in line with Maurice Ravel’s advocacy of orchestrating in “points” rather than “lines”).  A linear style is a virtual Andriessen trademark, probably a reflection of his background as an organist.  Not that Andriessen’s earlier music lacks instrumental color: the concise thirteen-minute first symphony of 1930, a score on which the composer labored for nearly a decade, combines a sure contrapuntal technique with a fine sense of color and moment. 

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Kuhnau (1935), for string orchestra, is no less interesting than anything else on this very captivating disc.  Kuhnau, J.S. Bach’s predecessor at Leipzig, was also a practicing attorney and the author of a satirical novel, today remembered for his harpsichord pieces.  Andriessen’s daughter played a Menuet from one of Kuhnau’s Partitas on the piano, and this became the basis for this marvelous essay in writing for a large string group.  It is gratifying to discover such relatively unfamiliar music, music that reflects a vital individuality and inventive spirit, but it is even more of a treat to hear it played well.  The recorded sound in entirely suitable accord with the performance.


DIVA ON DETOUR, an evening of cabaret-style songs recorded “live” by Patricia Racette, soprano and Craig Terry, piano.  GPR 32957.

Patricia Racette - Diva on DetourThis is a recording of a performance, and more often than not the individual songs flow into one another.  Patricia Racette is not the first operatic singer to essay popular music—In this instance, a cabaret-style of singing where the microphone is used to project the voice—but, intriguingly, she does not stray from the true character of the voice and there seem to be more similarities than disparities in the Racette who excels as Tosca, Cio-Cio San and other heroines of the Italian verismo and Verdian types and the one heard on this recording.  A different kind of vocal technique is used, truly enough; but she is doing it while she is in her prime, not like some other sopranos who essayed the lighter vein when their stage careers were essentially over.

Part of this lies in Ms. Racette’s own personal history as a musician: she harbored a girlhood dream of becoming a jazz singer, having a love for the pop standards of the earlier twentieth century and particularly those of the 1930s and early ’40s — not the usual musical preference of someone born in 1965; but, singing and playing the guitar, she learnt this music from her father’s friends, mostly “old retired guys” , as she put it. These were the songs of composers like Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen, the songs of George Gershwin and the déplorations of the short-lived Edith Piaf.  A New Hampshire native, Patricia Racette went to the College of Music at the University of North Texas with the intention of enrolling in the school’s division of jazz vocal studies—only to be told that her full-voiced soprano was better suited to opera.  She grew to love opera, and continues to enjoy a highly successful and fruitful career; but, with this release, she returns to her roots.  She is not, as she herself emphasizes, abandoning opera or lessening its importance in her artistic life, but adding one more facet of her art to her public arsenal.

Patricia Racette’s sole partner in this enterprise, as much a star as she, is pianist Craig Terry, who undertook the arrangements.  His background as a conductor and chamber music player clearly shows in his playing and in the rich imagination he brings to the partnership.  The pearly tone he brings to the lengthy introduction to Earl Brent’s Angel Eyes is riveting, and his infectious scherzando treatment of Stephen Sondheim’s I’m Calm (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) goes hand in hand with her sudden and momentary departure from singing to speech and a kind of strascinando (holding back) on the word brook.  This song, more than any other on the disc, shows a phenomenal gift for comedy.  Her diction is something that could be very instructive to many pop singers, and her French diction in the Piaf songs is above reproach.  Pianist Terry’s evocation of the French cabaret style in Milord very nearly gets the audience into rhythmic hand-clapping.  The medley of three Piaf songs , following I’m Calm in the sequence of the program, is a high point for Racette—who uses spoken commentary to introduce the set, and as a bridge from the first to the second number.  Significantly, she never sounds like an operatic singer trying to be a cabaret singer.  This is honest, from-the-heart music making; and it proves that if an artist thinks that something is good music and animates one’s life, he or she should indeed perform it.