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Lars Sellergren Plays: Volume 3
CD1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations in c-minor, WoO80 (1804)* [10:53]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphonic Etudes, Op.13 (1834-5)** [34:26]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in b-minor, S178 (1852-55)*** [27:49]
CD2
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Étude in c-minor, Op.10/12 (‘Revolutionary Étude’) (1832)^^^ [2:38]
Ballade in g-minor, Op.23^^^ [9:20]
Nocturne in F sharp, Op.15/2^^^ [3:25]
Polonaise in A-flat, Op.53^^^ [6:52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
12 Préludes, Premier Livre (1909-11)^ [39:36]
Images I : Reflets dans l’eau (1905)^^ [5:14]
Lars Sellergren (piano)
rec. radio broadcasts, *5 April 1977; **14 May 1981; ***27 April 1979; ^20th April 1978; ^^12 March 1975; ^^^TV recordings: 11 January 1966. Venues not stated. ADD.
STERLING CDA1662-63-2
[73:41 + 68:44]

 

Experience Classicsonline


This is the third volume of Lars Sellergren recordings to be issued by the Swedish label Sterling. Like Volume 1, which offers Piano Concertos by Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann and Franck, Volume 3 contains a wide-ranging programme, culled from radio and TV recordings. These range from 1966 (Chopin) to 1981 (Schumann) and all are at least adequate.
 

I didn’t come to these CDs with very high expectations, wondering what the point of them was. Collectors seeking a version of the Beethoven Variations, for example, may well already have good accounts of the Schumann, Liszt and Chopin and may not be interested in the very different sound-world of Debussy. The chief raison d’être for the programme here seems to have been the availability of the recordings, whereas Volume 2 - a 1999 broadcast recording of Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier, Book I - and the forthcoming Volume 4 (Mozart Sonatas and Concertos) offer more unified programmes. 

The works here offer a good range of music, almost a miniature encyclopedia of a century of pianistic style, presented in more or less chronological order, beginning with Beethoven’s 32 Variations (1804) and concluding with Debussy’s Préludes (1909-11) and Reflets dans l’eau from Images Book I (1905). The Schumann Symphonic Studies and the Liszt Sonata are the major pieces at the heart of the programme. 

The Beethoven Variations make a good introduction to the first CD. Sellergren brings out the light and shade of the music, with an emphasis on its serious and virtuosic aspects. His playing is evocative of the late Piano Sonatas, which is hardly surprising, since in the notes he hypothesises that perhaps “this is how [Beethoven] played when he took Vienna by storm.” His own playing is virtuosic but never showy, which makes me surmise that his account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 on Volume 1 would be worth hearing. His forthcoming CD of Mozart should also be worthwhile and I’d certainly like to hear him play some of Beethoven’s mature sonatas. 

The Schumann Studies receive very decent but unexceptional performances, sounding like the best performances one is likely to hear on the Radio 3 lunchtime recital – which is, of course, what they are, broadcast performances: nothing is out of place but there are no revelations. Schumann’s music expresses the two sides of his personality, the extrovert Florestan and the more introvert Eusebius, a contrast well brought out in Sellergren’s performances. He quotes Schumann’s own comment, “Der Verstand irrt, das Gefühl nicht” – intellect may err but not the feelings – and his own feeling for the music generally serves him well. A rollicking account of the Finale (track 19) rounds off the set very well. 

The Liszt Sonata is the major piece on these CDs and here Sellergren really is up against stiff competition in all price ranges. There is no point in detailed comparisons, except to say that I was surprised to discover that Sellergren actually takes 3½ minutes less than Brendel’s 1981 version (27:49 against 31:11) when my overall feeling was that he often failed to move the music along. 

Sellergren sees the sonata as the work of a man who had tired of virtuoso display and was now seeking to sublimate virtuosity to a sense of unified composition. Within the first minute he has stated three of the four main themes on which the work is based, and the fourth soon follows. Sellergren offers these themes with a virtuosity that emphasises their unity. As the sonata develops the themes are transformed – the forceful to the wistful, for example – and the trick is to achieve these transformations seamlessly, which Sellergren largely succeeds in doing. Significantly, the tempo indications for the various sections are nowhere listed in the notes. More seriously, the S number is nowhere given. The performance ends on a particularly happy note, with the peace after the storm and the completion of the cycle from the opening sotto voce to the quiet conclusion well brought out.

If you want to follow the various tempo changes – and to see what difficulties Liszt places in the way of the player – a score of the Sonata is available online.

Yet, good as Sellergren is, I had to play the Brendel performance immediately afterwards to remind myself what a great piece of music this is. Brendel’s version is available on Phillips 476 794 2 (with the Legends) or 475 718 8 (2 CDs with the Piano Concerto No.2, etc.) or 475 824 7 (with shorter Liszt pieces), all at mid price. One reviewer aptly described Brendel in the Liszt Sonata as “positive of his ground” and this is the icing on the cake which Sellergren’s version lacks. Brendel’s DDD recording on my copy of 432 048-2 (an earlier incarnation, no longer available) is also a touch clearer than Sellergren’s. If you want to live dangerously, try Demidenko’s version of the Sonata on budget-price Hyperion CDH55184. 

The performances of the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude which opens the second CD and the other Chopin pieces which follow – one each of four of his major forms, Étude, Ballade, Nocturne and Polonaise – are the oldest items here, still sounding well after more than four decades. Once again, the playing is good, especially in the Ballade (track 2), but hardly revelatory by comparison with the very stiff competition here. I refrain from comparison because no-one is likely to buy these CDs for these four pieces alone in preference to all-Chopin recitals. 

Nor is anyone likely to buy these CDs for the first book of Debussy’s Préludes, when there are so many excellent accounts of both books together. (Gieseking on EMI 5 67233-2 of the older school and Zimerman on DGG 435 773-2 of the younger school, to name but two. See TH’s review of Rogé’s Onyx recording for a good summing up of the situation – the budget-price Tirimo version which he recommends there is now on super-budget Regis RRC1111, marvellous value for a fiver in the UK. 

The question also arises whether Sellergren can cope as well with Debussy’s very different palette as he has with the romantic works so far offered. At first, I thought not – the opening Danseuses de Delphes (track 5) just a little too pedestrian and unmagical. Debussy does seem to be asking the impossible in marking the opening lent et grave and doux et soutenu, then doux mais en dehors – and what about the shades of distinction between pp, più pp, and ppp, but the best performers do manage to achieve the impossible here. Sellergren encompasses all these directions, but never seems to manage all four simultaneously. Voiles (track 6) is more magical, capturing both Debussy’s elusive direction dans un rythme sans rigueur et caressant and the spirit of the Monet painting on which it is based – a reproduction of which is available online.

Sellergren’s notes perhaps make too much of the connection between the Impressionist painters and Debussy – no parallel between two different art forms is ever exact, though I think the opening of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony comes very close to capturing the mood of Monet’s paintings of a foggy Westminster – but the piano does need to suggest in the same way that the brush-strokes do and, in most of the Préludes Sellergren succeeds in doing just that. The lightest of touches in Des pas sur la neige (track 10) is particularly successful in capturing the repeated markings with which the music is peppered: triste et lent, expressif et douloureux, comme un tendre et triste regret, etc. La fille aux cheveux de lin (track 12) is also very successful. 

As with the Liszt Sonata, the tempo indications are omitted from the documentation; they may be found along with the complete score of Book 1 online.

The second CD concludes with Reflects dans l’eau, from Images Book 1. Again, it is hard to see why the prospective purchaser should not wish to acquire the complete set of Images but Sellergren’s performance is more than adequate. A look at the score, available online as part of the complete Images Book 1, serves as a reminder of the complexity of this piece and to show that Sellergren’s art conceals art in his performance of the piece. 

Lars Sellergren’s own notes are effective, not only in setting these pieces in context, but also in clarifying his own approach to each piece. The English translation, despite the odd awkward phrase or inappropriate tense, is clear enough to avoid the reader’s having to turn to the Swedish original for clarification, though the music example showing the theme on which the Beethoven Variations are based can be found only on p.3 of the Swedish text. 

Since no other recording matches what is on offer on this 2-CD set, I have regarded comparisons as a waste of time and taken the music here on its own terms, apart from the Liszt. If you are in the market for the programme on offer, in performances which are never less than competent, you could do much worse: nothing on these CDs falsifies the music and not many pianists could perform as effectively the range of styles offered here. Despite their radio and TV provenance, the recordings are generally good – better than you are likely to hear on Radio 3 on FM or DAB, especially when sports fixtures reduce the latter’s barely acceptable 192 Kbps to 160. 

Not having encountered Lars Sellergren’s work before, I naïvely took the photograph on p.2 of the booklet at face value and imagined that I was listening to the work of a young artist on the threshold of his career. If the photograph really is a recent one, Sellergren must have discovered the elusive fountain of youth – or else his date of birth, 1927, is a misprint in both the Swedish and English notes. 

Had it not been for the fact that the programme as a whole is hardly likely to meet any one person’s requirements, some of the performances would have merited a Thumbs Up. As it is, I end as I began by wondering who would want this particular collection.

Brian Wilson


 




 


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