Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Three Rhapsodies (Française; Polonaise; Viennoise), Op.53 (1903-04) [21:06]
Alexander ARUTYUNIAN (b.1920) and Arno BABADJANIAN (1921-1983)
Armenian Rhapsody (1950) [5:57]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Russian Rhapsody (1891) [9:45]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [17:21]
Franz (Ferenc) LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (arr. Kleinmichel, cadenza by Yuval Admony) (1851) [10:28]
Tami Kanazawa, Yuval Admony (piano)
rec. 2001(Schmitt)-2003, Rolston Recital Hall, Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada
ROMÉO RECORDS 7276 [64:37]

There is some excellent playing here, but it took me some time to warm to this disc. This was mostly due to the music that opens the program, and takes about one third of its length: three Rhapsodies by Florent Schmitt. Schmitt’s music has experienced somewhat of a revival in the last few years, and his name has started appearing in release lists. I happen to know some of his music, and much of it is good. The composer seems to have fallen in the pit between the pillars of Debussy and Les Six, but if judged solely on the evidence of the three works presented here, I’d say he had better stay forgotten in this pit.

The three Rhapsodies are subtitled Française, Polonaise and Viennoise, but they have neither enough diversity nor national character to earn these labels. More or less, these are three bourgeois Waltzes, with some salon melancholy and salon comfort, and a lot of circus pomp and bravura. Don’t follow the square tunes: there is little to follow there. If you want to spend your time better, listen to the music that surrounds the tune: some of the accompanying touches are quite intricate and stimulating. There are episodes with soft, caressing harmonies, and with glittering quicksilver runs; there are overblown Romantic climaxes and hushed, elegiac moments. However the main musical content is plain, and the melodies usually just rise up – and go down, up – and down. Schmitt certainly gave a lot of work to the pianists, and I am sure this can be great music to watch – especially when performed with such poise and assurance.

Armenian folk music is very melodic, and some of its characteristic twists and turns can be already familiar to you from Khachaturian’s works. Two of his younger compatriots – Arutyunian and Babadjanian – collaborated on the Armenian Rhapsody. The beginning is slower and darker – like a ballad. The music goes higher and louder, and the tension grows. After a short climax the music calms down, and we move into the brisk and lively second part. It brings to mind the main theme of the first movement of Khachaturian’s violin concerto – with the same lightness and fervor, insistent rhythmic pressure, and a similar nervous “saw-teeth” melody. The music is memorable and, compared to other works on this disc, seems too short. It comes, it rolls past you – and is gone, like a swift dance.

The Russian Rhapsody of Rachmaninov was written when the composer was just 18. It is essentially a set of variations of increasing density. The theme is very Russian, and it seems as if we have already heard it in some of Tchaikovsky’s music. It is simple, but does not sound square, and provides a rich base for variations. The strong influence of Tchaikovsky is clearly felt, but there already is a lot of Rachmaninov’s forming self, with its characteristic chanting and shimmer. The slow variation is very beautiful. Kanazawa and Admony give an excellent performance, worthy of the Russian piano school. Different performers usually emphasize different traits in this music: Kanazawa and Admony highlight its sunny, playful side.

Can one still enjoy Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue without Grofé’s sparkling orchestration? Surprisingly, yes: the main meat of this music, Gershwin’s rhythmic and melodic invention, is still there. The composer said about this composition: “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”. It’s all present in the two-piano arrangement – though it is hard to be without the famous opening clarinet glissando, or without all the wild orchestral tutti that we have become accustomed to. The playing is brilliant, though at the same time it seems a bit over-cautious. Maybe a more unbuttoned performance would better suit this brave new music. The “love theme” is wide and expressive, but outside it there is much hard staccato. Still, I was left with an overwhelming cinematographic feeling, just as after a good performance of the orchestral version. It’s the longest work on the disk, but it just flies by effortlessly.

The pianists show excellent synchronization in Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. In its ever-changing tempos they navigate as one living organism. The performance has all the necessary bravura and is technically very impressive. It is grand and childish exactly where needed. The cimbalom effects are well done. Again, it sounds too staccato to my taste, as if the pianists played it with mallets, not fingers. Also, here, as in other works, they are a little let down by the rather shallow and uninteresting piano sound.

I do not know who wrote the liner-note, but it is informative and engaging. It mostly speaks about the works present on the disk, on a rather accessible level. The recording quality is good and clear, but lacks some depth. As a whole, this is an interesting collection – though at some point I started skipping over the Schmitt pieces; I just can’t take the whole 20 minutes of golden oompah. The performance tends to be percussive, which is good for some works, less so for others.

Oleg Ledeniov

There is some excellent playing here, but it took me some time to warm to this disc.