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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Wu Han LIVE II - Highlights from Music@Menlo
Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, op. 1 (1895) [28.57]
Sergei Ivanovich TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Piano Quintet, op. 30 (1910/11) [41.49]
Wu Han (piano)
Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello)
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Nicolas Dautricourt (violin) (Dohnányi)
Arnaud Sussmann (violin), Sean Lee (violin) (Taneyev)
rec. live, Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival, 5 August 2014 (Dohnányi); 2/3 August 2016 (Taneyev), Center for Performing Arts, Menlo-Atherton High School, Atherton, CA, USA
MUSIC@MENLO no number [70.46]

This is the second edition of the Wu Han LIVE series. The album contains a pair of piano quintets from Ernő Dohnányi and Sergei Taneyev recorded in 2014 and 2016 at the annual Music@Menlo chamber music festival in the San Francisco Bay area. I first saw Wu Han play in recital with her husband David Finckel at a BDP Music Society recital, Preston, England during the 2003/04 season whilst was still a member of the Emerson Quartet and I have seen them several times since most recently at the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. The pair are indubitably dedicated chamber music performers who relish playing with and nurturing younger performers.

Whilst the compositions of Bartók and Kodály embody a twentieth-century consciousness Dohnányi’s music is conservative and tonal, embedded in the Hungarian Nationalist traditions of the nineteenth century. At one time Dohnányi’s music was classed alongside that of Bartók and Kodály his close contemporaries and fellow countrymen. However, Dohnányi’s reputation suffered from accusations that he was a Nazi collaborator back in his native Hungary during World War 2; which he and his family always denied. Such charges can badly stain a composer’s status and it can take decades for rehabilitation with Dohnányi being a case in point.

An exceptional pianist Dohnányi was interested in chamber music from his formative years. Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 a product of his time as a teenage student at the Budapest Academy of Music, was admired by no less a figure than Brahms in Vienna who endorsed the work. My word, this is an assured opus one from the eighteen year old composer and Wu Han and company revel in the delights of this effervescent score. With its dark, intense textures the opening movement Allegro has a squally and temperamental character. Next the fleeting Scherzo in the style of a folk inspired Bohemian furiant with a bustling drive given to the forward momentum. Tender and romantic in the slow movement the players infuse the writing with keen introspection. Less windswept than the opening Allegro the rondo Finale marked Allegro animato is given a vital and upbeat performance.

Of the rival recordings probably the best known account is from pianist András Schiff and Takács Quartet for its dedicated and accomplished performance recorded in 1987 at Schubert Saal, Konzerthaus on Decca. Also admirable is the 1995 account from the Schubert Ensemble of London for its musicality and strong unity on Hyperion.

The music of Taneyev has been long overshadowed by the popularity of his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and most significantly Tchaikovsky. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Brahms’ Taneyev wrote four symphonies, although, I have never encountered them in the concert hall or even seen them programmed for that matter. Taneyev did write a fine body of chamber music numbering some twenty works. With releases such as this on ArtistLed Taneyev’s music is at last beginning to receive the attention it deserves.

Taneyev’s career is inextricably linked to the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition with Tchaikovsky and piano with Nikolai Rubinstein. A gifted pianist Taneyev was entrusted with the Russian première of the Brahms First Piano Concerto and the Moscow première of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Tchaikovsky held Taneyev in such esteem that he sought his opinion of his works. Taneyev a professor of composition became director of Moscow Conservatory but is best known today as the teacher of Lyapunov, Glière, Scriabin, Medtner and Rachmaninov.

Composed in 1910/11 the Piano Quintet in G minor is in my view Taneyev’s finest chamber work, a masterpiece that deserves wider attention. Lasting here almost forty-two minutes the four movement score makes a considerable impression with the composer making full use of the extra possibilities afforded by the instrumentation of four strings and piano. In the massive opening movement the slow introduction is imbued with a dark and yearning quality. Following on in the main Allegro patetico section the players respond with distinct blustery and determined feel to the writing that billows forward in waves together with contrasting episodes of calm. Lithe and brisk in the joyous Scherzo Wu Han’s piano part tends to dominate together with a conspicuous martial quality. A central passage of calm contemplation adds to the variety of the wonderful writing. Opening the glorious Largo is a bold statement with a deliberate rhythm. The passionate yearning quality from the string players is striking before extremely tender and tasteful writing for the piano in the spirit of Brahms takes centre stage. In the Finale a confident and forthright Allegro Vivace the players underline the restless, near stormy quality that breezes along with tenacity generating considerable impact especially with its fortissimo close.

Certainly the most familiar and in my view the finest account of Taneyev’s Piano Quintet was recorded in 2003 at Théâtre Vevey, Switzerland superbly played and recorded by a starry cast of soloists consisting of Mikhail Pletnev (piano), Vadim Repin (violin), Ilya Gringolts (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), Lynn Harrell (cello) on Deutsche Grammophon. Another worthy release is the 2011 account on CPO from the quintet of Anna Zassimova (piano), Albrecht Breuninger (violin), Stefan Krznaric (violin), Julien Heichelbech (viola) and Bernhard Lörcher (cello) recorded at Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, SWR Baden-Baden.

This album was recorded at live performances from Center for Performing Arts, Menlo-Atherton High School. Grammy award winning record producer Da-Hong Seetoo has provided relatively close sound which although resonant is never boomy, clear with a satisfying balance. There is virtually no audience noise to worry about and the applause has been taken out.

One can really sense the unbridled joy of music making from Wu Han and friends at the Music@Menlo festival. Standing out positively is the strikingly expressive and stylish playing, steadfast ensemble and exemplary intonation served by attractive sound. Since its arrival this album of piano quintets has been a virtual fixture on my player.

Michael Cookson


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