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Elegy Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42 (1942) [22:13]
Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene, Op. 34 (1929) [9:43] Ernst KRENEK (1900-1991)
Symphonic Elegy for String Orchestra (1946) [14:49] Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No. 3, Sz 119, BB 127 (1945) [27:18]
Pina Napolitano (piano)
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Atvars Lakstīgala
rec. The Great Amber, Liepāja, Latvia, date not provided ODRADEK RECORDS ODRCD339 [74:06]
As the booklet notes for this release point out, all of these composers shared in "probably the largest migration of composers there has ever been." Soloist Pina Napolitano has already made her name in Schoenberg with a much admired recording of his complete piano music for the Ondine label, and with the Odradek reputation for fine sound this is a promising prospect.
Schoenberg's Piano Concerto was his last major work for orchestra and not the easiest of works to love, let alone perform well. With 12-note serialism in tension with the wider concerto tradition and Schoenberg's Viennese heritage in particular, this is a piece that demands and rewards study. If you are unfamiliar with the work I sometimes think it's almost best to start with the Adagio third movement, with its echoes of Webern in the muted brass, the romantic eloquence of some of the string passages, and the expressive deliberations of the piano part.
Comparing this recording with Amelie Malling with Michael Schřnwandt on the Chandos label (review) shows where there are advantages and disadvantages to the closer and more detailed recording with this Odradek disc. Malling is more compact in her view of each movement, bringing in each significantly shorter than the more lyrical Napolitano. This plus a more generalised, resonant recording results in a more buoyant impression of the work. Malling skates over the difficulties where Napolitano and Lakstīgalan dig in more, with a darker sound balance and deeper bass. The occasional weakness in the orchestra will always be exposed with this more forensic kind of view, and while things are usually very good there are one or two weaker moments, as well as plenty of fine detail that allows an exploration of Schoenberg’s fascinatingly colourful orchestration. Napolitano emphasises the aspect of dance in this and the rest of the programme in her own notes inside the foldout sleeve, but while there is plenty of rhythmic power it is the Chandos recording which offers a greater feel of movement.
Schoenberg's intriguing and less often heard Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene was written in response to a commission for an unspecified 'film scene' but never used as such. Schoenberg made no accommodation for the genre of film music in this case, and this is as expressionist and abstract as the Piano Concerto and perhaps even more so, despite the implied atmosphere of "threatening danger, fear, catastrophe" as the composer himself subtitled the piece.
Marginally less abstract but at times more cinematic, Ernst Krenek's Symphonic Elegy was written as a response to Webern's tragic death a year previously, inhabiting a world of grief in times of war and desperation in Austria at the time. Hugh Collins Rice points to the work's "Mahlerian expressive gestures," Krenek by no means attempting to imitate Webern's miniature gem-like style but drawing on that pre-war heritage that both composers shared.
Bartók's Third Piano Concerto is the last in a canon that has the greatest of competition to go up against when it comes to new recordings. Napolitano and Lakstīgalan are certainly an able enough partnership, but the music rather stolidly refuses to 'take off' in the first movement. The tempo is low, the duration coming in well over a minute and a half longer than Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Gianandrea Noseda (review) on the Chandos label. The same goes for the final Allegro vivace, which comes in at a rather stodgy 7:51 compared to Bavouzet's 6:23. This is less of a problem with the central Adagio religioso movement with Lakstīgala, though some rather fruity vibrato in the strings doesn't really help the atmosphere.
I wanted to love this recording, having admired what I've encountered of the new Odradek label's releases to date. You may be less picky than me and be able to enjoy these concerto performances more on their own terms than having some reviewer moan about what many might consider perfectly reasonable artistic decisions, and in this regard the Schoenberg comes of the better of the two. Alas, these aren't my favourite versions of these concertos, though plaudits go for the imaginative additional works on the programme. This is a glossy and attractively presented release, and the recording is full of depth and expressively balanced timbres. Pina Napolitano clearly has a great respect for this music and there are some good sounds on this recording, but I just wish she'd been able to release her more fiery Mediterranean side.