As You Like It
Patrizio Mazzola (piano)
Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie Konstanz/Kevin Griffiths
rec. 2016/18, Studio of Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie & Musikinsel Rheinau (Alte Bibliothek), Switzerland
ORLANDO RECORDS OR0040 [63:42]
This new CD features music performed by the German-Italian pianist Patrizio Mazzola, who was born in Genoa, but grew up in Switzerland, where he studied at the Lucerne Conservatory. In 2013 he founded the project ‘Femmusicale’ to promote women composers and to foster the gender debate in music – his other main area of interest is promoting Swiss music.
It’s important to know a little about Mazzola, and thus the rationale behind the works recorded on this CD. Furthermore, the booklet, in English and German, sheds further light on the choice of repertoire. Mazzola explains that, when Mozart was writing in the eighteenth century, he knew his audience and, more importantly, what they liked. He was always well aware of the fact that his music was essentially a cross between difficult and easy, brilliant, pleasing on the ear, or occasionally so profound that only the expert could understand it from the intellectual standpoint, while it could still appeal at the same time to the average person in the street, even if they weren’t fully aware why.
On the other hand, in 1913 the audience completely turned its back on new music, in a concert in Vienna, presenting new works by Schönberg, Berg, Webern, and Zemlinsky. The event, which subsequently became known as the ‘Wiener Watschenkonzert’, or Viennese ‘Slap-in-the-face’ Concert, ended up in chaos, and was unceremoniously cut short by police breaking up fistfights in the aisles. In fact, this apparent alienation between composer and audience is characteristic of most of the twentieth century, and even today, new music can have the reputation of being inaccessible, though much of what shocked the world last century has now generally been accepted into the standard orchestral repertoire.
Briefly returning to Mozart’s time, even then it was not that easy to bridge the gap between haughty artistic aspirations, and public taste. A composer of popular operas like Rossini forged an illustrious career, and, as a consequence, opera paraphrases and transcriptions were among the favourite items heard in musical salons. But ‘serious’ critics like Schumann viewed such salon music as shallow, and lacking in any depth, until such time as a composer like Chopin appeared on the scene. With his creative genius, he was able to merge the elegance of solon music with the highest originality and sophistication. The CD also features a short work by Chopin’s favourite student, Carl Filtsch, who would, no doubt, have followed in his teacher’s footsteps, had Filtsch not passed away at the age of just fifteen.
Fellow-Pole, Maria Szymanowska-Wolowska, is considered one of Chopin’s predecessors, and a composer ahead of her time, but initially she was not supported in her work by her husband, whom she later divorced, and then as a single-mother of three children, was able to concentrate on pursuing a productive musical career. On the other hand, Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, Felix’s older sister, was far less successful in her struggle for independence, and, even on the occasion of her twenty-third birthday, was still encouraged by her father to prepare for her actual profession – that of a simple housewife.
However, Cécile Chaminade was able to overcome her father’s scepticism, and became an internationally-acclaimed pianist and composer, even though, later in the twentieth century, she had been relegated to virtual obscurity, a situation however, which by the end of the same century, had significantly changed for the better, when the growing interest in women composers revived her popularity. Of course, after the somewhat rigid dissolution of tonality by the second Viennese School of Berg, Schönberg, Webern and others, it became increasingly harder again for composers to reconcile their artistic ideals with prevailing public taste. Some like Gershwin solved the problem in the 1920s with an amalgam of jazz and classical music, while others followed on later in the 60s under the Minimalist banner.
French composer Germaine Tailleferre charted another route, that of neoclassicism, which, for her, embraced various influences, ranging from Debussy’s impressionism, to the 12-tone style of Schönberg et al. Then, towards the end of the last century, things started to relax somewhat, different styles were tolerated, often blurring traditional borderlines between popular and classical music. Swiss pianist, concert-organist and academic Jürg Lietha, follows Gershwin in seeking to achieve a synergy of jazz and classical music, while Swiss compatriot Ruth Dürrenmatt sought to introduce her listeners to the soundscapes of the twenty-first century.
At this juncture the booklet introduces the final composer on the CD, four of whose works take up the first four tracks. Jan Beran was born in the former Czechoslovakia but has been living in Switzerland since 1968. He studied mathematics and physics at the ETH Zurich, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university in the Swiss city. His musical background is in classical piano but since 1984 he has devoted himself to electronic Music. The CD in fact opens with his Piano Concerto In Licht zerhaucht (‘Diffused in Light’) – the title refers to the poem ‘Abendwolken’ by Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862), which has been set to music as a Lied by a number of composers including Robert Kahn, Franz Paul Lachner, and Othmar Schoeck. The concerto is an example of interactive orchestration, whereby the composer divided its two movements into smaller basic building blocks that can be arranged freely. In an experiment with a set of seven building blocks and 326 possible combinations, the audience was asked to choose their favourite arrangement – with quite astonishing results. The most popular version was identical with the choice the composer had used in the original score three years before this experiment. Things, therefore, had seemingly come full circle where, as was noted sometimes with Mozart’s music, a group of uninformed listeners still appeared able to piece ideas together to produce the most pleasing effect on the ear, even if totally unsure how they might even have achieved this.
The first movement opens with a not-unfamiliar minimalist texture suggestive of change-ringing bell-patterns, before a more aggressive, yet eminently tonal passage ensues, where timpani play an important part. Strings soon dominate the repetitive soundscape, until the piano resumes its solo role, where the harmony tends to progress in parallel fourths and fifths. This leads to further input from the piano, often in two-part counterpoint, though where the hands are harmonically very independent, leading to a calm conclusion. The second movement takes up where the first left off, in terms of the early rather repetitive section where timpani had much to contribute. Strings once more dominate the texture temporarily, before the piano returns with further canonic passages, as the music becomes rather more aggressive for a while. A decidedly chordal and pleasantly diatonic section follows, which leads into an even more tonal section, which is occasionally disturbed by the piano’s desire to return to the stuff of the first movement, before the movement seemingly evaporates and is gone for ever.
Leis’ wie eine Märchenweise (‘Soft as a fairy tune’), from ‘Traumgekrönt’ (‘Crowned with dreams’) – a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) – is an appealing chord-based piece in contemporary style, to which the piano adds its own often harp-like decorations. Starting out quietly, the piano writing becomes more and more agitated and, at times virtuosic, strangely coming to a close on an unresolved second-inversion triad. All-in-all it really does convey the spirit of Rilke’s words to perfection. Beran’s final offering is his Valse nostalgique – hommage à Fanny et Felix Mendelssohn and while there is no specific stylistic allusion to the works of the brother-and-sister team, it is always pleasing on the ear, while largely making use of minor tonalities and harmonies, and interesting piano textures, most of which are largely chord-based – almost alluding to the music of Ludovico Einaudi (born 1955), but with decidedly more substance, direction, and development.
Then follows Hensel-Mendelsohn’s own Lied in F sharp major, an attractive-enough offering in conventional ternary form – major-minor-major. Szymanowska-Wolowska’s Le murmure is actually designated a Nocturne, though it is far busier that the simple title of ‘night-piece’ would suggest. It could clearly serve as a model for Chopin’s Étude in A flat, Op 25 No1, and actually shares the same key. Her Waltz in E flat could also provide a template for a Chopin Waltz, especially in the way she incorporates a couple of subsidiary waltz-sections in related keys, something of which her successor became the consummate past-master.
The two Chopin miniatures which follow – the Mazurka in A flat, and Waltz in E – are good examples of their respective genres, while the Mazurka in E flat minor by Carl Filtsch, gives a real insight into what might have been, had not Chopin’s favourite prodigy been taken from this earth at such a tragically young age.
Mozart’s contribution is his Adagio für Glasharmonika, written for the blind exponent Marianne Kirchgessner and heard here in a version for piano solo. The Glass Harmonica, or Armonica, was actually invented by Benjamin Franklin – founding father of the United States – and consists of a series of rotating glasses played with the fingers. The Adagio is a simple work, for an instrument that enjoyed some popularity at the time. However the fact that such a seemingly contented, and unassuming little piece could appear in 1791 – Mozart’s final year – alongside such sublime masterpieces as his Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, K 595, the Requiem, Clarinet Concerto and, of course, his opera Die Zauberflöte, is really quite hard to envisage.
Rossini’s Auf dem Rütli is a piano arrangement of a short orchestral passage from the composer’s opera Wilhelm Tell, and is basically pastoral in nature throughout, suggestive of a Ranz des Vaches, but becoming a little more aggressive in the middle. Cécile Chaminade’s charming Pièce romantique is just what you would expect from the composer of Automne, arguably her best-known piece, and the second of six Études de concert – even if it has become a tad hackneyed over time.
Germaine Tailleferre’s Seule dans la forêt (‘Alone in the forest’) is a perfectly-formed example of her neo-classical style, recreating the world of the French clavecinistes like Couperin, Rameau, and Daquin, but with a contemporary harmonic feel especially at its close. Here the world of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), himself a fellow-member of the group of young composers nicknamed Les Six, is never far away. Ruth Dürrenmatt’s Valse mélancolique is a strangely powerful piece, often with a melismatic outpouring of notes in one hand, set against an insistent waltz-time pattern in the other. Harmonically-speaking, there is more than a hint of Shostakovich here, and, as with the Russian composer, Dürrenmatt gently leads the listener through some interesting harmonies and juxtapositions, but in a way that feels perfectly natural, and in no way unpleasant.
Jürg Lietha’s Bagatelle “Tendresse”, which concludes the CD, is a typical example of the kind of modern fusion mentioned earlier, which here results in an ‘easy-listening’ pill that is undeniably easy to swallow. Yes, it sounds like so many similar examples in this popular genre, but it is tasteful, well-crafted, and avoids any feeling of mere banality, while still genuinely able to tug on the heart strings, and provides a most pleasant way to finish this highly original new disc.
When I first got hold of this CD, my initial play-through didn’t make me feel I wanted to listen to it again in detail. Merely taking the tracks one at a time, it’s hard to see any overall connection. It opens with a two-movement piano concerto from someone fairly unfamiliar to most, followed then by a mix of familiar, and less familiar names. Five of the eleven composers are women, two are Swiss, three are Polish, and two are French – could this perhaps suggest any kind of common thread? Well, only by reading through the booklet has the CD’s true raison d’être now been revealed, since its title, ‘As You Like It’, doesn’t really make things clear. But even the booklet seems decidedly deficient in providing any specific information about the majority of the pieces played.
With each subsequent listening, I now find more and more to appreciate and enjoy, and, even if Beran’s Piano Concerto is unlikely to make me want to hear more of his music, there will be many who can align themselves, far more comfortably than I do, with his style of composition.
The solo performances from Patrizio Mazzola, and the orchestral support from the Südwestdeutsche Philaharmonie Konstanz, under the assured and sympathetic direction of London-born conductor Kevin Griffiths, are first-class, and the recording captures every aspect of a wide-ranging selection of piano music, as well as some unusual orchestral timbres and sonorities in the Piano Concerto.
‘As You Like It’ is, perhaps, somewhat more thought-provoking than your average CD, but if you’re prepared to give it the time, then you should find it ultimately as rewarding as I have.
Philip R Buttall
Jan BERAN (b. 1959)
In Licht zerhaucht for piano and orchestra (2016) [17:44]*
Leis’ wie eine Märchenweise for piano solo (2017) [5:46]
Valse nostalgique – hommage à Fanny et Felix Mendelssohn for piano (2017) [8:05]
Fanny HENSEL-MENDELSSOHN (1828-1847)
Lied in F sharp Major, Op 6 No 4 (1846) [18:06]
Maria SZYMANOWSKA-WOLOWSKA (1789-1831)
Le mumure [2:46]
Waltz in E flat major [1:55]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka No 16 in A flat major, Op 24 No 3 (1833) [1:57]
Waltz No 15 in E major, Op post (1829) [2:34]
Carl FILTSCH (1830-1845)
Mazurka in E flat minor, Op 2 No 3 [3:31]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Adagio für Glasharmonika, K 356 (1791) [3:07]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Auf dem Rütli [3:07]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Pièce romantique, Op 9 No 1 [2:10]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Seule dans la forêt (1952)
Ruth DÜRRENMATT (b. 1951)
Valse mélancolique (2018) [2:06]
Jürg LIETHA (b. 1952)
Bagatelle “Tendresse” (2016) [4:18]