Jerry Dubins, Fanfare Magazine Jan – Feb 2015

Fanfare-magazineJanuary/February 2015

The backstory to these four releases may actually turn out to be the front story; for at a time when record sales are purportedly at historic lows, a brand new label, Independent Creative Sound and Music (ICSM), has been founded in London in 2014 with a commitment to “uncompromising quality in every aspect of the recording process.”

At hand are the first fruits of ICSM’s labors: two discs in its Solo series (002 and 003). One features Bulgarian pianist Ivo Varbanov performing a program of works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms; the other features Italian pianist Fiammetta Tarli performing pieces by Schubert, Schumann, and Schoenberg. The other two albums (001 and 004) are classified under the Omnia series rubric, one featuring Tarli and Varbanov together in four-hand versions of Brahms’s waltzes, the other featuring Varbanov, again by himself, in three of Brahms’s solo piano works.

I’m not exactly sure why solo piano recital discs made up of works by more than one composer vs. solo piano recital discs made up of works by a single composer need to have separate classifications—it seems like a distinction without a difference to me—but it’s hardly a point of criticism in light of the end results achieved by these artists, recording engineers, producers, and everyone involved with these releases.

Everything about these albums exhibits not just a feeling of quality but a feeling of love and caring for the music and for its communication through the medium of recording. Detailed and informative notes on the works by music historian and veteran program note author Malcolm MacDonald are followed by credits pages naming the entire production team, along with all of the high-end, audiophile equipment used to make the recordings, and the piano used for all four albums, a model E-272 concert grand from the manufacturer Steingraeber & S?hne in Bayreuth, Germany. The Brahms waltzes booklet even includes the verses (in German, no English translation) by Georg Friedrich Daumer to which Brahms set the pieces.

Ivo Varbanov and Fiammetta Tarli are husband and wife. Both studied in London, he at the Royal Academy of Music and in master classes with Alexander Lonquich; she at King’s College and also in master classes with Lonquich.

It seems I’ve encountered Varbanov before, and in a Brahms program no less, performing the composer’s two rhapsodies, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, and op. 119 piano pieces. That was over six years ago in Fanfare 32:1. At the time, I felt that Varbanov had not yet grown naturally into Brahms, but six years is a long time and can make a huge difference in an artist’s outlook and maturity. Here Varbanov, in the all-Brahms album (004), demonstrates impressive muscle and endurance in the sonata, taming its trenchant writing and shaping its sprawling form with disciplined mind and hands.

Despite its later opus number, Brahms’s E?-Minor Scherzo was composed in 1851, two years before the sonata. Malcolm MacDonald has called the piece “demonic,” referring not just to its “unremitting rhythmic urge, but to its musical character, which has about it the “whiff of Hoffmannesque devilry,” with its “apparently deliberate reminiscence of Heinrich Marschner’s then-popular ‘troll opera,’ Hans Heiling.” It’s an unusual piece to come from the pen of the 18-year-old Brahms, but it anticipates some of the rhythmically driven, uneasy movements one hears in the composer’s later chamber works. Liszt did Brahms the honor of playing the scherzo before an assembly of guests in Weimar, whereupon Brahms promptly returned the favor by dozing off while Liszt played his own B-Minor Sonata. It would be hard to doze during Varbanov’s performance of the scherzo, which is filled with a growing sense of malevolence and pressing urgency.

Brahms’s four ballades are also a bit unusual, not because they’re out of character for the composer’s youthful romantic ardor at the time (1854), but because they take a rather different approach to Chopin’s ballades of a dozen years earlier, which had come to define the form. Brahms takes the literary sources that inspired his ballades more seriously, composing pieces that are neither brilliant in a technically showy way nor lyrical or poetic in nature; rather, the numbers are of a bardic spirit and declamatory in style, as if some ancient Celtic legend were being retold. Varbanov tells the timeless tales in tones of deep tolling.

The other album that Varbanov has all to himself contains Beethoven’s final set of Bagatelles, op. 126, Schumann’s Ges?nge der Fr?he (Song of Dawn), op. 133, and six of Brahms’s 11 Chorale Preludes for organ, op. 122, in their transcriptions for piano by Ferruccio Busoni. The one and only thing all three of these works have in common is that they represent their respective composers’ final keyboard compositions and, in Brahms’s case, his actual valedictory address.

Beethoven wasn’t quite done when he wrote the bagatelles in 1824; still to come over the next two years were the string quartets 13–16 and his last work, the controversial alternate finale to op. 130. But this last set of bagatelles doesn’t quite fit the description of the genre as a “trifle.” Short they may be, but the pieces resemble in their style of writing the sound world one encounters in Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. The fast movements are compact and somewhat crabbed and cryptic sounding, while the slow ones adumbrate a vision of the godhead.

Next in the category of last keyboard works is Robert Schumann’s Ges?nge der Fr?he, composed in the autumn of 1853, by which time, as it has been indelicately put, the composer “had already boarded the one-way express train to complete mental and emotional breakdown.” But before reaching journey’s end, he managed to pen these five miniatures for solo piano. Considering the trying circumstances under which the pieces were written, the work’s title seems rather inconsonant, but not so much as the music itself, the writing of which sounds a bit effortful or forced and fleetingly, a gaunt specter of the composer Schumann once was.

Varbanov concludes this solo recital disc with a selection of six numbers from Brahms’s 11 Chorale Preludes, op. 122, in this case not just a last keyboard work but a last work, period. In 1902, not long after they were written in 1896, famed pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni transcribed six of the preludes—Nos. 4, 5, and 8–11—for piano. Expertly realized by Busoni as they are, I think the pieces lose some of their aura of spiritual contemplation that radiates from within and illuminates them when they’re heard in their original organ settings. That takes nothing away, however, from the deeply felt expressivity Ivo Varbanov brings to them, and to the Beethoven and Schumann works as well, in these exquisite performances.

Pianist Fiammetta Tarli takes over for the solo piano disc containing Schubert’s Moments musicaux, Schumann’s Phantasiest?cke, and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. If there’s a Leitmotif to Fimmetta’s album, as there seems to be to Varbanov’s, I’m not sure what it might be.

The six numbers that make up Schubert’s Moments musicaux were not composed all at once; the third and sixth pieces were written as early as 1823 and 1824, while the other four are believed to date from 1827 and 1828. Each of the Moments is an independent album leaf, though not all of them are small-scaled miniatures; the first two numbers last almost six minutes apiece, while the last number, published separately and popularized outset of the set as “Les plaintes d’un troubadour,” lasts almost eight minutes. The general style of the pieces, however, is closer to Schubert’s waltzes, L?ndler, and German dances than it is to the more extended, more virtuosic, and more formally developed impromptus. An exception, perhaps, is the No. 4 in C? Minor, a perpetual motion piece in its outer sections that resembles a Bach prelude. Tarli plays the Moments musicaux with an unaffected directness that allows them to speak with charm and grace, while acknowledging the domestic music-making purposes for which they were almost surely intended.

Much, if not most, of Schumann’s solo piano music takes a literary source as its inspiration, and the Fantasiest?cke, op. 12, is no exception. Its source was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Fantasiest?cke in Callots Manier. Jacques Callot (1592–1635) was a famous printmaker and draftsman from the Duchy of Lorraine whose fanciful and fantastic prints, such as Grostesque Dwarves, would have appealed to both Hoffmann and Schumann’s illustrative imaginations. But it wasn’t just Hoffmann’s Callot that inspired Schumann. As with many of his other works, a skirt was involved, one worn by an Anna Robena Laidlaw, a young, talented Scottish pianist to whom Schumann found himself attracted and to whom he dedicated the Fantasiest?cke.

The opus number of Fantasiest?cke is a bit misleading. Composed in 1837, it’s not one of the composer’s earliest solo piano works. It’s preceded, in fact, by a number of Schumann’s important and very popular pieces: the “Abegg” Variations (1830), Papillons (1831), the C-Major Toccata (1832), Carnaval (1835), all three piano sonatas (1833–1835), and Davidsb?ndlert?nze (1837). The Fantasiest?cke is thus fully mature Schumann, marked by all the arabesque-like keyboard figuration, spontaneous-sounding melodic sweep, Romantic impulse, and technically demanding virtuosity, all of which Tarli demonstrates her mastery of and real feeling for.

Malcolm MacDonald’s program note introduces us to Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces with the priceless sentence, “Unlike Schubert and Schumann, Arnold Schoenberg was no pianist.” It made me laugh out loud because I’ve met more than one person in my life who would say, “Arnold Schoenberg was no composer.” Indeed, one is in for quite a jolt going from track 14 on the disc, the concluding number in Schumann’s Fantasiest?cke to track 15, the first of the Schoenberg pieces. Rest assured, though, that Schoenberg’s notorious 12-tone system works were still 10 years in the future when he composed the Six Little Piano Pieces in 1913.

In fact, the score marks the composer’s turning away from the hyper-Romantic works he’d been writing up to that point—Verkl?rte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisande, and Gurrelieder. In a somewhat amusing case of the student becoming the teacher, Schoenberg took a page from the young composer who had been his pupil until 1908, Anton Webern. Schoenberg had roundly criticized his student for wanting to write atomized, atonal, fitful little scraps of pieces at a time when he, Schoenberg, was writing large, complex orchestral works. But it turns out that Webern was the more prescient of the two; for now, after Webern was no longer under Schoenberg’s guidance, the latter decided to reassess his own direction and chart a new course.

“Away,” he said, “with motivic work! Away with harmony as the cement of my architecture! Away with pathos! Away with 24-pound protracted scores! My goal: complete liberation from form and symbols, context and logic.” And thus was born the Six Little Piano Pieces, which, if we take Schoenberg at his word, is music without form, without logic, without harmony, without motive, and without emotion. Or, to quote Rossini, who, when asked for his opinion of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, replied, “It’s a good thing it’s not music.”

As we know, of course, Schoenberg’s strict and stern German mindset could not long endure the absence of order, and so it came to pass that the man who proclaimed himself free from form, context, symbols, and logic would eventually adopt one of the most obsessive-compulsive systems for composition ever devised. Long-time readers who know me will, of course, recognize that I’m having fun with this, but joking aside, you do have to acknowledge the irony and humor in it.

How should one describe Fiammetta Tarli’s performances of pieces, which, according to their composer, are explicitly liberated from form, symbols, context, logic, and feeling? Is she to be applauded if her readings strike us as shapeless and her execution expressionless? After all, she’d only be fulfilling Schoenberg’s stated intentions. In the event, it turns out that Tarli’s presentation of the Six Little Pieces is far more coherent and appealing than the one given by Jean Louis Steuerman I reviewed in 34:3. I would place Tarli’s readings on equal footing with those I’ve heard by Roland P?ntinen on BIS and Maurizio Pollini on Deutsche Grammophon, and she is better recorded on this ICSM release than either of them.

Finally, we come to the piano four hands disc, in which husband and wife team Ivo Varbanov and Fiammetta Tarli join to give us Brahms’s complete waltz oeuvre. During the composer’s lifetime these were some of his most popular works, and they made good money for him and his publishers. The Waltzes, op. 39, can be categorized as a type of popular parlor music, mainly intended for purposes of home entertainment and enjoyment by reasonably accomplished amateur musicians. The piano was the wide-screen TV of the day, and family and friends would gather for music-making get-togethers, much as they do today to watch Sunday football.

The 16 waltzes that comprise op. 39 were originally composed for piano four hands, as they’re heard here, but their popularity led to numerous transcriptions and arrangements, including two for solo piano by Brahms himself, and others for orchestra and various combinations of instruments by other hands.

The two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes are a bit different in that they were originally composed, according to Brahms in a letter to his publisher, as “pretty concert numbers.” In other words, they were not meant for home and hearth. They’re actually songs for mixed chorus with piano four-hand accompaniments set to texts from Polydora by G. F. Daumer. Since the piano parts pretty much double the voice parts throughout, it was a fairly simple business for Brahms to make non-vocal arrangements of the Liebeslieder Waltzes for just piano four hands, which were published as opp. 52a and 65a. Performed in their piano four-hands versions by Varbanov and Tarli, they’re an absolute delight to hear.

Ivo Varbanov began playing the piano at age six. After study in Bulgaria and Italy, as mentioned earlier, he traveled to England to continue his training at the Royal Academy of Music. Upon completing his postgraduate work, he launched his career with concert and solo recital appearances in Bulgaria, Italy, the UK, France, Spain, Ireland, Slovakia, Germany, Holland, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and the U.S., with performances at the Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, Cadogan Hall, St. John’s Smith Square, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, Bulgaria Concert Hall, Sofia, and Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg.

A bout with leukemia forced Varbanov to take time out from his concertizing activities between 2009 and 2012, but he returned to the stage with impressive performances at Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kings Place, and Cadogan Hall in London; and in the last two seasons, he has been partnering in chamber music concerts with Fiammetta Tarli, Konstantin Lifschitz, the Allegri Quartet, and others.

Fiammetta Tarli started studying piano at the age of five and gave her first concert at nine. Later she continued her studies with Maria Tipo and at the Florence Conservatory, where she took her diploma in Piano Performance and Music Studies. She received her Master of Musicology and Ph.D. degrees from King’s College, while continuing her performing and teaching activities. Tarli performs regularly in Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Spain, and the UK, both as a soloist and in chamber music groups.

There is not a single track on any of these four CDs I’d want to be without. The music is self-recommending, Varbanov and Tarli’s playing of it is everything one could ask for and then some, and the recordings from this new ICSM label are amazing.

Whether these releases will be available through the more frequently visited retailers, such as Amazon and ArkivMusic, by the time you read this, I don’t know. As of right now, in October 2014, I’m only finding them at the UK’s web site. ICSM’s web site lists dozens of distributors in practically every country on the planet, except for the U.S. However, you can purchase them directly from Ivo Varbanov’s web site, I strongly suspect that as a brand new startup company, ICSM is in the process of working out its distribution arrangements as I write this, so please don’t be deterred in acquiring these albums as soon as possible. Jerry Dubins

This article originally appeared in Issue 38:3 (Jan/Feb 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.

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