Monday, January 23, 2017

Wu Han holds sway with string colleagues in quintets by Dohnanyi and Taneyev

Wu Han, a strong, visionary pianist and producer.
The second release in the "Wu Han Live" series of concert recordings extracted from Music at Menlo performances submits wholeheartedly to the highly finished Romantic inspiration of quintets for piano and strings by Erno Dohnanyi and Sergei Taneyev.

Wu Han, an eminent pianist-educator-impresario, also co-producer with her husband David Finckel of ArtistLed recordings, is the anchor of well-knit interpretations of Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor and Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G minor.

Both ensembles include violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Finckel. For Dohnanyi's precocious piece, his opus 1, the violinists are Alexander Sitkovetsky and Nicolas Dautricourt. In the Taneyev, Arnaud Sussman and Sean Lee are the violinists.

In program notes, Wu Han refers to these works as "unknown masterpieces," and the term may apply particularly well because both scores are demanding, and getting five top-flight musicians together to perform them is pretty rare. Music at Menlo, near San Francisco, is a summer festival capable of gathering that kind of excellence in service to a wide range of chamber music, from duos to octets.

In the first movement, the teenage Dohnanyi immediately leaps into his individualized claim on the romantic tradition in full flower, expanded from Brahms. The way the low rumble at the start quickly ascends in both pitch and volume to envelop the whole ensemble is a signal of the score's heft and ambition. The second-movement Scherzo uses a restless back-and-forth figure as a building block, relieved in the middle by flowing music before the scherzo theme returns to move gracefully toward a quiet conclusion.

The well-crafted slow movement extends the impression that the burgeoning composer had formal gifts well beyond his years. The rondo finale, with its bouncy theme in 5/4, is managed with ease by the ensemble, and the intervening episodes are firmly characterized. The apotheosis of the theme toward the end is beautifully handled, justifying the "Amen"-like cadence that caps the work.

The benefits of maturity for a well-equipped composer are more evident in Taneyev's quintet. The sprawling first movement finds so many uses for the main material, distributed across the ensemble in near-symphonic fashion. The players enjoy the benefits of good resonance and clarity in the recorded sound. Tempo fluctuations test the ensemble's unity, which holds up as if effortlessly.

After an expressively light, titillating Scherzo, there is a heavy Largo built on a passacaglia theme of stolid simplicity. On the verge of sounding academic, the movement seems oddly fresh and lovely in its self-confidence and steadiness. You hang on every note and are surprised to have been so fascinated; the musicians' conviction rings out, and you're hooked.

That's nothing compared to the finale, however. The bulk of it adheres to the "Allegro vivace" heading, yet there are convincing "maestoso" episodes and some moments of tender relief. The climax of the movement is awe-inspiring. The titanic control and power of Wu Han's playing seems to lift the entire ensemble, especially as the composer directs the piano to mimic the sound of great bells. This is the kind of Russian glory many listeners know from two moments in Mussorgsky: "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" and the Coronation Scene in "Boris Godunov."

I have a new musical fantasy: Hearing the Taneyev Piano Quintet in G minor in concert here, perhaps played by the new quartet formed at the University of Indianapolis last year. But then, what local pianist would be worthy? I have a suggestion or two, but that would get into politics. I'll have to let my imagination do the work for now. In any event, in this recorded performance the five players seem to levitate as the finale proceeds, and I suspect many listeners will join them.