Classical CD reviews

Powerful pianists, and a date with ‘death’

DAVID LANG: ‘death speaks’

  • (Cantaloupe)

  • Lang, a cofounder of Bang on a Can, won the Pulitzer Prize for music for “The Little Match Girl Passion,” a stark meditation on death written for four voices and percussion. “Death speaks” is a companion to that piece and an even more direct confrontation with the topic. Lang’s initial inspiration came from Schubert, and the way in which death is not only present but personified in some of the composer’s greatest songs. So he cataloged every instance in Schubert’s song texts in which death communicates directly with a character or the listener.

  • If the textual source of Lang’s piece reaches back to Romanticism, its musical inspiration lies closer to our own time. “Indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert’s sensibilities now lie,” Lang writes in a provocative liner note. One can quibble with his argument, but not with the caliber of the ensemble he assembled to record the piece: singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), guitarist Bryce Dessner (the National), violinist Owen Pallett, and pianist Nico Muhly, all of them accomplished composers and/or songwriters.

  • Indeed, the lyrics, torn out of their original contexts and translated into English, could fit either art song or pop song. (“Turn to peace/Turn to peace/This is the only road that leads you home.”) Lang’s achievement is that categorization ceases to matter. His simple harmonies, repetitive structures, and skeletal instrumental accompaniment, transform the words into something painfully direct and unsettling, and deeply appropriate to the work’s title.

  • Also included is “depart,” a 2002 piece for four solo voices and mulitracked cellos. It was written for and plays at a morgue near Paris, built as a meditative space for survivors to see their loved ones one final time. Writing a piece for this setting was a noble and seemingly impossible task, but the end result is less compelling when detached from its intended setting.


SIMON TRPCESKI: Schubert, Bach, Liszt

  • (Wigmore Hall)

  • The pleasure of listening to Simon Trpceski is of listening to a craftsman who revels in the physical delight of playing his instrument. At the center of this recital is a buoyant account of the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy that benefits from Trpceski’s geniality and technical finesse. In lesser hands this music can sound bombastic, but Trpceski clarifies the teeming passagework and refuses to allow the piece to climax too soon. A sense of restraint is evident, too, in the thunderous friska of the Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody, where the textures remain unusually light and graceful. Occasionally, such Apollonian polish dampens the drama: In the volcanic Chopin D-minor Prelude, I wished for greater abandon. Trpceski’s refinement can also inhibit lyrical passages, such as the opening of the Adagio of the Schubert Fantasy or the Liszt Sonetto, both of which dawdle and lack intensity. But these less-inspired moments are outweighed by the scintillating playfulness of the Schubert German Dances, the declamatory vigor of the Bach-Liszt Prelude and Fugue, and, most of all, the liquid magic of the Liszt Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este. A fine addition to Trpceski’s impressive discography, and one of the best piano discs of 2013.


BENJAMIN GROSVENOR: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’

  • (Decca)

  • British 20-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor is better known in the United Kingdom than the United States, but look for that to change soon. This concerto album on Decca, following an exceptional solo debut CD last year, presents some of the most assured playing from a young pianist since Evgeny Kissin’s teenage heyday.

  • The Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto opens proceedings by summoning up the pianistic derring-do of the early 20th century; it provides an ideal showcase for Grosvenor’s sleek, graceful virtuosity. In the ever-popular Ravel Concerto in G, Grosvenor may not displace memories of recordings by Argerich, Michelangeli, or Zimerman, but his limpid, fervent account, which benefits from the ravishing orchestral contribution of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, certainly holds its own.

  • Best of all is the album-titling Gershwin. Grosvenor strides through “Rhapsody in Blue” with superb swagger, technical brilliance, and an understated, elfin elegance that is entirely his own. Rarely have I heard the piece tossed off with such lithe insouciance, and never have I heard all the notes dispatched so clearly. Try the lead-up to the climactic statement of the “big theme” for crackling fingerwork and a palpable engagement with Gershwin’s jazzy idiom.

  • This young man is possessed of a rare sense of style — a suaveness that sets him apart from the machine-oiled slickness of too many top competition winners. Snap up this album, and snag a ticket for Grosvenor’s Boston debut this fall: A Celebrity Series concert scheduled to take place in the Longy School’s intimate Pickman Auditorium, it should be a marquee event.


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