Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Andrew von Oeyen Makes Warner Debut with Concertos by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Gershwin

This Friday pianist Andrew von Oeyen will make his debut on the Warner Classics label with a Franco-American concerto album. The order of the selections will be Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 22 (second) concerto in G minor, Maurice Ravel’s three-movement concerto in G major, and the one-movement piece that George Gershwin called “Second Rhapsody.” The album also includes an “encore” track, von Oeyen’s own transcription of the “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. As usual, is currently processing pre-orders for this release.

This is not the first time that these three composers have shared a concerto album. Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor selected the same three composers for his first concerto album on Decca in February of 2013. Indeed, he made the same selections for Saint-Saëns and Ravel but opted instead for the more familiar “Rhapsody in Blue” for Gershwin. Nevertheless, he departed from the familiar by recording this piece in its original jazz band version. He also took the somewhat innovative approach of providing an “encore selection” for each of the three concertos.

However, if the combination is not novel, it is still sensible. In that “middle position” Ravel knew and appreciated both Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Still, Ravel had a very secure “sense of self;” and the G major concerto presents a significantly unique voice that cannot be said to “owe a debt” to either of those composers. Nevertheless, Ravel’s admiration of Saint-Saëns might have surprised many about a quarter century ago. I still remember that the Opus 22 concerto was held up for ridicule in the 1980 movie The Competition (a film that today is probably more of a candidate for ridicule than anything Saint-Saëns ever wrote); and, closer to home, I remember that my own wife had a WTF reaction to her first encounter with his Opus 103 (“Egyptian”) piano concerto in F major.

Thus, what is important about this album is that von Oeyen, working in partnership with Emmanuel Villaume conducting the Prague Philharmonia (also known and the PKF, which abbreviates the Czech version of the ensemble’s name), always seems to know how to take each of these three concertos on its respective composer’s own terms. The Saint-Saëns concerto certainly offers up an abundance of virtuosity grounded in nineteenth-century practices; but it also opens with what amounts to a nineteenth-century reflection on the sort of prelude that might have been written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Ravel concerto, on the other hand, bids a fond farewell to just about the entire legacy of nineteenth-century practices. However, it does so with both wit and accessibility, perhaps even deliberately reflecting the opinion that listeners occasionally deserve a break from the disruptions of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, however significant those disruptions may have been to those encountering them for the first time.

“Second Rhapsody” is likely to be the major confrontation with originality for those listening to this album. Composed in 1931, it received its premiere within weeks of the first performance of the Ravel concerto. In many ways it is as much a reflection on the American spirit as its predecessor, “Rhapsody in Blue,” was. Indeed, the piece went through a series of earlier proposed titles. In order of their proposal, these were “Manhattan Rhapsody,” “New York Rhapsody,” and “Rhapsody in Rivets.” The music was originally intended for the film Delicious; and, in contrast to “Rhapsody in Blue,” it was fully scored by Gershwin without assistance from a “third party” arranger. Nevertheless, fourteen years after Gershwin’s death, Frank Campbell-Watson, editor for New World Music, had the accompaniment to the piano part completely rescored by Robert McBride; and that revised version was the only one to get published. Thus, just as Grosvenor had opted to record “Rhapsody in Blue” in the original jazz band version, von Oeyen’s performance of “Second Rhapsody” is based on the original 1931 score.

How much of a difference does this make? As a result of side-by-side listening, I would suggest that McBride laid his instrumentation on bit too thick. Like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Second Rhapsody” has its share of earthy, if not gritty, qualities. McBride’s version may have been good for New World Music’s sales; but, when it comes to visceral punch, there is no questioning that Gershwin got it right the first time. The result is that this new recording may be one of the first efforts to cast “Second Rhapsody” in the favorable light it deserves, providing all of us with a new source of Gershwin’s music for piano and orchestra whose listening pleasures will not be contaminated by United Airlines!

As far as encores go, I have to confess that I still prefer Grosvenor’s strategy of selecting one encore for each of the three contributing composers. If the sequence of the concertos advances us from 1868 to 1931, Massenet throws us back in 1894. While I can appreciate von Oeyen deciding that violinists should not be the only ones getting to strut their stuff with this music, the concluding track on this album still feels a bit of a jolt after all those unabashed American qualities in Gershwin’s music. Grosvenor found a more satisfying way to follow up on “Rhapsody in Blue,” performing Percy Grainger’s solo piano arrangement of “Love Walked In,” which was first performed (with words by Gershwin’s brother Ira) in the 1938 film The Goldwyn Follies. This made for just the right coupling of Gershwin at his more introspective with Grainger’s virtuoso talents.

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