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Liszt Piano Sonata In B Minor,
Chopin Sontat No. 3 Op. 58 In B Minor
Alan Gampel, Piano

Review by Karl Lozier
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Liszt Piano Sonata In B Minor, Chopin Sontat No. 3 Op. 58 In B Minor

CD Number: Mapleshade Classical MS 07382

 

  This recording is the first one I have heard from the small but fairly well known Mapleshade Company. The Mapleshade label has been known for their jazz, gospel and blues. Their Wildchild! Label stands for pure fun roots-based music. This recording is the first for their new Mapleshade Classical label and the first launch of what they are calling the Mapleshade/Fazioli series. 

As you probably noticed, this CD features two very well known piano sonatas written by two of the great piano composers. They are both written in the key of B minor. As far as I am concerned the similarities end right there. Liszt had been known previously for unconventional metrical notation and unusual harmonic procedures. His revolutionary creativity might be most evident in his progressive formal tendencies culminating with his B minor Sonata composed in 1853. Sonatas previously consisted mainly of multiple movements. This sonata consists of just one movement about a half hour long with no pauses. Experts like to argue about its exact composition such as is it really just one movement with four principal themes or is it actually a few smaller contiguous movements. Liszt had been well known for his program music. There is no program for this piano masterpiece. Liszt dedicated the B minor sonata to Robert Schumann, unfortunately at that time Schumann was confined to a mental institution. This sonata was not well received, a piece before its time perhaps, but eventually accepted two to three decades later. 

I particularly enjoy piano (and cello) music but must confess to seldom listening to the sonatas. In any event the great majority of my piano recordings exist on LP stereo records. It is still usually true that an excellent vinyl recording played on a truly good (not the usual famous mid-fi brands) turntable/arm combination coupled with a good pickup cartridge, will sound better and more musical than most CDs played on most CD players. So with the Liszt recording comparison will be made with Minoru Nojimas performance (Reference Recordings LP RR-25). Nojima is perhaps best known as the winner of the 1969 Van Cliburn Competition. The performances and styles are very different. If I wanted to promote Nojima, I would simply say that the older master lets the music speak for itself allowing listeners to lean back and be immersed in subtly beautiful music making. This almost leisurely performance is timed at just over thirty minutes. Alan Gampel's performance at just under twenty-nine minutes shows how youthful (relatively) exuberance can almost transform the composition with added emphasis, brilliance and speed in the louder sections, with a definite immediate appeal.

With any recording other factors enter the picture. The piano used by the performer, the surrounding environment (the acoustics of the recording location) microphones used and their placement and other equipment as well as the skill of the recording engineer to name a few of the factors. The liner notes contain almost three pages of promotional information about how great the relatively unknown (in the U.S.) piano is, and how outstanding the recording location is as well as the equipment and so on. The following sentences are quoted from the back cover of the liner notes. "The Mapleshade/Fazioli series features a remarkable piano, the modern keyboard equivalent of the Stradivarius, the Fazioli 278 concert grand. Made in Sacile, Italy using soundboards cut from the same spruce forest that Stradivarius used." The hyperbole can only go so far, ultimately and rightly so, the piano will be judged by music lovers worldwide. Listeners ultimately will not be impressed by the fact that the wood inside the piano comes from the same forest as the wood used in famous violins of yesteryear! I would be slightly impressed if we were talking about a new viola or just maybe a new cello. Is someone thinking that the piano is a stringed instrument or percussion one? 

No matter, the piano sound on this CD did not impress me at all. Oh, is that sometimes clangy sound coming from a poor microphone or poor placement or from a problem in the recording chain? How should I try to explain the downright tinny sound, particularly noticeable in the Liszt sonata more than in the Chopin? Could I blame the pianist for the relatively poor sound quality in many sections particularly forte passages? By a process of elimination I had to conclude that the piano itself must be blamed. I will listen to any evidence to the contrary. Maybe the piano company should go to the same forest as the German Steinway does for any wood needed.

I sent the CD to the most knowledgeable person I know, Ruth Ruggles Akers. Ruth has a master of music in piano performance degree from Indiana University. She moved to Tallahassee some years ago and at F.S.U. is finishing her Ph.D. in historical musicology. The following sentences are her responses to my request for her considered opinions, all of which are based on the Liszt sonata only. "The piano sound lacks richness, reverb - it is missing overtones. The treble seems especially tinny - particularly when the pianist plays octaves. (I need to interject a note here to the effect that Ruth thought I might be trying to "fool her" as I had told her that the recording featured a new and unusual piano). There is no depth - I don't think it's just that the pianist is playing too shallow; it is my suspicion that this is an electric piano of some sort and the keypad itself is shallow. We pianists often criticize each other as "not playing into the keys." In addition to the tinny treble, when there were thick chords in the bass, they were too muddy. The bass register lacks clarity - again, the piano, not the pianist. He plays quite well. The sound is best when the music is in the middle range of the keyboard. Quiet, reflective sections were lovely - and some of the filigree, the rapid finger runs were very nice - where one did not need to hear the overtones and depth of sound. It is not the pianist or the recording, but the piano that I object to. Let me know eventually who the pianist is/what the piano is/etc." Yes, I had kept everything a secret from Ruth, soon to be Dr. Ruth Ruggles Akers. It would embarrass her if I were to call her an expert. I will refer to her as a very knowledgeable pianist and musician. I hope all of our readers have enjoyed her insight. She was even tougher on the instrument than I was.

For some reason the overall sound was better with the Chopin sonata - until the finale. There it really turned very noticeably worse. I need to make a couple of comments about her perceptive observations. In the beautiful Reference Recording version of the Liszt sonata I was constantly pleasantly aware of the acoustics of the recording venue. With the Mapleshade recording I was mentally blaming the recording engineer for missing it, and the producer for not catching that fact, which would also explain Ruth's comments about the piano's lack of overtones. On my system, the bass range of the piano was nothing to brag about but evidently not quite as muddy as on Ruth's sound system. Basically she and I are in agreement and she is able to back it up with fine detail.

The Chopin sonata comes off much better overall. It clearly reveals some particularly nice rapid finger runs. Here the recording is acceptably good for most listeners. I have come to the conclusion that this recording tends to sound worse on mid-fi or rack systems as lower quality equipment exaggerates some of the faults of the piano. Again the performer does fine. With the Chopin there is a hint of the recording venue at times.

The comparison recording I used here is a very tough to find limited edition direct-to-disc recording by Victor Company of Japan an affiliate of RCA records (RDCE-7). It features Edward Auer performing Chopin's sonata No. 3 and scherzo No. 2. As with the RR recording of the Liszt, the sound quality is outstandingly good and a direct comparison between these two LP's would be most interesting. Ultimately the Mapleshade suffers from the comparison. Companies must understand that our editor Steven R. Rochlin tells us reviewers to "tell it like it is and not to pull any punches." Hopefully my criticism will ultimately wind up being constructive.

The beautiful comparison album contains an interesting diagram of the placement of the microphones. It also contains a rather long note by the record's producer. It is informative in part for what ideally should be happening between engineer and producer. I will only quote the first paragraph. Hiroshi Isaka says, "to the producer who is responsible for the recording of sound, the piano is every bit as difficult as the orchestra itself. There are various dynamic ranges, the coloration and above all the brilliancy and purity of each exquisite note. But most important is maintaining the proper balance between the actual sound and its echo on the overall dynamic range variations. This depends to a large degree on the aesthetic and musical sense of the pianist, the producer and the engineers who are all involved in the record production. And it also depends on what particular piece is being recorded as well as on the piano being used."

A company statement was, "This album was recorded by the direct-to-disc recording method to capture the natural reverberation (my italics) of a 1,200 seat concert hall. Two whole days were spent in adjusting all the equipment." Outstandingly good natural sounding recordings do not simply happen. It takes experience and a great deal of effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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