Discrete short works for solo instrument and orchestra have been around since the days of Mozart and Beethoven but were surely in their heyday during the Romantic Era with its countless Morceaux de concert and Konzertstücke. Pianist Joel Fan and conductor Christophe Chagnard, director of the estimable Northwest Sinfonietta, have put together a very entertaining collection of such pieces by composers of great fame (Chopin, Weber/Liszt, Saint-Saëns), more modest achievement (Pierné, Gottschalk) and almost total obscurity (Castro Herrera, Cadman). Good sound from Reference Recordings is the icing on this not-too-sugary wedding cake (to borrow the subtitle of the Saint-Saëns piece).
listed the pieces according to the CD program, but I'll comment on them in the
order they were written. The earliest is Carl Maria von Weber's 1819 Polonaise
Brillante, a piano piece arranged by Franz Liszt for piano and
orchestra in 1851—if "arrange" is the right word. The portentous opening in
4/4 time for orchestra alone, quickly building to a thunderous climax, and the
elaborate piano cadenza that follows are Liszt's alone; the polonaise proper
(i.e., Weber's piano original) doesn't start until 2'44" into the 10-minute
piece. From there on, Liszt is reasonably faithful to Weber's score, though
sometimes giving a melody to a woodwind or the full orchestra. Overall this Polonaise
Brillante has charm and verve, sounding not like Chopin (the ultimate
polonaise master) but very like Weber with a tinge of Liszt.
Speaking of the Polish composer, Chopin
wrote Krakowiak when he was only
18, in 1828, but every bar of it sounds fully Chopinesque. After a typically
dreamy introduction and a brief cadenza, the brisk main section features music
in the style of a popular Krakow dance. Much of the piano writing is a
continuous stream of 16th notes while various woodwinds make
interjections and the strings provide a cushion of sound.
A generation later (c. 1864), the New
Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gotttschalk wrote his Grande
Tarantelle for piano, and subsequently made various arrangements for
chamber groups and even full orchestra sans piano. The present recording uses
Hershy Kay's version for piano and orchestra from 1957, used by George
Balanchine for a 1964 pas de deux simply called Tarantella.
Those who know Kay's Gottschalk arrangements for the ballet Cakewalk
will know what to expect: bright, energetic music, maybe a little more
hard-edged in the orchestration than the original composer might have imagined.
It's only 8 minutes long, but seems much longer—Gottschalk's handling of his
tarantella theme gets pretty monotonous.
Camille Saint-Saëns was born almost
thirty years before Gabriel Pierné, but their contributions to the disc at hand
are contemporaneous (1884-85)—and dedicated to the same person. Saint-Saëns' Valse-Caprice
for piano and string orchestra (subtitled "Wedding
Cake" because it was a gift to a pianist-friend at her wedding) is
impressively fleet-footed and swirling. (One strain ends with a phrase that
Prokofiev seems to have lifted for his Cinderella
Waltz.) Pierné, best known as a conductor of the Concerts Colonne and a writer
of early-20th-century ballets, wrote his Fantasie-Ballet
when he was 21. This suite, played without pause, opens with a slow, stately
march, first for the soloist and then for a fairly large orchestra with
flourishes from the pianist. A sprightly march in 12/8 follows; next, a more
dashing 2/4 section, followed by a reprise of the sprightly march. A waltz and a
tarantella finish the suite. This really is one of the best works on the
program: fresh, playful, deftly orchestrated.
We return to the New World for the final two pieces on the program: Mexico's Ricardo Castro (sometimes listed as Castro Herrera) and Pittsburgh's Charles Wakefield Cadman. Castro's contribution, another waltz-caprice, published in 1901, is much closer in style to Vienna than the composer's natal Durango State, but it has some swagger as well as grace. The once well-known Cadman did pursue an American sound, though for him it largely meant looking to Native America: he became an amateur ethnologist, living for periods of time on tribal lands, and published very popular sets of "American Indian Songs." One of his operas on Native themes was a success at the Met in 1918-19. His 1933 Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras (rather unfortunately titled from a PC perspective) seeks out a different ethnicity. It's a treat to hear this rarity, though Cadman envisions a rather tame Mardi Gras: the piece lacks the rhythmic drive and infectious tunes of any of Darius Milhaud's or George Gershwin's incursions into jazz and popular dance, sounding more like a lost movement from Ferde Grofé's Mississippi Suite. There is a catchy 7-note phrase that forms the basic material for the whole piece, but it never extends itself into an interesting melody. The piano is used more to add to the color palette of the orchestra than for virtuoso display, though there is one Gershwinesque solo passage near the end.
Joel Fan, who has explored a startling range of music, from Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble through Liszt and Ravel to the American modernist Leon Kirchner, seems perfectly at home in this pleasant world of the short piano-and-orchestra work. Far from a splashy or self-indulgently virtuosic pianist, he brings to these entertainments an appropriate light touch, a rhythmic energy, a "sparkle" (if that word may be allowed for serious pianism), the latter especially evident in the Weber/Liszt and Pierné pieces. His Chopin has a seemingly effortless flow of 16th notes throughout, while pulsing with the crisp rhythm of the Krakowian dance.
The Northwest Sinfonietta, based in Washington State, partners Fan with plenty of grace of their own. In certain pieces, like the Weber/Liszt and Saint–Saëns, I do miss the heft and warmth of a larger string body (the booklet lists 22 string players), but perhaps my reaction is due to a recording that favors a more recessed perspective on the orchestra than I prefer. But the piano, though forward in placement, is not excessively prominent, and it blends well with the orchestra colors in the Cadman work.