SALONEN: Helix for Orchestra. Piano Concerto. Dichotomie for piano solo.
Yefim Bronfman, piano; Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.
DGG 002894778193 (F) TT: 60:32
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MUSSORGSKY-HOROWITZ: Pictures at an Exhibition. LISZT: Sonata in B minor
Vladimir Horowitz, piano
RCA RED SEAL 88697 49925 (F) TT: 56:35
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BAX: Symphonic Variations (1916-18). Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and orchestra (1949)
Ashley Wass, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orch/James Judd, cond.
NAXOS 8.570774 (B) TT: 68:11
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RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. WEBER: Konzertstück, Op. 79. LISZT: Hungarian Fantasy.
Earl Wild, piano; Florida Philharmonic Orch/Antonio de Almeida (Rachmaninoff); Larry Newland, cond.
IVORY CLASSICS 79001 TT: 70:33
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Yefim Bronfman and conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen have collaborated for many years, and their friendship culminated in a concerto written for Bronfman in 2007 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, the BBC, Radio France, and the NDR Hamburg. The premiere was in New York in February 2007, and this recording was made during concerts in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in May/June 2008. What a fascinating concerto it is! Layer after layer of intriguing ideas are tossed about, with strong often raucous percussion adding to the melee. It sounds incredibly difficult to play, and we can assume this is the definitive performance of a concerto that must be considered a major, challenging addition to the repertory. In addition, we have a short orchestral work (9:34) called Helix written in 2005 with the assistance of a software program called Sibelius. Salonen writes that, "the form of Helix can be described as a spiral or a coil or, more academically, a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel to the base of the cone." It begins softly and in a most complex way reaches a stunning climax. Of equal importance is Dichotomie written in 2000. This massive two-movement solo piano work (Mécanisme/Organisme) is vital, dynamic and compelling—a major addition to the piano repertory. Again we have a staggering performance from Bronfman. This is a stunning disk. Don't miss it!

Vladimir Horowitz had many of his concerts recorded for his own use, and many of these "private" recordings have already been issued commercially. In 1988, a year before his death, Horowitz donated his personal collection of live recordings to Yale University. This is the first of three planned releases in RCA's Carnegie Hall collection, offering the pianist's own remarkable transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as well as Liszt's B minor sonata. He recorded Pictures for RCA in 1947, and the label also issued a live Carnegie Hall performance from April 23, 1951. Horowitz's famous 1932 recording of the Liszt sonata was joined by a more expansive commercial recording made in 1977. This new issue of both seems superfluous. Of course Horowitz is in staggering form technically, but these are edgy performances. The Mussorgsky is from a concert April 2, 1948, the Liszt from March 21, 1949. In the latter, Horowitz makes an unexplained cut of more than 20 bars. No effort was made by producers to eliminate the numerous coughs heard throughout—and these are annoying. Staunch admirers of Horowitz surely will wish to have this mid-price issue; others should stick to his other versions. Future scheduled releases are in September 2009 (Schumann Fantasy, Balakirev's Islamey, Chopin's Barcarolle and Liszt's St. Francois merchant sur les flots), and in January 2010 (Haydn Sonata in E flat, Beethoven Sonatas 8 and 14).

Two lesser-known works of Sir Arnold Bax for piano and orchestra are featured on the new Naxos CD. His first, Symphonic Variations was composed in 1916-18, his last, Concertante for Piano (Left Hand) and Orchestra, in 1949. Both were written for pianist Harriet Cohen, Bax's long-time mistress and although the premiere in 1920 was a success, it probably was not as effective as it could have been because Cohen had very small hands and was challenged by the many technical demands of the score. She had the rights to it and was the only one who could perform it until 1962. It is a big-scale work (45:49) with six titled sections after the Theme: Youth, Nocturne, Strife, The Temple, Play, and Triumph. When Bax's estranged wife died in 1948. Cohen assumed Bax would marry her, but he had another mistress he preferred: Mary Gleaves, an English woman 20 years his junior.. Apparently Concertante, was an attempt to appease Cohen. Both Variations and Concertante are typical Bax, lovely but unlikely to appear often in concert halls. Young British pianist Ashley Wass, who already has recorded several disks of English piano music for Naxos, is a sterling soloist in these performances, with the splendid Bournemouth Orchestra directed by James Judd. As usual with Naxos, audio quality is first-rate.

A most welcome issue is Ivory Classics' CD devoted to live performances by Earl Wild with the Florida Philharmonic. Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 is from a concert April 25, 1981, the other two from concerts in April 1980. Wild is in top form—I prefer this performance to his famous 1965 recording conducted by Jascha Horenstein. Weber's brilliant Konzertstïck is a natural for Wild, and in this performance of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy he adds the virtuoso embellishments he used in his earlier two commercial recordings. Excellent stereo sound, focused on the piano. A splendid issue!

R.E.B. (June 2009)