Uhlig’s French Concerto Album Powerful, Dazzling

Uhlig

RAVEL: Concerto for the Left Hand in D. TAILLEFERRE: Ballad for Piano & Orchestra. N. BOULANGER: Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra. FRANÇAIX: Piano Concerto / Florian Uhlig, pianist; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern; Pablo González, conductor / SWR Music 19027CD

Florian Uhlig, who has made a name for himself by recording all of Schumann’s and Ravel’s piano music for SWR, here tests the waters of French piano concertos and fantasies. Two well-known works, the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand and the Françaix Piano Concerto, flank the two rarities, Germaine Tailleferre’s Ballad for Piano & Orchestra and Nadia Boulanger’s Fantasy.

From the very first notes of the Ravel, we realize that we are in for something quite momentous. Conductor Pablo González creates a virtual hurricane of sound, starting from a mere whisper and building up to a volcanic eruption of tremendous impact. Uhlig’s playing is firmly attacked and beautifully phrased and articulated; this is a musician who evidently understands his role. I still find it almost impossible to visualize playing this music with the left hand only, but that’s why I was never good enough at the keyboard to have a career! Oddly enough, I had never listened to Paul Wittgenstein’s performance of this music previously, but did so in order to compare it with this version. His performance (1937, with Bruno Walter conducting) is equally dramatic, the orchestral phrasing a bit more clipped than here, although to be truthful Walter didn’t get as much out of the score as González does…and Wittgenstein’s playing is just competent, neither as smooth nor as technically secure as Uhlig’s. But even if you’ve heard other versions, and no matter how you slice it, this Ravel performance is musically impressive and overpowering in its emotional impact. An interesting feature is the trombone solo at the 11:20 mark, phrased in such a way that it slurs almost like a jazz trombonist. Why is this interesting? Because it’s so similar to the way Ravel phrased the rhythmically tricky trombone solo in Bolero, that’s why.

This was my first exposure to the Tailleferre Ballad, and my impression is of an airy, transparently-scored piece in the Impressionistic style so beloved of French composers in that time. It has a singing melodic line but not a kitschy or treacly one; she evidently liked to use whole-tone scales and extended chords in the Debussy manner, yet she avoided sounding too much like her model by virtue of her manipulation of inner voices and a tendency to be more outgoing in terms of volume and expression. As in all of these pieces, Uhlig’s playing is rich-toned and expansive. It’s very much what I would have expected of a German pianist playing French music, but to be honest I sometimes tire of the “classic French”approach which is so delicate that the keyboardist sounds as if he or she is playing on Dresden china. A little Teutonic passion goes a long way in this music. And once again, I was absolutely awestruck by González’ conducting. This is a guy who really “gets it” in terms of drawing emotion out of the music! Like the Ravel Concerto, the Tailleferre Ballad is in one long movement, but within that movement there are different sections, each of which is a development or expansion of the one previous. It’s an excellent and fascinating composition.

I skipped reviewing the recent two-CD set of Nadia Boulanger’s music because I felt that, although it was well written (she certainly knew the principles of composition!), it wasn’t really inspired. It didn’t come from “inside,” like her sister Lili’s music did. Once again González gives it everything he has, as does Uhlig, but my impression of the piece—as opposed to my impression of the performance—remains the same. Nadia’s music was interesting; she didn’t get bogged down in banalities; but it lacked that certain spark of creativity that made Lili’s music so impactful. It’s the difference between a fine craftsman and a genius…let’s say, between those artists whose scenery paintings you buy at “starving artists” sales and Vincent van Gogh. That being said, the performance is exciting and dramatic, though I found the score too episodic and at times reminiscent of movie music. It also tends to ramble by the 15-minute mark, although a later fast passage revives its spirits.

An interesting sidelight: the very first recording of the Françaix Piano Concerto was made with the composer at the keyboard and Nadia Boulanger conducting, so there is a connection between two of the composers on this disc. That original recording (from 1935, I believe) was light as a feather, airy and charming in the “true” French style. Much to my surprise and delight, González manages to emulate this style in his conducting, but Uhlig remains Uhlig, employing a deep, rich tone and flowing legato. It’s a different way of looking at the music, equally valid if a bit less effervescent than the original. Has anyone besides me ever noticed the similarities (in terms of compositional style if not orchestration) between Françaix and Satie? Somehow, people forget that Satie made it to 1924, by which time Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde and Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique were written. Music was changing, and pretty rapidly, too.

All in all, however, this is surely one of the best surprises of early 2017, particularly for those listeners who haven’t yet discovered the Ravel or the Françaix pieces. Great playing and absolutely inspired conducting!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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