Jacob Greenberg in the Hanging Gardens


HANGING GARDENS / DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano: Sarabande. Études, Book I: Pour les sixtes. Préludes, Books I & II. D’un cahier esquisses. BERG: Piano Sonata. WEBERN: Variations, Op. 27. SCHOENBERG: The Book of the Hanging Gardens* / *Tony Arnold, sop; Jacob Greenberg, pno /New Focus Recordings FCR 192

Pianist Jacob Greenberg, a longtime proponent of modern music, here presents a large program of Debussy with members of the New Vienna School tossed in for contrast. He begins with the Debussy Sarabande, then moves into the Berg Piano Sonata before presenting Debussy’s Pour les sixtes and first book of Préludes, then returning to the 12-tone material.

He has a nice style and touch, though he does not, to my ears, feel any of the Debussy pieces from the inside. Apparently, he is of the mindset that Impressionist music should be played objectively, as should the modern music he so clearly loves. This is evident from the way he plays the Berg Sonata—the same basic touch and feeling. He imparts a warm sound to the Berg but plays it with more outward energy than the Debussy.

Most of the Préludes go a bit better than the Sarabande or Pour les sixtes. As the cycle progresses, Greenberg seems to become more involved with the music, even using pedal a lot more (as in “Voiles”), which brings out the music’s color and mood very well. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d;oust” is played with considerable muscle and vigor. He does not, however, quite bring off the crescendo-decrescendo of “La cathedral engloutie” quite as well as Walter Gieseking and Michael Korstick did.

Greenberg does a fine job on the Webern Variations, however, and with Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens we enter a strange and mysterious world, thanks in large measure to the outstanding singing of Tony Arnold. My regular readers know how highly I esteem this great artist; she is the modern-day Bethany Beardslee with a sweeter timbre. Her musicianship, diction, musical style and interpretive qualities are virtually nonpareil nowadays—even better, in my view, than the outstanding Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who I also treasure in her own way. Arnold and Greenberg prod and complement each other throughout this cycle in a way I’ve not heard before; even the famous recording of this music by Helen Vanni with Glenn Gould cannot best this performance in its subtle modifications of the musical line. This is a truly masterful recording of a great and, unfortunately, underrated work.

We then move on to Book II of the Préludes, which Greenberg also plays with some vigor, again occasionally missing the impressionistic side of things (i.e., “Ondine”) but largely successful. In essence, however, I personally feel that this set is most valuable for his performances of the more modern works, and especially The Book of the Hanging Gardens which is incomparably masterful.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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