HAYDN: Piano Concerti, Hob. XVIII Nos. 1-6, 8, 10 & 11 / Mélodie Zhao, pno; David Nebel, vln (No. 6); Camerata Schweiz; Howard Griffiths, cond / CPO 555 400-2
Having never heard Haydn’s piano concerti before, I thought I’d take a spin on this album of his complete output in the genre. I knew in advance that I’d have to put up with whiny straight-tone strings (it’s an addiction these musicians have as well as an affectation), but in sampling the album beforehand I liked what I heard of Mélodie Zhao: surprisingly powerful yet nicely-nuanced playing with both good phrasing and emotional commitment to the material.
The good news is that the music is indeed interesting and, yes, Zhao’s playing is all I expected it to be as well as having a certain suppleness that I liked very much. The bad news is that Camerata Schweiz is worse than the average straight-tone orchestra, and even the fine conductor Howard Griffiths could apparently not get much out of them. Their phrasing is so stiff and choppy that it actually works against Zhao instead of complementing her, and this is a serious defect in concerto performances where one ideally wants to hear ensemble and soloist on the same wavelength.
So I went a-hunting for good alternative performances. First I checked out the old recordings by Ilse von Alpenheim playing with Antál Dórati and the Bamberg Symphony. Von Alpenheim was almost as lively as Zhao, but is playing an earlier (more authentic) piano which has a much more limited range of dynamics—but she’s still quite good. The difference in the orchestral playing, however, was like night and day. Dórati, using a very reduced chamber orchestra, sings and bounces the music with a wonderful lilt, and interestingly, it is the orchestra that brings out the dynamics in the music that von Alpenheim either could not or would not play, so they complement each other very well.
Then there was pianist Sebastian Knauer with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under Helmut Müller-Bruhl on Naxos. Here, too, the orchestra has a better tone and is more supple, but the tempi are just a little too slow and the orchestra doesn’t play very assertively. Knauer sounds about the same as von Alpenheim.
The problem is that von Alpenheim-Dórati only give you six of Haydn’s nine surviving piano concerti, Nos. 2-4, 9 and 11. Whoa! Did I say No. 9? Yes, I did: Hob. XVIII in G major…a concerto missing from the Zhao set. According to the notes, there are serious “doubts about its authorship” so it was left out. Interestingly, I did find recordings of concerti Nos. 1 played on the ORGAN by Helmut P. Tramnitz and No. 11 played on the piano by Jörg Demus, both with different orchestras and conductors on the same CD (Deutsche Grammophon 00028944507522) and these, too, were considerably livelier than Camerata Schweiz. Perhaps I should also point out, as noted in the header, that Concerto No. 6 is actually a double concerto for piano and violin, so technically this doesn’t count as a solo keyboard concerto.
But it’s really a shame. As this set continues, you appreciate von Zhao’s playing more and more with each movement you listen to—she has the full grasp of this music under her fingers, and clearly knows what to do with it—while appreciating the orchestra’s stiff, two-dimensional playing less and less. She might just as well have programmed the orchestral score into a computer and have that play behind her as to have these stiff cardboard characters spitting out notes like a machine, with little feeling and poor legato phrasing.
The music itself is clearly interesting if not the peak of Haydn’s output. All of the trademarks of his mature style are here, the playful exchange of ideas, the little unexpected twists and turns that delight as well as surprise you, but it is only Zhao who fully grasps all of this and brings it to fruition.
Thus I decided to post this review and not kill it. Mélodie Zhao deserves very high praise for her keyboard abilities and the way she re-imagines this music. I wish her well in her career and look forward to her future recordings. I just wish that CPO had chosen the orchestra and conductor more wisely.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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