Notes and Editorial Reviews
Songs Without Words:
opp. 19b, 30, 38, 53, 62, 67, 85, 102.
Michael Korstick (pn)
CPO 777 519-2 (2 CDs: 125:42)
Songs Without Words
are some of the composer’s most charming, well-crafted, and profoundly personal works. They represent not only the early-Romantic penchant for lyricism and at times virtuosity but they also characterize the
desire to express the inexpressible—to what extent are they pieces in which the words have been suppressed in order to stimulate the imagination of the listener? They were immensely popular during their day (inspiring even Charles Valentin Alkan in the composition of his numerous
Recueil de Chants
—some of them many years after Mendelssohn’s death) but soon lost favor with many musicians later in the century who felt them too conservative, too filled with the drawing-room sentimentality of past years. They are nothing of the sort. In the right hands—and there have been many who have included at least a handful of them in their repertoire, from Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Hess, and Friedman to Gould, Serkin, and Gieseking—they are magical little gems.
This brings us to Michael Korstick. This German pianist first came to my attention when he recorded the Reger Piano Concerto along with the Bach-Busoni Concerto in D Minor. He has concentrated mostly on larger works in the recording studio—Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Liszt’s
Années de pèlerinage
, Schubert’s B?-Sonata, Schumann’s
—but here seems just as relaxed in the smaller genres. The pianist is, without doubt, technically assured; his
sounds effortless. He can be a bit heavy-handed in certain instances (compare his accounts of opp. 62/2 or 19b/3 to the more joyful, spirited, and bouncy interpretations by Perahia) and is a bit fussy and overly sentimental in certain cases (op. 67/1), but at his best he is imaginative and full of color, such as in opp. 62/3, 85/2, and 19b/1. The
never suffered the same fate as its smaller companions here; it was and remains popular with many pianists. Korstick plays them, problematically, as if they were only a virtuosic
tour de force
, not a work infused with poetry from beginning to end. Neglecting a true buildup, a pacing that runs throughout the piece that heightens the work’s climax, the pianist chooses instead to shift drastically from slow to extremely fast and back again on numerous occasions. The piece feels broken, like a series of separate etudes that follow each other but are unrelated. When treated as such the piece loses perhaps its most important feature: its overall sense of drama.
While I have certain reservations about this set, it is among the finer accounts of the complete
Songs Without Words
that I’ve come across. I like it at least as much as Martin Jones’s and Annie d’Arco’s sets, and maybe just slightly less so than Dana Protopopescu’s version. It is still, in my opinion, far superior to my least favorite set: Daniel Barenboim’s extremely saccharine DG account. The present version is, however, in far better sound than any of these. For those interested in individual performances, Ignaz Friedman’s recording of only a handful of the
Songs Without Words
is still recommended; his is music-making of the highest caliber. Of the modern-day pianists both Schiff (on London/Decca) and Perahia (on Sony) have given me pleasure. In regards to the variations, though, this recording is not a winner. Sviatoslav Richter is still at the top of my list (either the EMI DVD or the Living Stage CD) for bringing out all of the important aspects of the piece: a singing line, sparkling clarity in the virtuosic passages, a consistent pacing throughout the work, and in the end a real sense of drama. So then, a mixed bag; for most of the smaller pieces a yes, for the variations a no.
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
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