Notes and Editorial Reviews
Geoffrey Dorfman (pn)
MILL HILL 1100 (3 CDs: 176:23) Live: New York 9/18/1992
Piano Sonata No. 1.
Ballade No. 4.
Piano Sonata No. 14,
Piano Sonata No. 1. Etude-Tableau in e?,
Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”
When my colleague Peter J. Rabinowitz reviewed a CD by Geoffrey Dorfman in
22:2, he declared that his technique was fully up to the demands of the music, that he used pedal very sparingly, and that he emphasized a “chiseled clarity” rather than a legato line. I would agree to all of that, but also add that Dorfman occasionally changes the written tempos of some movements to bring out those details that he considers of interest.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I said in my review of Edith Picht-Axelfeld’s recording of Bach’s English Suites, sometimes playing very complex music at a slightly slower tempo allows the listener to hear details that, if not smudged, often fly by the ear so quickly that they are not always picked up except through many repeated hearings. Such is the case here, although I admit that I’m a little uncomfortable with Dorfman adjusting the tempos in various movements of a sonata up
down. I feel that one should either play the entire sonata faster, if that is your choice, or slower, but to ramp up parts of it and slow down others creates, to my ear, a structural imbalance.
The most obvious example is the one most familiar to listeners, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14. Dorfman, quite naturally, wishes to dispel associations of moonlight by bringing out the first movement’s ineffable sadness and moments of darkness. Part of his solution is to play the movement somewhat faster than written, to emphasize the harmonic structure that is broken up into slow left-hand triplets, and to make those triplets sound dark and moody rather than regular and pretty. Dorfman certainly achieves this, as does John O’Conor in his recording of the sonata, but Dorfman’s tempo is considerably faster than the written one, being q = 68 rather than q = 52. The second movement is played at dotted h = 64 rather than dotted h = 56. So far, well and good. But then the last movement is moved down in tempo, from h = 88 to h = 73. Dorfman certainly makes his point, and it is indeed interesting to hear the textural clarity of this usual whirlwind of a finale, but I would rather he had slowed the first two movements down as well. That is exactly what Solomon did in his legendary 1950s recording of the sonata, one that, I daresay, made more listeners think of the dark, brooding quality of this sonata than any recording that preceded it.
Be that as it may, there are certainly many good things to say about this massive three-CD set, and even the Beethoven sonata is one of them. In the first movement, despite the quicker tempo, Dorfman does not ignore rubato or the slightly irregular rhythm that is an essential component of this music. The second movement is played less delicately than it usually is, and I for one appreciate that. Dorfman’s reading of the third movement does indeed, as stated in the liner notes, bring out the dissonant qualities of the left hand with much sharper relief than normal. I also note, in the recording of this movement, a couple of splices at odd moments.
I will compliment Dorfman, however, for including this familiar work in his album as a guidepost to what one could expect in other, less familiar pieces, such as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 1. The notes suggest that it was written under the influence of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, but that its feeling of structure and overall cohesion are entirely Rachmaninoff’s. Not being a fan of Bruckner or familiar with this sonata before hearing it, I cannot say one way or the other, but being familiar with Rachmaninoff’s own playing in his own concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and also in the violin sonatas of Beethoven and Grieg that he recorded with Fritz Kreisler, as well as being familiar with his Second Sonata (in the original 1913 version) as played in concert by Van Cliburn, I’d say that the Russian had a more headlong rush to his playing than I hear in Dorfman’s performances here. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this sonata, too, has had its tempos adjusted downward slightly in order to bring out more structural details. Although this approach minimizes to some extent the headlong rush of Rachmaninoff’s music, it does indeed bring out structural coherence and moments of rhythmic and harmonic interest quite well.
Certainly, by applying this
the results are not only fascinating but wholly appropriate. Here, Dorfman’s playing with tempo and phrasing brings out the inherently quirky character of Schumann’s music, in which themes are sometimes abruptly juxtaposed rather than developed, and in fact imparts an even
excitement to the individual pieces than one usually hears—again, because of the great structural clarity of his approach. Also, I cannot say enough about the way Dorfman plays the Chopin Ballade No. 4, bringing out the melancholy qualities of the music without suffocating the listener in pathos and bathos. Only someone who has lived with this music for some time, and who has thought long and hard about its qualities, plays it thus—quiet but not dreamy in the soft passages, suddenly exploding abruptly in the more dramatic ones, all the while maintaining a long view of the piece. By contrast, his interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantasy is upbeat, in some ways sounding like a triumph over adversity. A polonaise for our times, perhaps? Whatever the case, it is an absolutely bracing performance.
The live recital, recorded almost 20 years before the studio recordings on CDs 1 and 2, has much greater continuity and flow. Here, although it is apparent that Dorfman has put a great deal of thought into these works, he lets himself go with a headlong rush that is occasionally missing from the later recordings. These performances bristle with the excitement of someone who has just discovered fire. Dorfman is completely wrapped up in the Schumann sonata, although, to be fair, he seems less adept here at projecting a tender mood in the
. His interpretation of this sonata reminds me of William Kapell’s incendiary version of the
. In the Liszt Fantasy and Fugue, however, the Adagio is played with very tender expression, so this side of his interpretive nature is not altogether missing in the live set. Still, one cannot help but wonder if the difference in style is due to a maturation process or whether he tends toward a less complex interpretive mode when performing live.
This is, most certainly, a fascinating recital. Except for my quibbles regarding the Beethoven sonata, which are simply my own personal feelings, I can recommend this set wholeheartedly.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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