The first question you might ask about this album is why it contains such seemingly disparate composers as Saint-Saens, Ravel, and Gershwin on the same program. The answer, of course, is that the agenda is not so unusual as you might think. Not only did all three men write piano concertos, but they all in some way or another influenced each another. In particular, Saint-Saens influenced Ravel, and Ravel and Gershwin influenced the other. Besides, the soloist for the album, Andrew von Oeyen, is an American now living in Paris, who says he has fallen in love with French music. Fair enough.
The second question you might ask is, Who is Andrew von Oeyen? He's an American concert pianist, born in 1979, who here makes his piano-and-orchestra debut recording after releasing several solo discs. He began playing the piano at age five and made his first stage appearance at age ten. By age sixteen he was playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and after further studies at Juilliard and Columbia University and wins in several important piano competitions, his career was well on its way. The present disc marks his first release for Warner Classics, with accompaniment by Emmanuel Villaume and the PKF-Prague Philharmonia.
The opening piece on the program is the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, by the French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). He wrote it in 1868, and it remains among the most-popular of his five piano concertos. Oddly for a modern concerto, Saint-Saens begins his work with a relatively slow movement, followed by a faster second movement that resembles a scherzo, and finishes with a very quick Presto. These mercurial tempo changes prompted the Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski to joke that the piece "begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach."
There is no doubting von Oeyen's intensity from the start as he gives every indication that he wants to get our attention. He varies the contrasts about as much as I've ever heard, making the opening movement more balky than ever. Which is neither here nor there; just more emphatic. The second movement is cheerful and bouncy enough, and if anything the orchestra carries it though as much as Mr. von Oeyen. Then in the finale, von Oeyen goes full bore with an all-out assault on the score, sounding exciting enough if a bit too studied for my taste.
|Andrew von Oeyen|
I rather enjoyed von Oeyen's Ravel more than his Saint-Saens, which tended toward a want of charm. Maybe it's the combination of American and French expressive styles that suits the pianist. Still, when one has spent years as I have listening to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (EMI/Warner) play the piece, it's hard to find comfort in anyone else's interpretation. By comparison, von Oeyen never quite displays the imagination or creates the atmosphere that Michelangeli does. Nevertheless, my own quibbles should not distract the listener from enjoying von Oeyen's approach, which is more straightforward yet still jazzy enough to satisfy almost anyone. Additionally, von Oeyen offers us a particularly sensitive slow movement that in itself may be enough to sell the disc.
After that we find the Second Rhapsody by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). Here, some folks might quibble about whether the piece is a real piano concerto at all, but I would remind them that by definition a modern concerto is "a composition for orchestra and a solo instrument" (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music). Gershwin's Second Rhapsody fits the bill. He wrote it for the 1931 Hollywood movie Delicious, on which both he and his brother Ira worked. Initially, Gershwin (and/or the studio) called this particular musical sequence Manhattan Rhapsody, New York Rhapsody, and Rhapsody in Rivets. Shortly afterwards, Gershwin more fully orchestrated it for concert use, titling it the Second Rhapsody. Although other people later reorchestrated the music (most notably Robert McBride some fourteen years after the composer's death), Mr. von Oeyen here plays the original 1931 version.
Following the pattern of getting better as we go along on the disc, Von Oeyen does a splendid job conveying the hustle and bustle of Gershwin's big city. His virtuosity seems always at the service of the music rather than simply drawing attention to itself. What's more, Maestro's Villaume's orchestral accompaniment keeps the rhythms on track and the musical impulses moving forward in suitable agreement. There are no awkward convolutions here, just a polished and stimulating tone picture.
The program concludes with a "bonus track": the Meditation from Jules Massenet's Thais, transcribed for solo piano by Mr. von Oeyen and bringing the total recorded music on the disc to over sixty-six minutes. For me, this was the highlight of the album, a hushed and heartfelt rendition that never lapses into teary-eyed mawkishness.
Producer and editor Christopher Alder and engineer Jakub Hadraba recorded the album at Studio 1, Czech Radio, Prague, Czech Republic in August 2015. The piano sounds solid and well placed from the start, if a mite wide, and the tone rings true. When the orchestra enters in the first movement of the Saint-Saens, it appears dynamic, full, and resonant, if not particularly deep or transparent. While strings sound a touch shrill and fuzzy at times, the overall effect is one of soft warmth rather than forward brightness (or ultimate clarity).
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: