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CD Review

Antonín Dvořák

ESS.A.Y 1059

Piano Music - Volume 1

  • Theme and Variations, Op. 36
  • Polka in E
  • Silhouettes, Op. 8
  • 2 Menuets, Op. 28
  • Dumka, Op. 35
Inna Poroshina, piano
ESS.A.Y CD1059 50:35
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mostly charming.

Dvořák wrote a lot of piano music - at least five CDS' worth, according to ESS.A.Y's release list - but none of it contains music central to our appreciation of his career. You won't find the equivalent of Brahms' rhapsodies, intermezzi, or variation sets here, for example. Dvořák wrote his piano music mainly for his publisher, and it did bring in some money. The composer played violin and viola, rather than keyboard, and usually did better with piano 4-hands or two-piano pieces. His piano concerto, pleasant enough, nevertheless doesn't call up the deeps of the cello and violin concerti. However, Dvořák remains Dvořák. Even these morceaux come from a master's pen, far from the usual run of 19th-century parlor music, although parlor music is what they are. The composer's gift for the incisive turn of phrase and his ability to focus even a slight musical argument set him apart.

At their best, the pieces on this CD approach the Slavonic Dances. Although they never quite reach that level, they well represent the "unbuttoned" Dvořák, all the same. Dvořák doesn't scale great heights or plumb emotional fathoms here, as he does in, say, his piano quartets or late symphonies. Theme and Variations, Op. 36, wins the title of "Most Substantial." The eight variations are pretty straightforward. Most of the interest lies in the theme, a chromatic meanderer, with a couple of nifty enharmonic shifts out of and back into key. The composer also tacks on a charming coda at the end, also fodder for variations. Furthermore, Dvořák constructs the theme by varying a simple idea. The piano writing, within the reach of good players, not necessarily virtuosi, still gives the lie to those who claim that Dvořák couldn't write effectively for the instrument. The composer comes up with plenty of inventive, effective textures. He's not simply ripping off other composers' piano writing or falling back on the routine. His secret seems to be that he's not writing piano music, but music. The textural invention comes from the musical ideas themselves, rather than from the movement of the fingers. This would be a corker orchestrated, and at times, I felt as if I listened to a piano sketch of a Dvořák orchestral piece, the piano writing was that suggestive.

The Polka in E travels more conventional paths. The writing could be anybody's, but it's short and fun, nevertheless. We can say the same for the Menuets, slightly misnamed. They seem more like Schubertian Ländler to me, or at least slow waltzes. The Dumka's interest lies mainly in Dvořák's love of the form - a slow, lyrical section followed by a quick dance. Here, the composer gives us a bit no more dazzling than a Fourth of July sparkler, but the piece enchants nevertheless. However, his most advanced use of the form occurs probably in the "Dumky" piano trio, with every movement in a souped-up dumka, a major attempt to integrate folk dances with symphonic procedures.

Somewhere between these superior parlor pieces and the Theme and Variations lie Silhouettes. They share the emotional locus of the former but come across as conceived for the piano, rather than for the orchestra. The liner notes, by Kevin Bazzana, argue an influence of Beethoven's Op. 126 Bagatelles (spectacularly misnamed), but to me Dvořák's pieces stand in the same relation to that earlier masterpiece as Billy Batson does to Captain Marvel. Beethoven is altogether wilder and more powerful, even within a short space, and saying "Shazam" won't help. Nevertheless, the Silhouettes charm on their own terms, and there's plenty of Dvořák's own character in them to make delightful listening. Besides, it doesn't have to be Beethoven in the first place.

I've reviewed Poroshina before (piano miniatures by Liadov,ESS.A.Y CD1045). On that earlier disc, I sensed a pianist unsuited to short works, especially the super-short works by Liadov, which shut down almost immediately. She seemed to need breathing room to make her expressive points - an impression confirmed, in a positive way, on this CD. Although many of Dvořák's movements last no longer than Liadov's piano pieces, they're not the work of a true miniaturist. Dvořák habitually thinks symphonically, which means that his phrases open up and connect to the next, rather than - as in most songs, for example - stand on their own. Think of Gershwin's "Swanee," where the verse - "I've been away from you a long time" - has only the most tenuous connection to the rousing chorus. In fact, I doubt most people know the verse. Gershwin's a rare bird, like Schubert: in contrast to most composers, both can work the miniature as well as the symphonic vein. Dvořák's ideas need room to show off at their best. So we have an ideal fit of music to performer. Both composer and pianist supply the necessary to the other.

Poroshina makes an eloquent case for the two big works - the Silhouettes and the Theme and Variations. She manages to tie the smaller movements together in larger spans, particularly with the variations, which she seems to take in one giant "go." Yet she works in plenty of ebb and flow. She doesn't drive or hurry the music but finds a "natural" contour. Her tone is rich and slightly dark, but without melodrama or trying to puff these works up beyond their natural limit. It sounds, to some extent, relaxed, but the ease belongs to an aristocratic, elegant musical mind. Her piano sings and ruminates with just the proper amount of weight. Not a terrific fan of Dvořák's piano concerto or his song accompaniments, I admit my pleasant surprise as to the quality of works presented here. Undoubtedly, however, Poroshina works to convince you. It would be easy to gloss over these pieces and miss their charm. Based on this album, I'd love to hear her Brahms.

The recorded sound is comfortably spacious. Your head is neither floating about in another room nor nailed to the sounding board.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz

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