Debut recordings by emerging classical performers face enormous challenges. There’s the issue of finding unique material or a unique voice after so much music has been recorded so many times. And just to get these projects done, there’s a huge financing and marketing challenge in the rapidly changing music industry.
Three of the artists I’ve been lucky enough to meet and write about have met and exceeded this challenge. Their recent CDs – two of them their first releases and one a second CD – explore widely varying musical material. Yet the backgrounds of these recordings show some remarkable commonalities.
All three – soprano Danielle Talamantes, violinist Yevgeny Kutik, and pianist Einav Yarden – have followed considerable career paths just to get to their first or second recordings and thus bring unusual interpretive maturity to these early showings. All three have a personal or ethnic background that in some way informs their selections and performances, in one case very autobiographically. Two of the three spent considerable amounts of personal energy raising funds for their album production via Kickstarter and other private efforts. And all three knew to invest in album graphics that help tell and sell the story.
I can’t get enough of any of these three CDs. I recommend them to you as gift ideas or for your own personal enjoyment.
Oscillations by pianist Einav Yarden
Does Beethoven make you laugh? Does Stravinsky make you dance? No? Then you need to hear Israeli pianist Einav Yarden interweave these two composers’ music in her debut album Oscillations.
In her album notes, Einav sets out to find how both composers – writing a century apart and with an entirely different tonal vocabulary – juxtapose drama with humor and sincerity next to mischievousness. To find that nexus requires more than the simple piano chops that dozens of young pianists on the international scene bring to the table. Einav employs superb dynamic sense, stellar pedaling technique, and exceptional “voice-leading” – the ability to find and tease out internal melodies from a massive cornucopia of notes – to make the piano tell a tale.
In one hilarious sequence in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #6, Beethoven sets up a cat-and-mouse chase in which a stomping set of staccato notes begins near the bottom of the piano and a running filigree of notes starts scampering down from the top. The two lines then cross in a perfect X pattern and the performer’s right hand has to pick up the stomping staccato notes and (no mean feat) the left hand has to seamlessly continue the mouse run away from the cat down to the bottom of the piano. And then – you guessed it – they reverse course and cross back over each other several more times.
This comedy bit has been sitting there for pianists for over 200 years since Beethoven wrote it, yet most of the time it’s “just music.” Either it’s actually played too fast and the beat is lost, or the staccatos aren’t strong or playful enough, or the two hands aren’t equal enough and transparent in their performance of each line, or the pianist uses too much pedal to pull the lines together.
None of that happens on Oscillations. Not only do I practically crack up every time I hear Einav joyfully execute this sequence, but the album continues the humor theme in a number of pieces. With great gusto she plays a polka, a waltz, a rag and a tango by Stravinsky, reveling in their fascinating early 20th century distortions, very much like explorations by Picasso and other artists of the time of the classical forms in their own disciplines.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #10 and Stravinsky’s lone full-length piano sonata explore what Einav describes as her contrasting of their melodious sides with “angular, vertical, highly driven, and poignant elements.” Eleven Beethoven bagatelles, varying between (literally) 15 seconds and 2½ minutes long, explore individual singing and comedic “moments” with notes either calling out in melodic tones or wispily flying off the edges of the piano into the air.
A protégé of legendary pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, where she graduated with a master’s degree in 2005, Einav recently performed to a full house at the Phillips Collection’s Sunday Concert Series before playing in New York and returning to her current home in Berlin. I can’t wait to see what themes she comes up with next to link the historic piano repertoire with more contemporary material in such engrossing fashion.
Music from the Suitcase by violinist Yevgeny Kutik
When Yevgeny Kutik was five years old and his family left the former Soviet Union, his mother, against all common sense and logic, insisted on stuffing one of their two suitcases with music. The tattered scores of both known and unknown Russian and Eastern European composers sat on the shelves of the family’s home in Massachusetts until years later, when Yevgeny, having begun violin lessons with his mother and then moved on to others, started to pick through the material.
The result today is Yevgeny’s second album, Music from the Suitcase, featuring the treasure trove of music found in that one desperate immigrant family’s precious belongings. And what a fertile suitcase that proved to be! The amazing diversity that Yevgeny packs into his CD includes waltzes, ballet music, operatic interludes, and folk music from several sub-cultures. Some of the music was originally written for violin and piano. Other pieces are transcriptions of large orchestrations into music for those two instruments.
What’s remarkable about the CD is that Yevgeny perfectly pitches his approach to each item in question. Yevgeny’s burgeoning career on the cusp of age 30 is centered on his reputation for playing daring violin music without succumbing to a biting tone that can be hard to sit through. Instead he leverages his sweetly solid vibrato throughout the repertoire, as I witnessed in his November concert in New York. But Yevgeny’s musical sources are all-important and he doesn’t hesitate to tweak his approach where called for.
In one of two 19th century gems on the CD, Yevgeny plays a beautiful Romance in E Flat Major by legendary Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein that was stuffed into the suitcase. (I presume Yevgeny’s mom didn’t know that Frank Sinatra had appropriated this tune in 1944 for a song called “If You Are But a Dream.”) And two lovely miniatures from a Children’s Album by Soviet-era composer Georgy Sviridov, one simply called “Sad Song” (but sweetly sad in Yevgeny’s hands) and the other simply “Musical Moment,” sing out clear as a bell off the CD.
But Yevgeny actually opens the album in a variant style, with seven of what are called “Hungarian Tunes” but are essentially gypsy tunes from a fascinating, still-living composer named Andrei Eshpai. With more open tones, long slides up to notes, and occasional, deliberate scrapes, Yevgeny explains in his liner notes that the tunes “evoke the free and natural sort of violin playing idiomatic among Hungarian gypsies” that attempts to make the violin “feel like an extension of the human voice in its expressiveness and grain.”
Remarkably, Eshpai has also become known during his lifetime for picking up Western jazz modes. The fourth of his seven tunes, with bouncy, syncopated rhythms laid down by Yevgeny’s accompanist, pianist Timothy Bozarth, comes close to evoking urban musical theater themes found in Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town or Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Two other pieces are especially distinctive in addition to selections by Stravinsky, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Aram Khatchaturian. Sergei Prokofiev’s music for his ballet version of Cinderella includes a striking waltz that begins with sweet tones on the violin’s upper strings and deep tones on its lower strings, but then suddenly shifts into a gritty middle section with a distorted melody that Yevgeny sets out as Mr. Bozarth holds the waltz together on the piano.
The album ends with Yevgeny’s unaccompanied violin yearningly laying out the tune for Oyfn Pripetchik (“On the Hearth”), a tune of great significance to an older generation of Eastern European Jews that on the surface is simply about children learning the alphabet but adds a twist about the tear-stained pages informing the history that came before each new generation. In an effective touch, Yevgeny explains that while the song was in the suitcase, it became more meaningful to him in 2012 when he was invited to perform at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This device pulls the entire CD away from its roots in a juvenile story and reflects Yevgeny’s mature development as he prepares for much more to come.
Canciones españolas by soprano Danielle Talamantes
If Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are the “Three B’s” of the German musical tradition, then it remains a mystery why only a fraction of the attention is paid to the three giants of Spanish classical music. Their names may not be alliterative, but Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla, and Joaquín Turina delight almost everyone who is lucky enough to encounter them.
Going straight for this opportunity to avoid the mainstream, Washington’s own Danielle Talamantes makes what I consider to be the debut album of the year, Canciones españolas (Spanish Songs), a beautifully constructed collection of this trio’s folk songs, art songs, and arias for soprano. And Danielle’s recording serves as an apt warm-up to her upcoming debut as Frasquita in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Carmen.
For many listeners, the middle section of the CD may be the most accessible. In seven Spanish folk songs, Manuel de Falla combines Romantic-era or 19th century basic musical tonalities, early 20th century French harmonies reminiscent of Claude Debussy, and heavily Spanish-inflected rhythms into short, aphoristic poem-songs that Danielle turns into sheer entertainment.
Familiar to many people will be “Jota,” a playful tune that happens to presage Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re In Love” (from Oklahoma!) by a few decades with the reverse, but equally ironic, observation, “They say we’re not in love because they don’t see us talk.” In “Jota,” accompanist Henry Dehlinger’s piano sets up the tune with riffs that sound like a Spanish guitar before Danielle rings out the melody. But what’s especially fascinating about the set of Falla’s folk songs is that the less-familiar songs immediately before and after “Jota” contain bluesy notes on which Danielle lingers to great effect. One of these songs is a lullaby and the other presents the image of a weeping tree matching the weeping of the singer, making the lingering in the air of the Spanish blues especially evocative.
And if you’re looking for operatic drama in Falla’s songs, don’t worry: it comes in the sixth of the set of seven songs, when Danielle lets loose with the lyrics, “Your treacherous eyes I shall bury, you don’t know how much it hurts.” (The entire CD is in Spanish but is translated in the liner notes booklet.) Falla’s writing and Danielle’s singing here would fit perfectly into an Italian opera.
More challenging for the listener on the disk are three longer story-songs by Falla’s slightly younger contemporary, Joaquín Turina. These are from a genre called “frontier ballads” and speak of an idealized Spanish past, often casting a Moorish historical background against the human emotion of each song’s protagonist. In one, the narrator – Danielle – tells of a victorious Moorish guerrero (or warrior captain) who takes Spanish prisoners but returns home to find his lover has left him for another, upon which the captain releases the captives and their spoil “as there is no one for me to give them to.” The arresting nature of the songs comes from Danielle’s personal development in singing and acting/narrating, as she discussed in my recent interview with her. It’s even more telling when you realize the CD was recorded right in the sanctuary of Vienna Presbyterian Church where she grew up.
The beginning of the album is an aria from an actual Spanish opera, “La maja y el ruiseñor” (“The Maiden and the Nightingale”) from Goyescas by Enrique Granados. At the beginning and end of the song, Henry Dehlinger’s superb skitterings across the piano represent the flitting about and singing of the nightingale of the song. They beautifully introduce the full partnership between singer and pianist that Danielle specifically set out to present in her debut CD. Henry’s background as a past student of Spanish literature at the University of Valencia in Spain was as important as Danielle’s operatic and personal background – her father is Mexican-American – but that was just the start of many influences that led to this triumphant recording. Major kudos to them both.
Music from the Suitcase: 71:01
Canciones españolas: 51:18
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