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Romances san paroles - Songs without Words (selection) [24:51]
Variations sérieuses, op.54 [12:49]
Andante con moto tranquillo (from the Piano Trio No.1, op.49; transcr. Shani Diluka) [7:52]
Fantasia in F-sharp minor (“Sonate ecossaise”) [12:28]
Shani Diluka (piano)
rec. 2008, Studio Tibor Varga, Sion, Switzerland
Originally released as MIR062
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.1, op.15 [35:17]
Piano Concerto No.2, op.19 [28:56]
Variations sérieuses, op.54 [12:49]
Andante con moto tranquillo (from the Piano Trio No.1, op.49; transcr. Shani Diluka) [7:52]
Fantasia in F-sharp minor (“Sonate ecossaise”) [12:28]
Shani Diluka (piano)
Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine/Kwamé Ryan
rec. April 2010, Salle Franklin, Bordeaux, France
Originally released as MIR126
MIRARE MIR287 [58:00& 64:00]

I really wanted to end my review of this 2 CD set with the throw-away line: “But as they say, ‘she’s no Ilse von Alpenheim.’” This would be — deliberately — quite nonsensical, because surely there’s no gaggle of critics, not even an imaginary one, that goes around comparing any new recording of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words to that long-time sole integral recording on Philips by Ilse von Alpenheim. Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated by these works, how beautiful they are, how easy they go down the aural hatch, how rarely they are recorded … and by that recording with that name: “Ilse von Alpenheim”, which I used to think might possibly be a joke until I finally allowed myself to be convinced that this wife of Antal Doráti is a perfectly real person; still alive, incidentally.

Well, now that I have crowbarred the silly bit in here, we can move on. About the rare performance aspect: Reasonably complete cycles are rare, even though they can be fitted onto two CDs; I have Frau Ilse’s and Daniel Barenboim’s (the sole reason I once picked up that “Romantic Piano Music I” box of his on DG), and then there are … well, quite a few more, actually. As I was typing them all up I realized that the last ten years and a number of small-time labels have brought about a flood of new(ish) recordings, completely undermining my point, so I’ll save you the laundry list here and include it for the discographically-inclined geeks, like myself, below.

Shani Diluka, in any case, doesn’t give us the whole shebang, but only ten selected wordless songs, which flitter by with the pleasantry that only ear-seducing prettiness can. Then, in the Variations the pianist lets her hair down and enters robustly … with a clear tone and steely-steady rhythm in wonderful contrast to a sensitive rubato and relaxed sensuousness and right back. Now this is terrific, unperfumed pianism. The Andante from the opus 49 Piano Trio that Shani Diluka transcribed for solo piano, meanwhile, lines right up with the other Songs without Words and is so darn beautiful that it flies right by the relaxed and gently wafting ears … for better or worse.

Now I hate “Classical Music for Relaxation” compilations, because classical music is so, so, so much more than that. Mendelssohn sure had a knack for writing in a way that made this cliché possible in the first place. He can’t be blamed for inane and one-sided marketing gimmicks, meanwhile, and his music isn’t a lesser kind for allowing itself to be more beautiful than most. The neglect that these pieces — not the Piano Trio, granted — had received for a long time is certainly connected to this. Their reputation for being salon music rather than ‘serious classical fare’ which is not unlike the output of Schubert’s for Piano Four Hands not being valued as highly as his solo-piano works, when they might just be the best thing he wrote ... but I digress. Let’s point out instead that the Presto of the Fantasy op.28, too, is a real feat … another bite of granite that Diluka takes out of Mendelssohn. To my ears, it's the most successful, or rather the most noteworthy, or rather: the bits that made me prick my ears most. Then again, the point of the Songs without Words is not that you notice the grand pianism but that you simply hang back and enjoy the pleasant ride. The recorded sound on the Mirare recording is generous, beautiful and warm; a hint of damping pedal can be heard. Her contribution to the liner-notes is drippy drivel, but you wouldn’t get this for her literary talent.

Those complete recordings of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words I threatened you with above — here we go, in no particular order: Balazs Szkolay (Grand Piano), Roberto Prosseda (on Italian Decca, Universal’s vanity-label subsidiary), Michael Korstick (CPO), Amir Katz (LiveClassics), Péter Nagy (Naxos), Michael Endres (Oehms), Rena Kyriakou (VoxBox), Annette Seiler (MusikMuseum, on a Conrad Graf fortepiano), Carmen Piazzini (Line Music), Daniel Adni (EMI), Frank van de Laar (Brilliant), Daniela Ruso (Lydian/Amadis), Daniel Gortler (Romeo Records), Barbara Meister (Centaur), Martin Jones (Nimbus; of course he did) … and readers so inclined will undoubtedly let us know which ones I’ve missed.

Now for a little Beethoven: The coupling of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos is attractive as they are the less recorded and performed works and might offer an interesting and convenient addition to someone’s collection already teeming with Concertos Nos. 3 through 5. Shani Diluka’s releases are also interesting because the conductors she works with are talents that receive less spotlight, but not for lack of skill or talent. Eivind Gullberg Jensen on a Grieg disc (not included in this set) and Kwamé Ryan here, leading the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. His career is moving slowly but steadily; I remember more or less enjoying two performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and him … my, over a decade ago by now. (Grieg-Beethoven, less) and Bluebeard’s Castle (much more). The Bordeaux Aquitaine band isn’t a known international quantity, but they sound every bit the professional orchestral standard one is used to from orchestras around the world, by now. Warm generous, with chirping strings and lively woodwinds and meshing nicely with the equally warm sound that Diluka coaxes out of Bechstein. There are some very nice, outstanding touches towards the end of the slow movement, where pianist and orchestra play with very gentle piano and pianissimo-shades, and really milk it beautifully, but without direct comparison. It all sounds and looks — judging from the timings — a bit middle-of-the-road.

In direct comparison, that most unnatural listening-method, most other accounts — especially of the Second Piano Concerto (the earliest of Beethoven’s, appropriately programmed first on the disc … and only one of the handful that isn’t an unqualified love of mine) — the others sound pretty middle-of-the-road, also. Like Perahia-Haitink-Concertgebouw (Sony), where Perahia has a slightly cleaner ring to his piano’s notes and the orchestra’s woodwinds are caught with greater detail. Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony) have a lighter, pleasantly silvery touch, but still not that different. A rare outlier is Olli Mustonen. He is by far the fastest in the Adagio of those I have surveyed, with 7:28 compared to a 9:30 average. Even he and the Tapiola Sinfonietta (Ondine) don’t sound so wildly dissimilar that I would absolutely have to prefer one over the other.

The First Concerto strikes me as a happier affair, probably just because I prefer the music. I notice more readily a certain joy and lively funk in Diluka’s touch. Still, the ultimate impression is one of harmless loveliness, the orchestra perhaps a little cloying, but otherwise charming and in combination with the Second Concerto a fine choice for anyone interested in specifically that coupling. Speaking of recordings that couple these two concertos: Olli Mustonen (Tapiola Sinfonietta, Ondine) would be another fine, slightly more extroverted choice as would be Schwizgebel-Wang, (London Philharmonic, Thierry Fischer, Aparté) whereas Idil Biret’s wouldn’t be (scrawny); nor Lars Vogt/Simon Rattle (emaciated). Arthur Schoonderwoerd and Cristofori — on Alpha, very, very interesting in its original instrument textures and balances but – not surprisingly – comparatively sparse-sounding — would only delight those decidedly looking for original-instruments. If I needed to amend my collection with one CD of exactly these two concertos, I would try to pick up a copy of Uchida/Sanderling (Philips/Decca). As per the booklet: This time I didn’t get further than the title of Diluka’s notes (“The Beethoven Concertos or: The Metaphysics of the Soul”) and probably for the better of it.

This collection brings together two of the discs that Shani Diluka has made for Mirare so far — apart from the aforementioned Grieg she has also recorded Schubert for them — and does so at a price of less than one. It’s something of a bargain, assuming you covet the contents, since it consists of just a little slip-case around the individually wrapped original, nicely done digi-pack releases. That also has the advantage that you can file the discs properly under the respective composer, which is a considerable bonus to the dedicated collector.
Jens F. Laurson



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