Recital Media Review Print



Blüthner Records and Pianos

April 23, 2007 - Williamsburg, MA:


The 150+-year-old Leipzig-based Julius Blüthner Kaiserliche und Königliche Hofpianofortefabrik, founded in 1853 and now known as Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik GmbH, has issued a number of CDs in recent years, some handled by their own operations and others on/distributed by other labels. A listing of the offerings is available at http://www.blüthnerpiano.com/ [inactive 9/09], under two separate buttons, where they may be ordered, most single CDs for $15, some others and 2-CD sets for $18 or $20, all + shipping. American headquarters are at Blüthner USA, 5660 West Grand River Avenue, Lansing, MI 48906. Contact them at info@bluthnerpiano.com for the name and location of the dealer closest to you; dealers do not stock the CDs, however.

Having thought that the company was "history" (see my concluding paragraph below; the factory was destroyed by bombing and a consequent fire in 1943), this writer initially discovered their existence by hearing one on the radio. Subsequent to an inquiry, the company sent a representative selection of six for review, including the most recent release, as well as a sampler not shown on the website, although the recording heard on the air, a performance by Viennese pianist Florian Krumpöck of two of Franz Schubert's sonatas (D.644 and D.960), which is shown, is currently out of print. I was struck by the rich and warm tone and how well it served that music. One movement of the D.960 sonata is on the aforementioned sampler issued on the Hänssler Classic label (http://www.haenssler-classic.com/), although curiously without a catalogue number or © date, which is probably 2007 – see below. The back of its booklet, which contains photos of the covers of the CDs, bios of the pianists represented on it, and blurbs about Blüthner Records and Hänssler Classic, all in German with occasionally strange English translations in italics, shows the six primary models: two Konzertfügels (concert grands), models 1 (280 cm) and 2 (238 cm), two Salonflügels (chamber grands?), models 4 (210 cm) and 6 (190 cm), and two Kabinettflügels (studio grands?), models 10 (166 cm) and 11 (154 cm). Other specialty models exist and are shown and described on the website. A model 1 was used on all the recordings supplied.

On the Hänssler Classic label, like the sampler, is Netherlands-based Russian pianist Elena Bezprozvannykh's offering of music (73:52) by Frédéric Chopin (CD-98.760 or BLT-EB1001252, ©2007). This is the latest release, but the date is not on the CD or in the booklet and is shown only on the website. It contains the Fantaisie in f minor, Op. 49, Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60 (also on the sampler), Berceuse in D flat, Op. 57, the three Impromptus, in A flat, Op. 29, in F sharp, Op. 36, and in G flat, Op. 51, the Fantaisie-impromptu in c sharp minor, Op. 66, and four Nocturnes :in F, Op. 15/1, in F sharp, Op. 15/2, in D flat, Op. 27/2, and in E, Op. 62/2. It is a lovely, sensitive performance, and the Blüthner tone serves this music especially well. The booklet is quite rudimentary, with a brief bio of the artist and some general notes about the works, but these pieces are so well-known and frequently performed that the annotations suffice, and they do contain interesting tidbits of information. A seductive photo of the attractive blonde pianist beside her white instrument graces the cover.

Another recording where the music is particularly well-served by the Blüthner product is Britain-based Portuguese pianist Artur Pizarro's performance of some of the most popular of Ludwig van Beethoven's sonatas on the Linn label (CKD244, ©2004, http://www.linnrecords.com/, 78:54). This "Hybrid" multichannel CD "plays on all SACD and CD players." Included are the Sonata No. 8, in a minor, Op. 13 (the "Pathétique"); No. 14, in c sharp minor, Op. 27/2 ("Moonlight"), No. 17, in d minor, Op. 31/2 ("Tempest"), and No. 23, in f minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata"). Pizarro takes some of the fast movements at quite a clip but seems never to miss a note, and the sound is always crisp and clear, never muddied or murky. There is a good, almost bell-like ring that is pleasing but not overpowering. The tone of the piano manages to evoke for this listener, if not actually reproduce, the warmth of the sound of the fortepianos of Beethoven's time for the earlier of these works — the third movement of the "Pathétique" and the first of the "Moonlight" are particularly striking in this regard — in a way that most modern pianos do not. At the same time, it suits well the huge advance that the later "Appassionata" represents in composition, an advance made possible by the contemporary developments in piano manufacture. The booklet, a four-page accordion-fold with white typeface on dark paper, contains succinct but very good notes about each of the sonatas by Sandy Matheson, a bio of Pizarro, and recording info and photo credits, as well as a photo of Pizarro on its cover. The outside of the tray card features a photo of a painting of Beethoven and is similarly colored; it is, all in all, an attractive choice, but the total playing time is not printed anywhere.

My inquiry also involved New York City-based Moldavian pianist Alexander Paley's 2-CD recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, S.988 (Blüthner CD 2004 PA 02, no © or recording date, but presumably 2004, 104:36), since I had earlier reviewed a 1999 recording of them by Marie Nazar, comparing it to Murray Perahia's of similar vintage, both performed on Steinways, and I wondered, with some uncertainty, how this different and distinctive tone would serve them. Blüthner graciously supplied it along with another CD and a 2-CD set of music by Bach and transcriptions by others of Bach pieces performed by other artists – more about these below.

Paley takes the work at a slower pace than one is accustomed to, and must play all possible/potential repeats and/or create some to produce a performance that is nearly 30 minutes longer than Nazar's and Perahia's and more than 2.5 times the 38:40 length of the famous sprightly Glenn Gould 1955 recording. For starters, the opening aria takes Paley 5:20 in comparison with Nazar's 3:45. A few movements are less widely disparate, but Paley plays some of the slow movements at an almost achingly slow tempo (variations 12, at 4:40, and 13, at 4:09, in comparison with Nazar's 1:50 and 2:05 respectively, and 16 at 7:59 versus her 4:51, for example) that strikes this listener as tainted with sentimental Romanticism and uncharacteristic of Baroque style. Paley's touch is precise, and he does make the work sound light, as it would on the harpsichord for which it was composed. His is an enjoyable, if long, performance, and the warm Blüthner tone works surprisingly well because it is also always crisp. The accompanying single-fold booklet is, however, among the most minimalist I've ever encountered: a photo of the performer seated by the keyboard is on the cover, his bio inside, in German on the left and English on the right, and the standard photo of Blüthner's products is on the back, curiously with a blown-up shot of a special high-end version of its model no. 2 although a model no. 1 is used for the performance, as stated on the outside of the tray card. The inside of the tray card shows Paley seated at a piano in what appears to be a Blüthner showroom, and its outside gives the composer's name, the title, subtitle, and BWV/S number of the work, and the track listing — that's all you get about it. While it's admittedly one of the best known works in the world, thanks in part to the aforementioned Glenn Gould rendition, this has to be the ne plus ultra of reductio ad minimum (or should I write ad absurdum?). The aria and variation 3 (3:55 vs. Nazar's 1:25) are on the sampler.

The 2-CD set by San Francisco based Manila-born pianist William Corbett-Jones entitled "Piano Music by Johann Sebastian Bach" on the Cambria label (CD-1159, © 2006, 122:57, http://www.cambriamus.com/) is in fact a mixture of Bach and Bach transcriptions. I am always disturbed, not to say "turned off," by the term "piano music" applied to Bach's works, since he had been dead for about 50 years when the pianoforte (the instrument we today call "fortepiano") was born. Why won't "keyboard music" or "works" do? If "harpsichord" is being shunned because they aren't being performed on one, clavichords (the probable intended instrument for the French Suites, for example) and virginals were around and used, too, but not pianos. Of course, organs were around, and they have keyboards, but no one thinks of them as the intended instrument when the term "keyboard works" is used, even though they were no doubt sometimes played on them. The subtitle that heads the program notes by the pianist and Terry McNeill: "A Bach Recital" would have served better for the production.

While the title disappoints, the recording does not. It is a lovely program, well organized and balanced. Disk 1 opens with pianist Alexander Siloti's transcription of the Prelude in b minor, S.855a. The French Overture or Partita in b minor, S.831, is next, followed in turn by pianist Egon Petri's transcription of the Aria "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep May Safely Graze") from Cantata No. 208, and composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni's transcription of the organ chorale-prelude "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Awake, the voice commands"), S.645. The French Suite No. 5 in G, S.816, concludes the first CD. The second opens with the Toccata in D, S.912. Busoni's transcription of the organ chorale-prelude "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Christ" ("I Call to Thee, oh Lord"), S.639, follows. Next up is the Italian Concerto in F, S.971, followed by Leopold Godowsky's transcription of the Aria: Andante – Molto espressivo e cantabile movement of the Violin Sonata No. 3 in a minor, S.1003. The French Suite No. 4 in E flat, S.815, is next, followed by pianist Wilhelm Kempff's transcriptions of the organ chorale-preludes "It is Surely the Time/Now Rejoice, my Beloved Christ," S.307 & 734, into a single work, and his transcription of the Siciliano movement from the Flute Sonata No. 2 in E flat, S.1031. The Fantasia in c minor, S.906, follows, and pianist Dame Myra Hess' transcription of "Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude" ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), perhaps the most famous and best-loved of all Bach transcriptions, concludes the program. There is nothing from this recording on the sampler. The performance is masterful; Corbett-Jones makes the piano speak as if it were, even for the Bach originals, the composer's intended instrument, and he makes its tone sound natural for all the works. This provides an immensely pleasing and rewarding listening experience. The booklet is likewise a superior production. The notes on the works, although not organized in performance order, but rather grouped by originals and transcriptions, are interesting, informative, and well-written. There are some errors, however: the heading for the description of the "Allemande" is missing, and there are a couple of typos (a "not" for "note" in the description of the Gavotte, for example). The ultra-brief bio of the pianist is followed by a fascinating interview conducted by Terry McNeill that is, in fact, a much more enjoyable way to learn of the pianist's training and inspiration than the customary boiler-plate detailed bio would be. There are black and white photos of an engraving of Bach and of Corbett-Jones; the only color is the sepia-toned cover reproducing a drawing of St George's Church in Eisenach. It also includes a list of other recordings by Corbett-Jones and the credits. Deceptively simple and restrained in appearance, the quality of this booklet greatly enhances the value of this truly fine recording.

The fifth CD received is "Transfigured Bach: The Bach Transcriptions of Bartók, Lipatti, and Friedman" on the Hänssler Classic label (CD98.424, © 2001 & 2003, 65:26), performed by American-based South African pianist Petronel Malan. This CD, her recording début, was nominated for three Grammy awards: best instrumental soloist performance for Malan; best engineered album, classical, for Ms. Leslie Ann Jones; and producer of the year, classical for Marina A. and Victor Ledin, also the producers of the Corbett-Jones recording. It, like the Corbett-Jones, was recorded at the renowned Skywalker Sound studio in Nicasio, CA. The list of transcribers is a bit deceiving, for there are only one each (albeit the longest works on the CD) by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (the concluding work, the Sonata No 6 in G for organ, S.530, which is also found on the sampler) and Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti (the Pastorale in F for organ, S.590, second in the program); all ten others, mostly less than five minutes long, are by Polish pianist-composer Ignaz Friedman. These are, in performance order, the Toccata and fugue in d minor, S.565; the Bourrée from Partita No. 1 in b minor for solo violin, S.1002; the Aria "Schafe können sicher weiden" ("Sheep May Safely Graze") from Cantata S.208; the "Morgenlied" ("Morning Song"), version 2 of S.645 from the Six Schübler Chorales: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Awake the voice commands"); "Mein gläubiges Herze, frohlocke, sing', scherze" ("My Heart Ever Faithful") from Cantata S.68; the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, S.1048; the Siciliano from the Sonata No. 2 for flute in E flat, S.1031; the Gavotte en rondeau from the Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin, S. 1006;"Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme"("Awake the voice commands"), version 1 of S.645; and "Nun kommt, der Heiden Heiland" ("Now comes the Gentiles' Savior"), S.659a, from the Leipzig manuscript. Three of the works have here their world première recordings: the Bartók, Lipatti, and the "Morgenlied" (version 2 of S.645). Attentive readers will notice that transcriptions by different pianist-composers (or composer-pianists) of some of the same Bach originals are represented on both this disk and the Corbett-Jones 2-CD set. This one is in some ways a "Bach's Greatest Hits" recording, since it presents so many of his best-known melodies, but it has a pleasing freshness nonetheless. Malan's sensitive touch, always varied to suit the individual piece or section thereof, and always exploiting fully the potential of the instrument to showcase the music, is well-nigh astonishing. It is easy to see why this superb recording earned her a Grammy nomination. The un-credited booklet notes are devoted almost entirely to bios, detailed for the two pianist-transcribers (not unwise, since they are not well known to most modern listeners), with briefer ones of Bach, Bartók, and Malan. With the exception of the Bartók and Lipatti transcriptions, they contain few comments about the individual pieces, however. (Neither the German original nor the English translations are credited. The latter contain some infelicitous phrasings and curious vocabulary choices: "decent" where "descent" was meant, for example)

In addition to the works mentioned above, the sampler (71:19) includes, from other CDs, Bezprozvannykh's performance of "Le Cygne"("The Swan") from Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnaval des Animaux; Paley's performance of the Rondo – Allegretto moderato movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53 ("Waldstein"); Malan's performance of Mikhail Glinka's "Variations on a theme of Mozart [K.620]," for piano or harp; and Timur Sergeyenia's performances of Sergei Rachmaninov's Moment musical, Op. 16/4, and of Franz Liszt's transcription of Schubert's "Aufenhalt."

The USA is not crawling with Blüthners, but if you go to the website and click on Blüthner (there are other lines), you will see a history of the company; then click on the "Musicians" button in the top row, and you will learn that many famous pianists (including folks like Arthur Rubenstein, Ignaz Moscheles, Ferruccio Busoni, and Peter Serkin) chose or choose to perform on them. It is easy, for this listener at least, to understand why. The company's slogan is "The Golden Tone," which is also the title of the sampler disk. While it is distinctive — warm and rich, yet crisp and clear, with a certain restrained ring — it also clearly works better for music of some periods and composers than others. Yet, as the two Bach and Bach transcription programs demonstrate, in the hands of some pianists, these instruments can work well for music that one would not expect to sound "right" on them. Many readers might share my enthusiasm for the Blüthner sound if they had an opportunity to hear one live or if they chose to order one of the available recordings. This writer would counsel more care and precision with production and publication details in future CD releases, however, to increase their credibility as more than just their potential as marketing tools that clearly inspired the entry of the operation into this realm; most of them are fine products in their own right.

The Frederick Collection of historic pianos in Ashburnham, Mass., http://www.frederickcollection.org/, owns two earlier Blüthners, from 1877 and 1907. A fine recording of Claude Debussy's Préludes performed on the latter instrument — the composer owned one of similar vintage and wrote these works with/for it — by Elaine Greenfield, on the Centaur label (CRC 2693/94, ©2004, 87:45, http://www.centaurrecords.com/), is available from the Frederick for $20 + shipping.