ECM New Series is better known for its documentation of contemporary works, but the music of the past sometimes receives coverage when artists bring a new perspective to it. The Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, are among the most original and intellectually stimulating works Ludwig van Beethoven composed for the piano, and the sophisticated interpretations of András Schiff are especially worthwhile for their insights into authentic performance practice and reception. Here, Schiff gives the listener options between a relatively modern sounding version of the Diabelli Variations and a period interpretation, without favoring one or the other. On the first CD he plays the Sonata and the Diabelli Variations on a Bechstein piano from 1921, though with minimal pedaling and a restrained execution that allows every inner voice and subtle dynamic to be appreciated. While this piano is not as hard or bright sounding as a modern Steinway, it is familiar to modern ears and most listeners will readily accept it. On the second CD, Schiff plays the Diabelli Variations, along with the Six Bagatelles, on a smaller sounding Franz Brodmann fortepiano, an original instrument from around 1820, Beethoven's time period.
It takes a certain amount of forethought if Das Rheingold is to be more than a series of special effects scenes, though moments like the appearance of the giants through the mist or Alberich's transformations need to be as thrilling as they are here. As always in his Wagner, and perhaps especially in this very traditional 1990 Metropolitan Opera production of the Ring cycle, James Levine keeps to the forefront the underlying humanity of Wagner's gods and monsters. In the first scene, for example, he brings out the thoughtless, callous frivolity of the Rhine maidens as they precipitate the events of the four operas by taunting the gnome Alberich: it helps that they swirl around, green and gold, in a convincing representation of the bottom of the Rhine, but the emotions are the point. Ekkehaard Wlaschiha is a convincingly menacing Alberich partly because Levine brings out his vulnerability as well as his evil temper. James Morris is splendid as the younger less care-worn Wotan and Siegfried Jerusalem as Loge enjoys the sarcasm of his cynical commentary on Wotan's aspirations. The smaller parts have luxury casting: Matti Salminen as Fafner and Christa Ludwig as Fricka, for example.(Roz Kaveney)
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