Pianist Andrew von Oeyen considers himself a Parisian-American, so little wonder that his debut album for Warner Classics (rec. 21-25 August 2015) embraces compositions – rather flashy and jazzy in their own respect – from both musical cultures. That Oeyen finds a natural, virtuoso vehicle in the 1868 Concerto No. 2 by Saint-Saens comes as little surprise – Andre Watts did much the same in early days when I heard him at Lewisohn Stadium in New York. Oeyen plays with requisite strength and optimism, dashing through the Bach prelude evolves into a lovely theme attributed to Gabriel Faure. The breadth of musical line and the plastic contours from the orchestra suggest that the several Artur Rubinstein renditions of the work served as models for the present reading. The second movement Allegro scherzando relies much on Saint-Saens’ great fondness for the fourth of the Chopin scherzos. The tympani and woodwinds – especially the oboe – contribute their fair share to the energetic, impish figurations that more than hint at the Poulenc style of the boulevardier. The alert moments of pungent harmony and invention culminate in the last movement Presto, a spectacular tarantella – a la Offenbach – rife with effects that Clara Schumann sneered upon as “worthy only of an acrobat.”
Maurice Ravel – who provides the pivotal point for this recording – his having known both Saint-Saens and Gershwin – conceived his 1928-31 Concerto in G Major as a deliberate means of illuminating his own 1931 tour of England. Ravel wished his “divertissement” to capture the spirit of both Saint-Saens and Mozart, “lighthearted and brilliant.” Much in the manner of his various “children’s pieces,” the Concerto opens with an onrush of sound effects taken from some jazzy toy shop. While percussion and cymbal provide a dance-hall character, the keyboard and winds and English horn provide a bluesy waltz tune, hued with syncopated nostalgia. Oeyen prances over the keyboard in light, flashy roulades and sizzling runs. The crisp sound of the Prague harp adds to the welter of exotic effects, accented by high strings. The blues blaze up once more, with muted horn and soft strings, while Oeyen weaves the main melody ornamented by intricate trills and erotic arpeggios. No less pungent, Oeyen’s bass chords lead to a staggered by inexorable progression that builds to another frenetic toy-store cavalcade of explosive effects for a resounding coda on the bass drum. Silken and serene, the Adagio assai floats in the manner of a pastorale, first in solo, then with the alluring colors of the Prague wind section. The last movement, Presto, lives up to its reputation for bravura effects, with trombone glissandi and an active bassoon part, all in tandem with a blazing series of keyboard fireworks. The same resounding thud from the drum which ended the first movement concludes this wily and striking collaboration. If any previous performance on record comes to mind in the course of this fine reading, it is that by Entremont and Ormandy from the 1960s.
The etiology of the 1931 Second Rhapsody by George Gershwin includes his Hollywood connection to a film starring Janet Gaynor, Delicious, in which the piece meant to signify the protagonist-composer’s “New York Rhapsody.” Happily, Oeyen and conductor Villaume play the work in its original orchestration, which does not lack color and vivacity. Without any fixed program, the work bustles and vibrates in a modernist idiom that contains jazz and folk elements not far removed from Porgy and Bess. A cadenza emerges some five minutes into the work, which covers 76 pages. Often darkly-hued and eccentrically passionate, the busy work ingratiates itself with repetition. A theme of some power would be associated in the film concept as “The River,” and quite mesmerizes us with Gershwin’s innate melodic gift. Coincidentally, Yves St Laurent has just issued the legendary 1931 Gershwin recording – a rare moment of his directing an ensemble form the keyboard (YSL 78-409).
As an encore and homage a la Francaise, Oeyen plays his own transcription of the eternal Meditation from Massenet’s 1893 opera Thais. Originally for harp and violin, the piano treatment comes as an enchanting surprise, particularly since Oeyen’s keyboard palette proves so persuasive. The theme, that erotic love may supersede spiritual conviction, has rarely beguiled us with such potent mystery.