A solo disc by Andrew von Oeyen on Delos impressed my colleague Raymond Tuttle in Fanfare 34:6; the disc in question included a Liszt B-Minor Sonata that held its head high amongst such august company as Horowitz and Ousset…Now on Warner, this American pianist (of German and Dutch origin, who counts both Los Angeles and Paris as hometowns) presents a delicious treat with the PKF—Prague Philharmonia of two French concertos and a piece by a composer who himself was famous for bringing the phrase “An American in Paris” to world consciousness, George Gershwin. And not the expected piece, either: no Rhapsody in Blue here, but the far less played Second Rhapsody.
The central thread of the programming is Ravel, who knew both Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. There is even a Franco-American connection to the Massenet, as the first singer to take the title role of Massenet’s beautiful opera was California-born Sybil Sanderson. The Saint-Saëns is given a barnstorming performance. The climactic statement of the main theme around six minutes into the first movement has tremendous force here. Von Oeyen’s fingerwork is exemplary, clean throughout and with absolutely no problems with that light velocity and fluency so demanded by Saint-Saëns.
Von Oeyen finds depth to the piece, too, reminding us in the process of just how important a composer Saint-Saëns is. To this day, we only recognize a small part of Saint-Saëns’s output (try the opera Henry VIII to find a cornucopia of delights, for example). The piano is well rendered in the recording, the bass register impressive and the top lovely and alive (we need this in the sprightly central Allegro scherzando); the well-disciplined orchestra has great presence. The character of both pianist and conductor come out in that central scherzo, with von Oeyen’s scalic passages deliciously even, his left-hand staccato playful yet perfectly placed. Von Oeyen’s finale nearly gets there for the frisson of a live performance; it is certainly exciting, and to help things along Villaume persuades the Prague strings to whip up a tornado at a moment’s notice.
It is von Oeyen’s touch that is a continuous joy to listen to though; the extended sequence of a repeated gesture featuring trills between two and three minutes into the finale never pales…in terms of couplings, this disc is surely unique. The Ravel G-Major brings just as tough competition from the classic Michelangeli through a tranche of French pianists to the likes of Argerich and Zimerman. Yet there is such huge life in von Oeyen’s reading that it is impossible not to get carried away in it. Both piano and orchestra seem to have such fun; plus ensemble both within the orchestra and between orchestra and piano is pinpoint….There is a fine line at work here, whether to retreat into objectivity or to emote…The frantic, almost cartoonish finale tends again towards that spirit of risk that attends live performance yet remains stubbornly accurate.
The bassoonist of the Prague orchestra dispatches the rapid-fire challenges with élan. As to the status of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, von Oeyen is in no doubt: “It bears all the qualities of Gershwin’s genius and, in my estimation, at times even surpasses its prototype. Certainly, it deserves to be played more often.” He certainly believes what he says, if this performance is anything to go by…Von Oeyen enjoys the work’s gestural quality, its sense of graphic, primary colors; and one gets the impression the orchestra had fun, too. The swooning strings have a particularly attractive sheen to them, while the final few minutes seem to aggregate all that is great and over-the-top in Gershwin (arguably the composer over-eggs his pudding in the final bars). The extreme upper register of the piano also points to how well prepared von Oeyen’s piano is for this recording.
The Massenet appears in the manner of an encore (it is listed as a “bonus track”), and after the high-octane close of the Gershwin, it turns out it is needed. Von Oeyen’s singing tone is perfect for the famous long-breathed melody, which unfolds with its own sense of hope. All in all, this is a simply lovely disc; and I would certainly like to hear more from Mr. von Oeyen.