Jeremy Lee writes
Gunter Appenheimer, Teije van Geest, Tonstudio van Geest in Heidelberg–three magical names that ruined an otherwise excellent performance that would deserve my recommendation. Normally I would not care to remember the names of personell or venues involved in a recording other than the performers themselves, but in this case I view their “contribution” to pianist Bernard Ringeissen’s work as so regret-deserving that I have taken the trouble to memorize their names and to stay off any recording that has them appear in the back of the CD. (Martin Sauer is another person that destroyed Idil Biret’s fine performance of the first two Brahms sonatas to such an unbearable extent I had to sell it, but as he is not the focus of my review today I shall retain the right to bash his work at a later time, if ever.)
As you probably know from reading my past reviews, I am a devoted Alkanist, and to obtain the CD arbitrarily from the shelf of Hong Kong Records in Festival Walk a few years ago made me extremely excited. And as the performance goes, it was well worth my excitement as after comparison with the only other set of the Op. 35 Etudes played by Stephanie McCallum I had come to realize that Ringeissen’s performance as a whole was by far the superior. Ringeissen’s formidable technique and musicality made all the performances here very enjoyable, and although Hamelin, Gibbons or Lewenthal might be more technically dazzling in the first number “Le Festin d’Esope”, Ringeissen’s colorful approach impresses all the same. In contrast McCallum hasn’t the power to pull off such pieces as Allegro Barbaro. I cannot praise the artistic worth of the pieces too highly–surely they deserve a place alongside the popular Chopin Etudes. And at the budget Naxos price, what’s not to like?
It’s the sonics which are not to like–in fact, they are so terrible they are to detest. The piano tone is boxy, tinny, hollow and metallic, and is a pain to listen to at the highest registers. As such the 4th etude makes for one of the noisiest and eardrum-piercing listening experiences ever to have been committed to disc. As if it weren’t bad enough, the piano can slip way out of tune in the high registers, exacerbating the discomfort in listening to the disc. How exactly Appenheimer and van Geest managed this I don’t know, but it surely is partly due to the studio, given that most the discs I’ve heard coming from this studio have horrendous sound–in fact the only person to have produced an acceptable piano tone from this studio is Jorg Ritter who supervised Laurent Martin’s Alkan Preludes and Ringeissen’s Alkan Symphony. And to think that this is a DDD recording–even Leonard was shocked when I told him that it wasn’t analog.
Thankfully, Naxos has improved the sonics of its future releases dramatically, but that can’t save the sonics of those recorded previously. In sum, if you have ears made out of steel and a soul brave enough to overcome the sonics, then you have yourself here a very pleasurable release of one of the most interesting sets of Etudes the 19th century ever saw. Would that Gibbons learnt it in its entirety and made a recording with ASV!
- Album name: Alkan: 12 Etudes, Op. 35; Le Festin D’Esope; Scherzo Diabolico
- Performers: Bernard Ringeissen (piano)
- Label: Naxos 8.555495 (originally released on Marco Polo 8.223351)
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 78:01