op.185 and Moritz Moszkowski: Piano Concerto op.59
Philharmonic Orchestra of the Vogtland Theatre, Plauen. Conductor: Paul Theissen, Piano: Michael Ponti
Dante PSG 9655 1996 DDD 65:14
In the early 1970s the German-American pianist Michael Ponti made his name as a specialist for complete recordings and for research on the romantic repertoire in seldom-played works. One has fond memories of the brightly coloured Vox Turnabout LPs, found in record shops under the heading of "Miscellaneous". Moscheles and Moszkowski, Reinecke and Rubinstein, Hiller and Volkmann - and of course also Joachim Raff, among others. Many lovers of this music have got to know the composer for the first time through Ponti's recordings, and were grateful to the performer for making them known. They happily accepted the fact that Ponti's big hands were anything but delicate and his taste for inner structures was often drowned out by his enthusiastic thundering.
At the end of the series little more was heard of Ponti, but he continued to tour round the world's concert halls, where one hoped in vain to hear one of the old favourites during one of his performances. But in live performances he only played programmes of Beethoven and Schubert. In the fullness of time, Ponti found a niche in the firm of Dante, and began to make new recordings or to re-record parts of his repertoire. It would have been useful to read about the pianist in the booklets of the new CDs, but the short texts are limited to the usual descriptions of the works and a short eulogy on the performer. One has to listen to his playing in order to get an idea of how his views have changed over the years.
In the faster sections, Moszkowski's four-movement composition moves forward in pure enjoyment, followed by a passing relaxation in the Andante part. This depends on the pianist's sense for lyricism and on exact phrasing - and here lies the problem with this recording. Ponti carefully replaces sections of mounting tension and those of easing with abrupt advances and sentimental dragging. Some dialogues with the woodwinds are quite successful, but the high point of the movement suffers, like so many other parts, when Ponti starts with a healthy mezzoforte and quickly builds up to a coarse-sounding touch.
Raff's concerto is without question one of his most effective works. Completely lacking in any technical or formal novelties, its style sits firmly on the fence, as do his symphonies, but this does not make it any less attractive. It is not for nothing that this is one of the best recorded representatives of Raffs larger works. The most impressive recording up to now is by the team of pianist Jean-Francois Antomoli and the Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne under Lawrence Foster (Claves 50-8806). Here the pianist finds some notes which Ponti, in this new recording, let fall on the floor. In particular, the cadenza in the first movement is celebrated by Antonioli as a festival of beautiful sound, whereas Ponti wants to run on as fast as possible. On the other hand, too many notes are missed, passages are torn apart or drowned by the intoxication of the pedal. Phrasing and agogic are badly balanced.
However, the recording engineer has managed well to put the orchestra in the acoustic picture over long stretches, which especially suits the excellent woodwinds (the sometimes soapy-sounding strings could have been a little less loud). In general, Ponti's probably too hastily produced new recording of the Raff concerto is not altogether satisfying. As a "Music minus One" CD, namely without the pianist, this would be a worthwhile acquisition, as the study of this valuable concerto with the orchestra as a background would certainly be rewarding.
[This review was originally published in German in the Newsletter of the Joachim Raff Society]
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