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CD Review

Wolfgang Mozart

Sony 88985382442

Mozart in Havana

  • Piano Concerto #21 in C Major, K. 467
  • Piano Concerto #23 in A Major, K. 488
Simone Dinnerstein, piano
Havana Lyceum Orchestra/José Antonio Méndez Padrón
Recorded at Oratorio San Felipe Neri, Havana, Cuba June 28-30, 2016
Sony Classical 88985382442 56:26
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Simone Dinnerstein's latest album calls to mind circumstances regarding another recording, this one from many years ago. In June, 1962 American pianist Byron Janis traveled to Moscow and recorded the Prokofiev Third and Rachmaninov First Piano Concertos for Mercury Records, who billed the event in big bold letters across the record jacket: "New! First Time Ever!" In somewhat smaller print there followed: "First Recording Ever Made in Russia By American Technical and Musical Staff and Equipment." I still have that LP in my collection and consider it rather special as the performances were quite good and because, but to a far lesser degree, it obviously documented a precedent of sorts which served to continue an artistic detente between the US and USSR that was set in motion when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Ironically, it was Cuba that played a part in circumstances that dealt a temporary setback to the thawing of the Cold War when the Cuban missile crisis took place in October, 1962. I remember it all – I've been around a while and notice history can repeat itself in different ways.

Here we just may have history repeating itself – in a quite similar way, too – with the issue of this new CD from Sony, as it is apparently the first time in many years that a major American artist has made a recording of classical music in Communist Cuba. I would say, in fact, it's a reasonable bet that no classical recording by an important American artist has been made in Cuba since the hegemony of the Castro brothers. Does this circumstance make this recording special in some way? Sony apparently thinks so, as one can observe from the album cover and its title. I, however, am rather jaded by such musical and political kumbaya moments, though I fully realize there are those who will consider this a great political and artistic breakthrough. They may well have a good point – maybe it is a hugely significant event. On the other hand – and in all fairness – this recording won't likely go over well with certain segments of the populace, particularly with Cuban expatriates whose relatives have spent time in Cuban prisons for political misdeeds or whose relatives fled Cuba in a makeshift boat that never made it to US shores.

Indeed, but let's try to set politics and precedents aside and focus on the music and performances. Well, firstly, need I say the music is masterly? You already knew that. And the performances… The Havana Lyceum Orchestra plays quite well, in fact quite splendidly. The ensemble gets its personnel of students, professors, and recent graduates, from the University of the Arts, the National School of Music and the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. The players don't sound like such a patchwork but play as a decidedly unified and spirited group of musicians. Conductor José Antonio Méndez Padrón must be given a healthy portion of the credit for the success of the performances here from this mostly youthful orchestra.

But what about the pianist, you ask? She for her part plays Mozart with a fluidity and naturalness to challenge the best versions of these concertos from among the competition, both recent and long past. Dinnerstein adopts mostly moderate tempos, employs a wide range of subtly applied dynamics and plays with the utmost sensitivity to the emotional flow of the music. Whether in her gorgeous phrasing of the "Elvira Madigan" theme and its second subject in K. 467's second movement or her playful and witty rendering of the finale of K. 488, she is always totally convincing, making you wonder if you've heard the music played any better. She is consistently excellent. Period.

The only significant musical controversy regarding her performances is the use of Busoni's cadenzas for K. 467. The first movement cadenza, which features some emendations by composer Philip Lasser, is a beautiful piece in many ways but completely at odds with Mozart's style. The one in the finale is cleverly imagined, but quite out of place as well. It was a Busoni cadenza used by Helene Grimaud for K. 488, you may recall, that caused a notorious rift between her and the late Claudio Abbado in 2010. Mozart purists will likely scoff at the employment of such music in any of the Mozart concertos. I didn't find it a serious problem and most listeners likely will not as well, but I'm sure this may be a deal breaker for some. I should mention that Ms. Dinnerstein explains in the album notes about her teacher Solomon Mikowsky who became the source of her interest in performing in Havana (and later going on tour with the orchestra). At any rate, Sony provides clear, well balanced sound reproduction to round out this effort. If you can overlook whatever political implications you might associate with this endeavor, then by all means you will find this an utterly splendid recording. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings