WEBER: The Four Piano Sonatas; Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65; Momento Capriccioso, Op. 12; Rondo Brillante, Op. 52. Garrick Ohlsson, piano. Arabesque Z-6584-2 (two CDs).
Had Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) lived beyond the 39-plus years providence saw fit to allow him, doubtless his name would loom larger in the history books. Even so, almost singlehandedly he founded what we think of today as German romantic opera (Wagner himself traced his roots to Weber) and produced a quartet of piano sonatas that in their day were ranked just below Beethoven's.That estimate does not seem so far-fetched as one listens to this much-needed Arabesque recording of all four. (At present only the Second, in A flat, is represented in Schwann.) Like the Bonn master, Weber was celebrated both as a pianist and as a conductor, and even in the early C major Sonata (No. 1) one hears a similar tough-mindedness and almost orchestral concern for sonority.
Yet if these pieces (especially the Third, written in 1816) look to Beethoven for their inspiration, their more prophetic aspects look no less dramatically to Chopin, who at the time of Weber's death would have been all of 16. At least that is the voice I hear in the ringing opening of No. 1, as well as its Polonaise-like minuet (perhaps a bit too long for its own good). By the same token Mendelssohn cannot have been uninfluenced by the finale, which emerges almost like an extended, rapid-fire glissando.
The Second Sonata is even more lyrically fanciful, less consciously virtuosic than its predecessor but more assured structurally and more involving. His student Julius Benedict thought it the best of Weber's piano compositions, but I find even greater substance in Sonatas 3 and 4, their passion manifesting itself darkly but impulsively. Indeed for all its stormy counterpoint, No. 3 is the one place in this survey I am reminded of Schumann (e.g., the Andante).
The Fourth Sonata, Benedict tells us, was written in a despondent mood, its sentiment undercut by melancholy, even a certain sense of desperation. This last surfaces not only in the choleric second movement (with its Beethovenian fury) but also the haunting tarantella that concludes the piece, here boldly declaimed.
In fact just about all this music is boldly declaimed by Ohlsson. At times I prefer the lighter touch of a Beveridge Webster (the First and Second Sonatas, briefly available from Dover) or the sweeping propulsion of Dino Ciani (whose DG recording of the Second and Third has likewise vanished from the catalog). Yet there is much to be said for Ohlsson's ringing articulation and the controlled power he brings to the more heroic sections, which in his hands seem to build from below. No one else even comes close to him here.
Ditto his performances of the shorter pieces, the best-known of which, "Invitation to the Dance," I prefer in some ways to the famous Schnabel interpretation. Currently that can be sampled only by way of his piano-roll recording, on Newport Classic NC-60020 ("The Performing Piano," a fascinating collection of Ampico rolls from the likes of Rachmaninoff, Lhevinne, Paderewski, Cortot and the young Erwin Nyiregyhazi). Although shorter than his 78-rpm recording (by more than a minute), the warmth and humanity come through. Still, I would not want to be without Ohlsson's superior clarity (not merely a question of recording techniques) or sense of letting the piece unfold almost in and of itself. And I say that despite a couple of obvious splices and Arabesque's grandly sonorous but almost-too-widespread registration of his Boesendorfer.