September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Satie: Piano Music Volume 2 (Noriko Ogawa)

Of all the oddballs in classical music, the French composer Erik Satie surely takes the cake. He was an artistic visionary and a bona fide eccentric, a friend to occultists, surrealists, and Dadaists, and a self-dubbed ‘phonometrist’. To describe him as ahead of his time would be something of an understatement. He wrote furniture music and produced a string of other musical experiments that prefigured Postmodernism. London-based Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa has recorded Satie’s complete set of works for piano for Sweden’s enterprising BIS label, and in this second volume there’s not a Gymnopedie in sight – not even Je te veux. The curious listener will gain a more rounded understanding of this very unique genius through works like the Sports et Divertissements (Sports and Hobbies), and Préludes Flasques pour un Chien (Flabby Preludes for a dog). The Trois Préludes du Fils des Étoiles (Three Preludes from The Son of the Stars) are particularly interesting, sounding as though they might have been sketched by that other French musical dreamer, Olivier Messiaen. The disc is almost entirely composed of miniatures and, whether strange or serious, each gives a perspective on Satie’s musical nature: mock-traditionalist, austere, and reverent, with his curious mixture…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: À La Russe (Alexandre Kantorow)

Alexandre Kantorow’s first outing for BIS – an all-Liszt programme including both piano concertos – had critics racing to their lexicons for superlatives. That was in 2015 at the age of 18; In 2017, as he turns 20, Kantorow puts his stamp on more fiendish repertoire with blistering interpretations of two monumental works à la russe. Rachmaninov’s first Piano Sonata dates from 1908 and was initially inspired by Goethe’s Faust, its classically-structured movements representing three distinct personalities – Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The last, described as a ‘hellish whirlpool’ in a ‘diabolical sonata,’ finds Kantorow in his element: a smashing, torrent of sound delivered with formidable technique and precision. Its companion piece here is a 1928 transcription of excerpts from Stravinsky’s Firebird by Guido Agosti. The transcription is extraordinary, its delivery by Kantorow breathtaking, terrifying, brimming with suspense.  Between these edifices are two glorious epistles of tenderness, Meditation and Passé lointain, from Tchaikovsky’s Morceaux (Op. 72), demonstrating that Kantorow is a master of deep and delicate lyricism. The SACD is of the usual impeccable BIS standard, the only niggle an over-brightness of tone at times, but that is purely taste. Finally, Balakirev’s Islamey brings this programme to an exhausting but immensely…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bennett, Schumann: Piano Sonata, Symphonic Studies (Takenouchi)

The first edition of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques was published in 1837. The work consists of a theme “by an amateur” (Baron von Fricken) and 12 movements. The final movement, a variation on a theme by Marchner, was dedicated to Schumann’s friend, English composer and pianist William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). Both Schumann and Mendelssohn spoke glowingly of the young man’s gifts; however, on his return from Leipzig, Bennett forsook composition for conducting, teaching and administration at the Royal College of Music. (One of his students was Arthur Sullivan.)  The Piano Sonata is one of Bennett’s strong early works. It is Mozartean in its restraint, melodiousness and structure, although harmonically it most resembles Mendelssohn. The work is certainly promising, even though that initial promise was never fulfilled. London-based Japanese pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi gives a robust performance, bringing the music out of its shell, and finding plenty of sturm und drang. Schumann’s Etudes are more demanding and dynamic. Takenouchi is again robust, sometimes over-emphasising accompanying figures. He is at his best in faster movements such as the sprightly Scherzando (Study No 5), and the final Allegro brilliante (No 12) – but while it is bracing to hear this music attacked so fearlessly, Takenouchi lacks Pogolerich’s…

September 22, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Crossing Borders (Luke Welch)

Domenico Scarlatti’s collection of 555 sonatas for the harpsichord represents a unique output. Far more showy than most of his Baroque brethren, the sonatas are a kaleidoscope of swirling melodic lines and rapid runs. There are even a few that take their influence from the music that he must have heard at the courts of Spain – strummed guitars are never far away. Canadian pianist Luke Welch presents an all-Scarlatti recital comprising favourites like the Sonata in E Major, L23/K380. One of the oddest things about the harpsichord is that it can’t change volume, though composers got around this problem in some ingenious ways. So, when a performer plays Scarlatti’s music on the modern piano, they must also choose whether to take advantage of the piano’s full range of dynamics or to imitate the harpsichord. Welch sensibly doesn’t thunder away, but instead keeps to a more restricted dynamic range that evokes the older instrument in mood if not in timbre. This is an assured performance, though awfully short, with the eight tracks on the disc coming in at a smidgen over 35 minutes. I’d have definitely liked a few more to build the recording to a more traditional length. That…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Bach: French Suites (Vladimir Ashkenazy)

S Bach composed his French Suites (or at least the first five) in 1722 for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, who used them for teaching. (They are in her “notebook”). These dance suites, showing all the composer’s contrapuntal skill, are less outgoing than the English Suites and Partitas, suggesting they were designed solely for domestic use and may in fact have been intended for the clavichord. Vladimir Ashkenazy, on this new recording, plays a concert grand. “I use few ornaments and don’t think of the sound of the harpsichord,” he writes. “What I try to do is play on what we have today, and make the combination of voices as clear as possible.” That he does, and produces some warm-toned pianism into the bargain. The Sarabandes, in particular those from Suites Nos 1 and 5, are sensitively caressed; the Gigue from Suite No 3 teeters excitingly on the edge. Ashkenazy turned 80 in July of this year, and has retired from public piano concertising due to arthritis, but this is barely hinted at in these 2016 recordings. The Courante from Suite No 5 would probably have been more fluent earlier in his career, but overall there is no doubting his…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Vaughan Williams: Piano Music (Bebbington, Omordia)

If you’ve ever wondered why you’d never heard of Vaughan Williams’ keyboard music, you might find the answer in these well-performed examples by the excellent British pianist Mark Bebbington. It’s important to hear the full range of any great composer’s music, and Discoveries, recently reviewed in Limelight, brought us some of his unheard orchestral works. It’s wonderful music, hidden away for decades. But that is orchestral music, of which the composer was a master.The piano, being a percussion instrument simply cannot release the Vaughan Williams magic. It works a treat for Beethoven, but is relatively alien to the misty loveliness of Vaughan Williams. Two works for solo piano, A Little Piano Book and Suite of Six Short Pieces, are pleasant, but not much more. Of sterner stuff is the Introduction and Fugue for two pianos, a first recording; at 17 minutes it has some substance. The Lake in the Mountains is claimed to be a masterpiece, and is possibly the best piece on the disc. However, it descends into musical head-banging with a great deal of thumping, not a style I associate with the composer. The arrangements of his more famous pieces, such as the Tallis Fantasia and Greensleeves, and…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Schumann: Humoreske, Davidsbündlertänze (Luca Buratto)

Schumann’s Humoreske and Davidsbündlertänze are hard nuts to crack. They both reveal Schumann at his most ruminative and discursive. The Humoreske is one of Schumann’s kaleidoscopic “mood” pieces – much more than the salonistic bagatelles of Grieg and Dvořák. Schumann lamented the absence of a French word for whimsy, which is what this piece is about, as much as anything. Buratto plays beautifully but at times a bit anonymously. Compare Horowitz’s recording (made when he was 76) where there’s more animation and imagination. The Davidsbündlertänze (David’s Club Dances) were another celebration of the inspiration of Schumann’s imaginary world and his bi-polar muses and the foundation members and twin pillars of the “club”: Florestan, active, adventurous, heroic, and Eusibius, contemplative and introverted. (David triumphed over the Philistines: i.e. the composer’s conservative critics.)The 18-section work, another love letter to Clara, presents challenges in terms of cohesion. There’s a subtle connective tissue but it would be missed by most listeners. Many of these “dances” are hardly terpsichoral but Buratto has, for the most part, their mutli-faceted measure, from the frenetic bursts of enery to the quintessential Schumann reverie. The centrepiece is the exquisite Blumenstück. Here, Buratto is equally exquisite, though not yet in…

August 31, 2017
CD and Other Review

Review: Glass: Piano Works (Víkingur Ólafsson)

Written over two decades to improve his own piano skills, Philip Glass’s Piano Études are both technical studies and clear statements of his compositional philosophy – and arguably, the best starting point when beginning to understand Glass’s approach to music. As with the Bach Cello Suites, or Chopin’s Piano Études, however, they also represent an opportunity for the performer. The Glass Piano Études demand interpretation, and in this crisp, attractive new recording, the young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson brings drama to the otherwise sparse, minimalist pieces. The album opens with the overture from 1981’s Glassworks, on which Ólafsson leaves his distinct mark. This provides an opening statement and an entry point to the remainder of the recordings, which consist of a selection of the 20 Glass Études arranged out of order but in a convincing sequence nonetheless. Ólafsson’s performances are skilful, revealing a lightness of touch, subtlety in interpretation, and offering a wide palette of gesture and colour. Étude No 20 is particularly compelling, verging on the Romantic. The arrangements of Étude No 2 and the Glassworks overture, which closes the album, for piano and string quartet are both fine performances in themselves, and offer some variation, but seem to…

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