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…

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