Thursday, 5 February 2015

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, February 2015)

Decca 478 7697 / ****1/2

At over 85 minutes playing time, this has to be the longest single CD in existence. Within it, Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa packs in Chopin’s 24 Études (Op.10 & 25) and all of Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, including the five posthumous variations. The draw of this Youtube sensation is not her fire-breathing virtuosity but an innate musicality which elevate Chopin’s digitally most challenging essays beyond the realm of technical exercises. She nevertheless dispatches in C sharp minor study (Op.10 No.4) in 1’47”, bettering Andrei Gavrilov’s famously manic version by 1 second! Elsewhere, a poetic sensibility presides, and never a slave to the metronome, freedom of expression and lyrical beauty are never in short supply, even in the most arduous numbers.

The Schumann Op.13 set comprises 12 variations (and five more as an appendix) on a staid descending Andante theme which does not suggest possibilities for development, but how one is proved wrong by compositional genius. Here a sense of fantasy takes over, where Lisitsa positively revels in. Listen to how she readily switches gear from utmost delicacy to reaping a whirlwind, like a Formula One driver negotiating a treacherous turn, with never a dull moment. One could easily by exhausted by a surfeit of prestissimo brilliance, but Lisitsa does not allow one that indulgence. She is too good a musician to fall into that speed trap. Enjoy and how time flies; that is relativity at work. 

LYAPUNOV Piano Concertos
Russian Philharmonic / Dmitry Yablonsky
Naxos 8.570783 / ****1/2

Russian nationalist composer Sergey Lyapunov (1859-1924) is probably unknown to most except pianophiles and keyboard wizards in the thrall of his Liszt-inspired 12 Transcendental Etudes. He was a student of Taneyev and Klindworth (pupil of Liszt) and was close to Balakirev, whose circle of “The Mighty Handful” included Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Also a collector of Russian folk music, these influences coloured his music, which is exotic and Oriental in flavour.

His two piano concertos (1890 and 1909) are in single continuous movements which each play for about 20 minutes, with recurring themes in the cyclic form much in the style of Liszt. Even the virtuosic flourishes utilise Lisztian devices and technique for ultimate bravura. Certain passages from the Second Concerto are unabashed direct quotations from Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto.

His Rhapsody On Ukrainian Themes (1907) was dedicated to Busoni, and modelled on Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy and Rimsky-Korskov’s Piano Concerto, with clear folk accents and a Cossack dance to finish. Georgian pianist Shorena Tsintsabadze plays brilliantly and offers much competition to British pianist Hamish Milne (on Hyperion) who has the better recorded orchestral sound. Naxos’s budget price may be the deciding factor, but Russophiles and Lisztomaniacs need not hesitate.  

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