Classical Piano Review Roundup


Generally I try to give my genre review roundups a certain breadth, but this time I'm focusing on solo piano recordings, with one exception at the end that's still keyboard-centric.

Jenny Lin: Get Happy (Steinway & Sons)

Looking at the tracklist, one might think this is a jazz album: "Blue Skies," "I Got Rhythm," "Begin the Beguine," "My Favorite Things," etc. The subtitle, though, is "virtuoso show tunes for piano," and all of these are thoroughly notated arrangements, most by classical pianists -- Earl Wild, Alexis Weissenberg, Christopher O'Riley, Stephen Hough, and Marc-Andre Hamelin are among those credited, though from the jazz side Dick Hymen and Cy Walter are also heard from, and Andre Previn goes both ways, musically speaking.

The subtitle is a bit off in one instance, in two senses: as Lin freely admits in the fine interview that makes up the friendly yet informative booklet notes, David Raskin's "Laura" is not from a show, it's from a movie score; furthermore, Hamelin's arrangement of it is almost anti-virtuosic. However, it's such a masterpiece of Impressionist harmonies and textures that it would have been a shame had pedanticism ruled it out of bounds; it is, in fact, the highlight of the album, along with acting as an effective counterbalance to the unfettered flashiness on exhibit for much of the rest of the program. There's always a danger, when classical pianists get outside of their usual territory, of rhythmic stiffness afflicting their readings, but Lin plays with a warm freedom that's part jazzy, part Romantic rubato. The result? One of my favorite "crossover" albums. (This Tuesday night (11/27), Jenny Lin will be performing material from this album at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City.)

Critics may soon have to stop calling Nikolay Medtner (1880-1951) underrated, relatively obscure, etc.: Paul Stewart here launches at least the fourth cycle of the Russian master's complete piano sonatas. With Hamelin having gotten there before him, he's up against tough competition, but he's doing some things to set his cycle apart: he includes the early (1898) Sonatina in G minor, which neither Hamelin nor Geoffrey Tozer included in their sets (there's also a Hamish Milne cycle I'm unfamiliar with), he uses a Steinway that the composer played in 1929, and he plays scores that have corrected "misprints and other errors" through comparison of Medtner's manuscripts, recordings, and corrections.

I'm afraid I'm not a conscientious enough reviewer to do side-by-side listening for such details, but on a macro scale, Stewart delivers a broader reading of the already monumental Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 5 than either Hamelin or Tozer. Nor does he come up shy in either technique or sound (in both senses: his own beautifully rounded tone, and recording quality). The other work here is the shorter and tenderer Sonata-Reminiscenza in A minor, Op. 38 No. 1, which Stewart's lyrical approach is nicely matched with. Haven't heard Medtner's work? Imagine a cross between Scriabin's spicier harmonies and Rachmaninoff's melodic Romanticism, with plenty of fiery piano acrobatics. He was an underrated master of writing for the piano, and having more views of his music available on record helps make a stronger case for his undeniable worth. I look forward to hearing Stewart's progress through the cycle; the young pianist has already proven here that he can stand with the best.

Georgy Tchaidze
Medtner: Fairy Tales (Skazki), Op. 34/Prokofiev: Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29/Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Speaking of Medtner, he shows up on the second album for Honens -- the label of its eponymous piano competition -- by this young Russian pianist who was a Honens laureate in 2009. Tchaidze plays a well-balanced program with a popular warhorse (Pictures), an iconic modernist piece (the sonata), and a less-explored byway of the repertoire (Medtner), but still with a sense of focus (all Russian composers), an intelligent and viscerally satisfying recital. Furthermore, this one's contents are even in the proper order as listed in the heading, with the warhorse last, as it would be in an actual recital, instead of following the usual backwards CD order of putting the big-name item up front.

That would count for little without Tchaidze's considerable talents, of course: attractive tone, a nice sense of dynamic gradation and variation, and the sort of technique that makes everything seem easy. His interpretive sensibility seems poetic, which makes the delightful Medtner set of four pieces pretty much perfect and helps his Prokofiev stand out from the crowd as non-stereotypical. He then delivers one of the most brooding Pictures at an Exhibition I've ever heard. Most of the contrasts come in his brisk Promenades; others make more of the individual movements' character, or provide more drama and pianistic thunder, and some listeners may consider Tchaidze's Gothic rendition too somber, especially as he deliberately navigates the shadows of "The Old Castle." But his interpretation has its own personality without being distorted or gimmicky, which is an achievement in a work this familiar.

After a dozen years of success on the piano competition circuit (seven first prizes and two seconds), Armenian prodigy Arghamanyan already sounds like a fully mature talent at a mere 23 years of age, as heard on two CDs this year on the Dutch audiophile label Pentatone. (It specializes in five-channel Super Audio CDs, but they sound great in stereo as well.) On this program of solo sets, she manages to take wildly Romantic liberties with rubato without sounding mannered or tasteless. Okay, she shamelessly dramatizes the famous C-sharp minor Prelude from Op. 3, but that's not a criticism, it's a recommendation -- it's so passionate, it's irresistible. It helps that her sound is absolutely gorgeous, her quiet passages luscious yet fully projected, her fortissimos bold yet never harsh.

Remember when Yevgeny Kissin (another prodigy) shot to fame and was hailed as the great Romantic hope? Yeah, that didn't work out; his playing ended up awash in quirks and gaucheries. Arghamanyan, though, sounds like the real deal. This album comes with an oddly programmed bonus video DVD: We get just the Theme and Variations 1-7 of the Corelli Variations, plus the Prelude, which seems even hammier when we can see her gyrations and facial contortions. And there's an interview, which is actually kind of interesting, although of course most people will only watch once. No matter; the audio disc ranks as one of the year's best.

Here's Arghamanyan's other great 2012 release. I've read about Liszt having written his concertos to integrate the soloist and the orchestra as a team, but this is the first recording I've heard where that's what it actually sounds like. I'm not saying Sviatoslav Richter's classic renditions on Philips are being displaced from my top slot in this repertoire, or that the heroic soloist/supportive orchestra paradigm is suddenly wrong, but the alternative approach that Arghamanyan and Altinoglu give us is a must-hear alternative. As I've already made clear in the above review, Arghamanyan provides power when needed, but in general she plays the solo part with more lyrical, songful phrasing and tone, and never bangs. The structure of the Concerto No. 1 makes perfect sense here, and while nobody can make the episodic No. 2 sound fully coherent, Arghamanyan and Altinoglu make it work better than most can. The generous 72-minute program throws in two more fine piano-and-orchestra works by Liszt, and Arghamanyan lets down her hair more in Totentanz.
Igor Kipnis/London String Players/Neville Marriner
J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052-59
(Newton Classics)

The London String Players were Marriner's Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields under a different name due to being under contract to Decca at the time; this album was recorded for the label Kipnis was on, CBS. Amusing recollections of the session can be found in this remembrance written following Kipnis's death of cancer ten years ago. 

Kipnis's burly-sounding harpsichord, built by Rutkowski & Robinette, might not be considered sufficiently authentic nowadays when more delicate tones dominate the harpsichord world, but it's not as though it's the kind of clangorous monster made infamous by Wanda Landowska. It's the sound a lot of us grew up with and consider the norm, and it balances quite well with the ASMF. It's a pleasure to welcome these lively readings back to print. One special aspect of this set is that we get to hear Kipnis play his own reconstruction of BWV 1059, which came down from Bach as just a nine-bar fragment made when the composer started to rework movements from a cantata (BWV 35) into a harpsichord concerto but, apparently, quickly abandoned the project. Kipnis's fine version is for harpsichord, oboe (here Janet Craxton), and strings. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.