Magazine article Gramophone

Piano Works Old and New: Jed Distler Listens to Four Sets Which Combine Staple Repertoire with New Music That Views It through a Contemporary Prism

Magazine article Gramophone

Piano Works Old and New: Jed Distler Listens to Four Sets Which Combine Staple Repertoire with New Music That Views It through a Contemporary Prism

Article excerpt

Old and new music intermingle throughout these four releases, starting with Gabriela Montero, who describes her composition for piano and orchestra Ex patria as a response to the repressive policies and dire living conditions in her native Venezuela, and a memorial to each year's increasing number of murder victims. While one can and should appreciate Montero's programmatic intentions, the music is little more than ersatz Bartok and Prokofiev, with a sugarcoated final theme hoisted upon a blustery orchestral framework. The work's main problem is that Montero essentially treats the orchestra as a backdrop, with the piano rarely out of the spotlight. By contrast, Rachmaninov's Second Concerto, the main coupling, defines equal partnership between soloist and ensemble - in fact, the orchestra gets most of the good themes. Montero pounds out the first movement's rolling arpeggios over a diffusely balanced YOA Orchestra of the Americas (who is that amazing horn soloist?). Slight holdbacks at phrase-ends in the Adagio sostenuto grow predictable and threaten to dilute Rachmaninov's polyrhythmic linear effect. Montero tends to push ahead in parts of the finale and is mixed too loud for the brilliant concertante instrumentation to fully register. Ironically, Montero's three concluding solo improvisations prove more unified, compositionally disciplined and contrapuntally skilful than her notated Op 1 'concerto'.

The daughter of composers Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov, Alissa Firsova is a triple-threat pianist/conductor/ composer. Her Lune rouge is a veritable fountain of trills, birdsong and sunny harmonies spraying in all directions, yet confidently holding together in an impassioned and polished performance. She meets the thorny technical and musical demands of her parents' compositions with equal command. Opting for the original 1913 text of Rachmaninov's Second Sonata, Firsova takes special care to follow his dynamics on faith, with her composer's ear for underlining inner voices and juicy harmonies at full tilt. In the Corelli Variations, Firsova keeps Rachmaninov's textures in proper foreground/background perspective, abetted by assiduous tempo relationships and rhythmic vitality, not to mention a technique that knows no limits. In short, Alissa Firsova is the real thing.

Collectors familiar with Maria Lettberg's standard-setting Scriabin piano cycle won't be surprised at the tonal variety, multi-level command and supple transparency she brings to Sergey Pavchinsky's potentially overloaded 'de-orchestration' of The Poem of Ecstasy. …

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