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Russian Romantic Piano
Sergey BORTKIEWICZ (1877-1952)
Piano Sonata no. 2 in C sharp minor op. 60 (1942) [22:32]
Nikolay MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Meditation op.39/1 (1920) [05:12]
Fairy Tale op.8/2 (1904) [06:26]
Anatol LIADOV (1855-1914)
Prelude in D flat op. 57/1 [02:19]
Prelude in B minor op. 11/1 [03:08]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Fantasy op. 28 (1900) [09:12]
Vladimir REBIKOV (1866-1920)
Waltz from 'The Christmas Tree' [02:30]
Musical Snuff Box [01:30]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962) arr. Sergey RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Liebesleid [04:40]
Liebesfreud [06:56]
Sergey RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) arr. Anton BORODIN
Vocalise op. 34/14 [05:21]
Sergey LIAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Lesghinka (Transcendental Etude) op. 11/10 (1903) [07:12]
Nadejda Vlaeva (piano)
rec. 1-3 August 2007, Academy of Art & Letters, New York City
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1224 [77:02]
Experience Classicsonline

The opening salvo, and the rarest in this intriguing programme, is a substantial but far from rambling sonata by Bortkiewicz. The second of two, it had a successful première in Vienna by Bortkiewicz himself but fell from view and was believed lost. It was discovered in Holland by Bhagwan Thadani.

To describe the piece as Rachmaninov-influenced would be something of an understatement. The first movement contains a crib from the better-known composer's Second Piano Concerto so obvious that I wondered if deliberate quotation was intended, maybe referring to some subtext we don't know. The second movement, on the other hand, seems to draw on Brahms's first rhapsody.

But, while 'hunt the influence' is a likely reaction, it may be overridden by the fact that the work is pianistically ravishing, never loses its way and is not particularly long as such things go.

Another point of interest for the piano buff is that it is very finely performed. Nadejda Vlaeva is a Bulgarian pianist now living in New York. She has worked with Lazar Berman and her CDs to date - which I haven't heard - cover Dimiter Christoff, Liszt and Chopin. She gave the German première of this sonata in 2006 and the North American première in 2007. She has all the boldness and sweep needed for the big moments, but is equally at home in the delicate, intimate episodes. Essentially for this post-Rachmaninov style, she is able to 'orchestrate' the music, colouring the different strands so that we hear, for instance, a soaring upper melodic line over a rich bass, with filigree rapid figuration taking on a life of its own in the middle part. She presents the music very naturally, each idea flowing into the next. I cannot imagine a better performance, though I can possibly imagine that a nervier, Horowitz-like vision might prove an equally valid alternative.

Medtner's music is more obviously original in that I was not reminded of other composers. I am not entirely convinced that it actually says more than the Bortkiewicz, or even as much. This may be my problem, or perhaps I just need more time. This very dense music will probably bring rewards at later hearings. I am left convinced that the performance does everything necessary.

The exquisite Liadov preludes are a real find. Here I feel that Vlaeva's performances materially contribute to the experience. It is not only a question of careful balancing, so we hear a singing melodic line over a gently murmuring accompaniment. The exact balance between the parts is continually reassessed, so the left hand is given that little extra prominence when a harmonic change is to be rung, or maybe a single chromatic note is brought to our attention. This way a dialogue is created between the hands, lending the music a contrapuntal interest it may not seem to have on the written page. This is interpretation on the highest level.

In the Scriabin Fantasy, I wonder if the natural flow which seems to be Vlaeva's strong point is quite enough. Though the music is attractively presented, maybe a touch of Horowitz-like diablerie is needed to ram the message home.

The two Rebikov pieces, on the other hand, are ideally presented. This is slightly French-sounding, bittersweet, sepia-coloured music. In Vlaeva's hands it wafts across our consciousness like a Proustian memory.

In the two Kreisler arrangements, Vlaeva seems to aim at reproducing the gentle elegance of the Kreisler originals. I am not sure this is the best solution. Judged purely as arrangements, these may be thought surprisingly heavy-handed. Rachmaninov's own answer was to play them with a cool irony, a malicious send-up of the original pieces. Could it be that irony, like diablerie, is not a part of Vlaeva's musical personality?

The Vocalise is as beautifully handled as Vlaeva's Liadov would lead us to expect. The arrangement by one Anton Borodin - a present-day Russian presumably unrelated to the Borodin - is well-made. Nevertheless, I found it a little disconcerting to hear music that is obviously by Rachmaninov yet which does not quite inhabit his unmistakable pianistic sound-world. I don't think this is Vlaeva's fault.

Finally, an uninhibited romp by Liapunov, with plenty of fireworks from both composer and pianist. We are told that Lesghinka is 'a wild Russian dance'. You could have kidded me it was a Tarantella, but perhaps I've been living in Italy too long.

In short, a fine recital by a highly gifted artist, ideally suited to almost all the music chosen. I shall particularly prize the disc for the Liadov and Rebikov, and the Bortkiewicz for the fine pianism with which it is presented. A full and rich recording brings added value, as do the informative notes - on which I have drawn during this review - by Farhan Malik. 

Christopher Howell 



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