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Martin KASÍK - Live from Prague
Robert Schumann
Kreisleriana. Op. 16
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata for piano No. 2 Op. 36
Prelude No.1 Op. 23
Prelude No.2 Op. 23
Martin Kasík (piano)
Rec. Live at Liechtenstein Palace, Prague, 7 April 1999
ARCODIVA UP 0018-2-131 [48.23]

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The first time I heard Martin Kasík play was a programme of music by Janacek, Bartók, Slavicky and Fiser review. I expressed a desire to hear him play some Rachmaninov. I considered that after his interpretation of the intense, romantic passages of the Slavicky Sonata, the same technique applied to the Russian master would be of great interest. It is not my intention to compare the Kasík performance with all the versions of the Second Sonata and the Kreisleriana that exist - I would need a book for that exercise. However the clue to this review is given by Kasík himself. The sleeve notes contain an interview with the pianist: "What does your choice of repertoire and the way you play it say about your character?"

Kasík answers: "What I find exciting is the period of romanticism: it has tension, stirs emotion and it thunders. It is true that a person's character declares itself in his choice and interpretation of music. One of my favourite composers is Chopin, and then Rachmaninov and Scriabin and the Russian composers of the turn of the century (20th) generally."

If this is not giving a major clue to Kasík's preferred style and technical model, then the revelation that he studied Vladimir Horowitz's interpretation of the Schumann piece as a prelude to the present recording clinches the argument.

What we are dealing with in this young man is a pianist very much in the mould of Horowitz; not only in his playing style but also in his choice of repertoire. Schumann and Scriabin were very close to the heart of the great pianist. Rachmaninov, too, was exceptionally close to Horowitz both musically and as a musician. In fact he even produced an edition of the Second Piano Sonata with the composer's blessing. More about that later.

Schumann wrote his Kreisleriana Op. 16 in 1836; it was subtitled 'Eight Fantasies'. It was written over a four-day period when the composer was suffering from the agony of being estranged from his beloved Clara Wieck. Schumann was so keen to publish this work that he bypassed his usual publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel and persuaded Haslinger in Vienna to engrave and print it in record time.

There is no doubt that this piece is actually a self-portrait of the composer. However it comes to us in the guise or disguise of the infamous Kapellmeister Kreisler - a creation of that great romantic author and composer E.T.A Hoffman.

Schumann wrote to Clara, "You and the thought of you play the dominant role - I intend to dedicate them to you - to you as to no-one else. You will smile when you recognise yourself in them."

Later he wrote, "Play my Kreisleriana sometimes. You will find a wild unbridled love there in places, together with your life and mine, and many of your glances."

However the title page of the manuscript actually dedicates the score to Chopin.

Schumann had studied the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman from the days of his youth. It is quite easy to see how the old Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler could act as an inspiration and as a type for his own problems of the heart. In the tales Kreisler is seen as an artist who has a distracting despair for the society he believes he is serving. However this does not mean that he loses his devotion to what he regards as 'True Art.' On the other side of his character the Kapellmeister dwells on his troubled, if not doomed, affairs of the heart. His spiritual life seems to be characterised by continual trauma.

The eight pieces that make up Kreisleriana are full of technical difficulties just waiting to trip up the complacent pianist. A variety of techniques are required to interpret these pieces of widely varying moods. A rounded and superb bass; controlled outburst in agitato passages; supple melody in the second and a fast and playful finale.

Kasík brings these resources to the eight pieces in a stunning performance. I was brought up on Horowitz's recording. But here is something approaching the maestro. He is well able to define the raison d'être of Kreisleriana - which is to reveal Hoffman's Kapellmeister's conflicting and changing moods. The calm is contrasted with the unease and the assurance is in opposition to the mystery. These were the emotions reflected in the life of the composer at the time of compositions.

The Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 36 is a much more problematical proposition. There are a number of versions in existence of this great work. However critics are not unanimous over which one should take precedence. This review is an ideal opportunity to discuss briefly each version and consider if Martin Kasík was wise in choosing the 1931 revision.

In the spring of 1913 the Rachmaninov family were staying at an apartment in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Here the composer began work on two of his greatest works - the choral symphony 'The Bells' and the present sonata. The piece was completed back at Ivanovka in the early autumn. It was dedicated to Matvei Pressman who had recently been dismissed from his directorship of the Russian Musical Society. It was an appropriate gesture from the composer to a lifelong friend. Pressman repaid the debt by providing the musical world with the composer's earliest attempts at composition.

The original version of the sonata contains great flights of fancy. The structure is quite massive. There are three movements; there is a recall of material from earlier movements; the second themes from the first two movements have a similar feel to them - they seem to be related. It is probably fair to say that this version of the sonata makes more demands on the soloist's technical and interpretative abilities. This is not the forum to describe the form and content of this work; suffice to say that the original version is one of the great expressions of Rachmaninov's pianistic genius. This was the version that was played until the early 1930s.

Rachmaninov became a little discouraged by the public reaction to some of his works. He imagined that somehow the audiences were less sophisticated than they used to be back in the good old days; that somehow they had lost the ability to concentrate for long stretches of time. So he decided to cut some of his pieces. The sonata was one of those that came under the knife. He rationalised it in a discussion with Alfred Swan. "I look at my early works and see how much there is that is superfluous. Even in this sonata so many voices are moving simultaneously and it is too long. Chopin's sonata lasts nineteen minutes, and all has been said."[Musical Quarterly 1944, Jan, April p.8]

According to Riesemann, the composer had longed to rewrite the Sonata. Rachmaninov was not satisfied with the original version of the work. He wanted a slightly less massive construction that reflected his current piano style. He began to work on this revision shortly after completing the Corelli Variations. Barrie Martyn in his magisterial Scolar Press study of Rachmaninov (1990) reflects on the fact that the 'lean style of the Corelli Variations rubbed off onto the revision of the sonata, in which any note that could be declared not strictly essential was deleted." The simplification of the sonata is a bit of a misnomer. It still requires an exceptionally virtuosic and competent pianist to play it. What is won on the roundabouts of simplification is very much lost in the swings of sheer romantic power. The modus operandi of the composer seems to have been to retain those passages which he felt were most effective in public performance. Everything else was fair game for excision. The most drastic cuts were made to the last movement: bars 116 to 199 were totally removed. These pages recalled themes from the first movement so the balance and unity of the sonata was severely impaired.

The most important revision of the Sonata, other than by the composer, was by Horowitz. The pianist approached the great composer and said, "I play the first version which is a beautiful thing, and then you do a second version which is even more difficult than first. I protest." Rachmaninov said to the pianist, "Horowitz, go home. You're a good musician, so put it together and bring it to me We'll see how it is." Horowitz did a cut and paste job; not necessarily restoring everything. Rachmaninov was delighted. Whatever one may think of this procedure, and it is highly irregular, we must recognise that it was done by a pianist who was totally sympathetic to the composer's musical style and background.

The only other revision that I am aware of is that done by Van Cliburn. He was responsible for re-introducing the work to Moscow. His revision is largely based on the original 1913 version. However he retains a number of the sections of Rachmaninov's 1931 revision, when he felt that they were consistent with the composer's earlier style. The result was a 'fiery entity that gives full rein to Cliburn's romantic spirit.'

So did Martin Kasík choose the best version with which to display his pianistic genius? Why did he choose the 1931 revision? The only reason I can adduce is that the concert programmers were not prepared to have the longer version. Yet audiences can easily cope with a half-hour sonata these days. The revised version contains fewer notes but some of its figuration is actually more difficult. The terseness of the piece means that the pianist has to make greater efforts to put the piece across. So in some ways the revised version is the more difficult of the two. Perhaps on reflection it is this thinking that led Kasík to choose this revision.

However, the tendency in musicological circles is to revert to the original version of great works. Witness the release of the original London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The 2nd Symphony by Rachmaninov is now invariably performed in the uncut version. So there are plenty of precedents. The recordings by Howard Shelley and Vladimir Ashkenazy show the original version in a fine light. It would have filled the CD up a bit more as well.

We can ignore, for the moment, the Van Cliburn redaction - this is apparently so close to the original version as to make no great odds.

Much as Kasík's style has echoes of Horowitz, it is doubtful that playing his revision is appropriate. It was pieced together mainly to show off Horowitz's pianistic fireworks.

So when all is said and done, I wish Kasík had opted for the original version of this sonata. It would have given him a greater canvas to work his magic on us; the original may not be the most tightly written work; it may contain a degree of note spinning. However the grand scale brings its own enormous benefits.

Kasík chose the revised version. He plays it well. Most pianists are so concerned at getting all the notes fitted in that they do not find the resources to interpret it properly. However Kasík is able to bring all the subtlety of tempo, phrasing and dynamic nuance to this great sonata. I have no problems with it whatsoever. It is a moving and impressive performance.

Perhaps he will record the original version in the coming years. Let us hope so.

The sleeve notes of this CD leave a lot to be desired. Granted there is an interesting interview with the pianist. However, two paragraphs devoted to two of the greatest masterworks of piano literature hardly seems to be adequate. Further the length of the programme is a bit miserly at only 48 minutes. The recording is a live performance at the Liechtenstein Palace in Prague. The engineers have retained the applause and although this is a contentious issue, I believe that in this case it genuinely adds atmosphere.

Martin Kasík is a great pianist. He was born in 1976 and currently is quite a phenomenon. He won the International Young Concert Artist competition in New York. He has already recorded music by Chopin and Czech composers. The present CD is certainly stunning. The piano playing is of the finest order. Comparisons with other great pianists are unnecessary. It is sufficient to say that on current form Kasík will be admitted into the Pantheon of the Great within a very short period. But for those listeners who want a comparison, it is easy. I alluded above to his admiration and respect for Vladimir Horowitz. It is in his mould that Kasík's technique and inspiration is to be located.

Both the Schumann and the Rachmaninov are mightily impressive. One could not really wish for more.

Let us hope that ArcoDiva is planning a Rachmaninov cycle with Kasík as the main protagonist.

John France

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