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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Winterreise: Gute Nacht (transcribed Godowsky)
Der Lindenbaum (transcribed Liszt)
Winterreise: Der stürmische Morgen – Im Dorfe (transcribed Liszt)
Waltzes (transcribed Prokofiev)
Die schöne Müllerin: Morgengruss (transcribed Godowsky)
Erlkönig (transcribed Liszt)
Overture in D major (transcribed Busoni)
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870 – 1938)

Passacaglia

Anttii Siirala (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 4th/5th October 2001
NAXOS 8.555997 [62.56]

 

Anttii Siirala is a young Finnish pianist who, in startling fashion, won the International Piano Competition in London in April 2000 at the age of 20. He replaced an indisposed finalist at the eleventh hour and went on to carry off the competition with a performance of Brahms’s 1st Piano Concerto which was of a depth, stature and sheer mastery that captivated the jury and public alike at the Royal Festival Hall. Born in Helsinki in 1979 into a musical family, he made his orchestral debut at the age of 7 and won the first price in the Juvenalia Chamber Music Competition at the age of 13. He currently studies at the Sibelius Academy with Matti Raekallio and Ivari Ilja and he has received encouragement from Mitsuko Uchida and Murray Perahia.

This disc would seem to be his debut and for it he has chosen a tricky programme of piano transcriptions of Schubert. Schubert songs are tricky things to transcribe for piano solo. Frequently strophic, in their original versions they rely intensely on the communicative abilities of the singer and their responsiveness to the nuances of language. The transcriber must attempt to replace this with something else, without drowning the original in a sea of showy bravura. Sometimes it helps to be radical; Schubert’s own instrumental versions (The Trout; Death and the Maiden) of his songs are radical re-workings rather than simple transcriptions. The songs on this disc were transcribed by two famous piano virtuosi, Liszt and Godowsky.

Godowsky famously produced the Chopin transcriptions for piano left hand. Godowsky was himself a supremely gifted pianist and his transcriptions often require a prodigious technique from the performer. In these Schubert transcriptions what is most definitely required is the art that conceals art; all of the performer’s skill is required to achieve a performance which eschews much of the showy bravura of the typical 19th century piano transcription. Godowsky uses various techniques of elaboration and changes of register to vary the verses of the songs. Siirala brings a fine technique to bear on these and gives us some beautifully subtle performances. But not matter how much he impresses with his ability to produce a seamless legato line for the melody line, whilst embedded in a web of piano counterpoint, I still missed the immediacy of the sound of Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. Perhaps what I missed most from the pianism in these performances was a sense of élan, of the pianist enjoying the complexities for their own sake. Poetical and beautiful these performances may be, but they also sound just a shade dutiful.

This is true also of the Liszt performances, but here Liszt is more prone to include showier elements and in the Winterreise transcription he is more radical, combining the transcriptions of Der stürmische Morgen and Im Dorfe into one single piece to provide the contrast and the sense of drama that is lacking when the words missed out. Siirala has a nice sense of characterisation in the Erlkönig transcription and manages to generate a fine sense of excitement and tragedy – so much so that I almost managed to accept this as a work in its own right.

If I have harped on about the lack of words, it is because Schubert’s subtle art of song is difficult to render on a solo piano, but the attempt has been made by some of the finest transcribers and it is always worth hearing the results in the hands of such a fine pianist as Siirala.

We are apt to forget nowadays that Prokofiev was also a fine pianist. In fact, he was better known in America as a performer than a composer. And it is for his recital tours that he created the charming sequence of Schubert waltzes. Prokofiev the composer rarely appears, but Siirala makes a fine case for these lovely works.

Busoni was less happy with the early Overture, he does not manage to spin gold out of straw. His too literal approach to the transcription means that too often we notice the thickness and sheer clunkiness of Schubert’s work.

The last work on the disc is Godowsky’s Passacaglia; 44 variations, cadenza and fugue on the opening of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Composed in 1927 this is surely Godowsky's masterpiece, a sombre and magnificent tribute written on the centenary of Schubert's death. It was played by Simon Barere, considered by Bolet and playfully dismissed by Horowitz as impossible. Freed from the restraints of transcription, Godowsky produces a work of power and depth. It journeys from Lisztian bravura through Regerian harmony and passages reminiscent of Rachmaninov and requires considerable pianistic resources. Siirala responds with a pianism fully equal to Godowsky’s demands. If his performance does not always completely plumb the depths, he is very responsive and this creditable performance is highly recommendable in a small market.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Colin Clarke

 



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