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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



PIANO WORKS
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat, Op.36 (1913, rev.1931)
Leoö JANŃČEK (1854-1928)
Piano Sonata: From the Street 1.X.1905 (1905)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Three Piano Pieces, Op.11 (1909)
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata Op.1 (1908)
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.64 ĎWhite Massí (1911)
Ian Fountain (piano)
Recorded April 1999 and May 2000, Hessischer Rundfunk, Studio 1, Frankfurt
EMI CLASSICS DEBUT SERIES 7243 5 74164 2 [71í44]



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The first thing to strike me as I put this disc into the player and perused the booklet, was the intelligent programming of the recital. As individual items, all the works here have had their share of attention from some great pianists, but itís amazing how well they hang together as a whole. A cursory glance at the dates of composition is enough to reveal that a mere eight years separates all the works, and it was presumably Ian Fountainís intention to show us just how some of the greatest musical minds of the 20th Century were responding to events around them.

It virtually goes without saying that the most conservative item here is the Rachmaninov, which opens the disc, though even here we get an inkling of harmonic restlessness. I have always preferred the longer (by 116 bars) original version of the score, probably because of the stunning advocacy of it by Zoltán Kocsis, whose Philips disc is one of the glories of the Rachmaninov discography and a favourite of mine. Fountain follows a trend started (I assume) by Horowitz, who incorporated parts of the original into the revision, trying to get the best of both worlds, something which works best in the tightened up finale. Fountainís performance lacks nothing in technical virtuosity, and his keen musical probing delivers many interesting things. The very opening sets the tone, where a grand downward flourish gets the gloriously sprawling first movement out of the blocks. If he seems a shade careful at the side of Kocsis, whose rhapsodic brio and frenzied propulsion are hard to resist, then there is still much to admire. He sets a more careful pace, allowing the long breathed romantic phrases to unfold with loving care and detail; listen to 3í45 into the first movement, where Fountainís handling of the haunting second subject is as sensitive to nuance as could be imagined. He does allow himself some indulgence in the Allegro molto finale, though the frenetic maelstrom conjured by Kocsis is here only hinted at.

The rest of the disc is given over to music which exemplifies the nervous instability of much early 20th Century music. The JanŠček is particularly interesting, especially as it has a history almost as dramatic as the events which inspired it. The subtitle, From the Street commemorates a student demonstration in which a 20-year-old worker was killed, an event which so outraged the composer that he wrote a three movement sonata as an expression of his feelings. Though he later destroyed the finale, the two movement torso that survives is a powerful document. It is obvious from a note in the booklet that this piece is a favourite of Fountainís, and his excellent performance is full of barely suppressed anger. He turns the first movement into a defiant roar, using JanŠčekís highly individual musical language (those chattering repetitions, little fanfare figures, quirky harmonies) to summon up a restlessness and bitterness that are wholly convincing.

The Schoenberg and Berg items are closely related, both musically and spiritually. For Schoenberg (as with other composers), the piano was the medium for experiment, and his Op.11 Piano Pieces are often cited as marking his decisive break with tonality. One senses the past in the rich, Brahmsian chording, but the chromatic wandering is so extreme, the tonal questioning so intense, that we really do feel change in the air. Fountainís performance is mercurial, delighting in these very extremes of dynamic and pulse. His main competition comes from another glory of the piano catalogue, Peter Hillís outstanding Naxos recital of Second Viennese piano music. The two renditions of Op.11 are as chalk and cheese, with Hill taking half as long again as Fountain, and content to play on the romantic past associations in the music, like ghosts hovering on the perimeter. Fountainís version puts the music firmly in the 20th Century, and his shifts of light and colour make for very satisfying listening; hear how he treats the progress of the sombre two note ostinato that dominates the second piece, so much quicker than Hill, but somehow naggingly appropriate.

The Berg Sonata has been called Ďmusic historyís most extraordinary Op.1í, and I would not argue. The debt to Schoenberg (as well as Wagner) is obvious, but the sheer concentration of material, the conscious working out of old and new traditions into a cohesive whole, is inspired Ė this 11-minute wonder encapsulates the 20th Century crisis. Hillís and Fountainís performances are here remarkably similar, with Fountain having a slightly more aggressive quality, at least regarding dynamics, but both are eminently satisfying.

The Scriabin Seventh Sonata, which ends the disc, represents another highly individual voice of the 20th Century, one that in its own way is just as searching and influential. Again, concentration is the key word (none of the 10 sonatas lasts more than a dozen minutes), and the composer packs a lot into this amazingly short time span. The results are very different, with the score packed with directions (all in French) such as mystérieusement sonore, orageux, avec une céleste volupté, extatique etc. This outpouring of celestial ecstasy is exactly what Ian Fountain delivers, a stunning performance that balances the frenzy and the control to perfection. The last section, which is phenomenally difficult even to decipher (itís mostly on three staves) is delivered with an abandon that marks out the best Scriabin interpretations, and this approach in the Rachmaninov would have made the disc a world-beater. As it is, this is mightily impressive piano playing.

The Debut series is really coming of age, with very few releases that are less than recommendable. The present disc is worth acquiring even if, like me, you already have most of the music. This is an artist with much to offer, not least his probing musical intellect and enviable technique. Couple this with such intelligent programming and excellent engineering, and your fiver will feel like itís going a very long way.

Tony Haywood



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