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For the Left Hand: Vol. 1
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D (1929/1930) [20:34]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Nocturne, Op 9 No 2 (1895) [5:40]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1875-1937)

Six Etudes Op 135 No 1 (1912) [19:13]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Chaconne (Study No 5) [13:17]
João Carlos Martins (piano)
Bulgarian National Symphony/Boris Spassov
rec. June 2001, Salle Bulgaria, Sofia.
LABOR LAB 7033-2 [58:46]
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Labor Records is a label that has had more of a focus on music and artists from the countries of Albania and the former Yugoslavian republics than other classical labels in recent memory. They continue the connection on this release: the first volume of a series João Carlos Martins is recording of left-hand piano music. Martins has made quite a few recordings for Labor, including the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach for keyboard, an epic undertaking for any pianist. With Martins, it was far more of an epic undertaking than just about anyone else. His career has been one long series of health catastrophes and comebacks, from a 1960s soccer injury to his elbow that damaged the nerves leading to his right hand, various operations to improve mobility of his fingers, and a mugging in Sofia that damaged the brain cells controlling his right arm. He attempted a comeback focusing on left-hand repertoire, only to have a tumour discovered that affected his left hand. His story is one of grim determination.

All of this, now that itís been documented in film, book, and Internet and included here in this review, makes me wish I enjoyed the music on this CD more. The Ravel, compared to other commercial recordings, has a stilted quality, especially in the orchestra; a wooden gait that, at the concertoís outset, takes far too long to get off the ground, substituting extremely low volume for real musical tension. The National Orchestra of Monte Carlo on Werner Haasís recording for Philips in the 1960s, by comparison, has a great deal more lyricism and sweep. It isnít only with the orchestra, unfortunately, that things feel laboured. The ending cadenza, especially, lacks a sense of tension in the moment or liquidity of playing. Martins pokes hard at the keyboard in this section and the overall feel is harsh and confused. Of the pieces represented here, the Ravel is least successful.

Faring better is the Scriabin Nocturne, but it still lacks that gentle singing tone that makes this piece shine. Where the right voicing allows the melody to melt, it is given more of a hard-edge and sadly loses much of its delight. The Etudes that follow, later works of Saint-Saëns, are lighter - and often light-hearted - works that likely will be of interest to music-lovers in that they arenít often recorded. The feeling here is much more comfortable, with a sense of play and ease that was almost uncomfortably absent on the Ravel and the Scriabin. Particularly enjoyable are the two central pieces, the Moto Perpetuo and the Bourée. The lyrical pieces on this disc suffer; the following Elegie, like the Scriabin in particular, lacks the liquid tone and limpidity that would show this piece to advantage.

Another piece that may catch the eye of music-lovers is Brahmsís own transcription of the last movement of Bachís Partita No. 2 for solo violin. Considering Martinsí long-standing work with Bach, this is an obvious end to the disc, and here certainly the tone is more assured, less laboured, and concise, if not always comfortably under control. There are also some strange changes in the sound of the piano around the five-minute mark, as if someone threw a thick blanket over the piano for a minute. This may be a tape flaw or an edit, but the effect is distracting, and it recurs more than once over the course of the piece.

In closing, people can look into this recording for the less-often-encountered works presented here such as the Saint-Saëns and Bach/Brahms, but overall, the Ravel and Scriabin can be found on far more enjoyable terms elsewhere.

David Blomenberg


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