Eduard (or Edvard) Syomin’s early career
was not done many favours by the Soviet regime. Forbidden to
leave the country for concerts or competitions, he worked on
establishing a varied and extensive discography through Melodiya.
The material I have available is not clear on this point, but
it appears that the bureaucrats seemed to have it in for him
— the sale of his recordings was suppressed and many of his
early recordings are considered lost. A disc of unusual pieces
that survived showed up in the Russian Piano School set
that BMG/Melodiya released back in 1996 (74321 33217 2), which
included some quite impressive performances of unusual repertoire,
such as Godowsky’s Renaissance, a series of free arrangements
after Rameau, and a clutch of the wonderful and disturbing preludes
of Alexei Stanchinsky. The liner notes of that release mention
that it took sponsorship of an organization that had ties to
the West in order for the recording you have here to even materialize.
Syomin’s focus on Spanish music was unusual for Soviet pianists;
as the liner notes indicate, this is the first complete recording
of Iberia made in the USSR. It was soon sold out. Ever
since reading about it in the liner notes to the previous Russian
Piano School release, I’ve been wondering what magic it contained.
So how does it compare? I have my Alicia
de Larrocha performance for London/Decca, as well as a newer
performance on Camerata by Hiromi Okada. In all instances de
Larrocha had more expansive times, sometimes by a considerable
margin Corpus Christi was 9:01 compared to Syomin’s 7:11.
And El Albaicin, at 7:27 for de Larrocha, comes in at
5:30 for Syomin. The first piece of Iberia, Evocacion,
does move at a somewhat faster clip, though not unseemingly
so — Okada’s performance is only seven seconds slower. The
music doesn’t sound rushed in the listening, but de Larrocha
makes the most of that extra time to add that wonderful sense
of space to make her performance stand above the others.
In Almeria we hear two very different
approaches; Syomin with a more pronounced left hand part. With
de Larrocha this amounts to a sort of pedal point for the melting
melody, whereas with the Syomin, things are more tenacious and
up-front. The recording tends to make this feel rather more
two-dimensional in comparison with the lovely spatial quality
of the de Larrocha.
Syomin and the recording aesthetic his
piano is in would work best with the outgoing and least ethereal
of the pieces such as the Lavapies, but here, where the
performance could be more playful, the performance and recording
aesthetic instead ally themselves more with the dream-like,
and the added swimminess of the recording hurts the impact this
piece could have.
Syomin certainly shines in the wonderfully
energetic ending Eritaña, with wonderful control over the
voicing, not letting the left hand overpower. The clarity of
the de Larrocha recording still makes it my favourite for this
piece. Overall, I find that, Syomin’s performances of these pieces,
though good, is hampered by the rather two-dimensional quality
of the recording. Some cleaning up of the 22-27 year-old recordings
has been made, but in a crowded field, there are other discs to
choose over this on. Syomin is certainly an underappreciated
pianist, and I’d love to hear more from him — here’s my vote for
a Stanchinsky disc! — here’s hoping that this release won’t be
the last, or the most recent, recording we hear from him.