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Romantic Piano Favourites Vol. 5
Balász Szokolay (piano)
rec. 20-28 January 1988, Italian Institute, Budapest
NAXOS 8.550168 [64:35]

The Debussy Arabesque no. 2 was issued in 2005 as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD 9131-2

Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in E, K.162 [05:05]
Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805) arr. Szokolay

Minuet in A [03:38]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) arr. Szokolay

Marche Militaire in D [04:47]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Bagatelle in A minor – "Für Elise" [03:02]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Album für die Jugend op. 68: 28. Erinnerung [01:48], 12. Knecht Ruprecht [01:41]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Song without Words in F sharp minor op. 30/6 – "Venetian Gondola Song" [03:04]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Lyric Pieces, op. 65: 6. Wedding Day at Troldhaugen [05:26]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Pavane pour une infante défunte [05:17]
Johann and Josef STRAUSS (1825-1899/1827-1870)

Pizzicato-Polka [02:15]
François-Joseph GOSSEC (1734-1829), arr. Théodore de Lajarte

Gavotte "Rosine" in D major [02:42]
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1848) arr. Szokolay

The Merry Widow: Vilja Song [04:27]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Arabesque no. 2 [02:56]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) arr. Walter Gieseking

Serenade [02:25]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Nocturne in E flat op. 9 no. 2 [03:57]
Leon JESSEL (1871-1942)

Parade of the Tin Soldiers op. 123 [02:48]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Romance in F minor op. 5 [05:36]
Gustave LANGE (1820-1869)

Der kleine Postillon op. 171/6 [03:41]

Balász Szokolay was born in Budapest of musical parents in 1961. His teachers included Pál Kadosa, Zoltán Kocsis and György Kurtág. Later he travelled abroad to study with Ludwig Hoffmann and Yvonne Lefébure. He made his Royal Festival Hall début in 1987 and came fourth at Leeds in 1990. As a recording artist, both soloist and ensemble player, he has been particularly active for Naxos but has also set down rarer music for Qualiton, including works by his father Sándor Szokolay. He has recorded quite a bit of Scarlatti for Naxos – some of which got stolen by the Hattos – and a much praised disc of Grieg, as well as the considerable series of "Romantic Piano Favourites", two volumes of which provided the Royston pair with their Debussy Arabesques.

In spite of the title, I find Szokolay most attractive in the non-Romantic items. His Scarlatti is delightfully crisp and, insofar as it is desirable to play the Boccherini Minuet on the piano at all, it is most charmingly done. The Schubert Marche Militaire has splendid swagger while the ubiquitous Für Elise is given an unhurried lilt which young players might profitably take as a model.

On the other hand, Erinnerung and the richly poetic Gondola Song are sympathetic but a shade perfunctory. As we hear again in the Gossec, Jessel and Lange tit-bits, Szokolay’s strong point is his infectious sense of rhythm, while the Chopin and Tchaikovsky confirm that he can be rather ordinary where real romanticism is called for.

The truth is that records of this sort are not normally sent to reviewers – and in fact this one wasn’t, I obtained it because of the Hatto connection. It will very likely go down a treat with people who would find criticism such as I’m writing now quite over their heads. They’ll get a charming hour-or-so of tuneful music very nicely played and should be well satisfied.

The piano fancier, if he’s going to hear things like the Boccherini Minuet, the Pizzicato-Polka and Hanna Glawari’s evergreen solo from the Merry Widow played on the piano, would expect the sort of sleight of hand, naughty rubato and faintly outrageous transcription with which an artist like Ignaz Friedman or, more recently, Cherkassky, could justify what he was doing. The golden-agers could provide an experience in this music that had an independent life of its own, one which was not just a poor cousin of the orchestral version. Walter Gieseking’s Richard Strauss arrangement gives a glimpse of the sort of personal touch that is missing from Szokolay’s own more literal transcriptions, but here we miss the sort of magic timing the master himself might have brought to it, nicely though the lines are drawn.

Maybe the discs should have been the accompaniment to a series of sheet-music albums of mostly medium-to-higher-grade piano pieces, with the records popped in as an example of how to play the music. By shopping around the budding pianist will find more individual versions of most of the items here, but greater pianists have a way of inflecting their performances in such a way as to be dangerous models. Szokolay will provide the student with a collection of good examples, with a level of achievement which is – and if this sounds like damning with faint praise, I suppose it is – not impossibly beyond that to which the student might reasonably aspire himself.

But is this really enough? The student may never learn to liberate the melody of the Chopin Nocturne, to float it above a seemingly independent accompaniment the way Rubinstein and others could, but is it not better that he approaches the piece knowing that such things are humanly possible? Take the Tchaikovsky Romance, too. In the reprise, the composer adds a delicate counter-melody. One can just imagine him orchestrating it as a duet between oboe and bassoon. A Richter could make it sound like that on the piano. Szokolay can’t. His counter-melody does not have independent life. The student will probably do no better. Yet, if he does not approach the piece with an awareness of what expression can be extracted from it, would he want to play it at all?

The Debussy Arabesque is among the disc’s successes, but I’ll deal with this and the Hattification aspects at the end of my review of Vol. 9, which contains the other Arabesque. I’ve probably written more than enough since, if you’re the sort of person at whom this disc is aimed, I don’t think you’ll be reading this review.

Christopher Howell


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