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Romantic Piano Favourites Vol. 9
Balász Szokolay (piano)
rec. 15 December 1988, 15 January 1989, Italian Institute, Budapest
NAXOS 8.550218 [68:27]

The Debussy Arabesque no. 1 was issued in 2005 as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD 9131-2

Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in D minor, K.1 [02:15]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

12 Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" K.265 [11:35]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Album für die Jugend op. 68: 16. First Loss [01:17], 14. Small Study [02:19]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Song Without Words in G minor op. 19/6 – "Venetian Gondola Song" [02:23]
Song Without Words in G op. 62/1 [02:02]
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Humoresque op. 10/2 [02:35]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Lyric Pieces, op. 38: 1. Berceuse [02:29]
Lyric Pieces, op. 68: 5. Cradle Song [02:38]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Impromptu in E flat op. 90/2 [04:24]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etude in E op. 10/3 [03:39]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Sonetto 104 del Petrarca [05:18]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)

Caprice espagnol [05:14]
Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)

Tango [02:33]
Louis LEFEBURE-WELY (1817-1869)

Monastery Bells [02:43]
Béla BARTOK (1881-1945)

For Children: Excerpts from nos. 31-37 & 40 [06:43]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Arabesque no. 1 [03:29]
Danse [04:51]

The ninth volume in Szokolay’s series mostly confirms the impressions from the fifth. The non-romantic items by Scarlatti and Mozart are crisply and delightfully done, and I didn’t find his Schumann, Mendelssohn and Grieg perfunctory this time. The "Small Study" gets a thoughtful, unhurried performance which can be safely held up as a model for young hopefuls. The ultra-famous Schubert and Chopin items are no more than pleasantly turned, however, and the Liszt is short on rhetoric. Between Horowitz’s flaming ardour and Dalberto’s intimate poetry there will be middle ways, but this remains small-scale and prosaic.

Szokolay’s lively sense of rhythm is heard at its best in the Moszkowski and Albeniz pieces – the latter a fetching little miniature that I immediately played again. Szokolay’s lilting rubato, combined with dryish, fairly unpedalled textures, is well in line with the Spanish school as we know it from Alicia de Larrocha and, more recently, Miguel Baselga. I’m glad to have these two performances in my collection. About the once-popular Lefébure-Wély I’m not so sure. I suppose the average drawing-room pianist of the day would not have had the various bells emerging from the texture and chiming each with its own timbre, like Richter playing Debussy’s "Cloches à travers les feuilles". He would have just played them louder than the other notes, as Szokolay does. But is there any point in playing this music today if the pianist doesn’t have us gasping with amazement at his seemingly impossible achievement?

The Bartók pieces sound unusually warm and flexible for this composer, but in view of Szokolay’s birthright and academic pedigree I hesitate to criticize. The performances may win new friends for the Bartók.

The Debussy Arabesques – including no. 2 in Volume 5 – and Danse show that Szokolay has a winning way with this sort of salon music, flexible yet fleet and unindulgent. The Hatto fraudsters were quite right to single out these Arabesques from their company and to realize that with a more distanced sound, and a very slight relaxation in the tempi, of no. 2 in particular, they could sound very fetching indeed. Farhan Malik’s wavefiles can be seen here.

I found it interesting to compare Szokolay in these pieces with Klára Kormendi, who set them down for Naxos as part of a Debussy programme (8.550253 but discontinued) at much the same time, in the same venue – so presumably playing the same piano – with the same engineer and, in the case of Szokolay’s 1st Arabesque, the same producer too. A casual listener might suppose them the same performances, since Kormendi also takes a fresh, flowing view. On closer examination, Kormendi allows herself a little more space for point-making, I’d say to the advantage of the 1st Arabesque, less so in the 2nd where she is laboured by comparison. Both are preferable to several more famous names. The really interesting thing is that Szokolay and Kormendi apparently resemble each other more than Szokolay and "Hatto", who actually are the same. A nice demonstration of the extent to which input of the producer and engineer can considerably influence the result, especially when the performers’ own personalities are not overwhelming. I clearly do not suggest that Rubinstein and Horowitz recorded on the same piano in the same venue by the same team would sound virtually the same!

My original review was largely taken up by the Etudes, now known to be the little-known but very fine set by Margit Rahkonon. I simply referred to the Arabesques as "upfront, boisterous performances – more Chaminade than Fauré, and why not in these youthful effusions?".

Christopher Howell


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