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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Papillons Op.2 (1829/31) [29:08]
Waldszenen Op.83 (1848/49) [11:07]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Klavierstücke Op.118 (1892)
Dejan Lazić (piano)
rec. September 2007, Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
Experience Classicsonline

Dejan Lazić has popped up before on Channel Classics with a recording of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 which was not marked up as a first choice (see review). His first volume in this series of Liaisons was a combination of Scarlatti and Bartók which I haven’t heard, but in any case the combination of Schumann and Brahms in these terms is a logical one. The ‘liaisons’ concept isn’t further explained here but the artistic and personal relationship which Brahms and Schumann had is a matter of historical record. Commercial recording releases trying to avoid the ‘recital’ category with multiple composer programmes can do well with this kind of idea, though your record shop is still left putting them in ‘Piano, miscellaneous’ or ‘collections’, or having to put out two copies under each composer. Those who enjoyed either volume will however be on the look out to add to the set, and so the intention is that a following will be created.

Dejan Lazić joins a marketplace fairly rich in healthy competition for this repertoire, and while the warm embrace of SACD surround sound in the big, piano-friendly acoustic of the Frits Philips concert hall in Eindhoven will always be an attractive draw, it is always the performances which will bring you back to such a disc, or not. Lazić has a beautiful touch and an impeccable technique, but the main hump listeners will have to overcome is his sense of rubato. Papillons is a series of waltzes and polonaises which the composer described as “flying letters” and wrote on the copy of the first published edition which he sent to his family: “…flutter and rejoice around them, as lightly and joyfully as you please…” This aspect of the music Lazić has taken almost entirely literally, playing with a sense of poetic and rhapsodic intervention which infuses from the most introspective to the more rousing and dramatic pieces. I don’t have problems with this, but at times would have wished that the inner pulse of the music might have been kept a little more stable and consistent. I know the difference between playing dances and playing for dancers, and I don’t mean that one should always have the feeling you should be able to dance to the music. I do however mean that the illusion that a ballroom full of movement and colour can be better maintained if the player isn’t pulling at the tempo the whole time. There are some moments where the dance takes off with real style, but Lazić sabotages the pulse at almost every available opportunity.

There is another aspect of this which recurs later on in the programme: that of the rhythm with opening phrases. Take No.4 of Papillons, which starts out with a repeated single note before the first upward interval leap of a 4th. This Lazić stretches at the first note every time, which is fine if that’s what you like, but will drive you up the wall if you prefer a more literal reading. The Finale has a related opening theme, and this time the emphasis on the ‘leapt to’ note is felt as a bit of an elongation - the greater distortions being kept for the waltz after the recapitulation of the opening, 35 seconds in, the delay on the highest note of the phrase being something which will tease and delight, or have you turning back to the first waltz, where he doesn’t do this, taking gulps of temporal space instead at the beginning of the phrases, and as the lines descend. Mannered and over-fussy, or inspired and deeply sensitive to the composer’s idiom? I know which way I’m inclined, but can only advise having a listen if possible before taking the plunge.

This is indeed possible on the Channel Classics website, where the opening of Freundliche Landschaft from Waldszenen can be heard. This gives some impression of Lazić’s approach to rubato, dipping and darting with the peaks and troughs in the music. I would agree that Schumann is a composer whose music can cope with, and indeed thrive on sensitive manipulation of phrases in terms of speed - I’m just not so sure that this is an aspect of the performance which should draw attention away from the essence and ideas in the music. Schumann’s depictions in Waldszenen have a greater flexibility in this regard, being less closely associated with dance, and as a result I feel we’re on safer ground. I like Lazić’s restrained beauty in Einsame Blumen, and the following movement, Verrufene Stelle or ‘Haunted Spot’ has a suitably enigmatic opening. All hale well met at the Herberge, and the Vogel als Prophet prophesies Janacek in its austere pronouncements. Not too much messing around with the Jagdlied, and the final Abschied, which was written in memory of Mendelssohn is portrayed with striking expression and moving affectation.

Following my pocket score of Brahm’s great Klavierstücke Op.118, and I find myself largely in sympathy with Lazić’s playing, without at the same time being stirred or inspired to praise it to the skies. Once again I find myself taking issue with his upbeat to the Ballade, whose opening two eighth notes are pulled apart like split willow. Throughout the piece, they always want to and often succeed in springing together to unify with the rest of the theme, but you can feel Lazić wanting to pull them apart to make them part of the interpretation. The subsequent second Intermezzo starts delightfully, but the second section from bar 52 defies analysis with regard to the pulse. The opening section of the Romanze is nicely rounded, and only a slight tendency to linger fractionally on the first sixteenth of the runs in the central section to prevent them from joining and sounding like a single line. Lazić’s sotto voce in the final Intermezzo really is just that, which makes the grand climax all the more impressive.

This is very good Brahms indeed in the main. For me it doesn’t knock Radu Lupu or Julius Katchen off their perches near or on the top of the heap. It was the latter who turned me on to Brahms’ piano works very many years ago, and it is inevitable that memories of those recordings will be colouring my response to anyone else’s, but to my ear Lazić falls short of ‘great’ status, though in the Brahms it is harder to put one’s finger on exactly why.

I always find it hard to pronounce on recordings like this. The sound quality is superb, the playing excellent. Dejan Lazić has his own way with these pieces, and who am I to say what is right or wrong, or decide for someone else whether they will like it or not. Suffice to say that my criticisms are of course subjective, and based not so much on the quality of the performance - which is very high - but more on whether I would have this as a first choice for reference, and repeated listening. Repeated listening has made me more used to the foibles in these performances, but hasn’t entirely dispelled my unease with most of them. As a result the answer to that question is, probably not.

Dominy Clements


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