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The Russian Piano
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1973 - 1943) Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3/2 (1892) [4:10]
Mily BALAKIEV (1947 - 1910) Piano Sonata in Bb minor (1860s - 1905) [26:54]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872 - 1915) Nocturne in A, op.5/2 (1890) [3:12]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953) Piano Sonata No.4 in C minor, d’après des vieux cahiers, op.29 (1917) [18:19]
Julian Hellaby (piano)
rec. 17-18 March 2008, St Francis Hall, Hollywood, Birmingham. DDD
CAMPION CAMEO 2081 [53:03]

Experience Classicsonline

An intelligently planned, and executed recital of music which isn’t heard too often, if at all, with the exception of the first piece - Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor. Warhorse this may be, but here Hellaby seeks out the delicacy of the piece in the early and late stages of the work, only unleashing the full sound of the piano in the final statement of the bells motif. It’s a very well thought out interpretation.

Balakirev’s Sonata is a real rarity; I only know it from LPs made some time ago, by Albert Ferber on Saga and Ronald Smith, in an all Balakirev recital, on EMI. It’s a very attractive work, backward looking, perhaps, somewhat Beethovenian even, but by now Balakirev’s style had matured and he had mastered the use of small motifs in his works, rather than long melodies; indeed, even the folk like melody at the start is small of stature but full of potential. There is nothing of the Islamey kind of piano writing, but the first movement does contain a cadenza! The second movement Mazurka is slightly oriental in feel and at one point you’ll be expecting Borodin’s Polovtsian Maidens to come rushing in! The slow movement meanders round a short five note theme and the finale is a Russian dance, interspersed with reminiscences, perhaps too many, of earlier music. It’s a a very strong piece indeed, but at nearly half an hour in playing time it just outstays its welcome by a minute or two - the finale does go on a bit. Hellaby is a most persuasive advocate for this piece and he plays it well, but he cannot improve on Ronald Smith’s thoughtful and very intelligent performance (available as part of a 2 disk set, coupled with Michel Béroff’s recording of Pictures at an Exhibition and much more Mussorgsky and Balakirev by the two pianists - EMI Gemini 3976962)

The Scriabin is a lovely little salon piece and is a marvelous foil between the Balakirev and the Prokofiev Sonata, subtitled from old manuscripts, which seems to be is a mix of the old and the new. There’s much searching for new sounds and means of expression, whilst, at the same time, being quite happy to throw in a perfect cadence! The easy lyricism of the 3rd Piano Concerto is here, as is the delightful neo classicism of the Classical Symphony, both written in the same year, but there are also pointers towards the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies, and the operas The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel. But, despite all this, it isn’t a mish-mash of styles and music, it’s a well thought out work in its own right, standing at a crossroads in the composer’s career.

All in all, this is a fine recital which will give much pleasure. The recording is close and occasionally, when Hellaby gives some heft to his playing, and the volume increases, the piano sounds a trifle tinny but this is momentary when it happens and should not spoil your enjoyment of the playing.

Bob Briggs  

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