The opening salvo, and the rarest in this intriguing programme,
is a substantial but far from rambling sonata by Bortkiewicz.
The second of two, it had a successful première in Vienna
by Bortkiewicz himself but fell from view and was believed lost.
It was discovered in Holland by Bhagwan
To describe the piece as Rachmaninov-influenced would be something
of an understatement. The first movement contains a crib from
the better-known composer's Second Piano Concerto so obvious
that I wondered if deliberate quotation was intended, maybe
referring to some subtext we don't know. The second movement,
on the other hand, seems to draw on Brahms's first rhapsody.
But, while 'hunt the influence' is a likely reaction,
it may be overridden by the fact that the work is pianistically
ravishing, never loses its way and is not particularly long
as such things go.
Another point of interest for the piano buff is that it is very
finely performed. Nadejda
Vlaeva is a Bulgarian pianist now living in New York. She
has worked with Lazar Berman and her CDs to date - which I haven't
heard - cover Dimiter Christoff, Liszt and Chopin. She gave
the German première of this sonata in 2006 and the North
American première in 2007. She has all the boldness and
sweep needed for the big moments, but is equally at home in
the delicate, intimate episodes. Essentially for this post-Rachmaninov
style, she is able to 'orchestrate' the music, colouring
the different strands so that we hear, for instance, a soaring
upper melodic line over a rich bass, with filigree rapid figuration
taking on a life of its own in the middle part. She presents
the music very naturally, each idea flowing into the next. I
cannot imagine a better performance, though I can possibly imagine
that a nervier, Horowitz-like vision might prove an equally
Medtner's music is more obviously original in that I was
not reminded of other composers. I am not entirely convinced
that it actually says more than the Bortkiewicz, or even as
much. This may be my problem, or perhaps I just need more time.
This very dense music will probably bring rewards at later hearings.
I am left convinced that the performance does everything necessary.
The exquisite Liadov preludes are a real find. Here I feel that
Vlaeva's performances materially contribute to the experience.
It is not only a question of careful balancing, so we hear a
singing melodic line over a gently murmuring accompaniment.
The exact balance between the parts is continually reassessed,
so the left hand is given that little extra prominence when
a harmonic change is to be rung, or maybe a single chromatic
note is brought to our attention. This way a dialogue is created
between the hands, lending the music a contrapuntal interest
it may not seem to have on the written page. This is interpretation
on the highest level.
In the Scriabin Fantasy, I wonder if the natural flow which
seems to be Vlaeva's strong point is quite enough. Though
the music is attractively presented, maybe a touch of Horowitz-like
diablerie is needed to ram the message home.
The two Rebikov pieces, on the other hand, are ideally presented.
This is slightly French-sounding, bittersweet, sepia-coloured
music. In Vlaeva's hands it wafts across our consciousness
like a Proustian memory.
In the two Kreisler arrangements, Vlaeva seems to aim at reproducing
the gentle elegance of the Kreisler originals. I am not sure
this is the best solution. Judged purely as arrangements, these
may be thought surprisingly heavy-handed. Rachmaninov's
own answer was to play them with a cool irony, a malicious send-up
of the original pieces. Could it be that irony, like diablerie,
is not a part of Vlaeva's musical personality?
The Vocalise is as beautifully handled as Vlaeva's Liadov
would lead us to expect. The arrangement by one Anton Borodin
- a present-day Russian presumably unrelated to the Borodin
- is well-made. Nevertheless, I found it a little disconcerting
to hear music that is obviously by Rachmaninov yet which does
not quite inhabit his unmistakable pianistic sound-world. I
don't think this is Vlaeva's fault.
Finally, an uninhibited romp by Liapunov, with plenty of fireworks
from both composer and pianist. We are told that Lesghinka is
'a wild Russian dance'. You could have kidded me it
was a Tarantella, but perhaps I've been living in Italy
In short, a fine recital by a highly gifted artist, ideally
suited to almost all the music chosen. I shall particularly
prize the disc for the Liadov and Rebikov, and the Bortkiewicz
for the fine pianism with which it is presented. A full and
rich recording brings added value, as do the informative notes
- on which I have drawn during this review - by Farhan Malik.