This is US pianist Matthew Bengtson's fifth solo CD, though his first appearance in these review pages. Bengtson has a huge repertoire, ranging from William Byrd to György Ligeti's Etudes, covering pretty much everything in between, though with an overwhelming emphasis on works for solo piano. He also plays the harpsichord, and details of his very latest disc on Arabesque of Baroque music can be found here.
His virtuosic programme opens with four selections from Isaac Albéniz's massive masterpiece, Iberia, one of the most demanding works in the repertoire - even Albéniz wondered at the playability of some of the pieces. Books III and IV in particular demand outstanding virtuosity. El Albaicín is one such piece, a passionate, harmonically exotic account of the Gypsy quarter of Granada, but Bengtson is easily equal to it. There are more Gypsy elements in Triana, which, like Rondeña, comes from Book II. Triana begins deceptively straightforwardly, but soon the swirling notes and polyrhythms begin to pile pressure on the pianist - yet Bengtson does not even break into a sweat. Rondeña starts off a bright, cheerful piece, depicting the mountainous city of Ronda in blue-skied Andalusia. There is a short, reflective episode, suggestive perhaps of a siesta, before the upbeat, dance-like theme returns, with further embellishment and tone colour. >From the very first notes, the aptly named Evocación, the opening section itself of Iberia, atmospherically conjures up the lazy, hazy landscapes of sun-soaked Spain, which Bengtson paints with graphic brilliance.
The Variations Sérieuses op.54 were Mendelssohn's contribution to a fundraising drive by his publisher for a statue in Beethoven's honour in Bonn. This is another virtuosic work, and rightly one of Mendelssohn's most popular among pianists - there are literally dozens of recordings already available. Written in D minor, and with a pervasive hymn-like solemnity not typical of Mendelssohn, there are 17 short variations in all, many requiring a heroic attention to dense detail and fingers that move close to the speed of light - Bengtson has both of these. A breathtaking work, and an excellent account of it.
Bengtson closes his recital with Chopin's Sonata in B minor, op.58. So many pianists have recorded this over the years that any attempt at comparison would be hopelessly subjective and ultimately futile. Suffice to say that this is a fine version in its own right. Bengtson does not always follow the score in the closest of detail - in particular, his dynamics are sometimes approximations, as occasionally are his tempi. But these are artistic decisions that often enhance his marvellous sense of phrase, and they in no way detract from the sheer poetry of either Chopin's or Bengtson's pianism. The rousing, spectacularly virtuosic Finale is particularly superbly played by Bengtson, without the merest hint of trepidation.
Sound quality is very good, both from a technical point of view and in the Steinway D itself. In the third movement of the Chopin at 3'16 there is a second or two of what sounds like sheet metal vibrating against metal, and there is a sense throughout this section and occasionally elsewhere that someone is trying to shuffle about quietly in the background, but it is only the smallest of distractions. It is nice to find a booklet not filled with narcissistic full-page colour photos of performers at the expense of real information about them and, more importantly, about the music.
The heading of the biographical notes misspells Bengtson's Scandinavian name 'Bengston', something he probably encounters with some frequency. The back cover also erroneously gives Chopin's birth year as 1819, a mistake repeated on the track-listing inside the booklet.
From his interests in chess, mathematics, logic, philosophy and languages, Matthew Bengtson appears something of a polymath. Certainly this is a very intelligent recital, imaginative and analytical in equal measure.