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Alfred Cortot: Piano Arrangements
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Dolly Suite, Op. 56 [11:28]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 [8:48]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wiegenlied (Lullaby), Op. 49 No. 4 [2:13]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Arioso, Largo from Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 [2:23]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Largo from Cello Sonata, Op. 65 [2:40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Heidenröslein, D257 [1:43]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A [25:30]
He Yue (piano)
rec. 27-28 October, 2012, Music Hall, Gu Lang Yu Piano School, Central Music Conservatory, Xiamen City, China
GRAND PIANO GP641 [57:46]

This is an album of surprises. The first is that Alfred Cortot, legendary French pianist, was also an instructor who as part of his teaching method made a great many arrangements for solo piano. They're all very good, as you'd expect from a pianist of such stature - and capable of such poetry in his own interpretations. The Fauré is rendered perfectly, preserving the composer's idiom - native to Cortot, after all; meanwhile, J.S. Bach's most famous Toccata and Fugue gets a treatment that feels chillingly analytical. It's cold and precise, but it's also softer, smaller-scaled, and much less dramatic than Busoni's transcription, which uses the piano as an instrument of massive, violent force.
 
The next surprise is the lovely bouquet of encores Cortot arranged, here placed in the middle of the disc, including the slow movement from Chopin's cello sonata (guess Chopin didn't write enough piano music for one of his most celebrated interpreters!) and Brahms's beloved lullaby.
 
The last surprise is pianist He Yue, who far exceeds my every expectation. He was born in 1990, trained at a Chinese conservatory, and doesn't have an especially distinctive track record (the one major competition he entered awarded him a prize for, of all things, being the youngest entrant). He has a list of piano teachers a mile long, so I suspect many are just from master classes, but some are notable, including Anton Kuerti and maybe the most undervalued pianist of our time, Michael Endres.
 
He Yue plays this music like a real artist, not just a showman or a kid trying to prove his technique. The Fauré miniatures are really well-rendered, the Brahms lullaby - surely a dream come true for a pianist - is all you can ask for, and pianist and arranger combine for a Bach toccata and fugue like none in your collection. It's laser-like in focus without veering toward melodrama. The only missteps, I think, are in the Franck violin sonata transcription, which sometimes wanders and needs a bit of a clearer structure. You could partly blame Franck, though this is also the longest and most substantial work on the program.
 
The Grand Piano record label is favoring close acoustics in small sound spaces, with little reverb; this is less claustrophobic than most, so I liked it. The label also prefers nice booklets with quality essays in larger-than-average print, and excellent artwork. In this case, their gamble on a little-known pianist with, frankly, not many credentials has paid off handsomely. He Yue passes Cortot's poetical assignments and presents a notorious Bach piece in a way I'd never heard it done. Impressive achievements for someone so young. Here's hoping there's more on the way from this pianist.
 
Brian Reinhart