Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata, op.57 "Appassionata" [23:42]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Melody (arr. Sgambati) [4:08]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade no.1 [9:55]
Nocturne op.27 no.1 [5:52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Suite bergamasque, "Clair de Lune" [5:24]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude op.23 no.5 [3:53]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 [10:53]
Viktor Bijelovic (piano)
rec. Jacqueline du Pré Hall, St Hilda's College, Oxford, England, 4-5 February 2013.
KICKSTARTER.COM (no catalogue number) [63:47]

The first two sides of the booklet that accompanies this crowd-funded CD are given over entirely to acknowledgements and thank-yous, with around a hundred names listed, most of whom helped realise this project through kickstarter.com. The title of the disc, 'Empassioned', appears at first glance to be a typo: London-based pianist Viktor Bijelovic (styled Bijelovic) is Serbian and could thus be forgiven for not noticing. However, clarification from his agent confirms the choice was deliberate, an obsolete form of 'impassioned' used to reflect the "historical context of the music". 

Nevertheless, it is the music and musicianship that really counts and Bijelovic, in this, his second recording, has something to say - literally, indeed. The opening track is a two-minute "narrated welcome by Viktor", in which he briefly discusses the works and their composers, a gambit which has not surprisingly gone down well with audiences in concert halls. James Rhodes did this kind of thing recently on his awfully-titled 'Jimmy - Live in Brighton' album (Signum Classics SIGCD308). In some ways Bijelovic's programme follows a similar path to Rhodes's, with a full and contemporaneous Beethoven sonata, a Rachmaninov prelude, a bit of Chopin and Liszt. Thankfully, though, Bijelovic does it without need for an 'explicit lyrics' notice, keeping things polite and concise for listeners who may have little desire to recreate a club scene in their own living room. 

In fact, Bijelovic is a little too concise - two minutes cannot really do justice to the opening Beethoven sonata, let alone all the rest too. As a result, his words are rather generalist - it would have been nice to have a minute or two on each piece to allow Bijelovic to fully communicate in words the feelings that come through in his playing. There are one or two verbal errors that could have been ironed out at the same time - for example, the correct pronunciation of Paul Verlaine's surname (as in -enn, not a nasal -a sound) and a slip which turns the four-minute Gluck/Sgambati Melodie ('Dance of the Blessed Spirits') into a transcription of the whole Orfeo ed Euridice opera. Bijelovic has a surprisingly thespian voice, although his delivery is ironically dispassionate. 

His recital is fairly ideal for a new audience, mixing short and medium pieces with one big work, all likely to have been heard before by, say, a typical Classic FM listener. Conversely, most long-standing pianophiles may well have umpteen versions of all of these pieces in their collections and will likely be less inclined to enquire. Bijelovic takes things at a reasonably leisurely pace, though he is not affectedly slow. This restraint may seem to go against the intended spirit of the CD, but Bijelovic is aware that passion is about more than speed and force, as indeed he indicates in his spoken introduction.  

In this regard it must be noted that the nickname 'Appassionata' was not given to the F minor Sonata by Beethoven himself, but by a publisher years after his death. Unfortunately, the name has stuck, even though 'Impassioned' is a title that could apply to any number of Beethoven's works. As it happens, Bijelovic gives a relatively cool, neutral reading of this masterpiece - always preferable to the liberties taken by certain big-name virtuosos. Bijelovic's own cadenza for the famous Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 of Liszt is witty, interesting and unostentatious, further emphasising the former's disarming modesty at the keyboard. 

Nonetheless, at some point Bijelovic will want to improve on all these recordings, and would probably be the first to concede that there is scope for betterment - that is the lot of all musicians. However, this is a good, solid clutch of performances, offering evidence of a pianist with the intelligence, elegance and technique to bring admirers not only to his inevitable Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud pages, but more significantly to his recitals, where he can continue to engage with audiences in a way that can only benefit the art. Though this music is obviously for everyone, a good idea of the market Bijelovic is primarily pitching at can be had from an easily found YouTube video, glamorous, humorous and cheesy all at the same time, in which he performs an arrangement of the so-called 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' whilst a group of yuppie acquaintances play cards and quaff champagne! 

The disc is well recorded. Besides all the acknowledgements, the booklet provides a page of biography and another about the venture itself. Surprisingly, for a project that hopes to reach out to new audiences "regardless of how much or little prior knowledge they have about [the music]", there is no information on any of the composers, without whom there would of course be no music. Not even first names or birth and death dates - the listener must Google and hope for the best.  

Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
Fairly ideal for a new audience, mixing short and medium pieces with one big work. 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven Appassionata sonata


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