Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [33:53]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
L’Alouette (transcribed by Mily Balakirev) [5:24]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey, Op. 18 [8:43]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Dumka, Op. 59 [8:53]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three dances from The Firebird (transcribed by Guido Agosti) [11:14]
Kotaro Fukuma (piano)
rec. 2014, West Rock, Cognac, France

Japanese pianist Kotaro Fukuma keeps getting better and better. Turning 33 years old later this year, he landed on the scene in 2005 with a very good Schumann recital on Naxos, and then surveyed Toru Takemitsu’s piano music for the same label. Fukuma moved on to Denon and Editions Hortus, with a couple albums I haven’t heard, before appearing on MusicWeb International’s radar in 2013 with a fantastic Debussy recital.

It’s a joy to watch a young artist elevate his artistry with every new release. This Russian album is yet another step upward. It has some very big names (Mussorgsky’s Pictures, Islamey) mixed in with little-known works that deserve the same headline treatment. In memory of his teacher Busoni, Guido Agosti took the three final sections from the Firebird Suite and compressed them for piano. It’s a series of fireworks, especially the Infernal Dance, and Fukuma plays it to the hilt. He’s got virtuosity and panache in spades; if you’re going to listen to the Firebird on piano, it doesn’t get better. I wonder what Fukuma sounds like doing the piano version of La valse.

At the opposite end of the expressive spectrum, we have Tchaikovsky’s Dumka, probably my favourite piano piece by that composer. It’s a longer, more drawn-out and fully developed piece than the dumka dances by Dvorįk, and the anguished tone forbids the possibility of Tchaikovsky using one of his trademark balletic melodies. Fukuma shapes his performance beautifully. He does a sensitive job, too, with a lyrical transcription of a Glinka song.

The big draw is Mussorgsky’s Pictures, in a clean, crisp performance highlighted by the steady rhythm and drive of the promenades, Fukuma’s precise articulation of fast-fingered scenes like the market in Limoges, and his general mastery of piano tone and color. This is not the most distinctive reading, but when you combine a great instrument (Steinway D, in this case), a great microphone setup, and an artist who knows how to fully exploit those two things, the result is almost always rewarding. This is a state-of-the-art recording, proving that the label’s engineers have also improved since Fukuma’s Debussy recital.

If Kotaro Fukuma isn’t already on your shortlist of young pianists to follow closely, it’s time you added him. If you don’t think that Stravinsky’s Firebird could work on the piano, then you have another think coming.

Brian Reinhart
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