Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 “Moonlight” [16:35]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886]
Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata [19:21]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [37:30]
Yuko Batik (piano)
rec. 24 November & 21-22 December 2015, Franz Liszt Zentrum, Raiding, Burgenland
Booklet notes in German and English
GRAMOLA 99083 [73:25]

The first thing I noticed was the deep, rich, dark sound of the Bösendorfer piano Yuko Batik is playing. The recording is immediate, sumptuous and detailed, without being overbearing, so it’s difficult to avoid the forensic in reviewing this disc. If a New York Times article that appeared in 2004 still holds true, Bösendorfer is a relative minnow in the concert grand arena, despite its ‘Rolls-Royce’ reputation. Arch-rival Steinway’s dominance is such that, according to the article, it has more than 90% of performing concert pianists signed-up, and doesn’t take kindly to those who ‘stray’. Bösendorfer’s logo appears on this CD’s packaging, but whether it’s because they’ve sponsored the recording, or Batik is one of their signed-up artists, or ... well, I won’t speculate further.

Listening on, I soon became aware of a certain metronomic and literal quality to Batik’s playing of the Moonlight sonata that said, yes, she’s closely following the score—but isn’t there more to it than that? As a close friend said to me recently, the hard part of music criticism is putting one’s reasoning into words—it’s easier to recognise a ‘great’ Beethoven performance than to explain why it is great. Or in this case, not that great. As far as I can tell, Batik has a near-flawless technique—competition-honed, if you read her bio—and can accurately translate musical notation into resplendent sound. But especially in today’s world of computer simulation, shouldn’t a concert pianist be more than a mere cipher for the composer’s printed score? ‘Interpretation’ of course can go too far, but it’s a world removed from the ‘calculation’ I could hear on this occasion. Newcomers to the Moonlight may well appreciate Batik’s performance and seek to know the work better. For me, though, despite its sonorous beauty and immaculate execution, I probably wouldn’t return to it.

If Batik and Liszt then seem a better combination, it’s not meant with any condescension to either. Liszt’s Dante Sonata is typical of the grand musical vistas he was want to explore, a narrative flow that traces not only a physical but a spiritual pilgrimage, but more through a proxy, whose personification is then realised through the performer, who, to an extent, can define and ‘own’ that identity. Beethoven, you feel, is mostly exploring his own soul, and places the onus of that communication more directly on the performer, which history suggests grows with experience and wisdom. At this presumably early stage in her career, Batik identifies with Liszt’s Dante as she metaphorically sees him—sanguine and pretty well ripped, apparently—a view that may well change over time, without being more or less valid. If indeed she does sound more engaged with this work, it may be as simple as suggesting her technique is now fully stretched by the composer’s formidable demands. It’s a roundly competent reading, though not in the league of Leif Ove Andsnes (on EMI) among more recent recordings. Batik’s performance is also on the slower side, being generally in the range of two minutes, or roughly ten percent, longer than a number of competing recordings I surveyed.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition presents a different challenge in personification, this time stepping into the composer’s shoes as he takes in the artworks of his late friend Victor Hartmann. These days better known in its orchestration by Ravel, the original remains a tour-de-force for pianists willing and able to take it on. They have the additional challenge perhaps to convince listeners accustomed to the orchestral version that whatever the piano may yield in colour and contrast is more than compensated by the power and invention of Mussorgsky’s original vision. Given also the work’s familiarity to concert-goers, and particularly how it ends, the performer’s delivery of the opening Promenade says a lot about the road ahead. Mikhail Pletnev on Virgin, for example, sets a stately pace but with a slight swagger to the composer’s gait which suggests playful intrigue; Lazar Berman on DG Eloquence is much swifter, with less dynamic contrast, imparting a bullish ardour. Conversely, Batik’s tempo is very measured, almost funereal, with little variation, and generally too loud—a more intransigent Mussorgsky who, perhaps, having already spotted the climactic Great Gate of Kiev, would rather go straight there! As with her Beethoven, I couldn’t help but notice the almost robotic and relentless nature of her playing, now also infused with heavy-handedness. The light and shade of Pletnev’s is missing, and a kind of generic rubato passes for finesse. Gnomus is earthbound and guileless, and it’s of some relief when she reaches Tuileries, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and Limoges, giving respite from the bombast, but even there, a finer touch and greater delicacy would be welcome. Pictures is, of course, a work of pianistic fireworks, but this display is mostly boom with little sparkle. By the time Batik finally gets to The Great Gate of Kiev, I’m ready to raise the white flag.

I can imagine these performances working better live, and Yuko Batik perhaps needs to re-calibrate for the recording studio. There’s no doubting her technical ability, and without wanting to wade into ‘piano wars’, I did get the impression maybe that the ample and full-bodied sonority of her instrument had been over-weighted as a success factor for this recording. In the final result, it’s the musicianship that matters.
Des Hutchinson

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