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Evocación Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1869-1909) Iberia: El Albaicín [7.32]; El Puerto [4.31]; Evocación [6.19]; Triana [5.29]; Almería [9.34]; Málaga [5.12] Maurice RAVEL (1875-1935)
Le Tombeau de Couperin [24:50]
Mengjie Han (piano) COBRA 0058 [66.33]
Dutch pianist, Mengjie Han, was a prizewinner at the 10th International Liszt Piano Competition in 2014. For his first recording he has paired Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin with a selection of pieces from Albéniz’s Iberia. The programme notes draw attention to the links between the two composers and refer to Ravel’s Basque heritage. While there clearly are links, I can think of many other works by the French composer which sound more Spanish than Le Tombeau. Notwithstanding this, it was interesting to compare and contrast these two works which both date from the first two decades of the 20th Century.
I am always pleased to see young pianists tackling Albéniz’s Iberia as these pieces do not feature anywhere near enough in the concert hall. Having said that I was not completely convinced by these performances. Han was at his best in the sensual ruminations of Evocación and in the vivid tone painting and vibrant Spanish rhythms of Málaga. He dispatched Triana with enormous virtuoso flair and the playful outer sections were nicely characterised although the technically demanding middle section could have been played with greater ease and fluency. He summoned up the carefree sunny beaches around Cadiz in El Puerto and dispatched Albéniz’s springy rhythms with relish although some of the textures were a little murky. In El Albaicín Han was at pains to emphasise the textural contrasts in the music but, overall, the piece sounded a little disconnected and lacked atmosphere. Almería was also not entirely successful as Han over used the pedal and there was too much hazy impressionistic drift. While Han showed a willingness to experiment with new ideas in this performance, he is not a front-rank interpreter of Iberia and is not in the same league as the wonderful Alicia de Larrocha.
Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was written during the First World War and each of its six movements are based on those of the traditional Baroque suite. Each movement is dedicated to a friend of the composer who died fighting in the war. This piece played more to Han’s strengths although again I was not completely persuaded by these performances. The opening Prelude was the weakest of the six movements: the swirling lines could have been more cleanly and sharply defined and the harpsichord style decoration could have been executed with greater brilliance. The Fugue was better and I particularly liked the subtle intensity which Han brought to the emerging contrapuntal lines. The Menuet was the best of the six movements: Han’s performance was poetic and nuanced and a delicate Gallic perfume pervaded the music. The final movement is a technically demanding Toccata which Ravel dedicated to the husband of the pianist Maurgerite Long who gave the first performance of Le Tombeau. Han provided us with some dazzling finger-work in this movement and he drew the music to a close with a dazzling virtuoso display. While there was some fine playing here, Han’s performance was no match for Tharaud or Hewitt who both bring a greater depth of musical understanding to this work.
Han is clearly a fine player and he shows a willingness to test new ideas and approaches to the music. However, these did not entirely work for me and these are not to my mind front rank performances.