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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat major K. 570 [11:35]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Scarbo (from Gaspard de la nuit) [8:16]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey, Op. 18 [8:39]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 [31:27]
Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano)
National Orchestra of Belgium/Georges Octors
rec. May 1978, Brussels Royal Conservatory (solo works) and Brussels Centre for Fine Arts (Concerto)
MUSO MU013 [60:16]

This CD is part of a series being issued on the Muso label that features prize winners from a number of past Queen Elisabeth Competitions. In this case, we go back to 1978 when nineteen-year-old Abdel Rahman El Bacha, then of Lebanon, now a resident of Switzerland (since 2012), won the competition and also captured the Audience Prize. On this disc we are given a good sampling of the repertory he played during the competition, which includes his dynamic account of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, which he performed in the final round to lock up the first prize.

Although El Bacha has enjoyed considerable success in his career, I am still a bit puzzled that he never quite made it to superstar status among concert pianists. Indeed, he is an insightful interpreter in a broad range of repertory and possesses a powerful and all-encompassing technique. He has made acclaimed recordings of works by Prokofiev, including the five piano concertos, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Schumann, Ravel and JS Bach.

Here he delivers an excellent account of the Mozart Sonata No. 7. He does not play the exposition repeat, which goes against the modern trend to follow the composer’s wishes, but that’s really a minor matter. His sprightly, elegant way with the work is refreshing, even though he adds a little muscle and a sense of anxiety in the development section. The second movement is lovely in its gentle ethereality and the finale is delightfully robust in its playfulness. There are many fine accounts of this sonata from Uchida, Schiff, Barenboim and others, but El Bacha’s performance, while perhaps lacking a bit in subtlety, is quite fine.

The other works on the disc are all considered among the most difficult in their genre. Ravel’s Scarbo, from Gaspard de la nuit, gets bravura treatment here, as the notes ripple along with a feathery lightness to invoke images of the nocturnal goblin Scarbo doing his fiendish mischief. While El Bacha’s account might not be quite as convincing as other performances from Argerich, Pogorelich and a few others, it’s quite spectacular and eerily atmospheric. This may be the best solo performance on the disc. Islamey  (spelled Islamay on the back cover and in the album booklet) is another success here: El Bacha handles the technical difficulties in the outer sections with the utmost skill, capturing all the exotic colors and rendering the most difficult passages with total confidence, notes flying out of your speakers at the speed of light but with clarity and crispness. The lyrical middle section is also well played, seeming here to augur Rachmaninov. This is a brilliant account, then, which can stand with most others, at least in terms of thrills.

El Bacha’s Prokofiev Second would nearly be competitive with the best versions by Yuja Wang, Horacio Gutierrez, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Anna Vinnitskaya were it not for a less than convincing orchestral performance, as well as some instrumental imbalances in the orchestra. The first two movements come across best, with the long cadenza in the first being a highlight. This is not to suggest that El Bacha’s playing of the third and fourth movements is on a lower level: he’s quite good here also, but the orchestra does not quite match his level.

The aforementioned imbalances in the Prokofiev Second aside, the sound reproduction on the disc is mostly quite good, though Scarbo is a bit hissy. This disc has much to recommend it, but I can’t say it’s a standout. Still, El Bacha’s many fans will want to hear these historic performances, which catapulted him to international success.
Robert Cummings



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