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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75 [36:53]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Études Tableaux (8), Op. 33 [25:16]
Dzmitry Ulasiuk (piano)
rec. 2017, St. Pius X Catholic Church, Corpus Christi, USA
CENTAUR CRC3698 [62:12]

I usually keep abreast of happenings and personalities in the Classical world, and when I ordered this disc for review I wasn’t sure if I had ever even heard of the pianist Dzmitry Ulasiuk — so I felt I was taking a chance. I’ll remember his name now. He plays these works very well: the Prokofiev Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet comes first and I was impressed right off, and then hoped his Rachmaninov Études Tableaux wouldn’t let me down. They didn’t — once again Ulasiuk’s performances were totally convincing.

Raised in Minsk, Belarus, Ulasiuk has a formidable list of teachers, which includes Liudmila Shelomentseva (at the Belarus State Academy of Music), Tamás Ungár (Texas Christian University), and Joaquín Achúcarro (Southern Methodist University). Ulasiuk is currently completing or has perhaps by now completed doctoral studies at the University of North Texas. He has won or captured high prizes in several prestigious competitions, and was awarded the Lily Kraus scholarship for studies at TCU. He has performed across Europe, Asia and the USA with major orchestras and at such venues as Carnegie Hall. So, he has fairly strong credentials, but it is his style of interpretation that sets him apart from many other pianists.

Ulasiuk rarely ever sounds pedestrian or bland or short on ideas as some pianists do in brief transitional passages, for example, or certain phrase endings. Ulasiuk more often than not gives seemingly less promising music meaning or vitality or greater weight, and with his subtle sense of phrasing — particularly in his dynamics — he often makes you hear things in a different and usually better way. Rhythms are typically springy and elastic, harmonies appear in proper balance with main lines, percussive elements are potent and spirited but not harsh or disruptive, and lush lyrical themes mesmerize.

In his accounts of Nos. 5 (Masques) and 6 (Montagues and Capulets) from Romeo he doesn’t fall into the trap that most pianists do by overemphasizing the percussive side of the music. Rather, Ulasiuk points up the wit and playful demeanor of the former and focuses on the grim grandeur and catchy rhythmic aspects of the latter’s march theme. In Mercutio (No. 8) he is thrilling in the outer sections and subtly ironic in the middle section. In the final piece, Romeo and Juliet before Parting, Ulasiuk plays brilliantly, capturing the serenity and mystery of the opening with perfect dynamics and later on wringing out all the passion and beauty of the plentiful lyrical music convincingly. Most pianists I’ve heard take the love theme that appears nearly midway through too fast because they read Prokofiev’s animato marking to mean accelerando or a marked quickening of the tempo. When Prokofiev conducted the Moscow Philharmonic in Suite No. 2 from Romeo and Juliet in his only recording as a conductor, he led the corresponding passage there with no perceptible increase in tempo. Here, Ulasiuk does show a marginal increase (beginning at 3:00) but still plays the theme with great feeling and emotional effect.

This is masterly playing throughout the ten pieces then, but it is not quite without a few missteps. In the opening work, Folk Dance, Ulasiuk captures the celebratory and playful side of Prokofiev alright, but two brief episodes of slightly reining in the tempo, first at 1:13 and then again at 2:09, undercut the festive sense a bit, and in No. 4, Young Juliet, the rippling notes of the main theme have an elegance about them, but sound a little stiff in their playful character. Still, these are minor flaws and his account of these ten works is in the running for the best performances by anyone. His chief competition comes from Lazar Berman (DG) who, curiously, leaves out the opening piece. Also, Bernd Glemser (Naxos) and Boris Berman (Chandos) have very fine complete versions. The tragically short-lived Steven De Groote had perhaps the best rendition (Finlandia, later on Apex) but his performance is apparently no longer available.

Ulasiuk’s Rachmaninov Études Tableaux are equally convincing here in the version that includes the two posthumous études. The opening piece, the F minor étude, brims with rhythmic swagger and has just the right sense of stateliness. In the ensuing C major étude Ulasiuk accompanies the main theme with shimmering, restless notes, deftly italicizing the roiling character of the music. In the D minor étude (No. 4) he again nicely captures the rhythmic aspects, as well as the music’s sense of struggle, his dynamics and tempo choices well judged. One of his finest performances is that of the E flat major (No. 6), where he wisely eschews the tendency to take the glorious ending (from 1:34) too fast as so many pianists do—the usually reliably brilliant Vladimir Ashkenazy, among them. Ulasiuk effectively phrases the dark D minor étude to exude a heartrending sense of sadness and loss, and the final piece, the C sharp minor, gets perhaps the finest performance of the work I’ve ever heard, rivaling a more than half-century favorite of mine by Gary Graffman. In the end, Ulasiuk’s set of these Op. 33 études may well challenge the excellent version by Vladimir Ovchinikov on EMI (coupled with the Op. 39 set), which appears to be currently unavailable, making Ulasiuk my choice for now.

What makes this recording additionally attractive is the sound: the tone of the Steinway D piano is perfect, the acoustics of the St. Pius X Catholic Church in Corpus Christi surprisingly excellent, and the sound reproduction as captured by Jan Nowicki well balanced and vivid. The pianist’s album notes are fine, particularly so for the considerable detail he provides for the Prokofiev Ten Pieces. Here is a pianist rather new to the scene whose debut album must be regarded a major achievement.

Robert Cummings

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