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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Morgen, Op. 27 No. 4 (trans. Max Reger) [3:47]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Poco Allegretto from Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (trans. Max Reger) [6:43]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata n B flat major, D 980 (1828) [39:14]
Johannes BRAHMS
Andante sostenuto from Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (trans. Max Reger) [10:23]
Evgeni Bozhanov (piano)
rec. 2017, Campus 44, Krefeld, German
AVANTICLASSIC 5414706 10592 [60:17]

The blurb for this release says that “Evgeni Bohzanov invites you to a voyage into the heart of German Musical Romanticism” with this programme, and this is both at the heart of its strengths and arguable weaknesses. There can be no doubting this pianist’s skill and subtlety of touch, and if you love Romantic piano music then you should relish the heightened sense of sentiment provided by Max Reger’s transcriptions.

Morgen becomes a meditation to the max in this recording, if you will excuse the pun – highly expressive and atmospheric, but also an indication of what is to come. The Poco Allegretto from Brahms’s Third Symphony doesn’t take off to any great extent either, but if you allow for this being a pianistic portrait of the music rather than an imitation of the orchestral original then you can just bathe in its glow. The programme closes with the Andante sostenuto from Brahms’s First Symphony, and the aura of thick pedalling can again become somewhat cloying. There is no arguing against the ‘romantic’ aspect of this interpretation both by the transcriber and the performer, but there is more to the Romantic ethos than beauty and faux profundity. I prefer at least a little grit in the Mother of Pearl.

Central to the programme is Schubert’s final great Sonata D 980, which has been given some terrific recordings over the years. Bozhanov is relatively uncontroversial in the work with regard to tempi, but he somehow manages to give the entire piece a kind of up-beat character that reduces its drama and darkness almost to invisibility. The first movement opens slowly, but not tiresomely so, Bozhanov’s right hand singing out the melody at times with a little delay that can be expressive, or that can be the top of a spreading out of Schubert’s material that becomes a little mannered here and there. Missing out the exposition repeat, there are some fine moments in Schubert’s extended transition into the minor, but there follows a section that seems to avoid any kind of shadows or menace. The second movement does build a feeling of ecstasy, but for me this works like hypnotism rather than that heady glimpse into a timeless abyss that some performances manage to create. The Scherzo is fine enough, though there is some pulling around of the pulse that nags somewhat. There are also some ritenuti in the final Allegro ma non troppo which go a little too far in interrupting the flow to my ears, though this may not bother everyone. This is a D 960 that would be enjoyable in concert, but won’t be one I’ll be listening to in preference to Maria João Pires (review).

Surrounding Schubert’s Sonata D 960 with Reger transcriptions doesn’t help it particularly, and this programme is something of a white bread sandwich with too much mayonnaise. I wanted to love this recording, and have listened to it on different days just to make sure I wasn’t just approaching it in the wrong frame of mind. It sounds better over speakers than headphones, through which the slightly dull piano sound is emphasised. The instrument recorded here is a Shigeru Kawai, and gives the impression more of a rich Blüthner than a shiny Steinway, which need not be a bad thing. This is a very good CD to accompany a relaxing candle-lit bath but alas, I no longer own a bath.

Dominy Clements

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