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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Rhapsody No. 1 in B minor, Op. 79 No. 1 (1879) [10:03]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 (1852) [29:31]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Rhapsody, Op. 1 (Sz. 26) (1904) [20:18]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 (1847) [6:33]
Alexandre Kantorow (piano)
rec. 2019/20, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; Tapiola Concert Hall, Espoo, Finland
BIS BIS-2380 SACD [66:28]

French pianist Alexandre Kantorow (b. 1997) captured first prize at the 2019 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, an achievement that normally provides a huge boost to the winner's career. But, like other young concert artists on the ascent, the pandemic has temporarily stalled his advancement. However, thanks to several recordings on the BIS label, we can still sample the high artistry of this immensely talented pianist. Two of Kantorow's earlier recordings received high praise from Dan Morgan here, the first featuring the Liszt Concertos (review), and the second the Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos 3, 4 and 5 (review).

In the lead-off work here, the B minor Brahms Rhapsody, Op. 79 No. 1, Kantorow imparts an appropriately stormy character to the main theme (Agitato) with a quick tempo and fine dynamics. That said, some traditional Brahms interpreters might wish for a bit more weight and stronger accents to etch out greater clarity and a more imposing manner. Perhaps, but the more I listen to Kantorow here, the more I'm convinced his view of this music is just as valid as more conventional ones. I have no quibble whatever with his very sensitive and well phrased handling of the lyrical music either, especially in his phrasing of the lovely theme in the B section (molto dolce espressivo), beginning at 3:55. All else here is very well imagined and executed. Overall then, this is quite a convincing account of this excellent Brahms rhapsody.

Yet Kantorow is perhaps even more persuasive in his performance of the Sonata No. 2, a work that divulges the influence of Liszt, especially in the opening movement. This piece actually predates the First Brahms Sonata, but carries the higher Opus number because it was published after its slightly older sibling. Kantorow catches the fire and brilliance of the extremely challenging opening panel, even deftly linking some of the music to the sinister elements in so many Liszt pieces. He does so with his subtle shifts in dynamics, especially at both ends of the spectrum, with ever-delicate pianos and crisply potent fortes. Also, you'll notice the sudden accelerations that work so effectively—try the octave passages near the end, for example.

The succeeding three movements show Brahms moving away from Liszt, at least partially, and they also divulge a deeper expressive manner. The second movement theme and variations scheme is quite subtly rendered by Kantorow, his phrasing ever so sensitive to the character of the theme and each variation. The melody is by the way based on the German Minnesang Mir ist leide. The same theme opens the ensuing Scherzo, a panel which at times suggests the influence of Brahms' close friend, Robert Schumann. Again, Kantorow is in top form, seeming to catch every shift in mood and style. The finale, the longest, most complex and best of the four movements, is also brilliantly played, with Kantorow displaying the same virtues in all aspects of his phrasing. He also comfortably negotiates every technical hurdle with both ease and an interpretive acumen to heighten the music's strengths, and he eschews any urge to engage in virtuosic grandstanding. This is an utterly brilliant account of this youthful sonata, wherein Kantorow makes the most of a piece that can sound like a misfire in the wrong hands.

The Bartók Op. 1 Rhapsody is obviously a youthful effort too, and it is another example of a composer showing the influence of Liszt, both in his keyboard writing and Hungarian folk-like character, even if the latter aspect is not actually authentic like so many of Bartók's later folk-sourced works. The Rhapsody is in two sections, the first slow and the second mostly fast. Upon first listening, much of the work will strike the ear as fragmented and erratic, especially in the first half. To bring this piece off, it takes a fine performance, one that catches all the nuance and subtlety often buried in other accounts. Yes, it's early Bartók, but it has more to offer than you might think and Kantorow delivers the goods: his dynamics and interpretive smarts unearth the profundities in the delicate shadings and wanderings of the slower music and fully capture the playful folkish elements of the faster music. Throughout the work he plays with clean technique, with accents that always fit and tempos that are well chosen in expressing the emotional thrust of the music. This is a great performance of a piece that many may have shortchanged with the view it is second-rate Bartók.

The closing work is actual Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11. It's one of the more popular of the nineteen, behind only Nos. 2, 12 and 6. It's also one of the more subtle ones and once more Kantorow, with his usual keyboard insights and skills, turns in a thoroughly convincing performance. Again he avoids the urge to crank up the virtuoso side at the expense of the proper expressive character of the music itself. He captures the delicate elegance of the opening, as well as the colors and frolicsome demeanor of the music that comes later, never overlooking the folk-like cheer and energy in the latter half. This is another fine performance to serve as a sort of encore here to fill out this fine SACD. The sound reproduction from both studio venues is quite vivid and clear, fully state of the art.

You may find other performances of some of these works as fine as these, but Kantorow's consistency throughout all four compositions clearly sets this apart from most other such varied piano collections. I highly recommend this splendid disc by Alexandre Kantorow, a pianist who will surely have a major career on the international concert stages.

Robert Cummings

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