April 11, 2013


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”); Schumann: Kinderszenen; Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Mendelssohn: Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano. Pavel Kolesnikov, piano; Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roberto Minczuk; Johannes Moser, cello. Honens. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Chopin: Mazurkas—Op. 24, Nos. 1, 2 and 4; Op. 30, Nos. 3 and 4; Op. 50, No. 3; Op. 56, No. 2; Op. 59, Nos. 1-3; Op. 63, Nos. 2 and 3; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Op. 68, Nos. 2 and 4. Klara Min, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     There is something special about twentysomething concert pianists, a sense of long careers ahead plus wunderkind years barely behind. Nowadays many pianists in their 20s already have a decade or more of performing experience, and if their early thrust into the limelight does not prevent them from developing more-mature and more-thoughtful styles as their careers continue, they have great opportunities as artists for decades in the future. It is hard to tell just how good these young pianists are by listing their awards (there are so many competitions out there) or noting how many orchestras they have played with (orchestras are always looking for ways to lure younger audiences, and the use of younger pianists is a common approach). So it is a pleasure to hear some recorded performances and have a chance to judge the pianists’ strengths at this stage of their careers. In the case of Pavel Kolesnikov, those strengths are many, as displayed in a two-CD set recorded live at the Seventh Honens International Competition in October 2012, which Kolesnikov won. The most interesting thing about Honens’ style in these recordings is its delicacy – not a common element among today’s virtuosi, for whom “technique” is often synonymous with volume and intensity (Lang Lang being a particularly prominent exemplar). Kolesnikov’s “Moonlight” Sonata excels in the quiet passages, and while there is plenty of power when called for in the finale, it is the first two movements’ flow and rhythmic beauty that are most memorable. Kinderszenen is also a genuinely lovely set of miniatures here, with the familiar Träumerei a highlight in its simplicity and directness and the concluding Der Dichter spricht possessing a winning combination of wistfulness and slight melancholy. Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 gets a well-considered performance, very well played and with a fine flow to the Largo, although here there is less sense of connectedness with the music than in the Beethoven and Schumann – Kolesnikov seems a touch too reserved at times. Not so in the Mendelssohn sonata with Johannes Moser, which is simply wonderful, with outstanding give-and-take between the performers and nuanced, rhythmically sure playing that belies Kolesnikov’s age and sounds like a reading of considerable maturity. The only disappointment here is the Tchaikovsky concerto, which of course is inevitably identified with a twentysomething pianist of an earlier time (Van Cliburn’s world-storming performance in 1958). Kolesnikov does not have a good sense of the totality of this piece, and the lengthy first movement constantly goes astray, its forward momentum coming nearly to a halt again and again; and the accompaniment by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra under Roberto Minczuk, although adequate, adds little piquancy or potency to the production. The second movement is pleasant but undistinguished, and it is only in the finale, where Kolesnikov unleashes his dramatic abilities, that the work catches fire and comes to a stirring conclusion. On balance, this is an impressive introduction to the abilities of a fine young pianist whose interpretative talents are already considerable and who certainly has the ability – if he has the will – to develop into a first-rate artist.

     The Chopin CD by Klara Min is somewhat less successful. All young virtuosi, as well as older ones, gravitate to Chopin, but this is not “simple” piano music and is scarcely straightforward to interpret. The 41 mazurkas with opus numbers (of Chopin’s 58 published pieces in this genre, 45 of which were published during his lifetime) are particularly challenging interpretatively because of the way they commingle formalities: some from the traditional Polish dance on which they are based, others from classical techniques such as fugues and contrapuntal passages – which Chopin employed to a greater extent in this genre than in any other in which he wrote. A primary characteristic of the underlying dance form is repetition, whether thematic, sectional, or of a single measure or group of measures; and while this makes the mazurkas seem, on the face of it, simple to perform, it is in fact a trap, since Chopin did not write these works to be danced – and the repetitiveness of them can make them simply dull. Min plays the pieces with lovely tone and a level of technical ability that is now de rigueur for young pianists. But she simply does not do much with them. The selection and sequencing on the CD are odd, reflecting Min’s personal tastes but offering no coherence to a listener in terms either of key juxtapositions or any sense of gradual maturation of Chopin’s style and approach. The disc seems more like a series of encores – 17 of them – than a coherent recital. Indeed, if Min were playing these pieces as encores, one or perhaps two at a time, her handling of them would be exemplary, since she plays flawlessly and has a touch that fits the music well, bringing out its underlying dance elements without overemphasizing them. This CD gets a (+++) rating because of the quality of the playing and because the music itself is quite wonderful even when presented in a somewhat incoherent sequence. This is not salon music, despite its superficial resemblance to that genre. As Min continues and builds her career, she will hopefully find ways to extract more depth from this music and will, in time, display a better ability to mix the mazurkas’ formal classical elements with their folk-music origins.

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