May 22, 2014


Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Ingrid Fliter, piano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Mendelssohn: Sonata in F for Violin and Piano; Prokofiev: Sonata in C for Two Violins; Elgar: Salut d’amour; Grieg: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Kreisler: La Gitana. Netanel Draiblate, violin; Lura Johnson, piano; Luigi Mazzocchi, violin. Azica. $16.99.

Love and Longing. Yoonie Han, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Recording companies are understandably eager to make a splash when they release their first discs by newly signed virtuoso performers. But they are not always sure how to try to bring listeners’ attention to the artists: should the focus be on the music performed or on the artist himself or herself? In the case of Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter’s first recording for Linn Records, there is a happy balance of music- and performer-oriented presentation. Fliter is a Chopin specialist whose recordings of his music for other labels have been widely praised and have garnered numerous awards. She shows why here, handling the two piano concertos with limpidity, transparency and – surprisingly – a stronger sense of ensemble than is usual in these works, which Chopin designed mostly as piano showcases and whose orchestration is workmanlike rather than inspired. In No. 1 in particular, Fliter has no problem allowing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Jun Märkl something approximating full partnership, to the extent possible. The orchestra’s small size helps immensely here, giving the performance the feeling of an expanded chamber-music presentation rather than one in which the spotlight is constantly on the piano. It is an intriguing approach, one that is equally effective in the stately opening movement, the lovely Romanze and the krakowiak-based finale. The approach also works very well in No. 2 (the earlier of the two concertos, despite its numbering), although here it is somewhat muted because of the music itself, which gives the orchestra fewer chances to partner with the soloist than in No. 1. Fliter is a remarkably sensitive Chopin interpreter, her phrasing filled with nuance and gentle rubato that fits the music beautifully and fully explores its emotional qualities. The very fine SACD sound helps bring out every detail to which Fliter and Märkl draw attention. This is more than an impressive debut album for a particular recording company – it is a really first-rate exploration of the music, one in which the performer uses her considerable talents in service to the works she plays.

     The first solo recording by Israeli violinist Netanel Draiblate also offers a strong focus on the music, but here there is somewhat greater centrality of the performer. Draiblate and his duo partner, pianist Lura Johnson, explore both well-known and less-known works on a pleasing if not especially well-integrated Azica CD. The three sonatas here all have much to recommend them. Mendelssohn’s is not often heard, but deserves more-frequent performance: it is well-constructed, filled with the beautiful themes so remarkably pervasive in Mendelssohn’s music, and provides both violinist and pianist with plenty of chances to showcase their technical abilities. The Prokofiev sonata, in which Draiblate is joined by Luigi Mazzocchi as well as Johnson, provides strong contrast: it is clearly tonal, but its sound world and the angularity of its themes set it well apart from the lyricism and easy flow of Mendelssohn’s sonata. Yet the Prokofiev has a certain amount of poised elegance of its own, and the interplay between the two violins is both effective and impressive. On the CD, the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev are back-to-back and are followed by Elgar’s brief Salut d’amour as a sort of palate cleanser: the Elgar is scarcely substantial, its warmth that of a nicely constructed bit of salon music. Grieg’s sonata, which appears next, is a return to larger-scale thinking, although Grieg himself was in fact most effective as a miniaturist. This sonata is not at the level of the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev works: it is certainly well-constructed and tuneful, but it has less to say, and Draiblate and Johnson give it a more-methodical and less-involving performance than they provide for the other sonatas. The CD concludes, unsurprisingly, with a bit of pure virtuosity, Kreisler’s La Gitana, which Draiblate handles with aplomb, tossing the phrases about readily and managing the difficult fingerings with apparent ease. This is a fine recording debut that keeps Draiblate firmly in the limelight while still giving listeners a chance to hear some music that is quite worthy in its own right.

     The Steinway & Sons debut of South Korean pianist Yoonie Han takes a different approach. Although there is some lovely music here, the entire CD is strongly focused on the performer rather than what she performs. The 13 pieces are intended to showcase the particular strengths of Han’s playing, which include a fine feel for poetic lyricism and the emotional core of the music. Han is less adept with the works’ underlying structural elements, favoring expressiveness over musical design, but that is apparent in only a few cases here, since the music has been carefully chosen to let Han focus on her strengths while downplaying areas where she has yet to develop fully. This produces a strong inclination toward Schubert/Liszt pieces, six of which Han presents: Der Müller und der Bach, Lob der Tränen, Du bist die Ruh, Aufenthalt, Gute Nacht and Wohin? These are lovely works that wear their heart very much on their sleeve, the Liszt arrangements giving Han a chance for a touch of virtuoso display to complement Schubert’s emotion. There is beauty aplenty here, but little profundity when the music is taken so far out of context. Also here, and in much the same vein, are two short works by Venezuelan/French composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947): La fausse indifference and La danse de l’amour et de l’ennui. There are also Melodie from “Orfeo ed Euridice” by Gluck, Romeo and Juliet before Parting by Prokofiev, and an interesting flamenco-flavored piece, El Jaleo, written for Han by Theodore Wiprud (born 1958). These works too are strongly Romantic in orientation, if not always harmonically, and Han plays them to extract all the emotion she can from them – but it is all rather superficial. The two longest works here, and the ones offering a pianist the most chances for exploring some depths of both feeling and creativity, are Granados’ El amor y la muerte and the Wagner/Liszt version of Isoldes Liebestod. The Granados, the fifth piece in Goyescas, has a strongly improvisational feel, but at the same time possesses carefully controlled foundational elements to which Han gives short shrift: she plays the music very well, but makes it sound more free-form than it in fact is. And although there is tremendous beauty in Isoldes Liebestod in any skilled performance, there is little distinguished about Han’s reading: this is transformational music, not simply love music, and it is the mystical culmination of an opera, not just a beautiful work that stands on its own. The beauty is apparent in Han’s performance, but the exaltation is less so. This (+++) CD’s title, Love and Longing, is actually an apt description of what Han brings forth from the works she performs. She extracts the love and yearning very well indeed, but that is all: in the pieces here that have even more to offer, Han falls just a bit short.

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