January 07, 2016


Scriabin: Preludes, Op. 11; Prelude in B, Op. 2, No. 2; Impromptus, Op. 14; Three Pieces, Op. 45; Two Pieces, Op. 57; Poème in F-sharp, Op. 32, No. 1; Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Klara Min, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Bach: French Suites Nos. 1-6; Mozart: Suite in C, K. 399 & Gigue in G, K. 574. Peter Hill, piano.  Delphian. $27.99 (2 CDs).

     Here are two pianists of style and sensitivity bringing their considerable technique to bear on very different repertoire – more successfully in one case than in the other. Klara Min’s Scriabin recital is simply lovely, although that should not be taken to mean that it in any way downplays the sometimes breezy, often virtuosic demands of the music. The centerpiece of Min’s Steinway & Sons CD is the set of Op. 11 Preludes, which are built on Chopin’s Op. 28 set and follow the same key sequence by alternating major keys with their relative minors. These works have something of Chopin’s sensibilities in them as well, but refined and harmonically expanded in ways that would later come to seem typical of Scriabin – for instance, in the way that No. 9 in E, written in 1896, has the left hand mostly in C-sharp minor, resulting in what is essentially a dual-tonality piece.  Scriabin was not primarily a miniaturist, but the pieces on this disc show him collecting miniatures into longer forms: the 24 elements of Op. 11, for example, last for less than 40 minutes. Min does a particularly good job of giving each of the Preludes its own individual character, whether in the unusual use of tempo changes to alter note values in No. 1 (1896) or in the juxtaposition of the beautiful left-hand and right-hand melodies in No. 4 (1888, the earliest of these works). The emotional ebb and flow of the Preludes is not always predictable, but Min has no problem moving from one aspect of the music to the next, and manages to make the whole set convincing even as she highlights the different characters of its components. Her nuanced and well-balanced interpretations are equally effective in the other works, also short, on the CD. The fleeting and light Prelude in B, Op. 2, No. 2 opens the disc; the longer and more serious Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2, No. 1 closes it (the third of the three pieces from Op. 2 is unfortunately missing here). The impromptus, Op. 14 are forthright (at least for Scriabin) studies in light and dark; Poème in F-sharp is also comparatively straightforward and is serene in mood. The remaining works here make an interesting study in contrasts and display Min’s thoughtfulness to a considerable degree: the Three Pieces, Op. 45 are quiet and never quite settle into any particular scene-setting or mood-setting, while the Two Pieces, Op. 57, although also brief, are more definitive in their darkness and air of mystery. Scriabin is an elusive composer at best, his synesthesia providing him with connections between aural and visual experiences that listeners cannot always easily absorb. Min, however, shows a firm understanding of Scriabin’s aesthetic and his emotional-connection capability, using the short-form works of this recital to paint a variegated and strongly felt portrait of the many moods and attitudes brought forth both through the composer’s earlier style and through his later, more-developed one.

     The playing is equally assured and the thoughtfulness equally evident in the new Delphian recording of Bach’s French Suites by Peter Hill. But as fine as the presentation is, there is something a bit less than fully satisfying here, largely tied to Hill’s willingness to use so many of the piano’s capabilities to plumb what he sees as Bach’s emotional depths – a positive thing for those who believe Bach wrote for “keyboard,” but a negative for anyone aware that he emphatically did not write for any sort of modern keyboard instrument, and certainly not for a grand piano. The six French Suites are the middle of the composer’s three sets of suites for harpsichord or clavichord, dating to 1722-25 – later than the English Suites and earlier than the Partitas. They are more modest in scale than the earlier works, less dramatic and contrapuntal; and they are less ambitious and sophisticated than the Partitas. They partake of a pleasant openness and transparency, and their style is akin to the galant approach that some of Bach’s contemporaries favored at the time the French Suites were created. But it is precisely in transparency that Hill’s heartfelt performance falls short: he does a wonderful job with the Sarabande movements, making them surprisingly convincing even on the piano and almost making the quasi-Romantic sound he gives them seem right. But the lighter, brighter dance movements do not fare as well. Hill overwhelms their delicate textures and downplays their poetic liveliness, turning them into approachable salon-style pieces that are pleasant to hear but that simply do not sound much like Bach qua Bach. More interesting in some ways than the French Suites is the Mozart material that Hill appends to the second disc of this two-CD set. Hill’s own completion of Mozart’s unfinished Suite in C, K. 399 emphasizes the way in which this work draws on and pays homage to Baroque music, and here Hill’s performance is altogether winning, letting Mozart’s music flow at a finely measured pace while highlighting the ways in which this suite connects to earlier works by both Bach and Handel. There is no question about the quality of Hill’s playing and the careful consideration he has given to Bach’s French Suites as well as to the Mozart material here, but this release as a whole gets a (+++) rating because the care and beauty of the playing really do not make up for an interpretation that too frequently transforms Bach’s carefully balanced emotional expression into something of greater intensity that more appropriately belongs to the music of a later time.

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