December 16, 2021


Chopin: Études, Op. 25; Mazurkas, Op. 17; Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1. Dmitry Ishkhanov, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Ernő Dohnányi: Four Rhapsodies, Op. 11; Ástor Piazzolla: Tango Rhapsody; Liszt: Rhapsodie Espagnole; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue. Kristina Marinova, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Paul Paccione: Tapestry Studies (2012); Book of Hours (2019); Unsent Letter (2015). Jenny Perron, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The piano’s expressive potential, already starting to enthrall composers and performers by the early 19th century even though instruments of that time bore little resemblance to those in use today, continues to intrigue composers right into the 21st century – and continues to lead pianists to create recitals with music ranging from the well-worn to the virtually unknown. The music of Chopin, for example, is a coming-of-age rite for virtually every pianist, and in the case of Dmitry Ishkhanov is that more literally than in most cases, since Ishkhanov was born as recently as 2005. There is an eternal and eternally unanswerable question as to whether very young pianists, however technically skilled they may be, can come up with knowing, intuitive, carefully considered or otherwise satisfying performances of complex music. This is perhaps less of a question for some composers than others: by the time he was in his mid-teens, Mozart was a highly accomplished performer as well as composer. Chopin was not quite that precocious, but he was certainly a child prodigy, and since he lived only to 39, all his work is that of a young man. It is perhaps not surprising that Ishkhanov is at his best on a new Navona CD when performing the 12 Études, Op. 25, which are technical tours de force that do not require significant “interpretation” in the sense of thinking through what the music is trying to say and figuring out how best to communicate its meaning. This second of Chopin’s sets of études, published in 1837, is by turns dramatic, intense, expressive and fiendishly difficult to perform. But the music is, on the whole, rather superficial – by design. These are studies in pianism more than they are attempts to plumb any emotional depth. As a result, everything from the Lento of No. 7 (nicknamed “Cello,” although not by Chopin) to the Allegro con fuoco of No. 10 (“Octaves”) comes through here with panache and all the flair of a talented young pianist’s engagement and enthusiasm. Nothing, however, is especially expressive – and this is not really an issue in Op. 25. It is a bit more of a concern in the other works on the disc. The Four Mazurkas, Op. 17, from 1833, are Chopin’s third set of this Polish-influenced form. All but the first are slow (both the second and fourth are marked Lento, ma non troppo); and because the works are by and large homophonic, phrasing and dynamics require subtlety and care to bring out their full effect. Ishkhanov is fine here but not deeply engaging: what delicacy he offers seems surface-level, imposed on the music rather than emerging naturally from it. The actual playing is quite good, but the performance is emotionally unconvincing. And the Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 1, the first of two from Chopin’s third set of works in this form, simply sounds studied: Ishkhanov does not seem particularly involved in the music, which is pleasant enough but in no way compelling. The CD as a whole is a well-played recital of familiar material handled with considerable skill, but showing little insight in the works in which insight would make the communication more telling.

     The repertoire is more varied and the pianism more mature on another recent Navona release, this one featuring Kristina Marinova playing four works that are unrelated except insofar as all are deemed “rhapsodies.” The issue here is that the “rhapsody” concept itself, like that of “fantasy” or “fantasia,” is a highly variable one, not only in terms of different musical eras but also in the way different composers used the word. Thus, the pieces heard here do not form any sort of organized program or recital, and in fact the CD is better heard one piece at a time than straight through. The least-known material here comes from Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960), whose Op. 11 consists of more than half an hour of highly differentiated rhapsodic material that wears its heart very much on its sleeve, calling on the pianist to produce grand gestures and to, if anything, overdo the emotional elements of the music. Marinova is highly impressive here, effectively contrasting not only the four works’ tempos (Allegro non troppo, ma agitato; Adagio capriccioso; Vivace; and Andante lugubre) but also their home keys (G minor, F-sharp minor, C major, and E-flat minor). The second of these works actually has some Chopinesque flourishes that make for a fine contrast with the high drama of the first. The third piece, a surprisingly bright major-key work with distinctly jazzy piano elements and almost the sound of silent-movie music, is quite unlike the other three, and offers a good deal of uncomplicated-to-hear fun before the fourth and last work returns to a darker mood. That darkness only increases in Marinova’s performance on piano of Piazzolla’s Tango Rhapsody (Adiós Nonino), one of the composer’s best-known works – written for bandoneon after Piazzolla’s father’s death, and channeling pervasive melancholy throughout. This is a more intimate work than the four by  Dohnányi and not quite as effectively played here: Marinova does broad intensity better than quiet sorrow. Thus, she admirably surmounts the considerable technical challenges of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, producing a performance that is highly impressive technically although rather vapid emotionally (which, to be fair, is a not-uncommon way to handle this display piece). The CD concludes with the solo-piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is well-played but not particularly convincing: the work so intimately connects the keyboard with jazz orchestra (originally) or full orchestra (later) that the piano version always sounds rather pale. While Marinova has both power and delicacy when called for, she lacks a certain energetic jazziness, indeed tending to downplay the work’s jazz-derived elements and give it more of the flavor of a rhapsody of earlier times. Rhapsody in Blue is more innovative than it sounds here, and more striking instrumentally. There is plenty of very fine pianism on this disc, but the standout material comes at the beginning, in Dohnányi’s Four Rhapsodies.

     Still another Navona CD takes solo-piano communication well into the 21st century, courtesy of three works by Paul Paccione (born 1952). The disc includes two extended suites, Tapestry Studies (nine movements) and Book of Hours (eight), and then a brief encore called Unsent Letter. All the music was written for Jenny Perron, who performs it on this disc in readings that should probably be described as definitive. What is interesting is the contrast between Paccione’s distinctly contemporary approach to harmony and rhythm and his more old-fashioned, even Chopinesque, interest in musical structure and the continuing value of pianistic lyricism. Tapestry Studies is in some ways a set of études in Chopin’s manner, although much updated for some 180 years later. Each movement is a small character piece, sometimes a specific musical form (Habanera, March), sometimes a touch of a mood or activity (Eventide, Scribbling). There is greater delicacy and gentleness in the music than one would expect from piano works of the 21st century: the grand gestures of the rhapsodies played by Marinova are nowhere to be heard in these miniatures offered by Perron. The shortest movement, the 55-second Invention, actually looks all the way back to Bach, albeit with modern harmonic twists. Book of Hours is a very different kind of work. It updates the custom in the Middle Ages of reading specific prayers at eight designated hours of the day, with all the devotional material focusing on the Virgin Mary. Paccione follows the eight-prayer model and attaches each piece to a specified time of day. But the day indications are the only sense of progress here: the music itself is static, to such an extent that almost nothing seems to happen in any individual work or in the suite as a whole. Heartfelt and played meaningfully by Perron, Book of Hours may work for modern devotional purposes – or as background music – but offers very little to engage listeners. And the final work on the CD, Unsent Letter, continues in the same mood instead of offering a welcome (and much-needed) contrast to it. It is a quiet piece with the feeling of a nocturne, gently rocking and from time to time rather wistful – and it is also rather soporific, as indeed is Book of Hours. Paccione’s piano music on this disc is skillfully composed, and Perron plays it with understanding and even devotion, but it is only the études of Tapestry Studies that are likely to stay with most listeners and be found worthy of more than a single hearing.

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