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Music Review: Susan Chan, Irina Feoktistova, Sally Pinkas, and Ann Schein – Music For Classical Piano

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The piano features in today’s foray into the classical music world as we explore four excellent releases from the MSR Classic label. Each recording boasts performances of the highest possible quality from some of the world’s leading pianists, Susan Chan, Irina Feoktistova, Sally Pinkas, and Ann Schein.

East West Encounter, Volume 1 – Susan Chan (MSR 1245)
This release represents the first in a series intended to offer programmes of contrasting works drawn from Eastern and Western schools of classical music. East West Encounter, Volume 1 features solo pianist Susan Chan.

For Volume 1 of the series Susan Chan has chosen to open with a piece from the East, “Cherishing Thoughts Of Red Cliff”. It was written in 1984 by Ning-Chi Chen (b. 1940) and is set amid an ancient battlefield inspired by the Sung Dynasty poem of the same name. It’s a highly expressive piece that captures the atmosphere of the poem set within the wonders of the Chinese landscape.

Alexina Louie (b. 1949) provides the second powerful Eastern piece, “Warrior”, taken from “Scenes From A Jade Terrace”. Written in 1988 it depicts the ghost of an ancient Chinese warrior amid a musical fusion of East-West styles. Its unmistakable Oriental scales add further colour to an intriguing piece.

Susan Chan goes west for her next selection, Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90”. Written in 1814 it is a piece consisting of two movements portraying the love affair between the composer’s friend, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky, and the singer-actress Josefa Stummer. Beethoven said of the first movement that it is a ‘battle of head versus heart’, whilst the second is ‘a conversation with the beloved’.

“Mephisto Waltz No. 1” by Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was originally written for orchestra but was later transcribed for piano by him in 1881. It is based on part of the Faust legend, “The Dance Of The Village Inn”, portrayed by the poet Nicholas Lenau. The amorous Faust engages a village beauty in a wild and passionate dance.

“Prelude, Fugue Et Variation, Op. 18) by Cesar Franck (1822-1890) follows next. This beautiful piece, which for me is one of the undoubted highlights of this selection, was written around 1862 when Franck was the organist of the church of Sainte-Clotilde in Paris. Delicately textured, and wonderfully sensual, it is awash with a shimmering spirituality.

Lastly, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) appears courtesy of his “Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58”. The piece, in four movements, dates from 1844 and is, in fact, Chopin’s last piano sonata. It is utterly captivating in every conceivable way and leads towards its triumphantly majestic conclusion, a finale which is further enhanced by a faultless performance from Susan Chan.

Poems & Fairy Tales, The Piano Music of Medtner & Scriabin – Irina Feoktistova (MSR 1326)
Russian pianist Irina Feoktistova’s exploration of the piano music of Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) has resulted in the release of a new CD entitled, Poems & Fairy Tales. Both of these Russian composers are renowned for their complex use of harmonies and rich tonal quality within their various compositions.

The collection opens with Irina’s performance of Medtner’s “Fairy Tale In B-Flat Minor, Op. 20 No. 1”. This is followed by his “Sonata-Reminiscenza, Op. 38, No. 1”. Both reveal a complexity of composition that is expertly performed by Ms. Feoktistova. Medtner wrote almost exclusively for the piano and was considered second only to Rachmaninov who dedicated his “Fourth Piano Concerto” to him.

His work was admired by the greatest of Russian pianists including Gilels, Richter, and Istomin. Another, Vladimir Horowitz, stated that Medtner’s piano compositions were, ‘in some ways deeper than Rachmaninov’s’. Certainly, Irina’s twelve minute performance of his melodic and poetic “Sonata-Reminiscenza” contains a deeply nostalgic, and atmospheric beauty.

Alexander Scriabin supplies the brief yet highly satisfying “Etude In C-Minor, Op. 2, No. 1). Also performed are “Eight Preludes, Op. 11” in various keys, “Etude In D-Sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12”, Prelude In A Major, Op. 8, No. 12”, “Two Poems, Op. 32”, “Album Leaf In E-Flat, Op. 45, No. 1, and finally “Poem, ‘Vers la Flamme’, Op. 72”.

Scriabin is often referred to as one of the most controversial composers of his time. In spite of this his work has subsequently influenced many composers and performers and was described by Leo Tolstoy as, ‘a sincere expression of genius’. He wrote almost exclusively for the piano, an instrument on which he was an undoubted master.

He was prepared to push back technical boundaries making his work demanding yet ultimately satisfying to perform. His short life saw a rapid development of style and progression. His poems, Op. 32, and Op. 72, both included here, represent a major shift from his earlier Chopin influence.

Irina Feoktistova more than rises to the many technical challenges laid down by Scriabin on this excellent album.

Robert Schuman – Sally Pinkas (MSR 1323)

Israeli born Sally Pinkas performs compositions by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) for this, her latest album. Schumann’s musical style can be seen as being highly influenced by his predecessors Beethoven and Schubert. However, the pianoforte had by now developed and allowed Schumann to further explore the richer sound that had become available. The result sees many ambitious compositions that managed to create near orchestral atmospheres.

His writing represents a technical challenge to even the most accomplished pianists. Sally’s own album notes for this collection explain, ‘the emotionally charged content of Schumann’s music required the performer to reach beyond the technical, and into the spiritual realm’.

The collection opens with the five movements that comprise the energetic piece “Faschingsschwank Aus Wien, Fantasiebilder, Op. 26”, written in 1839. In many ways it is somewhat representative of the emotional upheaval that Schumann was experiencing during his late twenties. Translated as “Carnival Prank From Vienna” the first movement of the work is unusually long and includes a quote from the "Marseillaise" within its many alternating themes.

The following three movements are surprisingly short in comparison. The melancholic “Romanze”, leads towards the intricate “Scherzino”, and finally the stormy “Intermezzo”. Of the finale the album notes, written by the artist herself, inform us that the piece is somewhat unusual in its construction. She says, 'the harmonic structure design of the finale is in sonata form, suggesting a reversed large scale sonata structure for the entire cycle, starting with the rondo and ending with the sonata, instead of the other way around’.

Next she performs “Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, op. 11”. Written in Leipzig over a period of four years it signifies a time when Schumann met and fell in love with Clara Wieck. This is, in fact, the first of only three pieces that he wrote for the piano. Vast in scale and epic in ambition the eleven minute “Finale” represents a major technical challenge for any pianist. It is one that Sally Pinkas rises to expertly.

The nine part cycle “Waldszenen”, or "Forest Scenes", completes this beautifully performed album. It was written in Dusseldorf during what was Schumann’s last productive period (1848-1849). The composition represents a journey into a deep and mysterious forest. The musical contradictions contained within are totally absorbing as each section unfolds and takes us further along the path leading into the magical wood.

For this Sally Pinkas adds, ‘Schumann weaves an intangible web of nostalgic reminiscences in Waldszenen, whose striking aspect lies in its juxtaposition of the heartfelt and the obscure.’

Please also see my earlier review of a previous release featuring Sally Pinkas.

Carter, Copland & Patitucci – Ann Schein (MSR 1321)
Ann Schein’s latest release sees her paying homage to American composer Elliott Carter, who reached the grand old age of 100 in December 2008. For this she performs his wonderful "Piano Sonata" in two movements which was written between 1945-1946.

Ann has personally known Carter for many years and has a deep love, admiration, and understanding of his work. Their relationship is a story very well told by her within the album's cover notes.

Also included on this release is the remarkable “Piano Variations” written by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) in 1930. Of this piece Leonard Bernstein, who played it passionately throughout his life, said that he found ‘prophetic statement and reflective meditation in all of Copland’s music’. Certainly, the striking opening consisting of the impression of a single spoken voice, represented a unique departure at the time.

The four note theme brings the work to a powerful and memorable conclusion. It is widely considered to be something of a breakthrough work that despite its clear economy radiates a mesmerising power. Here it is performed in a way that doubtless would have delighted Copland himself.

Also performed by both Ann and her husband, the violinist Earl Carlyss, is Copland’s “Sonata For Violin And Piano”. This was written much later in 1943. It is a largely pastoral piece in comparison and is beautifully performed here by both musicians. These are the kind of neighbours you would really like to hear playing late at night.

Lastly, Ann Schein performs “Lakes” by the renowned jazz musician John Patitucci. It is a piece that was written and dedicated to Ann herself in 2007. Inspired by the Lake District in Northern England it captures something not only of the area but also the other people that have drawn inspiration from it. Included in this observation are poets such as Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.

Patitucci captures the flowing of water, the beauty of the area, and the drama of its landscape. Of this piece, which closes the collection, Ann says, ‘I am honoured and thrilled to include it in this album’. Meanwhile John adds, ‘I gave Ann a piece that provided an open space for her to express her wide spectrum of colours and moods from virtuosic to lyrical, pensive to visceral. I am honoured that she has connected with this piece in such a powerful way and made it her own’.

The above albums expertly capture recordings of pianists at the very pinnacle of performance. Included within the selections are pieces that are immensely challenging and demanding that only the most accomplished could hope to do justice to.

MSR Classics have a wealth of material available and a visit to their website is highly encouraged.

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