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Piano virtuoso Lisa Smirnova's masterful interpretations of early Handel.

Music Review: Lisa Smirnova, G.F. Handel – Die Acht Grossen Suiten (The Eight Suites Great Suites)

The term “prodigy” is one which is so over-used, it has become almost meaningless. Yet I cannot think of a more apt description for a pianist who made her United States debut in no less a venue than Carnegie Hall – at the age of 20. Lisa Smirnova is her name, and her new ECM Records release is Die Acht Grossen Suiten (The Eight Suites Great Suites).

The Suites were composed by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), and though not as famous as some of his other works, are nonetheless absolutely beautiful in their virtuosity. Handel is probably best known for his Messiah, and Water Music Suite. He was an extremely prolific composer though, and there is much, much more to his legacy than those very recognizable pieces. The Eight Suites is a perfect example.

Lisa Smirnova’s recording may help to popularize the Suites a bit. One of the difficulties I have had in educating myself about classical music has been the challenge of simply where to begin. There are so many different versions of famous compositions in existence, that it becomes almost overwhelming when trying to choose the “best” edition. I have come to trust the ear of Manfred Eicher (founder of ECM) a great deal. With that in mind, I decided that Lisa Smirnova’s renditions of The Eight Suites might be worth looking into.

Thankfully, Mr. Eicher’s instincts were correct. As previously noted, it can be a challenge to just guess at which performer’s version of a given piece will be most appealing. Even though the compositions themselves do not vary, the ability of the artist at hand can make a huge difference.

What I found in listening to Lisa Smirnova’s playing is a technical virtuosity, combined with a very obvious “feel” for the nuances of each of the suites. This may stem from the fact that she began working on the project some five years ago, back in 2007. She not only gained a masterful understanding of every note, but with that intimate knowledge, has been able to add her own personality to the music as well.

For this non-musician, the distinction is crucial. It moves what are truly imaginative, and very inviting suites of music into a whole other realm. While it is not my intention to compare Lisa Smirnova’s version of The Eight Suites to the literally hundreds of other recordings of them available – I must say that her interpretations are outstanding.

The packaging of this release is also worthy of note. I have been a long time fan of the ECM label, as much for the quality of the music, as for the manner in which it is presented. Die Acht Grossen Suiten certainly lives up to ECM’s reputation for paying as much attention to the supplements as to the music itself. Not only are there highly informative liner notes, but there are also facsimiles of Handel’s original, hand-written compositions included. I found these original hand-written pages, which are nearly 300 years old – to be an extraordinarily inspired touch.

Lisa Smirnova’s Die Acht Grossen Suiten is set for release on January 24, 2012. In every way, it is a marvelous way for ECM to ring in the new year.

About Greg Barbrick

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