Recordings of the Month: May 2022

Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES.

Revamping this monthly series, Pianodao now includes a headline Recording of the Month as well as selected other top choices.

Read on to find out about five new recordings of interest, with music by Mozart, Bach, jazz from Tord Gustavsen and Daniel Barenboim’s 80th birthday disc. But first…

Marina Staneva: Slavic Roots

My Recording of the Month for May 2022 is the Chandos debut of Young Steinway Artist, Bulgarian pianist Marina Staneva. And based on these performances of music by two of her compatriots, Staneva’s career is going to be one to follow closely.

photo: Presiyan Penkov

Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978) is Bulgaria’s most successful composer to date, and his work dominates the disc, beginning with his magnificent Variations pour piano sur un chant populaire bulgare Op. 3, a set of variations on a Bulgarian folksong.

This 25-minute monumental cycle proves to be virtuosic, supremely imaginative in its reworking of the thematic material, and ripely Romantic, belonging obviously to the post-Brahms world of Paderewski, Dohnányi and Rachmaninov. An early work of Vladigerov, it certainly reveals his extraordinary gift as a composer, and Staneva’s account is hugely persuasive.

Breaking up the larger works on the disc, Dobrinka Tabakova’s (b.1980) cunningly conceived Modétudes inhabit a more modernist world, a set of seven miniature studies based on the ancient modes that underpin Bulgarian folksong. Thematically linked, yet individual in tone, these short pieces glimmer with hints of Debussy and Bartók, their composer showing herself to also be an interesting voice to listen out for again.

Vladigerov reappears to close this recital; his marvellous Impressions Op. 9 date from 1920, and clocking in at 45 minutes they are the most substantial work of the recording. They reveal the composer indulging a lighter touch, their luscious harmonies and engaging melodies seeming to anticipate the music of the golden age of Hollywood.

The generous 83-minute disc was recorded and produced by Jonathan Cooper at Potton Hall in Suffolk in the summer of 2021. The piano sound is rich and full, as befits this repertoire, further enhancing the listening pleasure of what is a truly stunning debut.

Elisabeth Leonskaja: Mozart Sonatas

Having signed a new deal with Warner Classics, the wonderful Elisabeth Leonskaja has delivered what could prove to be a crowning achievement of her long-distinguished career: a stunning 6CD set of the complete Sonatas of Mozart.

Leonskaja delivers her survey chronologically, from the earliest Sonatas composed when Mozart was still a teenager through to the mature works. In keeping with tradition, the C minor Sonata K.457 is preceded by the bonus of the Fantasia in C minor K.475, performed here with consummate musicality and authority.

Leonskaja generally eschews period authenticity in favour of a rich and more modern pianistic approach. She sticks to the established text of K.331, and avoids added ornamentation in repeats. And yet she stays close to the essence of these extraordinary works, and imbues them with a particular joy and beauty.

Hers is surely not the only approach, or necessarily the most ”correct”, but I have absolutely no hesitation in hailing this keenly-priced box set as one of the finest recorded Mozart Sonata cycles I have heard, and one of the most life-affirming.

Essential listening for all who love this music, and those studying these works… not only so, but in these troubled times this release is truly a balm to the soul.

Eleonor Bindman: Bach Partitas

Bach’s Partitas are another central masterpiece of the repertoire (you can read all about them here), again frequently and stunningly recorded. American pianist Eleonor Bindman is the latest in a long line of Bach performers to commit the cycle to disc for this, her first recording with the Delos label.

Bindman’s approach, very sensibly, is to let this amazing music speak for itself. Opting for unhurried tempi, she approaches the dance movements with poise, her playing throughout the cycle an object lesson in perfectly balanced voicing and articulation.

In my review of her last Bach recording I hailed Bindman as delivering,

“Bach playing of the highest order.”

With these model interpretations she does so again here, and though in this repertoire she faces stiffer competition, these intimately recorded and musically convincing performances strike just the right balance between familiarity and revelation. A superb release.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Opening

Here’s a treat for fans of this ambient jazz explorer…

It has been nearly two decades since Tord Gustavsen’s distinctive ECM debut disc, and his ninth recording for the pioneering label sees the return of his successful Trio formation, now with new member Siteinar Raknes on double bass and electronics.

Gustavsen’s quietly euphoric muse is so immediately identifiable that it is becoming more difficult to distinguish his recordings, much as I adored his last album, 2018’s The Other Side (read my review here).

That said, Raknes adds a new and truly wonderful dimension to this recording, his melodic bass soaring in counterpoint with Gustavsen’s ever-engaging piano lines, while always leaving space for the percussive excursions of regular drummer Jarle Vespestad.

Together they take a fresh foray into Gustavsen’s now-familiar territory: Nordic hymnody rubbing shoulders with rapt atmospheric landscapes, comfortable ballads and introspective searching.

Whether you are new to Gustavsen’s music or ready for more, here it is, and well worth the wait. Marvellous!

Daniel Barenboim: Encores

Maestro Daniel Barenboim celebrates his 80th birthday this year, and while his piano playing has been an ever-present accompaniment to my musical journey I have to admit having a special fondness for his recent recordings, the latest of which is this celebratory disc of favourite encores.

The programme could double for a ”piano greatest hits” collection, and most of these pieces make regular appearances in my teaching work with pianists at Grade 8 and ARSM level.

The well-worn Albéniz Tango, Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Liszt’s evergreen Consolation in D flat are all here, joined by a comforting (for the most part) selection of Schubert, Schumann and Chopin. Barenboim typically lavishes these polished gems with equal measures of love and restraint, the warmth of his playing underpinned by superb recorded sound.

Whether a student or parent contemplating where to start your piano listening journey, a teacher seeking benchmark recordings of these popular pieces, or a seasoned Barenboim fan updating your collection, this album is quite simply an irresistible winner. Encore!

Recent Recordings of the Month here on Pianodao:

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.