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The summer is a slower time for new releases, offering a good opportunity to explore beyond the more obvious to discover hidden gems.
First, for this month’s Recording of the Month, I have been blown away by a truly stunning debut recording on Warner Classics …
Yoav Levanon • A Monument to Beethoven
Signed to Warner Classics at just 17, Israeli-French pianist Yoav Levanon’s first release celebrates the donors who made it possible to build the famous bronze monument to Beethoven in Bonn: Liszt, Schumann, Chopin and Mendelssohn each wrote works whose proceeds would go towards financing this statue, inaugurated in 1845 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
In selecting Liszt’s Sonata in B minor to open his debut disc, Levanon copies an audacious move of Yuja Wang (her 2009 debut disc is here); his playing here is certainly no less astonishing. Clocking in at under 30 minutes, Levanon’s is also one of the faster performances of this work on disc.
Levanon’s playing here is almost fantastical in its deft virtuosity and uncanny precision; while the slower passages might have benefitted from a more poetic approach, the interpretation never lacks sensitivity. This is a compelling and convincing reading, the more remarkable for the player’s youth.
The disc continues from strength to strength, with impressive performances of Chopin’s posthumously published Prelude in C sharp, No.25, Op.45 and Mendelssohn’s austere Variations Sérieuses in D minor Op.54. These lead to a still more convincing interpretation of Schumann’s Fantasie in C, Op.17, in which every expressive nuance is given space without any hint of indulgence.
In each and all of these works, Levanon displays a tremendous grasp of compositional architecture, delivering mature interpretations that must now rank among the highlights of the recorded catalogue. To cap it all, he concludes with a dazzling encore: Liszt’s La Campanella.
The recording combines crisp clarity with warmth, allowing every detail of Levanon’s extraordinary playing to sparkle while giving these Romantic works a ravishing glow.
On the evidence of A Monument to Beethoven, Levanon is a remarkable talent indeed. It will be exciting to see how he follows so stunning a debut.
Martina Frezzotti • Fanny Mendelssohn
Those missing the music of Fanny Mendelssohn on Levanon’s disc can turn with confidence to the new recording by Italian pianist Martina Frezzotti, recently released on the ever-enterprising Piano Classics label.
One of the most prolific female composers of the 19th century, Fanny was also a pianist of rare talent and prodigious memory who dazzled private audiences at her concert series in her Berlin home.
From her significant body of music, the most substantial work here is Das Jahr H.385, a cycle of 13 pieces (composed in 1841) which foreshadows Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons (1876). Like the latter, Mendelssohn offers one characteristic piece for each month of the year, concluding with a valedictory Postlude: Choral, the entire opus lasting just under 50 minutes.
Completing the disc, Frezzotti presents two Nocturnes and the Introduction and Capriccio in B minor, H.349. The former are works of melodic beauty, the latter offering a showcase to Frezzotti’s considerable virtuosity.
Obvious influences in Fanny Mendelssohn’s music include Beethoven, Schumann, Field and her younger brother Felix, but this isn’t to overlook the originality of this music, which is at times startling in its personality.
Frezzotti proves a brilliant advocate for these pieces in this recording, combining a poetic sensibility with the necessary weight and flair to showcase the more dazzling elements of Mendelssohn’s piano writing. The recording is bright, reverberant and luminous.
To summarise, this is an album that will delight those wanting to discover more of this neglected composer’s music. Indeed, it left me wanting to hear more from both the composer and from Frezzotti.
Zlata Chochieva • Chiaroscuro
I have previously quoted from this pianist’s interview in International Piano, March 2015, in which she stated:
“At one time I was playing in competitions almost every year… But then I stopped about three or four years ago. I couldn’t find any reason to play in competitions any more. If you have brave ideas, the competition world doesn’t work.”
For a sense of what “brave ideas” look like, witness this release…
The title Chiaroscuro refers to a technique of contrasting light and shade in drawing or painting; here, Chochieva juxtaposes the solo keyboard music of Mozart and Scriabin to dazzling effect. Whether the one sheds light on the shade of the other hardly matters when the pianism and musicality are of such an extraordinarily high order.
Chochieva’s Mozart playing has elegance and élan aplenty, her gracious sense of phrasing matched by sparkling passage work in the faster variations on melodies by Duport and Gluck. The closing Gigue is an audacious piece, and on streaming services there is a bonus track, the much-played Fantasie in D minor, here mercifully presented without the gimmicks that some others have recently tried.
Casting a dark shadow between these classical gems, Scriabin’s Op.15 Préludes and Sonatas nos. 3 and 10 speak with a malevolence that might otherwise be missed. Chonchieva plays with weight and emotional intelligence, but is still able to make the virtuosic passages of the tenth Sonata take flight.
This is a tremendous and revelatory disc.
Joep Beving • Hermetism
If Ludovico Einadi wanted his latest release to sound as though recorded Underwater (read more), then Dutch pianist Joep Beving’s latest seems to have been recorded at the bottom of the ocean. If the felt piano is your bag, Beving has certainly set the highest bar.
Beving was forced to drop out of a classical conservatoire training due to a wrist injury, since when he has successfully pivoted to composing and performing his own atmospheric material, all the while cultivating an image that screams “windswept and interesting”.
Described by the composer as his ”own medicine for the pandemic”, the pieces on Hermetism are apparently inspired by the ancient spiritual writings of legendary Greek philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. The twelve tracks have distinctive, evocative titles, and an enhanced version includes a second disc on which the composer gives commentaries on each piece.
Get beyond the self-consciously muffled sound, and these are compositions of undeniable and exquisite beauty. Beving’s classical heritage speaks clearly through his music, which eloquently combines Einaudi’s more commercial approach with the melodic beauty and harmonic inflection of piano music from previous generations. The results are as haunting as they are uplifting.
These pieces would eminently suit late intermediate to early advanced players; let’s hope for a sheet music collection. In the meantime though, fire up the wood burner, sit back and enjoy…
Tigran Hamasyan • StandArt
A solo concert by Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan at The Stables a little more than a decade ago stands out as one of the more memorable piano recitals that I have attended. Since then I have taken much interest in his rather eclectic (and occasionally patchy) album releases, which have made common ground of Hamasyan’s unique approach to fusing the folk music of his homeland with the idioms of jazz.
His latest release, available on the Nonesuch label, is StandArt, a set of established jazz standards for which Hamasyan is joined by his now-regular rhythm section of Matt Brewer (bass), Justin Brown (drums), and special guests Joshua Redman, Mark Turner (saxophones) and Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet).
Hamasyan is as restlessly experimental as ever, and his cohorts provide an engaging foil that compliments his unique approach. Here we find the artist on top form; not only so, but developing these nine effervescent improvisations around established melodic material permits listeners an accessible framework within which to enjoy his unique pianism.
Modern jazz at its most joyous!
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