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à la russe - Alexandre Kantorow plays music by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky & Tchaikovsky

à la russe - Alexandre Kantorow plays music by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky & Tchaikovsky

BIS  BIS-2150

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 1
Tchaikovsky: Méditation and Passé lointain from 18 Morceaux, Op. 72, Scherzo a la russe, Op. 1 No. 1
Igor Stravinsky: Danse infernale, Berceuse & Finale from L’Oiseau de feu (transcr. Guido Agosti)
Mily Balakirev: Islamey, Op. 18

Alexandre Kantorow (piano)


Alexandre Kantorow released his first disc for BIS in 2016, performing Liszt’s piano concertos to critical acclaim: ‘I’m here to tell you that Alexandre Kantorow is Liszt reincarnated’ wrote one impressed reviewer, in Fanfare Magazine. Not yet 20 years old, the French pianist and son of violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow now explores his Russian roots, in a recital that opens with Rachmaninov’s weighty First Piano Sonata, inspired by Goethe’s play Faust, and its three main characters, the scholar Faust, his beloved Gretchen and Mephistopheles, the Devil’s emissary. The nostalgic intimacy of Méditation and Passé lointain, from Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection, offers respite from the drama, but tension returns with Guido Agosti’s virtuosic piano arrangement of three extracts from Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Kantorow closes his Russian recital with Mily Balakirev’s ‘oriental fantasy’ Islamey, one of the iconic works of the piano literature. Fiendishly difficult, the piece famously inspired Ravel to write something that would be even harder to play (his Gaspard de la nuit). A committed Russian nationalist, Balakirev himself found the inspiration for Islamey during a journey to the Caucasus when he was introduced to the local music tradition.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 26, 2017

Rachmaninov’s first piano sonata clearly is the main item here and whilst I’m not a strong believer of the wisdom to comparing timings, I noticed in the versions at my disposal such a remarkable difference that it made me curious. Compared with the other High Resolution recording listed (Mustonen, Ondine) they may be not all that big (15:16, 9:29, 14:01 for Kantorow and 12:37, 8:52, 13:46 for Mustonen), But in comparison with the Russian pianist, Alexis Weissenberg, who recorded it for DGG (DG 427 499-2) way back in 1986 the difference is huge: 10:16, 6:54, 11:35! What has happened? Big question, simple answer: Rachmaninov revised his first sonata extensively (1931) stripping it from repeats and overelaborated passages. This is the version Weissenberg used; with Kantorow we get the full works.

But there is more. The first sonata’s construction in its original score is so terribly complicated - probably one of the reasons why its popularity lags behind that of the second and even other piano compositions of lesser stature - that only pianists with superior technical competence and, even more important, sufficient structural insight to keep it afloat, seem to be able to get it across to the listener in a coherent shape that makes sense.

Although Rachmaninov refrained from revealing its programme, correspondence suggest that the idea behind the sonata is based on Goethe’s Faust, with three different personalities hiding in the three movements. Hence, the music is as devilish as it sounds. The liner notes written by Claude-Henri Joubert are most informative and my advice is to consult them before listening. Be prepared to join the soloist in an unsettling, breathtaking experience, so convincingly carried out and, for me an absolute plus, without becoming a mere ‘key banger’; sensitive emotion running all along his interpretation.

This is Kantorow’s second BIS release, and those having heard Kantorow play Liszt’s piano concerti (with his father directing the Tapiola sinfonietta) (Liszt: Piano Concertos - Alexandre & Jean-Jacques Kantorow) will agree that he at 17 is already a phenomenal talent. In Rachmaninov, too, nothing seems to be impossible. He carries the audience through an often abysmal Faust reincarnating first movement into the second, where Gretchen is elegantly depicted in refined, ornamental passage work. This subjective relief only lasts less than ten minutes, but is nonetheless long enough to rearm the passion for the final, Mephistopheles movement, during which Kantorow has to administer all his talent to keep it, together with incorporated elements of the first movement, under tight control in Rachmaninov’s ultimate, drawn-out virtuoso structure. Simply fascinating!

In his rendition of the same sonata, Mustonen allows the listener to recoup breath & soul with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Seasons’. Kantorow walks a similar path with two lovely and passionately played ‘Morceaux’ Op. 72, No. V ‘Meditation’ and No. XVII ‘Passé Lointain’, before entering into Guido Agosti’s transcription from ‘L’Oiseau de feu’ by Igor Stravinsky. To be quite honest, I prefer the real thing; the orchestral version. But I must admit that in the powerful & gripping hands of Kantorow it becomes surprisingly bearable and certainly worth one’s while. The more so, because Agosti has managed to integrate the diversity of orchestral colours into the piano score.

Kantorow adds two interesting bonuses: Tchaikovsky’s Opus 1 No. 1 ‘Scherzo à la russe’, based on a Ukrainian folk tune, and part of his first published work: Two Pieces for Piano, Op. 1. The other one is Balakirev’s ‘Islamey’ well-known oriental phantasy written for fidgety Russian virtuoso fingers, like those of Alexandre Kantorow.

As far as I have been able to establish, Kantorow has, apart from assorted mini contests at the age of 12-14 or thereabouts, never chosen to participate in a major piano concours (Reine Elizabeth, Tchaikovsky) to get his star advertised. In an interview with ‘Piano Bleu’, a French site for piano lovers, he said envisaging to do so eventually. But will he, after this second release? Some famous musicians never participated in any of those potentially risky make or break events.

Let me end with a bit of gossip for the francophone community, copied from Piano bleu (text Vincent Bourre): « Je me souviens après avoir vu l’épisode de Tom et Jerry, où Tom joue la Seconde Rhapsodie de Liszt, et avoir demandé Papa de me faire une réduction de la première page pour mes petits mains ». Being only three years old, doesn’t that say it all?

The best I can sound wise say is that I listened to a well-tuned, realistically recorded concert grand, including some minor mechanical foot pedal (?) noise, taken in a French studio at Ivry-sur-Seine, with Jens Braun (Take5 Music Production) at the audio workstation. Another job well done!

Blangy-le-Château,
Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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The download on which this review is based was provided by eClassical.