I invite you to read the marvelous Music Review Column by Phil Muse, the long-standing reviewer for the Audio-Video Club of Atlanta. Phil has invited me to take over his role as reviewer for the AVCOA, starting in November, and as such, I have written to sample reviews for his August column, which I am re-posting here, by mutual agreement!
I hope you enjoy reading these reviews and listening to these newly released CD's!
“Colors,” music of Vitali, Janáček, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Debussy – Jessica Lee, violin; Reiko Uchida, piano (Azica Records)
The new CD, Colors, by violinist Jessica Lee with pianist Reiko Uchida, lives up to its name in every sense of the word. While it is common to associate musical sounds (frequency of vibrations) with color (frequency of light), in this CD one gets more than just color – there seems to be a dramatic sense of exoticism and prayer-like reflection which transports the listener to distant places and times.
In the Vitali Chaconne, one is immediately stuck by the sheer beauty of Ms. Lee‟s violin tone, a rich vibrato enhanced by the excellent recording quality and superbly balanced by thoughtful and supportive piano playing by Ms. Uchida. This work, like a set of variations, allows the violinist to demonstrate a variety of technique, but maintains a lyrical quality throughout.
The Sonata by Leos Janáček is a four-movement work which displays even more color from both instruments – shimmering piano figuration in the second movement Ballade and fourth movement Adagio, with the exotic harmonies and the most sensuous, smooth-as-silk double stops I have heard in the third movement Allegretto, allowing the listener to be transported to another world. The fourth movement is prayer-like and reflective, opening with the piano providing a lyrical, choral-styled theme with the violin interjecting some impetuous motivic fragments, which provide a contrast to the sense of calm, only later to be joined later by a more lyrical outpouring from the violin.
Prokofieff‟s Five Melodies, transcribed from actual songs he wrote, provides more opportunities for Ms. Lee‟s display of gorgeous tone and sensuous lyricism, beautifully matched by the sensitive phrasing and lovely tone in Ms. Uchida‟s pianism.
The Beethoven Sonata No. 6 for Piano and Violin continues in the lyrical vein of the previous works – albeit this work comes strangely out of the chronological order one might expect. But it is a welcome stylistic contast at this point in the CD, after the Janacek and Prokofieff, and yet oddly enough, it provides the same lyrical sensibilities of the previous works. The slow movement is performed in a loving and heartfelt manner, while the third-movement variations offer up the charm of the early Beethoven, also with the emphasis on lyricism and increased virtuosity in the piano part writing, performed expertly by Ms. Uchida. This is not a particularly dramatic or vituosic collection of violin and piano repertoire, but it shows off both musicians in a highly satisfying way. For example, the violin‟s high harmonics at the end of the fifth of the Prokofieff Melodies are played pristinely by Ms. Lee, and certainly require a musical and technical expertise of the highest caliber. The ensemble of Lee and Uchida is precise and intuitve. Their sounds are well matched and blended, and their interpretation of the works on this CD is entirely unified. Ms. Lee‟s violin tone and phrasing are extraordinarily beautiful, with a vibrato that is warm, full of color, and appropriately applied in each work. On a scale of pure listening beauty, I would give this CD a “10” for the exquisite tone, musicality, and sensitivity offered by both musicians. Keep in mind that the choice of repertoire on this CD does not provide opportunities for brilliant displays or electrifying performances, but it can be a nice compliment to a romantic candlelight dinner or a quiet and relaxing Sunday afternoon.
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 7 D. 568
Four Impromptus Op. 142 D. 935
Janina Fialkowksa, piano (ATMA Classique)
From the very first track of this extraordinary disc, one immediately senses the sound and interpretative qualities of a great artist- this being the 65 year old Canadian Pianist, Janina Fialkowska. The sound quality of the recording is clear and pure, but what strikes one most is the delicacy of touch and articulation, along with gorgeous phrasing that Fialkowska brings to this music of Schubert. Her playing and interpretation is primarily characterized by elegance and great attention to detail. Every phrase is carefully shaped and nuanced, balanced perfectly between both hands, and between the lyrical melodies and the occasional virtuosic passage work which come off effortlessly. This is Schubert playing of the highest order and a CD which is a must-have for any piano aficionado.
Schubert‟s Sonata No. 7 opens the CD. The first movement is an Allegro moderato, taken at just the right tempo with all the touches of grace and lyricism one would expect from Schubert, but also with some lovely flashes of virtuosity, handled unflinchingly well by Ms. Fialkowska. The second movement, Andante molto, opens with a phrase which foreshadows the first movement of Schubert‟s own Arpeggione Sonata, and then features a more dramatic contrasting section in which Fialkowska displays a little more muscle. In this movement, I completely appreciate the appropriate use of pedaling for color and sound, without the over-sonorous and muddy sound that some pianists might favor. The Menuetto is full of charm and grace, with short question-answer phrases, imbued with real sense of conversation by Ms. Fialkowska. The final movement also displays a lovely dance-like character and unusual harmonic colors, while retaining some Mozartian and at times Chopinesque qualities. It makes one wonder if Fialkowska, being a well-known Chopin interpreter, brings this special quality to all her playing - hence favoring, as the liner notes suggest, her affinity for performing works of Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Grieg.
The Impromptus which follow are performed in a similar vein, with great attention to detail and the rare ability to play the piano convincingly at both ends of the
dynamic spectrum from pianissimo to fortissimo without resorting to harshness in tone or lacking in color or variety. Fialkowska‟s tone is always gorgeous, shimmery, bright when needed, and more full bodied when the music calls for it, though not as bold in sound as some other performers. This is indeed a very sophisticated performance, displaying great sensitivity and emotion.
The first Impromptu in F minor displays more outbursts and drama than in any of the sonata movements, while also possessing some of the most tender moments. Schubert employs much of the same techniques that Beethoven does when repeating musical material, always adding something new or varied to heighten the interest. While Schubert has often been criticized for being somewhat repetitive, one does not sense this at all while listening to Fialkowska‟s performance. The music holds one‟s interest from start to finish.
The second Impromptu in A-flat could have sounded a bit fuller bodied in the opening chords, and louder and more forceful forte chords would have been more characteristic of the dramatic impulse that Schubert was trying to achieve. There also could have been more weight to the shorter-valued notes, to provide a better sense of repose, while giving more weight to the inner voices of the chords would make for a more “choral” sound and less of the French- Chopinesque melody-dominant sound, which isn‟t quite as appropriate for this Impromptu as it is for the B-flat Impromptu which follows. Aside from this minor criticism, it is still a beautiful rendition of one of the more popular of these Impromptus.
Based on my impressions of this CD, I will definitely be listening to more of Fialkowska‟s performances and hope to hear her perform live someday. This Schubert performance compares favorably with those of Maria Joao Pires, but is of a completely different sound and style. While Pires offers more dynamic contrasts and a bolder sound with more reverb on her Deutsche Gramophone CD, there is a special tenderness and intimacy in this recording which is quite special. Strongly Recommended!