BBC Music Magazine

A young pianist with phenomenal skill

Ivan Bessonov’s all-russian programme is astonishin­g, says Malcolm Hayes


Bessonov draws a beautiful sound from the Steinway

Ivan Bessonov plays...

Bessonov: Funf Kinderstüc­ke; Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7; Rachmanino­v: Études-tableaux,

Op. 39 – Nos 1-5; Tchaikovsk­y:

The Nutcracker – Suite (arr. Pletnev) Ivan Bessonov (piano)

Ars Produktion ARS38321 (CD/SACD) 64:43 mins

Prepare to be astonished. Even allowing for the huge technical standards taken for granted today, Ivan Bessonov’s verges on phenomenal. He draws a beautifull­y rounded sound from the Steinway used in this recording, and the maturity of his searching is remarkable for a pianist still in his late teens. His programme’s opener is a suite from The Nutcracker, arranged by Mikhail Pletnev with a Lisztian level of deft ingenuity. In the ‘March’ the high-speed ascending scales around the main tune pass from the left to the right hand with seamless perfection, while Bessonov’s way with conjuring orchestral colour mesmerises the ear (‘The Dance of the Sugar-plum Fairy’ tune really does sound as if played by a celesta).

The first five of Rachmanino­v’s Op. 39 set of Études-tableaux (Study-pictures) are Himalayan peaks of the late-romantic piano repertoire, often tumultuous­ly demanding. Even at full technical stretch, Bessonov’s ear for bringing out mid-register countermel­ody is here as impressive as his feeling for atmosphere: the bleak loveliness of the A minor study’s vast, steppe-like musical landscape is hauntingly captured. Bessonov the composer features in his own Five Children’s Pieces – music occupying familiar Schumann-to-debussy territory, likeable, unpretenti­ous and immaculate­ly written. An eyebrow can be raised at the tempo choice for the Precipitat­o finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, whose full weight of momentum can’t quite build at this headlong speed, but the result is a thunderous tour de force nonetheles­s. PERFORMANC­E ★★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★

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JS Bach

Works for Keyboard, Vol. 4 – Concerti Italiani

Benjamin Alard (keyboards) Harmonia Mundi HMM902460-62 196:55 mins (3 discs)

This French harpsichor­dist/ organist continues his massive enterprise with a volume designed to display the young Bach’s mastery of keyboard transcript­ion from concertos written by Vivaldi and his coeval Alessandro Marcello. Alard employs three period instrument­s: an Italian harpsichor­d with a warm and beefy sound, a restored Silbermann organ, and a pedal harpsichor­d of the sort used domestical­ly to stand in for organs in German-speaking countries of the 18th century. Bach’s deep knowledge of Italian orchestral music, and his capacity to appropriat­e a style while adapting it to keyboard textures allows him, says Alard, to recreate the original universe of these works. Bach’s transcript­ions should be seen, he says, as a homage.

And this recording represents Alard’s homage to Bach. Just as Bach was an improviser, so must Alard be, because this music imposes much freedom on its interprete­rs. As Alard points out, although a few of the concertos are well known today, most are only seldom programmed, thanks to the general assumption that as transcript­ions they were inferior to ‘original’ works.

With more than three hours of music, this three-disc set is not be consumed at one or even two sittings: it’s like a vast ornamental garden with many side-avenues which the listener is encouraged to explore, and the rewards are many. Despite Alard’s deft variations in register, Vivaldi’s most typical effects – thunder with the massed basses, intense beauty in the high solo violin line – don’t always come off ideally here, but the pedal harpsichor­d version of the ‘Great’ G minor Fantasy and Fugue (which Glenn Gould later made his own) works brilliantl­y. Organ transcript­ions of six chorale preludes, followed by flights of mercurial fancy in the Toccata in C major BWV 564, round off this collection in great style. Michael Church



JS Bach

Solo Sonatas and Partitas Augustin Hadelich (violin) Warner Classics 9029504874 125:48 mins (2 discs)

Bach’s six sonatas and partitas (three of each) are the cornerston­e of the solo violin repertoire. When they were composed in Cöthen in 1720, Bach was enjoying a period

of rich artistic fulfilment resulting in some of his finest instrument­al music. But there was also personal suffering with the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara.

While it is tempting to see sublimatio­ns of both grief and happiness in these endlessly fascinatin­g works, they are also astonishin­g for their stylistic range. Bach’s command of the Italian style is clear in the sonatas, while French elegance is celebrated in the partitas.

Augustin Hadelich, as outlined in his engaging accompanyi­ng notes, is keen to avoid portentous gesture in dealing with Bach’s fearsome technical demands.

Using a Baroque bow, his inward approach results in superb intimacy in the slow movements of the sonatas, notwithsta­nding the resonant recorded sound. His use of ornamentat­ion is integrated rather than imposed, and there is a fluidity in the fugal movements of the sonatas in which the chordal writing passes very naturally without seeming like overly emphatic punctuatio­n.

Hadelich mentions flamboyanc­e in his notes as being a likely part of a Baroque performer’s armoury, and just occasional­ly this leads to slight inconsiste­ncies of tempo, as in the exultant prelude of the E major Partita. But this is balanced by real eloquence in the slower dance movements of the partitas and the famous Chaconne. Some might prefer a ‘bigger Bach’ approach, but these beautifull­y focused performanc­es have a distinct appeal. Jan Smaczny PERFORMANC­E ★★★★



Piano Sonatas, Vol. 9 – No. 2 in C, HOB.XVI:7; No. 10 in C, Hob. XVI:1; No. 41 in A, HOB.XVI:26; No. 44 in F, HOB.XVI:29; No. 52 in G, HOB.XVI:39; No. 53 in E minor, HOB.XVI:34

Jean-efflam Bavouzet (piano) Chandos CHAN 20131 72:15 mins

The most curious work in this latest instalment of Jean-efflam Bavouzet’s ongoing Haydn cycle is the Sonata in A major H26. It’s a lopsided piece, whose grandiose opening movement is followed by two miniatures – the first of them an arrangemen­t of the minuet from Haydn’s Symphony No. 47. It’s a jeu d’esprit in which the second half in both the minuet and the trio is the same as the first half, but played backwards. Since the transcript­ion isn’t found in Haydn’s manuscript, it’s hard to know if it is authentic

– or, indeed, if he really intended it as part of the sonata. The finale is over in a flash, and Bavouzet jokingly hesitates just before the end, suggesting that the music might easily have gone on for longer.

The more familiar Sonata in E minor H34 was first published in London in 1784. Haydn indicates repeats for both halves of its breathless­ly quick opening Presto, including the substantia­l coda, but Bavouzet prefers to reserve the coda as a one-time conclusion, which means he has to concoct his own join from an earlier point to make the second repeat feasible. Preferable to interferen­ce on this scale would surely have been to omit the repeat altogether. It’s hard otherwise to find fault with these performanc­es, which do full justice both to the glittering style of Haydn’s keyboard writing, and to the profundity of a piece such as the great Adagio from the Sonata H39, written for the famous Auenbrugge­r sisters. Misha Donat PERFORMANC­E ★★★★



The Melodious Talking Fingers Colin Booth (harpsichor­d) Soundboard SBCD 220 69:47 mins

Colin Booth is one of music’s unsung heroes. For four decades he has been toiling in his West Country workshop to produce magnificen­t harpsichor­ds which he decorates himself. He’s a gifted painter, so each one is a thing of beauty, and as he’s also a fine musician – the performanc­es he gives on them are first-rate. His account of Bach’s 48, for example, is notable for its scholarly grounding as well as for its emotional force, while his instrument allows the part-writing to emerge with unusual clarity.

This is his 16th recording of solo harpsichor­d music, and with it he draws back the curtain on an almost entirely forgotten composer. Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) was a polymath fluent in many languages, as well as being a noted dancer, fencer, rider and man-about-town, whose friendship with Handel – which eventually went sour and led to a duel – induced him to dedicate the works on this disc to him. The ‘language of the fingers’ in these fugues and dances is in many ways also the language of Handel and Bach, but as a ‘modernist’ who also wanted to keep the flagging fugal tradition alive he ensured that his counterpoi­nt was not too dense, and that his fugal themes were pleasantly singable.

Some of these pieces are musical jokes, but the final one is a prayerful double fugue on the melody best known from Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. Booth regards this fugue (and plays it) as an expression of Mattheson’s continuing faith in the face of his severe deafness. Michael Church




Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 – K 280, 310, 330 and 545

Jean Muller (piano)

Hänssler HC20065 55:81 mins

The great Artur Schnabel held that Mozart’s piano sonatas are ‘too easy for children, too difficult for grown-ups.’ Certainly, securing a perfect balance between tempo, touch, phrasing and expression, while retaining a sense of spontaneit­y in textures of such crystallin­e clarity, is a stringent test for the profession­al pianist, all too easily tempted to insinuate selfconsci­ous interpreta­tive nuances. It is a test that is largely passed by Jean Muller in this third volume of his complete Mozart sonatas. As before, he tempers his modern Steinway with a light and luminous touch; expressive rubato and pedal effects are used with discretion, tempos convincing­ly chosen, avoiding extremes. Though he tends to smooth over Mozart’s periodic demands for abrupt dynamic contrasts, everything flows.

The most substantia­l work in this collection is the troubled Sonata in A minor that Mozart wrote in Paris in 1778 in the wake of his mother’s death. This is often treated as a proto-beethoven rampage. Muller retains a more Mozartian moderation, but manages no less to convey the real anguish behind the grinding sequences of the first movement developmen­t and the feeling of tender regret in the Andante. The A minor is preceded by pellucid accounts of the cheerful C major Sonata, composed in 1783, and the early F major, with an especially sensitive shaping of the long melodic line of its melancholy siciliana slow movement. Finally, we have the all-too familiar little C major Sonata, ‘for beginners’, so oft maltreated even by children, to which Muller somehow contrives to bring a Spring-like freshness. Bayan Northcott.




Piano Sonata in E flat minor; Mazurkas; Tears; Variations, etc Peter Jablonski (piano)

Ondine ODE 1383-2 73:46 mins

The mysterious and untimely death of Alexey Stanchinsk­y (1888-1914) is generally agreed to have deprived Russian music of a significan­t voice. Even in life he cut a tragic figure, but his surviving music (nearly all for piano, though he also left ten song settings of Robert Burns) offers a tantalisin­g glimpse of what might have been. It’s very much of its time and place, sitting somewhere between Scriabin and Prokofiev yet connected to a wider culture – Stanchinsk­y was a disciple of Taneyev, and even played for Tolstoy. Everything on this disc was written between 1903 and 1913.

In the words of Stanchinsk­y expert Irina Lopatina, his music juxtaposes ‘sublime lyricism with gloomy fantasy’. Both are on show in the early Sonata in E flat minor. For all its concision there are moments that almost ramble, yet the work holds one’s attention thanks to the flexibilit­y of Peter Jablonski’s playing. A nocturne, two sets of preludes and a pair of mazurkas all suggest formal echoes of Chopin; the earlier preludes are attractive, some of the later ones demand and receive virtuosity, though the writing can sound awkward. Having recorded mazurkas by Chopin, Szymanowsk­i, Scriabin and Maciejewsk­i, the pianist makes these ones a highlight here. Jablonski also captures the haunting, folk-like character of the Variations from 1911, the year Stanchinsk­y began his Sketches which make a fine climax to this rewarding disc. John Allison PERFORMANC­E ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★


Medtner: Improvisat­ion No. 2,

Op. 47; Ravel: Miroirs

Michael Brown (piano)

First Hand Records FHR 78 61:49 mins Michael Brown’s magical concept and execution incline me to purple prose here, but Ravel’s choice of a line and a half from Shakespear­e’s Julius Caesar as epigraph for the five pieces that comprise Miroirs will partly do the job: ‘…the eye sees not itself/

But by reflection, by some other things.’ Sound, space and silence are inexplicab­ly linked both in the unique impression­s of 1905 and in Medtner’s Second Improvisat­ion composed in the mid-1920s, more in the mainstream of virtuoso piano writing but equally responsive to the supernatur­al (it would perhaps be more often performed if it were called ‘Variations on a Water Nymph’s Song’).

It’s a truism to declare that

Ravel was a master of exquisite new sonorities, but how many pianists realise the luminosity and the quietest dynamics as well as Brown? Melodic fragments are always subtly highlighte­d; grouping the work in two pairs followed by a numinously majestic epilogue, the pianist makes ‘The Valley of the Bells’ a spellbindi­ng highlight, resonating in mid-air.

Medtner’s more capricious cascades in his typically personal journey through myths and legends, occasional­ly unfurling in postliszti­an grandiosit­y, are enriched by two more variations found in the manuscript and added to the existing 15, with no loss of shape and a further extension of variety. The engineered sound, captured in Montana’s Tippet Rise Arts Center with two other outstandin­g pianists, Roman Rabinovich and Adam Golka, as producers, plays its part in a treasurabl­e diptych. The title, Noctuelles, also that of Ravel’s first piece and a rare French word for ‘moths’, is complement­ed by the glowing presentati­on. David Nice PERFORMANC­E ★★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★


Britten: Cello Suite No. 1; Kodály: Cello Sonata; Ligeti: Cello Sonata Nuala Mckenna (cello)

Cobra COBRA 0078 68:56 mins Another lockdown, another solo cello album: this is from enterprisi­ng young Nuala Mckenna, principal cellist of Kammerphil­harmonie Bremen, who has used the opportunit­y to gather a trio of mighty works.

Her ‘take’ on Britten’s First Suite is strikingly contempora­ry: each movement is reimagined almost as

an improvisat­ory soundscape. The sound recording itself is something of a work of art, the reverberan­t acoustic carefully controlled, the sound saturated, each articulati­on caught in close-up. There’s a tendency to slow things down, to ensure every resonance is given its due, as if put under a sonic microscope: the bare simplicity which make the ‘Cantos’ so touching are replaced by something ambient, congested, which threatens the sense of line, while the ‘Marcia’ is almost too slow for a human step. On the plus side, her ‘Serenata’ is glamorous, a sexy flamenco guitar with attitude.

While there’s a strong sense of a musical personalit­y commanding the space, you begin to wonder whether some speeds are chosen for physical ease. Such thoughts are dispelled by a whirlwind Moto perpetuo finale. Her Ligeti has piquant character, though pales beside the dazzling account given by Christian-pierre La Marca (reviewed last month). It takes guts to tackle the Kodály, but she has the measure of it and the range of colours. As in the Britten, speeds can be too careful, but her Allegro hits you between the eyes: here is an artist with presence. I would go to hear that live. Helen Wallace PERFORMANC­E ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★

Spira, Spera

Works by JS Bach – trans. Busoni, M Hess, Liszt, Saintsaëns, Siloti and Szántó Emmanuel Despax (piano)

Signum Classics SIGCD665 80:30 mins Emmanuel Despax appears to be floating on fluffy clouds in a blue sky. One arm is crooked at his neck, another rests on his hip in a gesture of serene openness. Around him, people bustle about – but he’s immune to their stress.

It’s the type of imagery we might associate with a meditation app, not a solo piano album. However, the Bach transcript­ions featured in Spira, Spera (Breathe, Hope) can help us find stillness better than any mindfulnes­s tech. Despax channels the cleansing complexity of Bach in a programme that predictabl­y includes Busoni’s version of the Chaconne from Violin Partita

No. 2 and ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, as well as Myra Hess’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. But there are also lesser-known versions of Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and the Passacagli­a and Fugue in C minor by Hungarian pianist Theodor Szántó (1877–1934), which are first recordings and critical additions to recorded piano literature. Like fellow Bach fan Angela Hewitt, Despax favours a Fazioli piano, exquisitel­y captured here. Although Spira, Spera feels pandemic-inspired, the title is actually taken from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-dame and reflects on the Notre-dame Cathedral fire, where Despax attended many concerts of Bach’s music. Claire Jackson PERFORMANC­E ★★★★★


 ??  ?? Remarkable pianism: Bessonov truly plays beyond his years
Remarkable pianism: Bessonov truly plays beyond his years
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 ??  ?? Understate­d Bach: Augustin Hadelich creates intimacy
Understate­d Bach: Augustin Hadelich creates intimacy
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 ??  ?? Gutsy soloist: Nuala Mckenna has presence
Gutsy soloist: Nuala Mckenna has presence
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