Études are primarily intended as exercises to train musicians in specific techniques, but since the Romantic era they have become associated with other miniature forms, such as the prelude and the intermezzo, and frequently regarded as evocative character pieces or tonal pictures. Garrick Ohlsson's album of piano études by Claude Debussy, Sergey Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók offers a brief survey of the genre in modern practice, and demonstrates the blending of pedagogy and poetry in these works. Ohlsson has become internationally known as an exquisite interpreter of the music of Frédéric Chopin, and much of the subtlety and atmosphere found in his previous recordings is present here. Ohlsson's finesse and humor are perhaps most evident in Debussy's Études, L. 143, which have a lighter character than Prokofiev's Études, Op. 2, which tend toward the sardonic side, and Bartók's Études, Op. 18, which are intensely virtuosic and mysterious. Hyperion's recording captures the nuances of Ohlsson's playing, and the piano is close enough to hear every detail, while the acoustics lend it a pleasant natural aura.
This is the second release on ONYX from the amazing Moscow Soloists and their charismatic director, the great Yuri Bashmet. Their first ONYX release was of Chamber Symphonies by Shostakovich, Sviridov and Vainberg (ONYX4007) which gained excellent reviews, including a Grammy 2007 nomination. This disc combines two great Stravinsky works for strings: the marvellous neo-classical ballet Apollon musagète (in the revised 1947 version entitled simply Apollo) and the post-war Concerto in D for strings, with a genuine novelty: in 1962 Rudolf Barshai arranged for his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra 15 of the 20 Visions fugitives that Prokofiev wrote for solo piano between 1915-17. Now Roman Balashov, manager and violist in the Moscow Soloists has completed the set for this world première recording. These are exciting miniatures which truly benefit from the added colours a string orchestra can bring.
The young Kissin was able to work wonders in Prokofiev–above all the Sixth Sonata (Kissin in Tokyo - Yevgeny Kissin). Regrettably, the mature Kissin recently delivered highly disappointing live performances of the Second and Third Concertos (Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3), indeed, regardless of the predictable rave in the British press. This 1994 recording of the First and Third Concertos is unquestionably very good, especially the youthful First, although competition is very strong–from Graffman/Szell (Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3) and Argerich/Dutoit (Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 3) in this coupling, and from the complete sets by Berman/Gutierrez/Järvi, Toradze/Gergiev and Krainev/Kitaenko.
These are excellent performances of exceptionally interesting repertoire. Prokofiev himself arranged 19 numbers from his Cinderella ballet for solo piano, so he surely would not have objected in principle to their reworking for two pianos; nor in practice, I suspect, because Pletnev’s arrangements are fabulously idiomatic and the playing here has all the requisite sparkle and drive. Shostakovich’s Op 6 Suite is far too seldom heard. True, it is an apprentice piece and open to criticism – both the first two movements peter out rather unconvincingly and the blend of grandiosity à la Rachmaninov and academic dissection of material à la Taneyev is not always a happy or very original one. But as a learning experience the Suite was a vital springboard for the First Symphony a couple of years later and there is real depth of feeling in the slow movement, as well as intimations elsewhere of the obsessive drive of the mature Shostakovich. What a phenomenally talented 16-year-old he was!