Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2, Etudes-tableaux, Liebesleid...


June 29, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC


Sonata No. 2, Etudes-tableaux, Liebesleid. Freddy Kempf, pianist. (BIS 1042)

With his exotic, Keanu Reeves looks and prodigious talent, London-born pianist Freddy Kempf is a marketing department's dream. At 22, he is touted in all the best circles as one of the most important keyboard artists to emerge since Yevgeny Kissin.

The buzz about Kempf started at the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Like Ivo Pogorelich at the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Kempf made headlines by not winning the event. He didn't get any higher than third place, which set off an outcry and led to concert engagements throughout Russia. But unlike Pogorelich, who has largely used up the goodwill generated by his nonvictory and turned into an impossibly self-indulgent pianist, Kempf shows every sign of having a long-lasting, distinguished career.

This all-Rachmaninoff disc demonstrates what the fuss is about, while also revealing that Kempf still has some developing to do. The Sonata No. 2, played in its original 1931 version rather than the composer's subsequently shortened one, finds Kempf technically impressive, to be sure, but not quite overwhelming. The thunderous outer movements need more sound and fury, the inner movement more personality. There's a curiously matter-of-fact air about some of the playing, especially in lyrical passages, which call out for more poetical, introspective phrasing.

With the Etudes-tableaux, however, reservations vanish. Kempf makes each of these nine pieces a miniature drama, bringing fantastic drive and color to No. 1, dazzling fingerwork and vivid imagery to No. 6, with its evocation of the "Little Red Riding Hood" tale. In Nos. 7 and 9, the pianist summons exactly the kind of tonal weight that was missing in the sonata. A little more mystery would be nice in his shading of No. 2, but Kempf delivers exceptional grandeur and passion in No. 5.

To close, there is Rachmaninoff's delectable transcription of Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid," which inspires tender nuances and a delicious rhythmic elasticity. A pianist this young, this secure and this sensitive will surely have much to offer in the years to come. ***

Viola discs

Bartok: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra; Peter Eotvos: Replica; Gyorgy Kurtag: Movement for Viola and Orchestra. Kim Kashkashian, violist: Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra; Peter Eotvos, conductor. (ECM New Series 1711)

Shostakovich: Viola Sonata; Nikolai Roslavets, Viola Sonatas. Victoria Chiang, violist; Randall Hodgkinson, pianist. (Centaur CRD 2450)

The viola is the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments. It don't get no respect. Because the viola spends so much of its time in a supporting musical role, rarely stepping into the melodic spotlight, and because it's not easy to produce a beautiful sound on the instrument, the viola and viola players are the target of endless jokes. Samples: How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case. How is lightning like a violist's fingers? Neither one strikes in the same place twice. What do a viola and a lawsuit have in common? Everyone is happy when the case is closed. What is the range of a viola? As far as you can kick it.

The reality, of course, is that the viola is a dark-toned beauty ideal for subtle expression, yet capable of considerable bravura. The unique qualities of the instrument have attracted many great composers, among them two 20th century giants, Bartok and Shostakovich. Coincidentally, both worked on large-scale viola pieces just before dying. (No more jokes, please.)

Although Bartok did not live to complete his Viola Concerto, the performing edition by Tibor Serly is authentic enough in character to help put the concerto among Bartok's most important creations. Its lyrical richness may be its most striking characteristic, though the Hungarian finale certainly commands attention. Kim Kashkashian's mellow sound and surefire articulation help her dig into the material effectively, with smooth support from conductor Peter Eotvos and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.

Eotvos is also represented in his capacity as a composer. His prismatically scored "Replica" for viola and orchestra makes a compelling statement, with the soloist often reaching into violin range and five additional violas from the orchestra serving as a kind of Greek chorus. One more work in this all-Hungarian music disc, Gyorgy Kurtag's Movement for Viola and Orchestra, proves compelling as well, with its dramatic neoromantic gestures and soaring solo lines. Again, Kashkashian is a superb protagonist.

Shostakovich's last completed work was the Sonata for Viola and Piano. It is difficult not to hear self-eulogy in the score, especially when, in the last movement, the composer quotes the opening of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and makes it sound funereal as well as wistful. Although conflict certainly enters the music, the prevailing mood is one of inner calm, an acceptance of things that cannot be changed. Shostakovich reveals a particularly intimate side of himself here; the writing for both viola and piano is disarmingly direct, uncluttered.

Violist Victoria Chiang, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, who teaches at the New England Conservatory, give the sonata a penetrating performance. Her solid intonation, warm tone and thoughtful phrasing are also put to effective use in two attractive, if not exactly life-changing, pieces by a much-forgotten Russian composer from the first half of the 20th century, Nikolai Roslavets. ***

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