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Gramophone awards shortList 2015

the same time show awareness, relish even, of what the best harpsichordists have achieved, from Gustav Leonhardt to Andreas Staier (I mention two exceptional players who have made complete sets). As to other pianists, I would cite Richard Goode, on a par with Murray Perahia; maybe András Schiff as well. Levit’s version has added to the discography of this inexhaustible music with distinction and I believe it will run and run. There’s nothing about him in the booklet – as if to say, it’s not about me, the music is enough. But if you haven’t come across him before I can report that he’s of Russian-German descent (shades of Sviatoslav Richter) and is 27 this year. I wonder what he’ll do next. Stephen Plaistow (October 2014)

Mahan Esfahani JS Bach Musikalisches Opfer, BWV1079 – Ricercar a 3; Ricercar a 6; Canon a 2 per tonos Byrd Clarifica me, Pater I-III. John come kiss me now. Pavan and Galliard – No 1; No 5. The Marche before the Battell. Fancie (My Ladye Nevells Book, No 41). Callino casturame. Fantasia (Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, No 52). Walsingham Ligeti Passacaglia ungherese. Continuum. Hungarian Rock Mahan Esfahani hpd Wigmore Hall Live M WHLIVE0066 (75’ • DDD) Recorded live, May 3, 2013

A critic reviewing Mahan Esfahani’s 2013 Wigmore Hall recital of short pieces by Byrd, Bach and Ligeti (from which this disc derives) felt that the programme would have been more effectively contrasted had the three Ligeti works been interspersed among the others, rather than presented in chronological sequence. Oddly enough, I received this release as randomly numbered lossless digital files and initially wrote my review assuming that that this seemingly ‘mixed and matched’ sequence was the actual running order, and a very inspired one at that.

In fact, reordering strengthens the overall impact of Esfahani’s flexible, articulate and deeply musical interpretations. Try putting Ligeti’s austere, ceremonial Passacaglia ungherese before the three-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. Similarly, the rhythmic energy of Byrd’s D minor Fantasia easily slips into the jagged disquiet of Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, which, in turn, provides a provocative bridge into the C minor Galliard. While many performances of Ligeti’s Continuum barrel their way through the relentless dissonant tremolos, Esfahani’s steady rhythm conveys a sense of air between the notes and allows the pitches to register more fully than usual. Also note how Esfahani points up the quirky cross-rhythmic interplay and tart accidentals in Byrd’s Fantasia in A minor.

The wild mood contrasts and decorative writing in Byrd’s John come kiss me now emerge with more vehemence and inner drama compared to Davitt Moroney’s relatively strait-laced recording (Hyperion). And Byrd’s Walsingham variations are enlivened by Esfahani’s animated pacing (he’s livelier than Sophie Yates on Chandos and Elizabeth Farr on Naxos), incisive fingerwork and effortless distinction between legato and detached phrasings. The full-bodied engineering conveys both instrument and venue in a natural and attractive ambient blend. Highly recommended in whatever running order you choose. Jed Distler (June 2014)

‘Dances’ Albéniz Espana, Op 165 – Tango No 2 (arr Godowsky) JS Bach Partita No 4, BWV828 Chopin Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op 22. Polonaise No 5, Op 44 M Gould Boogie-Woogie Etude Granados Valses poéticos Schulz-Evler Arabesques on Johann Strauss’s ‘By the Beautiful Blue Danube’ Scriabin Mazurkas, Op 3 – No 4; No 6; No 9. Valse, Op 38 Benjamin Grosvenor pf Decca F 478 5334DH (81’ • DDD)

Benjamin Grosvenor’s selection, simply entitled ‘Dances’, is lovingly planned rather than random. Ranging from Bach to Morton Gould, there are subtle reminders that, even if Chopin does not follow Bach ‘as the night the day’, you still recall Chopin’s love of Bach. Early Scriabin remembers Chopin, his Mazurkas written long before he developed or regressed into an obsessive mysticism. Chopin, too, was central to Granados’s inspiration (his Escenas románticas end with a graceful bow and tribute to Chopin called ‘Spianato’). Finally, the Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The  Blue Danube, the Albeniz-Godowsky Tango and Morton Gould’s Boogie-Woogie Etude – a free blossoming into a glorious liberation.

Having recently celebrated a disc largely devoted to one of Janá∂ek’s darkest utterances, it is with a spirit of uplift that I now find myself listening to performances that are carried forwards on an irresistible tide of youthful exuberance. With no need of the international competition circuit to lift or lower his career, Grosvenor bypasses that ever-controversial arena to give performance after performance of a surpassing brilliance and character. However hard the slog in the practice room (such dazzle and re-creation result from intense discipline), there is a sense of joyful release, of music-making free from all constraint.

Grosvenor’s Bach (the Fourth Partita, the most substantial item on the disc) is a vivid contradiction of a quaint, long-held view that Bach was essentially an academic, once unaffectionately known as ‘the old wig’, who provided useful contrapuntal fodder for exams. Such views long ago toppled into absurdity and like, say, Schiff and Perahia (though with an entirely fresh stance of his own), Grosvenor gives us Bach, our timeless contemporary. What drama and vitality he finds as he launches the Overture, what a spring – even swagger – in his step in the Courante, what unflagging but unforced brio in the final Gigue. And then you remember his Sarabande, where his pace and energy are resolved in a ‘still small voice of calm’. Dry-as-dusts may rattle their sabres but, like Horowitz, who confounded the pundits with his crystalline Scarlatti, Grosvenor creates his own authenticity, revelling in music of an eternal ebullience and inwardness, and erasing all notion of faceless sobriety.

This is followed by a wide but relevant leap to Chopin. The Op 22 Grande  Polonaise may pay tribute to Chopin’s early concert-hall glitter (his opening salvo in the Etudes, Op 10, is a reworking of Bach’s first Prelude, also in C major, from his ‘48’) but even here Chopin can reflect his cherished memories. Grosvenor keeps everything smartly on the move (he is the least sentimental of pianists), spinning the composer’s vocal line in the introductory Andante spianato with rare translucency and with decorations cascading like stardust. There is never a question of attention-seeking, of ‘what can I do with this?’. Such things have no place in Grosvenor’s lexicon and everything is as natural as breathing. Textures, too, are as light as air, after a commanding summons to the dance floor, and both here and in the more mature Op 44 Polonaise there is an almost skittish erasing of all possible opacity. Again, detail is as acute as ever, with flashing octaves complemented by a magically sensitive central Mazurka and a sinister close, suggesting a dark undertow to Chopin’s all-Polish defiance (for Schumann the Polonaises were ‘cannons buried in flowers’).

26 GRAMOPHONE AWARDS 2015

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