Review by HARRINGTON
I love Russian piano music and it occupies a disproportionate number of shelves in my CD collection. I was both pleased and surprised by the content of this program. Balakirev’s Islamey is not a rarity. It was known to Liszt and to almost every pianist with a desire for a showy, difficult recital closer or encore since. I learned it from an old Turnabout LP by Alfred Brendel, of all people. Russo’s playing is on a level with the best.
Medtner’s big, four-movement Sonata 1 (over 30 minutes) is his first large-scale composition. It prompted Rachmaninoff to remark that all composers make mistakes when they are young, but that “only Medtner, from the beginning, published works that would be hard to equal in later life”. I have been quite pleased with several recordings of this work (Stewart on Grand Piano 617, Jan/Feb 2013; Milne on Brilliant 8851, May/June 2009; Hamelin on Hyperion 67221, Jan/Feb 1999). Russo’s performance can stand with the best.
Taneyev’s Prelude and Fugue is one of only a few piano solo works he assigned an opus number to and published. Performances of this exceptionally difficult work (at least the Fugue) are few and tend to be almost exclusively by Russian-trained pianists. Ashkenazy still has the best recording of this (Decca, Mar/Apr 2007), but I’ll always welcome a recording as good as the current one.
The program opens with the absolutely gorgeous Isserlis `Fairy Tale’ (`Skaza’–a title often used by Medtner). I was floored at the solo piano transcription by Leyetchkiss of the middle two movements from Rachmaninoff’s Suite 2 for Two Pianos. This is a well-known and often recorded work for piano duos, but never for a solo pianist. How Russo manages to play that Waltz is beyond me. In the original, at a Presto tempo, each pianist plays the main theme a third apart while waltz accompaniment is split between them. I can see playing the accompaniment with one hand, but the melody in thirds with one hand? You have to hear this to believe it. Actually, if you heard this performance in the background, you’d simply think it was the original. Listen closely, and a few logistical matters make the arrangement sound a little different from the two-piano original–but not by much. Same goes for the Romance movement, but at its slower speed you simply enjoy the music and appreciate the performance without having to pick your jaw up off the floor. Two beautiful transcriptions by Grigory Ginzburg finish off this marvelous disc. Both the Rakov Song and the Rozycki Waltz were new to me and quite enjoyable.
These great sounding recordings were made in New York (October 2012 to January 2013). There are excellent and extensive program notes.