CD reviews: Jorge Luís Prats and Alain Lefèvre celebrate pianism with an edge

Cuban pianist Jorge Luís Prats.

Two new live-performance albums, one Canadian, put the emphasis on emotion, making for compelling listening of early 20th century repertoire that we don’t hear nearly enough in live performance.

Live in Zaragoza (Decca)

What a joy to be reintroduced in this recital from Zaragoza, Spain, to Cuban pianist Jorge Luís Prats. At 55, he is sailing along on a strong second wind, in a career that exploded in France in the late 1970s.

The programme in this recital blends Spanish and Latin American influences. The core pieces are the six Goyescas, translations of painting into sound, by Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The technical demands of the music are huge, requiring the pianist to make melodies sing, while underpinning them with thick, rhythmically complex harmonies.

El amor y la muerte, by Francisco Goya

The expressive demands are no less challenging. In “El amor y la muerte” Granados’ main instructions are “Animato e dramatico,” but then fills the score with detailed guidance. The second through fourth measures are to be played “con  molto espressione e con dolore” — with much expression and with pain. Four bars later, the same musical figure reappears in a different key, this time marked “con sentimento di pieta.”

Tempo markings change constantly on top of the repeated requests to speed up and slow down, there are passages marked pianissimo sitting next to sections meant to be played fortissimo.

The pianist has to make basic music out of enough notes to challenge four hands, then use the same narrative skills as would an opera conductor to make each depiction work.

It’s no wonder that the Goyescas are such a rare treat.

My gold standard for these pieces is Alecia de Larrocha, who died two-and-a-half years ago. She tamed this music into lustrous sensuality that takes over my whole body whenever I listen to a long-cherished recording she made for Odéon in 1963 (and reissued by EMI in the early 1980s).

Prats’ performance in Zaragoza has much more of an edge, which I’ve begun to appreciate, the more I listen to this concert.

If you are not familiar with Granados’ music, Prats provides a vivid, compelling introduction. If you are, this pianist’s interpretive opinion in well worth hearing.

The Granados pieces are paired with the cerebral Bachiana brasileira No. 4, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), as well as three delicious Cuban encores.

For more details on the album , including audio samples and downloads, click here.

Here is Prats introducing the album in a Decca promotional video:

Rachmaninov Concerto No. 4, Scriabin Prometheus (Analekta)

Montreal pianist Alain Lefèvre is nothing less than a force of nature, as he seeks out fresh outlets for his formidable technical and interpretive skills.

This new CD, recorded in concert in Montreal’s new symphony hall, is not only a showcase of his prodigiously dexterous fingers, but of an ever-inquiring mind. Featured is the world-premiere recording of the original, 1926 score of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4, as reconstituted by Lefèvre himself.

It’s a piece full of drama, even by Russian standards, but stripped of the lush Romantic remnants that adorn Rachmaninov’s other concertos. Here is the composer’s frequently troubled psyche on full, virtuosic display, thanks to Lefèvre’s sparkling interpretation.

The Montreal Symphony orchestra, under music director Kent Nagano, are of the same mind, delivering a gut-punch of a performance. Particularly suited to Nagano’s liquid nitrogen-tipped baton and Lefèvre’s boundless energy is Alexander Scriabin’s science-fiction-ey Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.

The bold score, perched on the bleeding edge of dynamics and tonality, could be at home in a 21st century Hollywood epic, which makes it even more of a shock to realise that it was premiered in 1910.

Nagano ices a determined urgency into the score, practically forcing one to listen, despite its over-the-top construction. (It was inspired by visions of colour and light tied into the music, and Scriabin provides instructions for lighting effects to go with the piece.)

For more details, and audio samples, click here.

Here’s the opening of Prometheus, caught by an audience member at the concert:

John Terauds


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