Alexandre Kantorow plays Brahms, Bartók, Liszt – BIS

by | Oct 15, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Rhapsody No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 79, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2; BARTOK: Rhapsody, Op. 1; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor – Alexandre Kantorow, piano – BIS SACD 2380, 66:28 99/4/20) ****:

Alexandre Kantorow (b. 1997) stands as the first French pianist to win the gold medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition as well as the Grand Prix in 2019. The present recital, culled from sessions in Paris and Finland (September 2019 and January 2020), displays a talent some have called “the young tsar of the French piano,” “the Musical Revelation of the Year,” and others have more skeptically deemed “a set of fast, skeletal fingers adept at the kind of finger memory adept at winning piano competitions.”  

Kantorow opens with the 1879 Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79, No. 1 of Brahms, the designation’s tending to belie its formal, modified, sonata-form structure. Brahms sets the piece in three sections, beginning Agitato, in the manner of the younger persona of the composer, whose sturm und drang capacities manifested themselves in the grand manner in his Piano Concerto in D Minor, Op. 15. The outer sections of the Rhapsody move in ternary form, marked by a “fate” motif – shades of Beethoven? – that infiltrated even the Brahms Op. 1 Sonata. Reluctant to announce its home key, the music projects emotional violence that finds an anodyne in the middle, lullaby section in B Major. That tune, first found in measure 30, bears a molto dolce espressivo indication in spite of the relatively motile tempo. Kantorow tolls the F-sharps in this passionate realization that emphasizes the potent shades of darkness and light, much in the late-Brahms character. Kantorow’s left hand keeps the flowing motion of the lullaby – upon which Brahms insists – with an appealing sense of legato that counteracts much of the percussive element of his chosen repertory.

The early 1852 Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2 by Brahms pre-dates the composition of the formal Op. 1 C Major Sonata. Influenced by Beethoven, Schumann, and Schubert, Brahms followed their predilection for “fantasy-sonata” form, a Romantic stress on freedom of expression. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, ma energico in ¾, allows Kantorow definite, virtuosic figuration in active, exciting rhythmic motion, especially in the second theme. The writing remains concise, with no exposition repeat and an abrupt coda. Kantorow manages to convey the innigkeit, or inwardness, of the affect, akin to the music of his mentor, Schumann. The contrapuntal writing, however, Kantorow realizes with fierce aggression.

The second movement, Andante con espressione in B Minor, 2/4, opts for a theme-and-variation format, the theme – thoroughly original – supposed to have derived from “an old German love poem” of unspecified authorship: “Mir ist leide, dass der Winter Beide, Wald und auch die Haide, hat gemachter fahl.” I sorrow that Winter hath turned pale both forest and heath. Brahms creates three variants over the two-part theme, of which Kantorow basks in the third variation in the major. The slow movement comes to no final resolution, so the immediate move to Scherzo: Allegro in B Minor, 6/8, ensues as a kind of variation 4. The music moves in definite periods, and Kantorow plays with a forceful resolve that one cannot credit with subtlety. 

Brahms has placed the emotional weight of this sonata in the last movement: Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro non troppo e rubato, F-sharp Minor, 4/4. Brahms, like Schumann, opts for a cyclical, “derivative” thematic evolution, based on prior themes. Starting slowly, the music opens solemnly, with darkly meandering chords that end with a trill and flourish. Does the common interest in E.T.A. Hoffmann affect Brahms here, as it had Schumann? The fantasy element reigns, and the music could be mistaken for a Schumann novelette. Suddenly, the music lunges into a parody of a Liszt Hungarian rhapsody, moving to an optimistic expressiveness on F-sharp Major.  Kantorow, like masters Bashkirov and Katchen in the past, gives us a sense of the experimental character of the Brahms Op. 2, perhaps the least “characteristic” of his piano opera. Brahms withdrew the piece from his active repertory, and only in 1882 did Hans von Bulow present its first public performance. 

Even today, Bela Bartok’s 1904 Rhapsody receives little attention, likely since it embodies a Romantic, Lisztian ethos meant to display the Magyar temperament in virtuosic, gypsy terms. Rare, too, might we hear the solo piano version: my own familiarity comes from the orchestral collaborations of Andor Foldes (with Desormiere) and Geza Anda (with Ferenc Fricsay). In two sections, the sprawling piece conforms to the lassu of the verbunkos (slow, recruiting dance) and later, energetic dance, friss, in gypsy motion. Bartok, who courted virtuoso ambitions as a young pianist – he entered a competition but lost to Wilhelm Backhaus – demands octave, broad spans and arpeggios, and double-note technique of no mean accomplishments. 

Kantorow projects in the expansive, slow (Mesto) opening, the melodically improvisatory and ornamented character of the piece, whose tonal center resounds in D. The faster, friss section opens Tranquillo then evolves in duple meter to a fleet Presto at bar 431. The jabbing chords and chromatic runs suggest the colorful, impetuous character of the dance, while repeated notes and furious ostinato maintain Bartok’s close connection with Liszt, especially as the dynamic moves from pp to ff. The lassu theme will recur late in the piece, at measure 564 in triumphant D Major, a real village festival on a par with Liszt’s depiction at Pesth. The music dissolves and subsides into quiet contemplation in the manner of its beginning motifs, achieving a kind of spiritual apotheosis in melted tones, conveying with loving tenderness by pianist Kantorow.

Kantorow concludes with the 1847 Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor, a work whose deft and shimmering charms first came to me via Mischa Levitzky and William Kapell. The work opens, Lento a capriccio, with a delicate verbunkos that evokes the gypsy cimbalom. The middle section proceeds Andante sostenuto, marcato e grazioso, a swaying dance (csardas) of easy nobility in Hungarian scales. Next, a Vivace assai in brilliant runs and glistening trills, leading to a thunderous, second csardas, Prestissimo (sempre staccato) and amazingly potent Coda: con tutta forza that leaves the ear staggered by colossal wit and innovation.    

An album designed to win adherents and initiates, the music has been well captured by Sound Engineer and Producer Jens Braun.

—Gary Lemco


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