CHOPIN: 24 Etudes, Op. 10 and Op. 25 – Irena Portenko, piano – Blue Griffin CD

by | Aug 16, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

CHOPIN: 24 Etudes, Op. 10 and Op. 25 – Irena Portenko, piano – Blue Griffin CD BGR213, 61:00 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Irena Portenko advertises herself as a piano pedagogue from Rye, New York who has won prizes and performed these same Chopin etudes at Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her inscription of the complete Chopin Etudes (15-16 July 2009) in the Steinway D testifies to a polished artist working well within the Romantic milieu. Portenko’s spans, her steady pulsation, her liquid phrasing, bespeak a long familiarity with the Chopin style.

I like Portenko’s approach to the A Minor, Op. 10, No. 2, not rushed, disarmingly facile in its technical means so to release the lyric impulse–sempre legato–within its otherwise grueling exercise for the “weak” fingers of the right hand. The 2/4 “Tristesse” Etude in E Major receives an expansive treatment, nostalgic in the outer sections and volatile in its chromatic middle section that exploits a tritone. Diminished seventh chords flavor the C-sharp Minor Etude, which Portenko gobbles up despite the challenge of sustained 16th notes and having to pass the melodic tissue back and forth in a mad duet. The G-flat Major “black key” Etude skitters by, with Portenko’s not playing a full glissando in the last octave, but still providing a fluent zest to its rapid figures. Portenko imbues an eerie affect to the E-flat Minor, No. 6, with its haunted counterpoint. The 6/8 Vivace No. 7 punishes Portenko’s forearms, the choppy intervals a real test of pulsation and fluid motion. The same vitality of articulation–forte e legato–marks the F Major, which lapses for a few bars into D Minor. The passionate F Minor No. 9 I find among the more Lisztian etudes, a dark-hued exercise in syncopes for the wrist and fingers. The kaleidoscopic A-flat Major collides accented and unaccented values, the modulations moving in quick succession, all seemingly in one breath, which is the illusion Portenko provides. The so-called “guitar study” in E-flat Major stretches the hands while releasing melody through the inner voices, a feat Portenko accomplishes well, though few have matched Josef Lhevinne on records. Relentless 16th notes, cross rhythms, and an aggressive tempo set the Revolutionary Etude apart, and Portenko does inflame its rebellious spirit, bowing at the last, to the influence of the Beethoven Op. 111.

Portenko’s Aeolian Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1 renders the appropriate grace and tender sweep the arpeggios and modulations offer, the triplets and occasional polyrhythm fluent and affectionately erotic. The next two etudes, in F Minor and F Major, exploit Portenko’s capacity to play in polyrhythms, eighth notes against quarter notes (Op. 25, No. 2) and in articulate flourishes at the gallop (Op. 25, No. 3). Nice execution, staccato e leggero, for the A Minor, a syncopated study with a huge stretch for the right hand, the accent on the fifth finger. The choppy minor seconds of the E Minor Etude yield to a singing melody–piu lento–that Portenko projects with a sturdy left-hand accompaniment.  G-sharp Minor, No. 6 proceeds by chromatic thirds, sometimes trilled, often cascading in luxurious arpeggios, the bass insistent, each element vocal in its own way.

The C-sharp Minor, the most tragic of the etudes, Portenko appreciates as a study in tonal richness, her left hand prominent, the attentions become vertical and melancholy. The D-flat Major, studies parallel sixths, the pedal required to maintain fluency, and here Portenko “flourishes.” The “Butterfly” in G-flat Major demands rapid and detached octaves and a jumping left hand, both of which Portenko supplies at a gallop. The furious octaves that open the B Minor Etude merely conceal the challenge, the middle notes within the octave. The chromatic motion of the middle section, in seconds and thirds, poses no less a problem–that of repetition and labor–and all must be fluent, articulated song. That Portenko takes on the chromatic “Winter Wind” Etude at all testifies to courage and endurance! The fingers of the right hand compete for the top melody line, and it’s the survival of the fittest from the outset. The left hand part could have stood on its own as a competitive etude. Finally, the C Minor “Ocean” Etude, with its ascending and descending scales or rather augmented arpeggios. Portenko is not so fast in this etude as Arrau on EMI, but almost none can play it as written and keep the top line clear without smothering the measures after the accented melodic note. A heroic effort, these etudes, well recorded (courtesy of Sergei Kvitko), and a mark of a superior talent.

–Gary Lemco

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