Ruth Slenczynska: My Life in Music – Slenczynska, Piano – Decca

by | Apr 9, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Ruth Slenczynska: My Life in Music = Works by RACHMANINOFF; BARBER; CHOPIN; GRIEG; DEBUSSY; BACH – Ruth Slenczynska, piano – Decca 2022-03-18 (3/18/22) 67:41 [Complete listing below; Distr. by Universal] *****:

Some recorded documents immediately assume the status of historic recordings, virtually upon their release. This recital by Ruth Slenczynska (b. 1925), the last surviving pupil of Sergei Rachmaninoff, derives from sessions 11-14 June 2021. Besides the personal associations of each selection and Slenczynska’s affection for the composers, the album serves as a tribute to the original contract Slenczynska made with Decca in the early 1950s, when producer Thomas Frost supervised her recordings of Chopin repertory; and here, his own son, David Frost, supervised the present album.  

Slenczynska opens, appropriately enough, with two works by Rachmaninoff, the first of which, the keyboard transcription of his own 1924 song “Daisies,” is set to a poem by Igor Severyanin and luxuriates in treble harmonies that suggest the bloom of delicate, summer flowers. The postlude sparkles, only to evaporate. Equally diaphanous, the G-Major Prelude exploits chromatic motion over a tonic pedal, a liquid nocturne. In her notes, Slenczynska recalls that Samuel Barber first met her at the Curtis Institute. She has always maintained her affection for Barber’s 1959 Nocturne, which simultaneously adheres to traditional tonality in the left hand while the right hand dallies with Schoenberg’s notion of serialism. Subtitled “Homage to John Field,” the piece manages to evoke Chopin, finally evaporating in open fifths at the coda. The song, “Let’s Sit It Out; I’d Rather Watch,” Barber composed at age sixteen. A jazzy, sectionalized piece, the music has a torch-song character, mixed with elements of ballad in stride rhythms. 

Slenczynska then enters into the first of two Chopin groups, beginning with a broadly expansive version of the 1833 Grand Valse briilante, Op. 18, a Paris creation that saunters – here rather slowly – into various melodic sections, most notably in A-flat Major and D-flat Major. The slow tempo allows the special accents to shine, with the movement into B-flat Minor’s assuming a particular pathos. The tricky finale, a layering of various, prior impulses, comes off deftly with a scintillating flourish. The intricate 1843 Berceuse in D-flat Major, with its ostinato bass line in two chords – tonic and dominant seventh – to support an array of 14 intricate variants in the treble, attains a mesmeric power that may remind some auditors of the classic reading from British pianist Solomon almost ninety years ago.  

Slenczynska credits the great Russian virtuoso Josef Hofmann with having introduced her to the natural charms of Grieg’s 1896 Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, originally meant as a lyric, ternary piece in celebration in memory of Grieg’s marriage to Nina on their 25th anniversary. Subtitled “The well-wishers are coming,” the enchanting piece has an immediately gratifying bell-like procession and a meditative central section, over which Slenczynska lavishes broad affection. The last pages achieve a resonant power before the martial punctuations vanish. The one Debussy piece, the 1909 prelude from Book I, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” achieved perhaps its great moment in the film Portrait of Jennie as the sign of Jennifer Jones’ s character in the imagination of the artist, played by Joseph Cotten. The simple melody casts a Scottish gloss in parlando style, one step away from plainchant. The middle section rises with the promise of passions yet to be fulfilled or fondly recalled.

Slow, broad strokes define Slenczynska’s rendition of Chopin’s personal favorite among his Études , that in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3. The complete set of 24 Études was a Herculean, daily labor Slenczynska’s autocratic father demanded of her even as a child, before breakfast. The massive middle section acquires a tragic girth before the music returns to the disarming innocence of the opening melody. Slenczynska makes us think we might be hearing it from her for the last time. The monument in this recital, Chopin’s 1841 Fantasie in F-Minor, represents an anomaly in the composer’s output, given its tightly wrought structure over a large emotional canvas, in the manner of ballade. Opening on a pair of two-measure ideas, the music soon assumes a turbulence of dramatic conflict, often subsuming a vast array of effects spread over four octaves. A curious march emerges, but the sense of militancy is lacking. The middle section in B Major appears as if a prayer were offered amidst a passionate crisis. The mortal storm resumes once more, yearning to the top of the keyboard and then plummeting into the march, the bass line imperative, until the cascades dissolve into a plaintive recitative, lingering in thought, until the harp-like scales resolve into a crystalline but resolute A-flat.  Slenczynska says farewell to Chopin with the brief, elusive F-Major Prelude, which for the pianist realizes “a soul’s climbing to heaven,” in this case, thoughtfully.

All roads lead to Bach, so Slenczynska concludes with the third Prelude and Fugue from WTC I, that in C-sharp Major. The binary Prelude moves in fleet 3/8 sixteenths. The three-voice Fugue moves in liquid, almost improvised motion, in descending, broken sixths. The line in legato sixteenths allows Bach room to maneuver inversion and some chromatic wanderings, but the three voices reappear in time for the final cadence. It’s been a privilege, this recital by one of the legendary veterans of keyboard artistry.

–Gary Lemco      

Ruth Slenczynska: My Life in Music

Ruth Slenczynska: My Life in Music:

RACHMANINOFF: Daisies, Op. 38, No. 3; Prelude in G Major, Op. 32, No. 5;
BARBER: Nocturne, Op. 33; Fresh from West Chester;
CHOPIN: Grande Valse brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 18; Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57; Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3; Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49; Prelude in F Major, Op. 28, No. 23;
GRIEG: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op. 65, No. 6;
DEBUSSY: La Fille aux cheveux de lin;
BACH: Prelude and Fugue in C# Major, BWV 848

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