The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the week's CD releases
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The Independent Culture

While in Berlin recently, I sat in on the sessions for what promises to be a fairly stunning all-Rachmaninov CD on Teldec Classics. Twenty-seven-year-old Nikolai Lugansky extends the story that fellow-Russians Richter, Pletnev and Berezovsky started long ago, where endless reserves of technique render even the most difficult passage-work remarkably fluent.

While in Berlin recently, I sat in on the sessions for what promises to be a fairly stunning all-Rachmaninov CD on Teldec Classics. Twenty-seven-year-old Nikolai Lugansky extends the story that fellow-Russians Richter, Pletnev and Berezovsky started long ago, where endless reserves of technique render even the most difficult passage-work remarkably fluent.

Lugansky's newly released recording of Chopin's complete Etudes is rich in poetry and caprice, always light to the touch and with an old-fashioned delight in splitting chords. This is bold playing, respectful of - though never caged by - the printed text, and distinguished by an improvisational approach to phrasing. Lugansky fuels the fantasy of Op 10 No 6 and Op 25 No 7, though he is equally adept at igniting such celebrated short-term fireworks as the "Butterfly" and "Black Keys" Studies.

Clarity is a more obvious virtue than grandeur or tonal richness (the "Revolutionary" Study is just a little inscrutable), but his musical personality is already a talking point and his future success assured.

No home-grown musician is more talked about than Thomas Adÿs, though a new EMI piano album where Adÿs plays everything but the kitchen sink, and his own music, poses more questions than it answers. If, as they say, you can judge a man by the company he keeps, then you can certainly guess the decor of his musical imagination by examining the music he plays. Castiglioni's wry "How I spend my summer" opens the show, before Grieg swings in, pendulum-style, with his Norwegian Peasant Dances. There are the delicate intricacies of Alexey Stanchinsky's contrapuntal Canon and Second Sonata, the studied chaos of Nancarrow's Three Canons for Ursula, and some interesting Stravinsky and Busoni.

There are also two sequences by Kurtag, the first containing musical reflections on Nancy Sinatra (echoes of "These Boots are Made for Walking"), Debussy ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" gone mad) and Tchaikovsky (the First Piano Concerto's opening chords sent ballistic among thundering clusters). Adÿs's performances suggest temporary ownership: even the most bizarre pieces sound convincing.

One of Adÿs's more gnomic choices is a 50-second fragment by Janacek, but if he's planning a second piano album (and I sincerely hope that he is) he might profitably give consideration to the piano music of Smetana. Volume Six of Ivan Klansky's Smetana series for the Danish label Kontrapunct is, if not quite "The Greatest Smetana Piano Music Album Ever", certainly the most interesting. Take Ball-Vision, which opens mysteriously like the Abbé Liszt before exploding into a tear-soaked polka, or the pre-Expressionist gesturing of Macbeth.

The most disturbing tale lies in the contrast between two versions of Bettina's Polka, the first (1859) healthy and ebullient, the second (1882, by which time Smetana was in mental decline) disproportionately brief, harmonically complex and with an obdurate, repetitive close. No wonder Schoenberg was so fascinated by late Smetana.

Klansky's playing pulls no punches, and the rest of the programme - variations, marches, polkas, studies - makes hay with fun and daring. Illness aside, Smetana was a genuine innovator. His piano music is more interesting than Dvorak's and a competitive side-runner to Grieg's. It should be heard.

Chopin: Lugansky, Teldec 8573-80228-2

'Thomas Adÿs: Piano', EMI CDC5 57051 2

Smetana: Piano Works Vol 6

Klansky, Kontrapunkt/ Discovery Records 32306

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