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A Neglected Russian Romantic Orchestral Treasure From Pianist Irena Portenko

While the heroes of the early days of last year’s lockdown were working long hours at hospitals where staff had been cut by fifty percent in order to engineer the illusion of a crisis, there was a much humbler kind of triage going on at this blog: sorting out the equally imperiled digital part of a constantly growing archive. A brief listen revealed that one album which had slipped through the cracks and didn’t deserve that fate was pianist Irena Portenko‘s 2016 performance of Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. The recording quality of the album, Versus – streaming at Spotify – is very old-world: for a digital production, the sound is very contiguous, in the spirit of a vinyl record. This is the kind of album that you can listen to over and over again and discover something new every time.

The balmy, Debussyesque introduction to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 offers no clue where this beast is going to go, Portenko’s emphatic upward cascades against increasing lushness punctuated by an anxious, searching flute. But Prokofiev remains one of the kings of phantasmagoria, and Portenko and the ensemble quickly sink their fangs into a marionettish strut and then a distantly macabre haze before bringing back the Asian diatonics.

That’s just the first half of the first movement. The way she hangs back and lets the increasing unease speak for itself pays off mightily when she slams into the big, grim crescendo afterward, the orchestra circling like a hungry condor. The gusty, stricken second movement is over in a flash; the third, a processional written as a requiem for a friend of the composer who killed himself, is far more sinister in places. The flute and staccato strings in tandem with the piano are creepy to the extreme. Again, the restraint of both soloist and orchestra enhance the mysterious intensity of the concluding movement, Portenko’s sabretoothed ripples and icepick chords finally gaining traction as the orchestra linger and pulse behind her.

They shift gears for Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most ravishingly beautiful (curmudgeons might say treacly) pieces of classical music ever written. It’s been ripped off by thousands of pop songwriters over the decades. Portenko doesn’t let it go there, with a clenched-teeth attack that raises the drama factor several times over, matched by Sirenko’s lavish touch in front of the orchestra. Yet there’s great subtlety from the ensemble: a bass breaks the surface, then flourishes from the reeds, matched by Portenko’s coy bit of a fugue in the first movement. Her gritty, intricate proto boogie-woogie in the movement’s third part screams out for the repeat button.

The second movement is balletesque yet replete with longing, Portenko rising to the challenge of the composer’s machinegunning rivulets. Starry, starry night! The third movement is where the Ukrainian bandura melody that Tschaikovsky polishes up and rips off throughout this piece really gets a workout: folk-rock, 19th century style. There are passages here that seem breathtakingly fast, compared to other orchestras’ interpretations: they seem to want everybody to hang on and enjoy the ride, up to the warmly familiar coda.

September 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The ARC Ensemble Continue Their Quest to Resurrect Neglected Jewish Composers

Canadian group the ARC Ensemble are in the midst of a heroic project, resurrecting music by underrated or undeservedly forgotten Jewish composers, Their latest album – streaming at Spotify – is the debut commercial recording of three works by Russian composer Dmitri Klebanov. Like all of his contemporaries in the Soviet era, his themes were circumscribed by Stalinist repression. There’s a sense of an inner modernist longing to cut through the doctrinaire Romanticism, and it’s rewarding to hear that fearlessness unleashed in so many places here.

String Quartet No. 4 opens as a swinging, folksy, wintry theme and variations. The second movement begins as a stark, windswept tableau, anchored by the lingering harmonies of cellist Thomas Wiebe and violist Steven Dann, violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard picking up the pace with a graceful counterpoint, growing more insistent, alternately joyous and stern.

Puckish pizzicato cedes to more of an autumnal dance in movement three, which continues and rises to a triumphant coda in the concluding movement. It’s an enjoyable if not particularly substantial piece.

There’s a similarly dancing quality but considerably more gravitas to Klebanov’s Piano Trio No. 2, which actually turns out to be much more of a work for strings. Pianist Kevin Ahfat provides a precise lilt in the first movement as Berard and Wiebe add wistful color, with close echoes of an iconic Rachmaninoff piece throughout. The three musicians light into the sudden, furtive interlude afterward with relish, violin cascades against mutedly assertive, rhythmic piano.

The trio have fun negotiating the tension between Beethovenesque glitter and a jagged Russian dance in the second movement. Movement three is the real stunner here, plaintive strings over tolling, low-key piano, rising to an aching waltz that grows more hypnotically troubled as the rhythm straightens out. Debussy visits Borodin on the steppes as the unsettled conclusion pounces along, somewhat hesitantly, Kudos to the ensemble for unearthing a piece that deserves to be vastly better known.

The four strings return to an assertive, martially-tinged Russian dance theme to introduce Klebanov’s considerably more adventurous String Quartet No. 5, with a meticulous, persistently uneasy counterpoint. It would be an overstatement to call the thematic development demonic, but a gremlin definitely could be involved.

There’s a Bartokian vividness and astringency in the second movement The third and final movement strongly brings to mind Shostakovich’s middle-period quartets, in terms of persistent grey-sky atmosphere and exchanges that darkly wind their way back to Haydn, all the way through the deviously jaunty ending. What a joy it is to discover music like this: it only makes you wonder what else this ensemble have up their collective sleeves.

September 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment