Balakriev; Ravel; Musorgsky

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Balakriev; Ravel; Musorgsky
LABELS: BIS
ALBUM TITLE: Balakriev; Ravel; Musorgsky
WORKS: Islamey – Balakriev; Gaspard de la nuit – Ravel; Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgky
PERFORMER: Freddy Kempf (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SACD-1580 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Unwisely, perhaps, I listened to this disc straight through without a break. There are people who enjoy evening-length displays of phenomenal virtuosity, but I find them, after a certain point, too much like a high-wire circus act. That is no criticism of this disc, which contains amazing accounts of three works, two of them unarguably great, and the third famous mainly because only what used to be called ‘tigers of the keyboard’ can play it. That is Balakirev’s Islamey, and though it has interest apart from its technical demands, it still strikes me as mainly a showcase, and since its composition we have had plenty of others that are far harder including Gaspard de la Nuit, the third movement of which was specifically composed by Ravel to be harder than Islamey. It is not only more virtuosic, but much greater music, as is the whole work. Over the years it has had some distinguished advocates, of whom for me Michelangeli is the greatest: his unique mix of gifts is more perfectly on display here than anywhere, and fine though Kempf is, he is not in that transcendental class. Nor, quite, is he in Musorgsky’s magnificent Pictures at an Exhibition. Once again, fine performances abound on disc, and for me, easily, and despite just-tolerable sound, Richter in his Sofia recital shows in this piece just why he was a pianist in a class of his own. Nonetheless, for fans of the contemporary virtuoso, this disc is not only stupendously recorded, but a sign that standards these days are extraordinarily high in this area. Michael Tanner