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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images, Book 1 [16:17]
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22 (1952) [14:47]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Etudes for Piano, Book 1, No. 5 “Arc-en-ciel” (1985) [3:29]
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op.82 (1939-1940) [31:26]
Dmytro Choni (piano)
rec. 2019, Auditorio Sony, Madrid, Spain
Laureate Series
NAXOS 8.574136 [66:23]

Although this CD is a little outside my comfort zone, the really interesting pieces I had not known made me accept the review. The music covers approximately 80 years. The soloist, Dmytro Choni, won the 2018 Paloma O’Shea Santander International Piano Competition. This is his first recording.

Debussy’s Images are frequently recorded, so everyone may have a favourite version of either book. I thoroughly enjoyed the three pieces on this disc which comprise Book 1. ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ is particularly well phrased, and the use of sostenuto pedal is perfect. The frantic faster sections are very clear and bright, and the colours generated are very impressive. ‘Hommage à Rameau’ is just as impressive. The depth in the slightly melancholy meditative opening is perfectly controlled. The slightly busier music which grows organically from about two minutes onwards is also beautifully controlled. This is a most satisfying and interesting performance of a complex work, full of interesting colours and clever contrasts. The perpetuum mobile entitled ‘Mouvement’ whizzes past at a furious pace without much time for a pause for breath. I like the modulation in the left hand, particularly clear here. The contrasting chords in the right hand and their answering phrase in the left are nicely done. The piece gradually ebbs and flows in volume through its short duration. Overall, this is a mature, impressive performance of three rather splendid works.

I was not familiar with any music by Ginastera. He wrote only about a dozen works for piano solo. The rarely recorded first piano sonata from 1952 (late in his composing career) is in a fairly typical four-movement form but it is anything but traditional. The first movement seems to my ears to inhabit a frantic, rhythmically driven world not unlike Kapustin’s jazz-infused work. There are some quite brutal changes of harmony but the work is mostly tonal. There is plenty of virtuosity to tackle, which this young pianist does with some superb control. There is also some lovely playing in the more reflective parts, and it all holds together very well. This is one of those pieces which makes more sense the more one listens to it. It took me a while to understand it but I really like the way that Mr. Choni plays it.

The second movement could almost be a 20th century take on the finale Presto of Chopin’s 2nd Sonata. It is utterly fascinating to hear the contrasts between the very rapid (and difficult-sounding) opening music and the more driven louder parts of the movement. Again, much virtuosity is required here but all is marvellously played and hangs together well. The ending, a complete surprise, leaves me wishing the movement was longer.

The third movement starts very slowly and tragically. It seems to search for where to go but once the initial minute or so is over, things settle down to an almost Debussy-like middle part, full of interesting harmonies and some rather splendid colouring. This gradually moves on to what seems to be the main tune which starts around 2:10. This initially sounds brittle but rapidly grows into something far more robust and powerful before evolving into a very melancholic and thoughtful final couple of minutes. This is a very deep piece with some very interesting sounds and with fine playing.

The finale sounds like an extension of Prokofiev’s early Toccata, Op. 11 (peerlessly recorded by a young Martha Argerich). The opening is very busy indeed but Mr.Choni has no bother with the intertwined nature of the writing. The brief outbursts of loud chords in the further registers of the keyboard are well controlled and do not overwhelm the music. This is a real tour de force for the pianist, who copes fantastically well with the myriad difficulties. This perhaps the most tonal of the four movements makes a fitting conclusion to a very intriguing piece, marvellously played here. The ending is quite a surprise: the work just stops dead in its tracks. This sonata has hints here and there of earlier composers but the writing is very distinctive and interesting, and packs a lot into its almost 15-minute duration. It is well worth getting to know. I shall also seek out the second and third sonatas; it would be interesting to compare the style of those to this piece, as they date from thirty years later in the composer’s career.

Ligeti’s solo piano works have recently begun to become better known. Mr. Choni has found a work that suits his temperament well. This is a very strange little work from the first set of Etudes from 1985, marked to be played with a ‘swing’ to it. It does seem to have an underlying pulse as it meanders up and down the keyboard. There is some very colourful playing and some quite strange-sounding harmonies. The music is not particularly difficult in terms of the number of notes or speed but I think the difficulty lies in the interpretation, which here is spot on. The work reaches the top of the keyboard at the very end and fades away into the ether.

The last and longest work on the disc is Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, the first of the so called “War Sonatas”, written in 1939-1940. I know this piece well; I tried to play it years ago. The first movement starts off at a very rapid pace. There are plenty of chances for Mr. Choni to show his ability to play very rhythmically. This is another piece where he is certainly playing to his strengths. The very difficult piano writing is all dispatched with aplomb, and the contrasts between the witty and sarcastic sections are well pointed up. The violent outbursts are also well controlled (it is easy to overwhelm the music in these complex parts) and overall it works excellently.

The second movement is more problematic. This strange and witty march marked Allegretto first bounces along sardonically before developing into a rather cheerful part about a minute in. It is not happy-cheerful but more of a grimly determined happiness. The plaintive accompaniment in the right hand seems to emphasize this well. The music winds down at about 2:30, almost grinding to a halt shortly afterwards before gradually regaining its momentum and its mocking happyish mood in the last minute or so. All these different dispositions and contrasts are well balanced, and the whole thing flows very smoothly. It is impressive that such a young artist can play this piece this well, so full marks here!

The third movement is again different. The tempo direction is like a slow waltz but the pulse is slow so it is difficult to spot. I particularly like this part of the piece. It is this which encouraged me to try to learn this work. The central section (from about 3 minutes onwards), generally more settled, is practically tonal with some wonderful phrasing and placing of chords. There are some lovely sounds here as well as some more edgy harmonies. The tempo is not all slow although there is a much faster and more violent section about 5 minutes in, which slowly settles down and becomes less agitated as the movement proceeds towards its rather wonderful and much more settled conclusion. The playing is marvellous throughout, and the quieter sections are perfectly judged.
The Vivace finale brings a return to more virtuosity and more sardonic writing. Another of Prokofiev’s earworm tunes bounces around the keyboard while other more driven music occurs elsewhere in the registers of the piano. I have always liked the way the opening phrase crops up with increasing frequency in this movement. Here it is well pointed up so the comparison with the first movement is obvious. The shattering ending to the movement is very loud, shocking and virtuosic . This is a great performance of a justifiably well-known work.

I have listened to this disc intensively, so I can well understand why Mr. Choni won the competition. Despite his young age, the playing is remarkably assured and mature. His ability to shape phrases and to navigate the complex harmonies and rhythms, especially in the Prokofiev and the Ginastera, is superb, and his virtuosity is phenomenal. I look forward to hearing him in other works. A disc of book 2 of Debussy’s Images would be perfect, and I would like to hear what the pianist makes of the very rhythmically driven early Prokofiev works such as the Toccata Op. 11 and Suggestion diabolique from Op. 4. Keep your ears open for this young pianist. He is clearly a remarkably talented artist with much to say.

Jonathan Welsh

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