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 Recording of the Week  Alexandre Kantorow plays Russian piano music

‘Are you sure we haven’t missed out an artist on our listing for that new Russian piano album? There has to be a second pianist playing for the Stravinsky…’. We hadn’t, and there isn’t - but given the jaw-dropping virtuosity on display in the Infernal Dance from The Firebird (and the almost insouciant ease with which it’s despatched here) The Boss can be forgiven for initially assuming that the young French pianist Alexandre Kantorow (still only 19, and making his second solo appearance on BIS with this astonishing collection of Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky) had enlisted an extra pair of hands to help out. King Kastchei’s manic bacchanale has received several fine recent outings from the keyboard in versions for four and even six hands, but Kantorow tackles it in a solo piano transcription by Guido Agosti which makes the composer’s own arrangement for a single player (itself no walk in the park) look like Tunes For Ten Fingers: the speed-of-light excursions from one end of the keyboard to another, the density of the writing, and the sheer range of colours (you’ll barely miss the orchestration) which Kantorow conjures from the instrument may well tempt you to check the booklet to confirm it’s a one-man show even with my disclaimer in place.

Alexandre Kantorow
Alexandre Kantorow

I don’t think I’ve been quite so bowled over by a solo piano recital since Daniil Trifonov’s phenomenal set of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes (one of Presto’s Top Ten Recordings of 2016) turned up in my postbag towards the end of last year, and indeed Kantorow shares many of the stellar qualities which Trifonov displayed there: the underlying sense of calm and space in the face of the technical demands of notoriously challenging repertoire, the unfailing clarity of articulation which never falters regardless of the blackness of the printed page (following the score as you listen to some of this music is no mean feat in itself, but trust me – you won’t need to), and above all an ability to make the instrument really sing even when grappling with fistfuls of chords and the most fiendishly difficult passage-work.

This knack for teasing out cantabile lines which can so easily get swamped (and which are often barely evident on the page itself, given how much is going on elsewhere!) pays particular dividends in the long first movement of Rachmaninov’s First Sonata, which opens the disc, as does Kantorow’s gift for gauging rubato – he applies it fairly liberally in places, but there’s always the sense that he’s simply letting the music breathe rather than overegging the pudding, and the two lyrical Tchaikovsky miniatures also benefit from this approach. (Welcome oases of calm, these, amid the turbulent virtuosity of Balakirev’s infamously taxing Islamey, Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming Scherzo á la Russe and the ‘devil on horseback’ finale of the Faust-inspired Rachmaninov which depicts the anti-hero and Mephistopheles galloping at breakneck speed on two demonic black steeds). But when bravura calls, Kantorow will leave you agog – the final pages of Islamey and that Infernal Dance in particular had several of us laughing with incredulity when we first played the disc.

A recording to treasure, then, especially for the Stravinsky – if the powers that be happen to be reading this, I’d like to put in a request for a Kantorow solo Rite of Spring, but the artist’s website suggests that his next project for BIS will be the Saint-Säens concertos. If I could pre-order it now, I would.

à la russe: Russian Piano Music

Alexandre Kantorow (piano)

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC