Playlist: Composer-pianists

Katie Gilbert Mon 11th September 2017

Composer-pianist or pianist-composer? Either way, here are some of the finest on record...

Perhaps the ultimate composer-pianist on record is Sergei Rachmaninov, synonymous with a highly characterful and powerful musical personality. In his 1934 recording of Variations on a Theme of Paganini with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninov’s spellbinding virtuosity, sonorous forte chords and gossamer pianissimos shine through. It is also a window onto an older performance style. This month’s cover artist, Daniil Trifonov, pays homage to Rachmaninov in his composition Rachmaniana. Recorded in 2015, it consists of five miniatures that form attractive characterisations in a light-touch but sincerely felt style. Aaron Copland’s recording of his Violin Sonata with violinist Louis Kaufman in 1944 clearly shows the sense of musical exchange Copland helps to create, showcasing the sonata’s melting pot of Appalachian folksong and ‘tonal’ dissonance. Copland’s clear attack fosters a beautiful, bell-like piano tone. Federico Mompou’s 1974 recording of his own Paisajes for solo piano perfectly captures the haunting, plaintive qualities of his compositional style. Our sense of time feels dilated, even in fast passages, the effect enhanced by the piano’s tiny downward pitch bend on the note decay. Turning to the voice, we find Benjamin Britten at the piano in 1956 with the tenor Peter Pears recording his cycle Winter Words, a setting of Hardy’s last published collection of poems. He is responsive at every moment to Pears’s bright-timbred vocal line, and carries out his exacting tempo and articulation markings in a way that makes the whole seem effortlessly organic. So tightly woven into the spirit of the song is Britten’s playing that you barely notice the sound quality of the piano as an instrument in itself. Francis Poulenc, recording in 1950, creates a wonderfully silky, luminous piano background accompanying Pierre Bernac in the cycle Banalités, on top of which Bernac plays characterfully with the French language. The piano line is played as an extension of the vocal line, mirroring its inflections and spurring Bernac on to the next phrase. Whether or not these represent ‘authoritative’ versions, the deep psychological insights afforded by a composer injecting performing vitality into his own creation prove endlessly fascinating.

Listen to the playlist on Qobuz

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