À la russe
There are half a dozen encores, or quasi-encores, here that proclaim an outstanding young artist at work – least predictably so, perhaps, the two late Tchaikovsky pieces. Velvety cushioned tone and generous pedalling, allied to obvious special affection, help Alexandre Kantorow to plumb the inexhaustible well of Tchaikovsky’s sympathetic lyricism (especially Schumannesque in the case of ‘Passé lointain’). At the other extreme, Guido Agosti’s blood-and-guts transcription of three numbers from The Firebird shows off the industrial-strength bass of Kantorow’s Yamaha; the early Tchaikovsky Scherzo brims over with panache and relish; and Islamey rivals even Berezovsky for the title of cleanest and most exhilarating modern account.
If Kantorow’s Stravinsky and Balakirev show that his fortissimo can shake the chandeliers from the ceiling when he chooses, his Rachmaninov is notably more classical, as befits a 40-minute sonata. Not that it lacks passion or virtuosity; just that these are properly subordinate to architecture and flow. If this leaves me ultimately a little unsatisfied, that’s because the Sonata needs more emotional extremes – more fantasy, desperation and risk – if it is to justify its length. Niggling doubts about the piano sound caused me to check in the booklet. Not that all Steinways necessarily beat all Yamahas, but in this case I did sense a certain constriction in colouristic range and a lack of orchestral fullness.
Admittedly, by comparison, Ashkenazy’s Steinway on Decca sounds curiously dry, almost strangulated in tone, and at under 34 minutes the playing itself feels at times a little perfunctory. The kind of sound and sensibility I realise I was craving is to be found from Gordon Fergus-Thompson on Kingdom: spacious and orchestral in texture, free and dreamlike in phrasing, clamorous to the point of desperation when called for, and closest of any I have heard to the composer’s own estimated duration of 45 minutes. Encountering it again after a long interval made me forget any faults the piece might have and put it straight on my bucket-list for playing before I die.