Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Juliana Steinbach: Tableaux - Debussy and Mussorgsky

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes [14:16]
L’Isle Joyeuse [6:26]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Tableaux d’une Exposition [34:47]
Juliana Steinbach – piano
Recorded 20-22 January 2010 at Leipzig Mediencampus Villa Ida Stereo DDD
PARATY 110.111 [55:29]

Juliana Steinbach is a name that we don’t hear very often in the UK, which is a great shame given the prodigious talent demonstrated on this recording. France is luckier in this respect, or rather France has been the country that has nurtured her talents; she having moved their at a young age from her native Brazil to study with a succession of distinguished pianists, including Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Debussy and Mussorgsky are composers whose piano repertoire tends to be dominated by players from their respective countries, so it is refreshing to get an outsider’s perspective on some of their most famous works. The Debussy is quite muscular here, but never to the expense of the mystery or the magic. Steinbach has an assured touch and a clear vision for the phrasing structure of this music. Use of the pedal is modest, but again, not overly restrained. I particularly like the contrast that she achieves between the quieter, wispy music and the more forceful chordal passages. In Estampes, the forceful music tends to punctuate the quieter textures, whereas in L’Isle Joyeuse the music gradually builds to a declamatory finale. And what a conclusion it is, bold and assertive, but never overpowering Debussy’s delicate aesthetic.

Pictures at an Exhibition is, quite rightly, treated as a showcase for styles, textures, and for all the different facets of the pianist’s virtuosity. The Promenades are brisk but steady, The Old Castle is wonderfully lyrical, and the various louder passages are supported by an impressively muscular technique. There is more rubato here than Mussorgsky notates, which or may not prove controversial. It certainly individualises the interpretations of many of the movements. In The Market Place in Limoges, for example, the short one- and two-bar phrases are often emphasised by a rit on the fourth beat of many bars. And in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the ascending and descending run figures midway through are performed at a tempo more or less independent of the rest of the movement. But the general impression given by this performance is of precision and clarity. The lengths of detached notes are often on the short side, which may contribute to the sense of order in the playing. The opening passages of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle and of The Hut on Fowl’s Legs are both played very detached. Again, that’s not quite what is in the score, although that is not to say you shouldn’t do it.

But whatever liberties Steinbach takes, both composers are well served by this recording. The sound is good, if a little distant. I have to say that I’m not very keen on the piano. Juliana Steinbach has some sort of standing relationship-cum-sponsorship deal with Blünther, and this recording was made on one of their instruments. It has a very 19th century sound, round of tone, but with little projection and an uneven balance between the registers. It suits the Debussy better than it does the Mussorgsky, but I’d sooner hear both from a more crisply-voiced instrument. Having said that, Steinbach is probably the ideal advocate for an instrument like this; what it lacks in tonal focus, she more than compensates for in clarity of articulation. 

Gavin Dixon 2010

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