Kociuban Plays Tansman & Bacewicz

comver - DUX1612

TANSMAN: Piano Concerto No. 1. BACEWICZ: Piano Concerto / Julia Kociuban, pno; Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic Orch.; Paweł Przytocki, cond / Dux 1612

The Polish CD label Dux puts out a lot of interesting CDs, but since they are fairly stingy in sharing their audio tracks, cover art & booklets with Naxos for reviewers to download I don’t get to review nearly as many of them as I would like. Happily, this one turned up on the media-only download site, thus I was able to enjoy and review it.

Both Tansman and Bacewicz were Polish-born composers, yet their music reflects very different aesthetics. Tansman, who spent much of his life in France, was more strongly influenced by the modern French school of Poulenc as well as the Russian expatriate Stravinsky, whereas Bacewicz, who spent her entire career composing in Poland, leaned more heavily on Shostakovich and Bartók. Neither concerto in this wonderful CD is much played or recorded, which is a shame.

In its very opening, the Tansman concerto sounds almost late Romantic, but the mood quickly shifts once the piano enters, with the harmonies becoming spikier but not too much so that it would alienate the lover of Prokofiev or Milhaud. As I’ve pointed out in numerous reviews of his music, Tansman was a superb craftsman who understood musical structure and development and was not shy about leaning on them heavily, even in his jazz-influenced piano pieces. Without knowing this work well—this was my first hearing of it—I can’t say how effective Paweł Przytocki’s conducting is, but it seemed to me that Kociuban, a 28-year-old pianist who was an entrant in the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, sounded very engaged to me. She has a wonderfully clear sound at the keyboard, and plays with a crisp touch and good emotional engagement without sacrificing good articulation. The lyrical second movement of this concerto sounded very Prokofiev-like to me, with a soaring lyric line over what I like to call Eastern European chords—a bit exotic, even somewhat Moorish, to Western ears. Here, too, one can appreciate the richness and subtlety of Tansman’s orchestration, particularly in the way he mixes winds and muted brass.

The third movement is very playful, in a Poulenc-like style, albeit with an undercurrent of slightly ominous brass (trombones and horns). High-lying, rapid passages in the pianist’s right hand are combined with flutes and clarinets as they try to overcome the darker world of the brass. The fourth movement, also very fast (“Allegro molto”), has moments of quietude to break up the forward pressure of the fast passages. For the most part, Tansman has the pianist ride above the orchestra, almost creating its own filigree of sound while the orchestra does its own thing.

The Bacewicz concerto, despite a fanfare-like opening, is an altogether more serious work, leaning heavily on staccato rhythms and sharply-etched fanfare-like figures in the orchestra. As with Tansman, Bacewicz seems to overlay the piano part on the orchestral, but the soloist has much meatier and less flashy music to play, and at times the orchestra picks up where the piano left off to continue the musical thought. At about 3:20 Bacewicz sets up repeated strokes of the tympani under the full orchestra, then both fall away as the pianist plays a slower, more meditative interlude with a few winds and soft, low strings before the tempo is ramped up again. But this first movement is full of mood and tempo shifts, even including a lyrical solo cello melody towards the end. The movement ends quite abruptly, followed by soft, edgy viola tremolos while low winds play an ominous theme. When the piano enters, it is to play a relatively slow theme that appears to ramble but in actuality is part of the evolving scheme.

But oh, that third movement! It explodes like a bomb and then takes off like a rocket, scattering fast, edgy notes to the winds, not only from the pianist but also from the flutes with help from the brass, strings and xylophone. Moments of respite come and go, but we keep returning to that dramatic-edgy feeling, eventually culminating in the pianist playing wild upward keyboard glissandi interspersed with edgy eighth-note figures from the piccolo while the rest of the orchestra boils madly around it. What a wild ride!

This is an excellent disc, the Bacewicz concerto being even better than the Tansman. I sincerely hope that young Kociuban continues to involve herself in projects like this. We desperately need more young pianists, violinists, cellists and conductors who involve themselves in more 20th and 21st-century music than we do now. Brava!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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