If your Feng Shui element is water, this is the disc for you: you'll be surrounded by it. The patter of rain, drops falling from the branches, the wash of the sea and the playful waves, roaring thunderstorms and the sparkling fountains – all kinds and uses of water (except, maybe, drinking) found a way into this program. If your Feng Shui element is not water, you'll enjoy it too.
The music spans more than two centuries. Between every two works of the “old school” the young French-British pianist Jeremy Eskenazi inserts a piece by the contemporary Australian-British composer Alicia Grant. Her music sometimes verges on the minimalistic, but is never schematic; it is approachable, and at the same time musically deep. It was a pleasant discovery.
The album begins with the quicksilver Fountains of the Villa d'Este by Liszt. If you ever visited the Villa d'Este in Tivoli near Rome, you'll remember that its gardens are filled with all possible types of fountains: from the minuscule to the grandiose. All this is reflected in the fluid and glittering music. The performance is expressive, with all voices clearly heard, a natural rubato , and well-presented overall structure. The instrument is a bit watery – but such quality is probably apposite here.
Speaking of evocations of water, one can't pass by Debussy, and there are three of his works. Jardins sous la pluie is a vividly realistic picture. The rain is fast and hard, large drops are falling, beating and bouncing back. Reflets dans l'eau is highly impressionistic and atmospheric. Eskenazi does not soften his touch too much, so it does not become another “dusty pastel” performance: the colors are bright, the hues are saturated, and the sounds are rounded. The tempo is alive, and the entire performance is very youthful. It may not have the wisdom of the great Debussians of the past, but it projects sincere admiration and delight in the sonorities, the harmonies and the wonderful splashes of the sound. Debussy's Joyous Island can definitely be found in the same sea zone as La Mer . We witness the busy bustling of the waves, the gusts of wind, the fresh scents of flowers carried from the shore, the exotic colors of tropical flora. The agitation grows, and the ending is golden and triumphant.
In Beethoven's Tempest sonata, Eskenazi goes by the nickname and gives us thunder and lightning and torrents of rain. His first movement is urgent and expressive, albeit a tad heavy, especially in the development section. It is a graphic, desperate run through the rumbling thunder. Eskenazi's slow movement is march-like and determined, not too reflective, even with echoes of Appassionata . The tempo is slow, and the music has too much static solemnity for my taste, but it is still beautiful, and Eskenazi's intonation sings. If there was not enough drive in the second movement, there is plenty of it in the finale. This is a very intense reading. Like a gentle butterfly amid the gusts of the stormy wind, the music darts and lashes. The tempo is fast, and the entire movement just swooshes past you. Eskenazi applies a beautiful touch to the melody in the high register, but the basses have a Caliban-like roughness, probably on purpose.
Chopin's Prelude is played in a somewhat “straight-in-your-face” manner. The touch is beautiful, but I feel a lack of nuance. The heavy thuds in the middle episode are frightening. The performance of Barcarolle is inspired. It has good momentum and beautiful sound, though again I feel that not all the nuances are brought out, and some places are like flat plateaux, where they could be more curved. On the whole this Barcarolle is a little overweight, but still good.
The works by Alicia Grant intersperse these well-known pieces. In Voice Adrift we hear the slow, rhythmic pulse of the sea, with quiet ripples: misty, gray, unceasing. There is nothing on the horizon. A solitary voice drifts over the wide waters. A feeling of loneliness prevails. But the music is far from static; there is constant movement - a slow swirling. Rainlight is a somewhat minimalistic miniature with a cool blue shimmer. The disc's booklet says of Water Shadow : “This little canon evokes the visual impression of dappled light formed by reflected water droplets”. The sound has an ambient aura, well caught by the recording engineers.
The unsettling Cross Currents is the longest of Grant's compositions presented here. Like most minimalist music, it requires the performer to have a very precise sense of time and rhythm, and Eskenazi meets the challenge. The music starts gently but gradually becomes hard and violent. Then again we enter a quite spot, reflective in all senses of the word. The tension and agitation grow, and all ends in hard, percussive clashes. This is not necessarily pleasing music, but it is certainly enthralling. Surreal Sailing shows us some fantastic visions. I don't see much sailing in this music – or water at all, for that matter. Its character is quirky and percussive, similar to that of Cross Currents , but here is it more varied. Out of Grant's pieces on this album, this one has probably the most action, and the most interesting structure. The performance is well measured and devoted.
On the evidence of this disc, I can say that Jeremy Eskenazi is a promising young artist, with evident talent and style. He plays music from very different periods with flair and persuasiveness. In Grant's pieces, he really understands the composer's intentions and can convey them – although I don't have other performances for comparison. In Chopin and Debussy, what lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in enthusiasm.
The recording has a good acoustic effect, not too close yet with enough volume and vividness. The piano sound is sonorous, occasionally quite ringing. Its surface is smooth and glassy. An aura surrounds the sounds, which is especially appropriate for Alicia Grant's pieces, and does not impede in the more “classical” works. I didn't quite like the low register, which often becomes rough and stomping. This could be the fault of the instrument.
Experiments that mix and match different styles and epochs fail more often than they are successful. The effect of novelty and surprise can help in live concerts. But in the case of CD programs, which are meant for repetitive listening, the misfit may become irritating. In this case the experiment succeeded. The classical works and the pieces by Alicia Grant set each other off nicely. I did not feel the urge to skip anything, even on repeated listening. The music by Grant is beautiful and evocative, and I found the entire concept of the album interesting. These advantages outweigh some minor imperfections in the performance of the “warhorses”.