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Schubert Sonatas and Ecologically Sound Pianism

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Franz Schubert: Major Piano Works, Vols. 1, 2, and 3. Seymour Lipkin, piano. (Newport Classic, NCD 60175/2, NCD 60176/2, NCD 60177/2)

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It’s no accident that references to the weather keep popping up in the liner notes of this new release by Seymour Lipkin, such as the “wintry bleakness” of the Sonata in A Minor (D. 537), or the “tempestuous middle section” of the Andante in the B Major (D. 575). Schubert loves the stormy and the serene side by side. In six CDs, Lipkin, who has taught piano at Juilliard since 1986, surveys all of the sonatas, plus the delightful Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, bringing a distinguished career to bear on his sophisticated musical judgments throughout. Airiness and elegance infuse the aforementioned B-major Sonata, although high-voltage gusts appear when needed. But Lipkin’s restraint in allowing quiet moments—and silences—to speak is one of the hallmarks of this survey.

Like in the composer’s lieder, intimacy is everywhere in these piano tours de force. The A-minor Sonata (D. 845) is a fine example: Lipkin coaxes the tenderness that is never too far from the surface, which even a few moments of scurrying speed can’t dispel. He imbues the Sonata in G Major (D. 894) with melancholy and hesitation, and the final three—posthumous masterpieces of enigmatic, contrasting emotions—are given appropriate gravitas. Amid the dark cumulus clouds of the C-minor Sonata (D. 958) the slow movement stands like a lighthouse on the shore. The great Sonata in A Major (D. 959) vacillates between complex interludes and passages that are disarmingly simple. In Schubert’s final take on the form, the B-flat major, Lipkin shows seasoned patience as the composer’s rhapsodic ideas unfold.

Perceptive and detailed notes by Piero E. Weiss provide intelligent context with some imagination, such as the finale of the A minor (D. 784) that scuttles eerily through the night.” The sound engineer, Philip McClelland, has framed Lipkin’s work with close-in consistency over the cycle.

Re!nvented. Soyeon Lee, piano. (Koch International Classics, KIC CD 7759)

Sometimes a public relations gimmick happily turns out to be more than that. Pianist Soyeon Lee, who received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, as well as an Artist Diploma, from Juilliard, scored a major coup at Zankel Hall in February 2008, when her concert attire threatened to overshadow her artistry. (More on that in a minute.) Lee’s eclectic program duplicates that recital, starting with Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor from his second solo violin partita, a forceful opening, and as with the entire program, beautifully caught at Purchase College by highly sought-after engineer Adam Abeshouse. Busoni adds considerable heft to the violin part, and Lee rises to the challenge as she moves through the variations, even finding a tiny respite of quietude before the conclusion. 

Her sensitivity continues in the first book of Albéniz’s Iberia, with gorgeous shadowy touches amid sensual abandon. The final Fêtedieu à Séville shows a relaxed virtuosity. Similarly, the ominous rumbling of Ravel’s La Valse shows her technical prowess and a supple hand, as she calmly combines angst and glitter, whirling to a terrifying climax. 

In a complete change of mood, she tackles Divergence by Huang Ruo. The composer, who holds a master’s and a doctorate from Juilliard, adds his own striking vocals in the final section to the nervous, rattling texture. Lee ends the disc with a propulsive reading of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata with meticulous attention to rhythm, while not overlooking the composer’s more subdued murmurs.

The above mentioned concert attire—a sweeping dress made from thousands of recycled juice containers—was apparently just the tip of Lee’s green iceberg. She continues the eco-theme with the disc’s artful front and back covers, made from shards of potato chip packages, thanks to a new process championed by her husband. I don’t often say this—and taking nothing away from her dazzling performance—but it’s almost worth getting the CD for its housing alone, probably destined to become a collector’s item.

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