Stravinsky: Solo Piano Works (CD review)

Jenny Lin, piano. Steinway & Sons 30028.

My guess is that most folks know Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) mainly as a writer of avant-garde scores, primarily ballets, that helped change the course of modern music. Yet he was much more diverse than that, turning in later life first to a more-traditional, neoclassical style and then to the technique of serialism. And along the way he produced a number of short piano works, things that often go overlooked nowadays. Which is probably why pianist Jenny Linn assembled this album of Stravinsky piano pieces. It's a nice reminder of the man's highly diversified compositional talents.

Incidentally, for those few of you unfamiliar with Ms. Lin, she is a Taiwanese-born American pianist of many talents herself. She began studying piano when she was four, went to the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., and then to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. She received an Artist Diploma from Peabody and a bachelor's degree in German Literature from the Johns Hopkins University. After that, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to study with the pianist Dominique Weber, since then also working with Richard Goode, Blanca Uribe, Leon Fleisher, Dimitri Bashkirov, and Andreas Staier. For the past few decades she has performed in practically every major venue in the world and produced numerous record albums.

So, here Ms. Lin plays Stravinsky, and it's really quite a bit more fun than you might imagine. Or maybe, given that any music by Stravinsky can be fun, you expected that. And given Ms. Lin's often daring programming, you imagined it would be fun from the start. Anyway, it is. She begins with Stravinsky's Piano Sonata of 1924 and runs on through eleven more items, concluding with Guido Agosti's 1928 piano transcription of the composer's Firebird Suite. In between, we find any number of varied and engaging pieces, of which I'll just describe a few.

Oddly enough, by the way, even though I know Ms. Lin's name well enough, I had never actually heard her play until reviewing this disc. She is very persuasive (and, certainly, the material is). She plays with grace and sensitivity, yet with power and authority, too, all the while displaying a virtuosic command of the keyboard.

So, she begins with the Sonata, which is in a traditional three movements and a kind of neoclassical style. But because it's Stravinsky, there are some delightful surprises along the way. The Sonata may be slightly lightweight fare for Stravinsky, but it's really quite charming, especially the middle Adagietto section, with its classical overtones. It's also quite brief, and Ms. Lin plays it with a hint of playfulness.

Jenny Lin
Four ├ętudes come next, which are also quite brief. But Ms. Lin keeps them rhythmically alive and surprisingly lyrical and melodious as the case may be.

Then, Ms. Lin amuses us with some even lighter pieces: Ragtime (with little of Scott Joplin involved because Stravinsky said he had not actually heard any ragtime music, only read the sheet music). Still, it's definitely ragtime, particularly as Lin plays it. A polka, tango, waltz, and more ragtime follow, and they, too, are lightheartedly entertaining, while still showing imaginative touches that only a composer of Stravinsky's creativity might add. Ms. Lin displays an affection for the music, and one cannot help enjoying its sweet spirit (and the waltz's sweet lilt).

The Serenade in A is one of the longer works on the program, four movements patterned after classical "nachtmusik," mostly gentle and serene, the penultimate movement a touch more rowdy than the others. Again, we hear an elegant interpretation from Lin.

Stravinsky wrote Circus Polka for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1942 as a ballet for elephants. Later, human dancers would perform it. Expect more lightweight fun here, which Ms. Lin is quick to exploit in a charming piece.

After a couple of other selections, the program ends with Guido Agosti's piano transcription of three movements from the Firebird Suite. Here, Ms. Lin has a chance to show off her dexterity, power, and composure in one place. Hers is an exciting yet surprisingly poetic reading. Or perhaps not so surprising given all that went before.

Overall, this is a lovely, revealing recital, presented by an artist at the peak of her form.

Producer Dan Mercuruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded Ms. Li at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in June 2013. The equipment they used includes a Metric Halo ULN-8 audio processor and DPA 4006 microphones, and the piano Ms. Lin plays is a Steinway Model D #590904. The piano sound is at once warm and detailed, realistically rich and resonant. It's a pleasant, lifelike affair, set in a most-natural sounding environment. Well, to be fair, we wouldn't have expected anything less from Sono Luminus Studios.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa