Fantasies (CD review)

Piano fantasies of Schumann, Bruckner, Zemlinsky, and Brahms. Stanislav Khristenko, piano. Steinway & Sons 300032. 

According to my Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, a musical fantasy (fantasia, fantaisie, or phantasie) is "generally speaking, a composition in which the 'free flight of fancy' prevails over conventions of form or style. Naturally, the term covers a great variety of types, which may be tentatively classified in five groups: (1) Pieces of a markedly improvisatory character; (2) character pieces of the 19th century; (3) sonatas in freer form, or of a special character; (4) free and somewhat improvisatory treatments of existing themes, often from operas; and (5) in the 16th and 17th centuries, a term for instrumental music that was sometimes used interchangeably with ricercar, tiento, and even praeambulum."

On the present album, Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko--2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition winner--provides examples of fantasies from Schumann, Bruckner, Zemlinsky, and Brahms. They are, indeed, "free flights of fancy," and one could hardly ask for a better an interpreter of them than Mr. Khristenko, whom some reviewers have described as a "poet of piano."

First up, Khristenko tackles the Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The great love of Schumann's life, musician and composer Clara Wieck, inspired the composition, based upon what Schumann described as "the unhappy summer of 1836 when we were separated." They would marry in 1837, and the love and emotion expressed in the Fantasie are obviously quite strong. Khristenko's approach to the piece is both sensitive and powerful, although he seems most comfortable in the latter mode. The gentler themes, like the opening and closing "Clara" motifs, appear a touch less persuasive than the more-turbulent, more-troubled sections in between. But that is only a very personal response, and other listeners may feel just the opposite and appreciate the pianist's ability to convey Schumann's feelings of love and joy above all. Listeners may also hear echoes of Chopin in the second movement, especially.

Next, we find the Fantasie in G major by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Written in 1868, Bruckner's piece is very short, no more than three-and-a-half minutes, lyrical and straightforward. This is about as far from Bruckner's large-scale symphonies as one can imagine--a gentle, tranquil, calming composition, played with affectionate care by Mr. Khristenko, who demonstrates here his ability to convey the tenderest of temperaments.

Stanislav Khristenko
Then, there's the Fantasien uber Gedichte von Richard Dehmel, Op. 9, by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942), written in 1898 and inspired by the poems of German poet and writer Richard Dehmel. If we can accept the opinion of some scholars, Dehmel's main theme in his writings was "Eros" (love and sex), which he saw as a means to break free from the bounds of the middle class. Zemlinsky's four little piano pieces are sweet and evocative, with the pianist again showing us his most sensitive yet mildly passionate side.

Finally, we get the Fantasien, Op. 116, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), written late in his career in 1892. The Fantasien comprise a suite of seven brief, Romantic miniatures, alternating three fast Capriccios with four slower Intermezzos (three of the latter being in a row, Nos. 4-6). The Brahms pieces are among the most virtuosic of the music on the program, and Khristenko handles them with an easy touch. Yet that ease of execution includes a heavy dose of dramatic expression, so he always keeps the listener engrossed. Even if I thought the more-lyric passages just a bit underwhelming compared to the more-robust segments, the overall impression is one of pleasantly restrained and reflective strength.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the piano at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in January 2014. As always with a Sono Luminus production, the sound is mostly excellent. The piano is rather wide, stretching across the speakers, which is a tad distracting, but certainly the actual sound is most pleasing. There's a warmth and resonance about the piano that enhances the richness of the Steinway Model D, yet the sound maintains a healthy degree of detail and definition. It's quite nice, actually.


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