Prokofiev & Zaborov / Jenny Lin

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The Taiwanese-American pianist Jenny Lin has her fans at MusicWeb; in 2000 Colin Clarke welcomed her BIS collection, Chinoiserie, and Brian Reinhart was much heartened by Get Happy, an album of show tunes she recorded for Steinway in 2012. In between Lin’s shown herself to be quite versatile, encompassing the music of Federico Mompou (Steinway STNS 30004) and Dmitri Shostakovich (Hänssler 98.530). She may be new to me, but I’ve recently become acquainted with the Steinway label through Stewart Goodyear’s Nutcracker arrangement and Franz Liszt’s opera and song transcriptions with Gábor Farkas.

As for this recording, it’s made on their behalf by Sono Luminus, at their studios in Boyce, Virginia. The team, which includes Dan Merceruio, Daniel Shores and David Angell, did a splendid job on the Nutcracker; their most recent work for SL – Recurrence, the first in a projected series with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Lara Downes’s America Again – is top-notch, too. The wild card here is the composer and pianiste de jazz Kirill Zaborov. Born in Minsk in 1970, but now resident in France, he writes in the booklet that his music is ‘partially inspired by [the] 20th-century Russian tradition’. The pieces played here date from 2011/12.

In those same notes Zaborov insists Prokofiev’s Op. 4 reflects political tensions in Russia at the time. That may be debatable, but what’s very clear is the music’s startling and provocative break with the past. Lin certainly emphasises the restless angularity of Prokofiev’s writing, its uncompromising nature expressed in glittering figures in the right hand and pounding ones in the left. This is a superb performance, precisely articulated and fearlessly scaled, especially in the fiendish Suggestion diabolque. As expected, the recording copes well with these challenging dynamics. Happily, there’s no added edge or hardness to the sound either.

That energy and unflinching accuracy also informs Lin’s approach to the Cinderella transcriptions. That said, she can be gentle and affectionate too – take the start of the Waltz (Cinderella and the Prince), for instance – modulating to something stronger and more declamatory when required. In short, nothing seems to faze this pianist, who really does have a feel for these delectable tunes; indeed, her playing is a reminder – if it were needed – that Cinderella is one of Prokofiev’s most inventive scores. I was very taken with the pellucidity and point of Cinderella’s Variations and The Quarrel, the low comedy of the latter particularly well caught.

Not surprisingly, the complex interplay of left and right hands in Cinderella’s Departure for the Ball holds no terrors for Lin, who’s so easeful at this point. Her control of phrase and colour is exemplary too – just sample the Pas-du-chale­ – and the mix of wistful charm and quiet exultation in the Amoroso is a joy to hear. And I do like the way the final note is allowed to decay, without a sudden switch to ‘digital silence’. The problem, of course, is that music of such quality sets the bar dauntingly high for Zaborov.

The first piece is a set of variations based on the title song that Shostakovich composed for the 1932 Soviet film Counterplan. The connection with Zaborov’s homeland doesn’t end there; as he points out, the lyrics were written by his maternal grandfather, the poet Boris Kornilov. These jewelled fragments – most last for half a minute or so – have admirable clarity and shape, not to mention plenty of variety. Then again, one would expect nothing less from the pen of a man who’s also a jazz pianist.

According to Zaborov, his 9 Variations for Piano was inspired by his first visit to Florence, which he describes as ‘the cradle of the Renaissance’. There’s a restrained floridity to the writing that seems apt, with moments of quiet reflection in between. As ever, Lin is very much in control of her material, bringing out every flourish and curlicue. This is tasty fare, with just enough flavour to tickle one’s palate. The detailed, naturally balanced piano sound adds to the relaxed, unassuming appeal of the piece.

Any gripes? Yes, the very poor translation – from French – of Zaborov’s liner-notes. His frankly nonsensical comments about the 10 Apparitions are a case in point. Really, there’s no excuse for such sloppiness in a premium product such as this. That aside, the music is pleasant, if not memorable. In fact, there are times when it threatens to outstay its welcome. As for the three-movement Suite entrelacs, ‘inspired by baroque structures’, it combines mobility with newfound weight and amplitude. Even then, it’s Lin’s playing, rather than the music itself, that kept me listening to the end.

They say the best way to divert attention from a mediocre painting is to give it an eye-catching frame. I’m certainly not suggesting Zaborov’s work is anything less than accomplished, just that it’s apt to pale when enclosed by music of such range and sophistication. Still, having at one’s disposal a pianist of Lin’s calibre ensures the canvas is displayed to maximum advantage. Few contemporary composers are so fortunate.

Intelligent and imaginative music-making, coupled with first-rate sound; a shame about the booklet, though.

– MusicWeb International (Dan Morgan)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: STNS30055

  • UPC: 034062300556

  • Label: Steinway & Sons

  • Composer: Kyrill Zaborov, Sergei Prokofiev

  • Performer: Jenny Lin