Rachmaninoff: Variations & Transcriptions / Mechetina

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If you enjoy full-blooded Rachmaninoff, here’s an enterprising young pianist to hear with joy now, and watch carefully in the future.

One harrowingly difficult set of variations by Rachmaninoff and a variety of his best-known transcriptions: this is not debut material for the pianistically faint-of-heart. But then, Ekaterina Mechetina is anything but faint-hearted. This collection was shrewdly chosen to emphasize some of her more spectacular qualities, and in general, it succeeds well.

Mechetina is an aggressive player and a superb technician, facts that immediately become apparent in the Corelli Variations. She plays with complete mastery of the music at any tempo, and seems especially to relish the challenge of the faster, more complex variations—such as the furious seventh, marked vivace, with its giant bell in the bass never obscuring the theme and avalanche of figurations riding above it, or the quicksilver 10th variation, with its extremely clean and even articulation. The late Romantic rhetoric of the fourth and 15th variations find her warm and committed, with a natural rubato and long-breathed phrasing. Similarly, she doesn’t lose her way in the freer passages of the 14th, cimbalom-like variation; while the arpeggiated runs that twice erupt during its length coruscate. The way the pianist plays the opening theme demonstrates yet another useful virtue, all too rare these days: the ability to perform slowly, solemnly, without any trace of nerves or need to push ahead.

Many of the same features are shown elsewhere on this release. The Bach selections are bright and cleanly articulated, with an assertive attack that the pianist softens well. Not that this is soft playing, however, but vibrant, angular, and often rich, in keeping with the personal and deliberately non-authentic nature of these piano transcriptions. I did find a couple of passages in the Gavotte hard in tone, however. It points to the one fault in Mechetina’s rendition of this music: a certain want of color. She’s certainly not steely-fingered on this recording, but tends to deploy the panoply of techniques used to control this aspect of pianism (dynamics, fingering, pedaling, etc) far more discreetly than she does the others. As a result, the Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov lack gossamer, though they have all the point, clarity, and accuracy at caffeinated tempos one could desire. Her versions of Lilacs and the Cradle Song are persuasively lyrical, but the two Kreisler numbers are just a bit too prosaic despite their virtuosity to be completely convincing.

As for Mechetina herself, she was a student of Vladimir Ovchinnikov at the Moscow State Conservatory until 2001. (You may remember Ovchinnikov as tying in 1982 with Peter Donahue for second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, with no first prize awarded.) Since then, she’s done postgraduate work with Sergei Dorensky, has toured extensively, and won high honors in several competitions—most notably, first place at the modestly titled 2004 World Piano Competition in Cincinnati. She’s clearly being groomed as star material, and on the evidence of this album, well on her way to achieving this.

The liner notes are a mixture of obsequious swooning and translation babble. (“A brief but already rich in events artistic way of Ekaterina Mechetina strikes one not only by the swift impetuosity of her upward flight to the musical Olympus but also by gradual but invariably steadfast and consistent advance to the summits of musical mastery.”) Sound is very good, however, with relatively close placement to the microphone, a brightness to the top, and richness to the lower registers.

With all she has going for her, the only major surprise on this release is that Mechetina’s debut has been provided courtesy of Fuga Libera rather than a more established label; and with funding furnished (we are told repeatedly throughout the liner notes and on the jewel box) by Netexis Asset Management, part of the French Banque Populaire Group. Was nobody at EMI, Warner Classics, cpo, or any of the other major labels willing to take a chance on someone of this caliber? I suppose not. In any case, if you enjoy full-blooded Rachmaninoff, here’s an enterprising young pianist to hear with joy now, and watch carefully in the future.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Release Date: September 01, 2007

  • UPC: 5425005575134

  • Catalog Number: FUG513

  • Label: Fuga Libera

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Fritz Kreisler, Georges Bizet, Johann Sebastian Bach, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov

  • Performer: Ekaterina Mechetina