Friday, November 30, 2012

Alone with Ryo Yanagitani

When pianist Glenn Gould recorded the piano music of Jan Sibelius, the pianist experimented with what he termed acoustical “orchestration.” Different sets of microphones were placed at various distances from the piano, some only a few inches from the piano, and others yards away from the instrument. The final master tape was a result of a “mixing plan” that “favors (sic) the image of the instrument most appropriate to the music of the moment.” Listening to the recording, the sound is always subtly shifting from one “perspective” to another, all in order to suit the “mood” of the music.

Listening to pianist Ryo Yanagitani’s latest recording – Alone With Debussy – I could not help but think that Gould’s aforementioned recording plan would have further enhanced these already outstanding performances. Let me begin by saying that engineer Chris Cline did an excellent job of capturing the natural sound of the piano, and the recorded sound is one that is wonderfully alive and present. The recording team favoured a sound that presented the piano in a rather close-up fashion, almost like the pick up favoured by jazz pianists. The microphone placement in the present recording perfectly captured the musical character and sound of pieces such as the Prélude, Menuet, and Passpied from the Suite Bergamasque, the Prélude and Toccata from Pour le Piano, and Mouvement from Images. Other pieces, such as the justly famous Clair de Lune, the two Arabesques, and Reflets dans l’eau, I feel, would perhaps benefit from a more distant microphone pickup.

The music of Claude Debussy forms the cornerstone of many of the greatest pianists of our time. For me, as a listener, not every one who plays Debussy, even the greatest pianists, plays him convincingly or idiomatically. When I was younger, I was bowed over by Walter Gieseking, especially the ravishing pianissimos. After a while though, I felt that everything he played began to sound the same. Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli’s playing of the composer benefits from absolutely perfect technical control, but leaves me cold emotionally. Yet another great pianist and artist, Claudio Arrau, was surprisingly heavy handed when he played Debussy.

In this new recording, I find Yanagitani’s interpretation of the many familiar pieces, and the one unfamiliar (for me) Ballade, presented in this recording, both technically impregnable and musically utterly convincing. I loved the spaciousness and impeccable sense of timing in his playing of the Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque, as well as the rhythmic incisiveness of the Menuet, and Passpied. The very much maligned Clair de Lune sounds ravishing in the hands of the young pianist, and shines forth as the masterpiece it is, as does the relatively rarely played Ballade.

Pour le Piano was Debussy’s efforts in fully exploiting the “vast possibilities of color (sic) and texture the instrument has to offer” (from programme notes). It is also a most severe test of the pianist technical and interpretative abilities. Yanagitani very successfully and effortlessly brought out the colours and excitement of the Prélude and Toccata, and conveyed the absolute serenity of the Sarabande.

Ryo Yanagitani sets an equally high level in his playing of Book 1 of Images. The difficulty lies not only in rising to the considerable technical challenges, but in capturing and recreating the composer’s three sonic evocations. Listening to these very pieces reminds me yet again how musical masterpieces can sound new and fresh under the hands of a talented artist, as is case with Mr. Yanagitani.

This is Ryo Yanagitani’s second commercial recording. Both this and his first recording (Alone With Chopin) had been beautifully recorded in San Antonio, Texas. Judging from the playing in this recording, I expect and hope that we will be hearing much more from this talented Canadian artist. Mr. Yanagitani will soon be in residence in Washington, D.C., as a result of being one of the winners of the S&R Foundation’s Fellowship programme. The capital of the free world will, at least temporarily, be the beneficiary of Mr. Yanagitani’s artistry and talents.

Canada must find a way to lure him back to his native land.

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