One of my fellow Fanfare critics made reference, a few issues back, to the “pretty young things playing Chopin” being pushed by DG. One might be tempted to say that Chisato Kusunoki is a “pretty young thing playing Rachmaninoff and Scriabin,” but she has the gift of exquisite phrasing and imparting a deep feeling for the music to her listeners. Certainly, if she is capable of such a feat through the cold impartiality of a CD, she can also do it in live performance.
Listen, for instance, to the magical way she shapes and colors the third of the six Moments Musicaux, or the smoldering intensity of the fourth (Presto). Kusunoki not only knows the notes, as all pianists nowadays do, but she understands what to do between “the piano here and the forte there,” as Toscanini used to say. In short, Kusunoki has a clear view of the music’s structure as well as its color.
Kusunoki’s mastery of Russian music, in fact, is a constant thread throughout this recital. In the Medtner sonata, strong emotion and flurries of counterpoint intermix and complement each other, almost as if the composer were trying to reconcile his twin loves, Bach and Beethoven. Cast in one movement, the music changes mood abruptly and there are several dead stops in it, as if Medtner were trying to decide where to go next, yet the motives are repeated or altered in such a way that a sense of development is created and continuity maintained. At one point, flurries of rapid triplets alternate with slow-moving half notes as if the composer were trying to determine his current mood as much as the listener. At another, he assigns the melody to the left hand while the right plays flurries of 16ths, and occasional tone clusters blur the tonality. Amazingly, Kusunoki is with him every step of the way; listening to her performance, one would almost think that this music reflected her moods and her state of mind.
There is, perhaps, somewhat less drama—or perhaps I should say, fewer contrasting emotions—in her playing of the Scriabin Fantasy. I think, perhaps, that Kusunoki is viewing this music as typical post-Romanticism when, in fact, she should be exploring the mystical quality the music suggests and evokes. In other words, her performance is too outgoing, not personal enough. It is a rare lapse in an otherwise excellent recital, but I hasten to add that it is merely a lapse of musical approach, not a glib or unaffecting performance.
Three of Lyapunov’s 12 etudes close out this recital, and here Kusunoki has judged their musical mood well. Berceuse receives a splendidly warm and intimate performance, both playful in feeling and caressing in spinning out the musical line. Ronde des sylphs could, perhaps, be imparted with a shade lighter touch than Kusunoki gives it, yet her coruscating 16ths have the right angular rhythm and produce their desired effect, and in Tempête she is solidly in her element, caught up as much in the onrush of dazzling figures as the listener.
Despite a bevy of outstanding versions of the Rachmaninoff pieces (including Berman, Ashkenazy, Dejan Lazic, and Ruth Laredo) and competing versions of the Medtner sonata by Gilels and Hamelin, Kusunoki definitely holds her own. In the Lyapunov, I prefer Louis Kentner’s famous and fabulous 1949 recording, currently available on Appian 5620.
A word to the producer of Kusunoki’s records: Please stop using the buzzwords “to great acclaim” when mentioning where she has performed, and if you are going to quote a review from a newspaper or magazine like the London Times, please use the critic’s name. Every young artist nowadays plays “to great acclaim,” even if that great acclaim only comes from a stringer who was assigned the concert because the artist in question was unknown to the principal critic. If you give us the names of the critics who praise pianist X or violinist Y, and we recognize that name as a well-respected critic we can trust, it means much more to us.
Otherwise, this is a superb recital, superbly played and recorded.