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American Record Guide; November/December 2009
Chopin: Ballades & Scherzos;
Liszt: Mephisto Waltz; Consolation 3;
6 Song Transcriptions; Faust Waltz
ZMI 104 [2CD] 133 minutes

Here is one of the best sounding piano recording I've heard in a long time. Her Hamburg Steinway was spectacularly recorded in late 2007 by Phoenix Audio, and this release is on her own label (ZMI = Zayas Masterworks, Inc.). The performances are on the same high level as the Etudes (below), and this is another recording all Chopinophiles should seek out. While there is no lack of virtuosic playing, the overriding adjective to be used here is “musical”. I can find you plenty of performances of these works at faster tempos or more overtly showy, but none with better phrasing, voicing, or legato lines. Zayas's musicality and insights are always in control.

Another benefit of this release is the nine-page essay by Benjamin Folkman. While Folkman (whose name I recognize from long ago when he played a significant role in getting ‘Switched On Bach’ before the public) may use too many adjectives, his keen insights make it well worth wading through phrases like “turbulent nocturnal forest susurration heightens the poet’s joy at winning his beloved”.

I do have one single disc with both the four Ballades and the four Scherzos squeezed in, but most common is a single CD with one or the other set, filled in with miscellaneous Chopin pieces. Zayas adds a substantial amount of Liszt in addition to the eight big Chopin works. The first disc has three pairs of Liszt song transcriptions: ‘Maiden's Wish’ and ‘My Joys’ by Chopin; ‘Erlkönig’ and ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ by Schubert; ‘Frühlingsnacht’ and ‘Widmung’ by Schumann. Liszt would be quite proud to hear these performances, with just the right balance of clear and shaped melody floating above devilishly difficult accompaniment figurations. Zayas eschews the more commonly heard super-virtuoso approach in favor of a beautiful rendition of each song, with appropriately exciting climaxes. One is never bowled over by the number of notes she manages to control so effectively, but rather by how well these great songs can work as solo piano pieces. The Waltz from Faust is played in a manner much closer to the original in the opera rather than in a big piano showpiece. Possibly the one weakness for me in this release is the lack of blatant virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity, which I often enjoy, and which Liszt is the supreme master of. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to have these performances and will return to them often.

Harrington


American Record Guide; November/December 2009
Chopin: Etudes, all (twice)
Juana Zayas, p
Music & Arts 1229 [2CD] 133 minutes

A unique presentation here, Music & Arts gives us Zayas's 1983 recording (M&A 891, Jan/Feb 1996) coupled with a new (2005) one—both for the price of one disc. The two sets, Op. 10 and Op. 25, 12 etudes each, are accompanied by the later Trois Nouvelles Etudes on both discs, and the timings are listed side-by-side in the booklet. In all but one case (Op. 25:2), her second readings are longer than the first one (usually by less than 10 seconds). The second set total timing is a shade more than five minutes longer. While it is not uncommon for an artist to record the same work a second time, I know of only Ashkenazy who has recorded all these etudes twice (I’m sure our readers could probably enlighten me about others).

Zayas's 1983 recording was originally a Spectrum LP, reissued on CD by M&A. Don Manildi very favorably compared her with Ashkenazy's first recording, Earl Wild, David Saperton, and Alfred Cortot—luminary figures all. It only took the first few bars of Op 10:1 to perk up my ears. By the end of the disc, positive adjectives had piled up: imaginative, alive and always engaging; fearless virtuosity (Op 10:4, Op.25:10-11-12); dreamy lyricism along with humor (Op. 25:5). Suffice to say that I believe this single disc (at full price) is still worthy of consideration as the best available—and there has been a lot more competition over 26 years.

The 2005 recording shows that Zayas has not lost an iota of imagination or pianistic skills, but she has lived with these works, and her interpretations have changed enough for a new recording. On its own, this second one would also be worthy of consideration as the best available. Sonically, it is a touch superior to the 1983 recording, but only by a shade—the first is exceptionally good. The best analogy I can offer is a spectacular young wine, with a wide range of clearly defined taste points. Now after many years in the bottle, it is still the same wine fundamentally, but the sharp edges on the tastes have softened and combined, new ones emphasized, others less prominent. Generalities aside, some etudes, like the famous ‘Black-Key’ are more aggressive the second time around. I predict simply endless pleasure for listeners who compare the two discs etude by etude. Rarely does a new release of very well-known music jump to the top of my list over established favorites. This is an exception.

Harrington


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