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Phillip Scott
Fanfare, May 2008

Sangiorgio plays with a freedom that belies the unpianistic complexities of some of these pieces, notably the tricky cross rhythms in the second of the Four Etudes of 1908. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, April 2008

Stravinsky didn’t write a great deal of piano music but he stayed faithful to the instrument, from the Tarantella of 1898 through to the Two Sketches for a Sonata (1967). This Naxos collection spans roughly four decades and gives the listener some idea of Stravinsky’s evolving musical character. The early works are heavily influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the neo-classical ones by his interest in 18th-century forms. And then there are the pieces from the last 30 years of his life, which are not represented here.

This recording originally appeared on the now defunct Collins label and Naxos must be commended for returning it to the catalogue. The Italian-born pianist Victor Sangiorgio, who grew up in Perth, Western Australia, is a commanding performer, he seems keenly attuned to the many moods of this music, from the frothy little Scherzo of 1902 to the more technically demanding Serenade and Piano Sonata Stravinsky wrote for himself in the 1920s.

The forceful opening of the F sharp minor Sonata of 1903-04 sounds remarkably like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at their most imperious. That said there is a startling clarity to the writing, which Sangiorgio captures very well indeed. He is helped in no small measure by the lucid recording, which brings out inner detail and articulation without ever sounding harsh or brittle.

The Scherzo benefits enormously from this acoustic, the cascading figures so deftly – yet charmingly – rendered. The more elegiac Andante finds Stravinsky in uncharacteristically reflective mood, Sangiorgio’s playing suitably expansive, even rhapsodic, at times. Surely this movement is the most Beethovenian in structure and weight, even though the thematic material is somewhat overworked. No matter, this is a substantial, varied and vigorous piece that only loses its way in the overextended Allegro – Andante.

The Op. 7 Etudes of 1908 hark back to their 19th-century predecessors but they are distinguished by an economy of style, especially in the second Etude. There is a restless energy in the first and fourth Etudes, Sangiorgio bringing out the rhythms with considerable flair. And although there’s a Bachian flavour to the florid second and fourth studies they have just enough character and verve to avoid becoming tedious.

No time for tedium in the bare-boned little Piano-Rag-Music (1919). This is concentrated Stravinsky, the ‘ragged time’ element distilled down to its very essence, the tune glimpsed beneath broken chords and meandering melodies. The irregular rhythms may hint at Le Sacre but the music’s underlying jauntiness is artfully maintained throughout.

The neo-classical formality of the Piano Sonata (1924) is unmistakable, veering more towards the baroque in the filigreed writing of the second movement and the Bachian two-part invention of the third. How like a harpsichord Sangiorgio makes the Adagietto sound, delicate yet crisply projected and tastefully proportioned. This is no mere pastiche, but a highly-skilled and individual homage to an earlier musical era.

Next to the Sonata the Serenade seems a little more relaxed. The opening of ‘Hymn’ evokes the peal of bells and although the rest of the movement has a baroque cast it’s all filtered through the prism of Stravinsky’s own imagination. Ditto the Romanza, which is outwardly calm and unruffled yet rhythmically unsettled. Once again Sangiorgio’s playing is a model of precision and proportion, especially in the highly-ornamented Rondoletto and the free-flowing Cadenza. A lesser piece than the sonata, perhaps, but eminently satisfying nonetheless.

Dance was an essential part of Stravinsky’s musical make-up and some of the latert piano pieces – Tango (1940) and the Circus Polka (1941-42) – confirm that. Tango most resembles Piano-Rag-Music in its pared-downed structure, yet this and the polka are cleverly sustained by their distinctive dance rhythms. The latter, originally an orchestral piece written for Barnum & Bailey, even has a modicum of humour in its awkward, tramping gait. Sangiorgio plays this a little faster than usual but it’s a showpiece in its own quirky way.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, March 2008

Even seasoned collectors often don’t realize the vast range of the music of Igor Stravinsky. When we delve into his piano music we begin to see what a terrifically wide range is his stylistic diversion, especially in the earlier years when he was still seeking his muse. This release, presenting us some rarely heard pieces from mainly the turn-of-the-century, is ear-opening in many regards, as the composer show himself to be a remarkable innovator and absorber of various currents flowing fast when he was just trying to grapple with his own styles and predilections.

The three short pieces on this disc, Piano-Rag-Music, Tango and Scherzo make for interesting fillers, the former especially giving us a sample of the some of the madcap rhythmic antics to come, but it is the sonatas and other music that prove the most illuminating. His Piano Sonata in F-minor is absolutely Scriabinesque—this is a perfect party piece, for never, unless they are already familiar with it, would anyone guess that Stravinsky was the author. For his critics, who later said that he really could not write any music other than the stuff he did because of technical limitations, with the extreme rhythmic and melodic inclinations that sometimes even foreshadowed Minimalism, this will be a great surprise, showing him to understand the romantic and extreme harmonic textures of Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov to a remarkable degree. And what is even better is that the work holds it own—it is a bona-fide sonata that has much to commend it, and I enjoyed it greatly.

The later Piano Sonata hails from 1924 and shows that the composer had discarded the romanticism he was flirting with, in this much more acerbic and ascetic work that nonetheless does not entirely jettison its melodic origins. The Four Etudes also bring back hints of Scriabin and Chopin - true etudes as they tackle different technical problems in each one, such as chromatics and multiple rhythms across the hands. When we arrive at the Serenade in A we are on more familiar ground as the composer we would come to know as the cementer of neo-classicism speaks with an authoritative voice.

Victor Sangiorgio, a pianist new to me, plays this music with authority and assertiveness, captured in excellent sound at St. John’s Church in Essex, and the thing has been wearing out my player. If you thought you knew Stravinsky and have not heard this music, there is a wonderful revelation waiting in store for you!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2008

Piano music was a small part of Stravinsky’s catalogue of works to which he added through much of his early life, and in addition to the music on this disc, he took an active part in the reduction of his ballets into piano scores, including the fiendishly difficult dances from Petrushka. We hear how quickly he progressed from the early Piano Sonata of 1904, where the world of Tchaikovsky is ever present, passing through the Scriabin influenced 1908 Four Etudes and onto the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour of the Piano Rag Music composed in 1919, ending with the more austere Piano Sonata of 1924. Having already given us the benchmark recording of Stravinsky’s piano music from Peter Hill, Naxos return once again to it with a reissue of a fine disc that was available on the Collins label in the early 1990’s. Often exacting on technique, this new Naxos release is played by the highly regarded Australian-born pianist, Victor Sangiorgio, who at the time of recording in 1991 was resident and creating a major career in the UK. Comparing the performances with Hill, you feel that Sangiorgio is more readily at home in the early Romantic influenced scores, his rhythmic freedom in the early Sonata turning the music into pure Rachmaninov, the scherzo wonderfully playful. Hill’s clean-cut playing is highly persuasive in the later works, and he throws in for good measure a virtuoso Petrushka. Choice between the two is certainly not easy, both enjoying excellent sound quality that rather reflects the quality of the performances.

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