– and other favorite piano pieces
Georgina Zellan-Smith (piano)
Ode Records CDMANU 5101
I must confess my first reaction upon receiving this CD was of surprise that so gifted an executant as Georgina Zellan-Smith would expend so much of her energies on “faded trifles” such as these. Especially in the wake of the same pianist’s excellent Beethoven/Hummel CD, whose interesting and unique compilation of repertoire “enlarged” the piano-playing world for me, I thought this collection seemed, by comparison, somewhat surplus to requirements, replicating many such “Great Piano Melodies” or “Gems of the Piano Repertoire” kind of presentations.
What I didn’t take into account was the pleasure to be had from listening to a sensitive and insightful interpreter cast fresh light on these pieces. Being the child of a piano teacher, I had every note, every phrase of both “Remembrance’ and “The Robin’s Return” indelibly etched upon my musical memory, albeit refracted through the all-too-fallible fingers and youthful sensibilities of my mother’s piano pupils. I fancy she would occasionally have pushed them off the piano stool in frustration and actually demonstrated how certain passages would go, which would account for my having more-or-less musically coherent memories of each piece – and in the case of “Remembrance’ probably augmented by performances on the radio of people like Gil Dech.
Georgina Zellan-Smith plays each of these opening “flagship” pieces with what I can only describe as exquisite taste – she fuses a judicious amalgam of bright-eyed clarity with occasional dollops of ambiently-yellowed sentiment; and in each case the result is, for me, well-nigh irresistible. Apart from a slight mis-hit in “Remembrance” she makes every single note tell. The same goes for the following item, the ever-popular “Rustle of Spring”, one of the great “light” pieces of piano music, here conjuring up even more childhood memories, so that, like Dylan Thomas’s boyhood self in his story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, I’m forced to plunge my hands into the piece’s snowfall of notes and come up with whatever I can grasp – such is the compulsion of the resonances unlocked by this music.
Christian Sinding’s lovely seasonal piece reminds me, along with Edward McDowell’s “To A Wild Rose”, of other miniature works whose elegant craftsmanship has ensured their immortality – another example, though not on this recording, is Debussy’s “Clair de lune”. In all of these pieces the music’s intrinsic qualities reward in some way even the most interpretatively bland performances. “Rustle of Spring” in particular has a certain “layered” quality beneath the exquisite harmonies, allowing different performances to uncover whatever their interpretative capacities can realize. Sinding cleverly plays with both major and minor modes throughout, knowing when to flood his textures with sunbeams and when to drift the mists back through the sound-vistas – it may be unashamed emotional manipulation, but I dearly love it. Georgina Zellan-Smith’s performance of Sinding’s piece takes its time at the outset, gradually allowing the Spring’s impulses to awaken the textures, though her unhurriedness meant that some of the left-hand figurations lack the occasional touch of volatility and energy. Still, if pressed I would state a preference for her way to the rather more superficially exciting, but often somewhat mechanical renditions by other pianists I remember hearing.
Grieg’s “To the Spring” evokes seasonal change more ritualistically, though the piquancy of both textures and harmonies can’t help but exert a gradual spell upon the listener. A casual hearing suggests that Zellan-Smith plays the notes “straight” at the outset, but if one listens and breathes the phrases with the pianist, one feels their varied pulsations, sensitively and subtly delineated. Even more abstracted is the same composer’s “Papillon”, or “Butterfly” as it’s called here, the angular delicacies of the creature’s flight being less quicksilver and gossamer, and more studied under Zellan-Smith’s hands, like an oriental etching on a screen or fan, exchanging volatility for grace and elegance.
There are too many pieces to fully comment upon individually – some are predictably engaging as performances (Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca”, for example), while others lie in wait to snare the unsuspecting in nooses of delight (Liadov’s “A Musical Snuff Box” for one). Albert Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” is a rip-roaring success, here, its quaint chocolate-box exoticism given a bit of extra grunt by the pianist in places with strongly-etched rhythms and glowing harmonic colorings. Another success is Handel’s eponymous “Largo”, here completely avoiding the treacly ooze generated by numerous Victorian arrangements for organ and orchestra, in favor of a clearly-etched cavatina-like outpouring of lyricism, far more in keeping with Handel’s original, from the opera “Serse”. And I loved hearing the Paderewski Minuet again (I used to listen to Jose Iturbi’s 78rpm recording of the work, which was on the “B” side of Iturbi’s recording of THE Prelude by Rachmaninov). Zellan-Smith’s delight in the dance comes across as sprightly as with any polonaise.
In short, far from sounding like “faded trifles”, a lot of the pieces re-emerge as glowing gems in Georgina Zellan-Smith’s hands, with everything nicely characterized and differentiated. From the sultry indolence of Mendelssohn’s G Minor Gondola piece we’re taken to the scented elegance of the Russian night with Anton Rubinstein’s Romance, for example; and while the third of Franz Liszt’s Consolations creates whole vistas of refined romantic sentiment, its old-worldliness sets off Kiwi composer Douglas Lilburn’s bright, breezy, out-of-doors Prelude which follows, to perfection. While I thought Auguste Durand’s Waltz a bit of a long haul, I was delighted with another old friend, Gabriel Morel’s Norwegian Cradle Song, amply prepared for with a beautifully-modulated performance of the Adagio from Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata.
A beautiful and simple rendition of Princess Te Rangi Pai’s “Hine e Hine” leads to the disc’s final item, “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, by James L. Molloy, one of these songs whose main tune is familiar, but which brings with it a verse-refrain that I don’t recall, possibly through not having ever heard it. The music’s delivered with the poise and grace that distinguishes the playing throughout. Touchingly, Zellan-Smith has dedicated the CD to the memory of long-time music retailer Murray Marbeck, whose idea instigated this project, but who died before its completion. Recorded in the Music Theatre at Auckland University by Wayne Laird, and released by Ode Records, the excellently-caught piano sound rounds off a venture whose artistic success has, I freely admit, set my ears attuned to the strains of an oven-timer, about to signal that my humble pie is cooked and ready to be eaten.
Stop Press: Georgina Zellan-Smith is giving a recital in Wellington at a house-concert on Tuesday 22nd November: seating is limited, so e-mail email@example.com for booking information.