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A Bortkiewicz “Letter” From Zhenni Li-Cohen

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

It’s gratifying to see more and more pianists exploring the luxuriant keyboard idiom of Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952) on disc. He was not the most memorable nor original tunesmith on the planet; one immediately thinks of Grieg, Rachmaninov, or early Scriabin. Even Chopin: the fifth of Bortkiewicz ‘s Six Pensées Lyriques Op. 11 wouldn’t exist without that composer’s Nocturne Op. 37 No. 2. Yet you’re captivated while you listen, mainly because Bortkiewicz understood everything about the piano. His keyboard writing deploys registers with the utmost mastery, while imaginatively varying decorative figurations.

Zhenni Li-Cohen mixes and matches 13 short works that showcase her fine technique and sympathy with the idiom. In the Nocturne Op. 24 No. 1, she shapes the right-hand cantabiles more like a singer than a pianist, while giving the left hand its vocal due as well. Ein Brief is an especially cogent example of Li-Cohen’s smoothly proportioned rubato, along with the organic interaction of bass lines, inner voices, and melodies.

Her smartly timed pauses and hesitations throughout the Gavotte-Caprice bring out the music’s wistful undercurrents, even though I personally prefer a brisker, more straightforward approach. Similarly, the fourth of the Op. 13 Preludes could stand a little more ferocity and dynamic oomph. But because most of the selections are reflective in nature, they play to Li-Cohen’s lyrical and poetic strengths.

While newcomers to this composer will find more musical variety in the selections encompassing Nadejda Vlaeva’s terrific all-Bortkiewicz CD on Hyperion (including his Sonata No. 2: a minor masterpiece), Li-Cohen’s attractive program is no less satisfying, as are the informative booklet notes by the pianist’s husband Matthew Cohen.

Recording Details:

Album Title: A Letter
Reference Recording: None for this collection

    Soloists: Zhenni Li-Cohen (piano)

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