PHILLIP KAWIN • Phillip Kawin (pn) • MASTER PERFORMERS DISTINGUISHED ARTISTS 001 (78:00) BEETHOVEN 7 Variations on God Save the King, WoO 78. Piano Sonata No. 23, "Appassionata". SCHUMANN Fantasiestücke, op. 12: Des Abends; Warum? PROKOFIEV Piano Sonata No. 7. SCHUMANN/LISZT Widmung & Conversation between David Dubal and Phillip Kawin on Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Schumann
By Myron Silberstein
I breathe a sigh of trepidation whenever I receive a recording of repertoire as firmly entrenched in the canon as the works on this disc. And I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear such repertoire played with the subtlety, maturity, individuality, and musicality this recording by Phillip Kawin demonstrates. The wonderful thing about standard repertoire is that there is room for competing interpretations, so long as they are thoroughly developed. It is foolish to ask, for example, if a Beethoven performer has outdone Schnabel. Schnabel has his unique, expert stance on Beethoven, but it is not the only expert stance. The problem is that the historically recognized experts at such repertoire are so very fine, and the catalog is so rich in venerable, superb performances of such repertoire, that a contemporary performer must achieve a very high level of playing to make an impression. (A corollary to this problem is that the standard repertoire is so dominant in pianists' awareness that it is often the automatic choice of pianists, whether or not they are equal to it.)
Phillip Kawin has served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music since 1989. As he indicates in the conversations with David Dubal included both on the disc and as its liner notes, most of the pieces on the recording have been in his repertoire for over 40 years. They are works he identifies with — he refers to the Prokofiev Sonata as his "signature piece" and states that he has "never had any conflict with this piece as far as what [he] want[ed] to express with it." His playing of the first movement is clean and brisk, almost a minute shorter than Horowitz's recording. Many pianists treat the motor rhythms in this movement as aggressive; it is one of Prokofiev's "war sonatas," after all. But Kawin's treatment evokes the hectic, urban, bureaucratic environment of apparatchik officialdom. Similarly, Kawin plays the omnipresent bass motif in the third movement as a genuine idée fixe, steady in inflection while the other voices ebb and flow above it. The effect is celebratory and infectious. I prefer a more effusive, expansive approach to the more lyrical sections of the first movement and to the second movement, but Kawin's somewhat cooler treatment is highly convincing on its own terms.
Kawin's performance of the "Appassionata" Sonata emphasizes the startling contrasts between dynamics and textures in Beethoven's score. He allows the opening phrases to end abruptly, not softening the effect by slowing into the cadence. He similarly uses minimal rubato in the quiet chromatic run that transitions out of the second theme, never anticipating the explosive bass tremolos that follow. It is rarely so apparent that the first movement is constructed in discrete blocks of sound. Kawin treats the second movement's theme orchestrally, bringing out the moving inner voice in the second phrase against the stationary upper voice. This is an unusual and refreshing choice; however, the stationary melody, so familiar to most listeners, is a bit overshadowed. The movement as a whole, though, is thoughtful, elegant, and rich in variety of texture and touch. Kawin refrains from pushing the tempo of the final movement (it is a full minute longer than Schnabel's recording), thus heeding Beethoven's instructions and creating an atmosphere of relentless anxiety. The movement projects a welcome sense of impending rather than ongoing crisis. He plays the presto ending, though, with wild abandon.
The Variations on God Save the King is by no means a major work, but it is charming, and Kawin magnifies its charm with subtle rubato and occasional ornaments on the repeats.
Kawin plays the two pieces from Schumann's Fantasiestücke with an exquisite sense of line, developed over long expanses of music. He shades inner and outer voices with full independence and perfect clarity. Most important, he has a deep understanding of the music's tenderness. His performance of Liszt's transcription of Widmung similarly incorporates an unusual level of delicacy, even within a virtuoso context.
The Master Performers label is off to an auspicious start with Kawin's work (his recording of Schubert's 3 Klavierstücke and Piano Sonata in A Minor received very favorable reviews in 39:5). The sound production is excellent, recital-hall quality. I recommend the disc enthusiastically. Myron Silberstein
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