March 7, 2007
It is a misnomer to think that the top record labels have the monopoly on the most talented performers. Only a few days ago I attended two recitals given by the Lithuanian-born and Paris-based pianist Mûza Rubackyté and was hugely impressed [by] her talents. Another name that springs to mind is Grigory Sokolov who is the most magnificent pianist yet manages to escape the marketing hysteria generated by the giant record labels. Now on these two review discs I am captivated by the superb playing of Canadian pianist Joel Hastings; who is a name new to me. His command of dynamics and characterful performances make him worthy of considerable attention.
Born in Ontario in 1969 Joel Hastings was the winner of the International Bach Competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., placed second in the Chicago Chopin Competition and won first prize at the Royal Canadian College of Organists National Competition. In 2006 he was the winner of the 8th International Web Concert Hall Competition, at Rockville, MD.
The first disc is Joel Hastings’s impressive debut CD, titled Sessions recorded in 2001. The sound quality is clear and well balanced. I found the documentation interesting, reasonably informative; although not without error.
In the Rachmaninov scores I experienced the impressive Oriental Sketch briskly played and the rocking and colourful Lilacs at times evocative of an impressionist tone painting. With the Lullaby Hastings resists the temptation to over-sentimentalise; using a calm and gentle approach. The Étude-Tableau No. 1 in C minor is played with drama and vivacity, with episodes of strong passion. The appealing Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor contains sturdy dramatic contrasts.
Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces for Piano, Op.12 make delightful listening with Hastings very much at home here. In particular, I enjoyed his lively and powerful interpretation of the March; the restlessly scurrying Rigaudon; the mystery of the rhythmic Capriccio and the frenetic and energetic playing of the Scherzo Humoristique.
Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 is an agreeable score that seems to fall into six contrasting sections. I loved the gently restful section at 4:38-5:57; the sacred reverential quality at 7:05-8:48 and the vigorously dynamic playing in the final section that gently and rapidly dies away at 8:49-11:24. In Scriabin’s notorious Sonata No.9, Op. 68, known as the ‘Black Mass’, the soloist conveys a convincingly sinister atmosphere of dark foreboding, generating considerable tension with a quite magnificent concluding section.
The final score on the disc is Liszt’s Totentanz, that he arranged in 1860-65 from his mighty Totentanz (Dance of death) Paraphrase on the ‘Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra, a work he originally composed in 1849 and subsequently revised. Evidently Liszt had been inspired by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. I especially enjoyed the way the Canadian provides a convincingly uneasy and searching quality to the martial section at 1:24-3:54; his dreamy playing of the carefree episode at 5:01-6:34 and the dramatically robust conclusion at 13:20-15:09.
The second disc from Joel Hastings, titled Liszt Transcending, is a superbly performed all-Liszt collection of twelve transcriptions, paraphrases and arrangements of works by eight composers. Recorded live, the well balanced disc contains some minor noise on four of the tracks but nothing too obtrusive and audience applause is included at the end of track 11. I found the liner notes interesting to read, providing much essential information.
The opening score is the Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto where Joel Hastings gradually and expertly builds up intensity and weight. At 4:38 I found the power and drama that he generates especially impressive. The Canadian soloist in the arrangement of Schumann’s Widmung provides considerable refinement and the five Schubert scores Das Wandern, Der Müller und der Bach, Die Forelle, Ständchen and Erlkönig are joyously interpreted with delicacy and good humour.
The appealing arrangements of Auf Flügeln des Gesanges by Mendelssohn is given a performance of tenderness with an impressive lightness of touch and the arrangement of Reminiscences of Lucia di Lammermoor effectively contrasts strength and vitality with tenderness. I love the way he accelerates the tempo superbly and seamlessly from 5:16-6:07. Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s mighty Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde is powerfully performed with an abundance of high drama.
The arrangement of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s Almira is robust and lyrical played in a highly Romantic style and in the final score on the disc, Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the Melodie from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, the soloist provides an unhurried reading of compelling tranquillity.
This is high calibre playing from Joel Hastings a pianist who is worthy of considerable attention. These two releases deserve a place in any collection of instrumental music.