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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: Nimrod Borenstein, Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Light and Darkness, Shirim

Review – Nimrod Borenstein, Concerto for Piano & Orchestra (Op. 91), Light and Darkness (Op. 80), Shirim (Op.94) / Clélia Iruzun (piano) / I Musicanti / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Nimrod Borenstein (conductor) / SOMM Recordings

Nimrod Borenstein’s music is both musically innovative and pleasing to the ears—a quality that is often missing from contemporary compositions. And if you haven’t heard of the composer before, I highly recommend you check out his Violin Concerto album on Chandos conducted by Ashkenazy (you can read my review here). It’s an inventive yet melodic work that deserves to be part of the standard violin concerto repertoire. Having now heard the Piano Concerto on this CD, I can only confirm my praise.

So, on to the Concerto for Piano then, which is the first work featured on this album.

Upon first listening, some of Borenstein’s distinguishing musical features become apparent. For instance, the use of timpani throughout the work is quite striking. They are often used to emphasise the rhythm, and indeed, rhythmic vitality is a key element of both the first movement and the entire concerto. Another trademark, in my opinion, is the eerie atmosphere created by the woodwinds and pizzicato strings – an effect also used in some of the composer’s other works that give an otherworldly, nearly fairy-tale quality to the music.

The concerto begins with what appears to be a confession from the piano; I say confession because much of the solo writing reminds one of storytelling. And this is done with virtuosic and dramatic gestures akin to the great Romantic concertos. That is not to say that the music is old-fashioned or outdated. On the contrary, Nimrod Borenstein (re)invents new techniques and styles. Some of the most distinguishing characteristics include the constant tempo transitions, and I can recall very few pieces in the genre with such ever-changing tempo fluctuations. Having said that, I can only sympathise with the pianist, not just for the contrasting tempi or the countless notes, but also for the different musical styles she has to adapt to. Not to mention the tricky interplay between the piano and the orchestra, where fast thematic material is interrupted by furious octaves, blazing horns, and orchestral fortes. There are even moments when time stops, and the piano comes to a halt with sparkling high notes and accompanying pizzicato strings. Not to mention an outburst of a Philip Glassian moment in the middle of the movement, full of despair, before the music returns to its fiery spheres.

The slow movement is an introspective adagio. The nostalgic string-heavy opening paves the way for the lyrical piano interlude, which, here expressively performed by Clélia Iruzun with precise, short notes like raindrops, evokes an autumnal atmosphere. This is interrupted from time to time by golden brass fanfares and intertwining layers of the same dreamy string theme, with the timpani setting the heartbeat of this almost nocturnal dreamscape.

The final movement couldn’t be more of a contrast. It’s a virtuosic tour de force. Earlier, I mentioned the raised difficulty for the pianist and expressed my sympathy. Well, my sympathies lie with the conductor here: The orchestral writing is complex and multi-layered, and the contrasting fast tempi add an extra layer of difficulty to the beat and rhythm of the movement. The tempo changes from the first movement are present here as well, but laid out in shorter phrases, which should present a challenge to any conductor. The driving timpani, piercing strings, and brass are all back, but with the added presence of themes from the first movement. When the concerto reaches its final pages – a frantic finale that tests both the orchestra and the soloist – the concerto’s true virtuosity shines through.

The second work on the album is titled Light and Darkness, and it’s a piano quintet. I was tempted to write “a piano quintet in disguise” because, to be honest, after the first listen, it took me a while to realise that it wasn’t composed for a full orchestra (I always save the album booklet notes for later): The interplay of the instruments is so strong, with some of the interweaving styles so close to those of the preceding concerto, that the illusion of a larger ensemble is created. The music itself is melancholy, with darker colours (compared to the concerto) and a constant build-up of tension. However, it is the piece’s cyclical structure – beginning and ending in soft notes – that resolves the tension and results in a substantial and cohesive work in the end.

The album concludes with the 18 piano miniatures called Shirim (we learn from the notes that in Hebrew, Shirim can mean both poems and songs). The composer explains that his intention was to write pieces that even the more inexperienced pianists could play. But this is not to say these are trivial or simplistic. Far from it, Borenstein juxtaposes different styles once more, and I could argue that some pieces, even the ones that sound easier to play, have a touch of novelty. However, if asked which composer they are most similar to, I would be unable to give a clear reply: Initially, Debussy comes to mind (and not just because Borenstein has given each piece a French title!), but there are also hints of Prokofiev’s rhythmic drive, Chopin’s introspection, and, dare I say, Grieg’s lyricism as in his Lyric Pieces. If you allow me to use a simile, it’s like a collection of exquisite chocolates – not the commercial, boxed variety, but the finely crafted, handmade kind that requires great skill and talent to make and is a delight to the taste buds.

To conclude, this is a highly rewarding album with some exceptional music-making. The Concerto for Piano alone is a work that should be welcomed in the contemporary repertoire. Clélia Iruzun performs magnificently, and I would love to hear more artists interpret it. I can only imagine alternative takes as this is a piece that will possibly reveal multiple facets by, let’s say, Argerich’s quicksilver playing, Pires introspective lyricism or Ashkenazy’s emotionally mature interpretations.

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