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Florian Noack: Lyapunov, Prokofiev, A Travel Album


February 2024

Florian Noack: Lyapunov: 12 Études d'exécution transcendante  La Dolce Volta

Florian Noack:  Prokofiev: Visions fugitives La Dolce Volta

Florian Noack:  A Travel Album  La Dolce Volta

It's tempting to view these three releases by Belgian pianist Florian Noack (b. 1990) as a trilogy, even though they were issued separately and years apart. All are solo piano recordings, for one, and all appear on La Dolce Volta. The Compiègne, France-based label has given all three releases the deluxe treatment by housing their CDs and full-colour booklets within sturdy, artfully designed packages. Anyone looking for an argument in favour of the physical presentation of an artist's work need look no further.

Noack justifies the treatment with the excellence of these recordings, each one different but all distinguished by the command one associates with a pianist far older and with decades more experience. His prodigious talents were evident when as a twelve-year-old he entered the programme for Outstanding Young Talents at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel. His development continued with studies at the Musikhochschulen of Cologne and Basel and prizes awarded at some twenty international competitions. Today, he's a regular guest at festivals throughout the world and has made a name for himself as both a performer and for his transcriptions.

Whereas two of the releases concentrate on a single figure—Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) on one and Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924) the other—Noack's La Dolce Volta debut presents a wide-ranging travelogue of folk- and dance-inspired pieces by Brahms, Grieg, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Szymanowski, Komitas, Janácek, Ladmirault, Nín, Martucci, and Percy Grainger. A Travel Album (also titled Album d'un voyageur) possesses no small amount of charm, and as the sixty-seven-minute recording plays, we feel as if we're with the pianist on his voyage of discovery and adventure; that works by composers from Italy, France, Germany, Russia, and Spain appear naturally amplifies that travelogue impression. Personalizing the release even more, it includes a number of his arrangements of composers' works.

Two British Folk-Music Settings by Grainger—the spirited dance romp “Molly on the Shore” and wry “The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter”—make for a delightful start. For his arrangements of Brahms' Deutsche Volkslieder, Noack chose four of the forty-nine available, from the lyrical (“All' mein' Gedanken Lebhaft und herzlich”) to the jubilant (“Dort in den Weiden steht ein Haus. Zierlich und lebhaft”). More than three hundred dances by Schubert exist, so a dozen waltzes is but a fraction of the total. Regardless, the miniatures are infectious, abundant in melody and elegance, and well-deserving of their place on the release. Noack's arrangements of two lively orchestral pieces from Janácek's Danses de Lachie are bright spots too.

From Rachmaninoff's Chant russe Op. 41 comes a sparkling treatment of its lovely third song, “Whiten my rouged cheeks.” Being Armenian dances, Komitas's “Yerangi” and “Shushiki” naturally exude a character different from the other pieces, and much the same might be said of the three Norwegian peasant dances from Grieg's cycle Slåtter Op. 72. Whereas mischief permeates “Tussebrureferda på Vossevangen,” “Haugelåt” oscillates between gentle repose and spirited gestures. The transcription of Ladmirault's Variations sur des airs de biniou trécorois moves rapidly from the radiant “Ronde” and high-wire virtuosics of “Passepied” to three rousing “Bal” treatments. As it approaches its end, the release stops in Spain for Joaquin Nín's evocative Danza Ibérica, Italy for Noack's dazzling treatment of Giuseppe Marticcui's Tarantelle Op. 44 No. 6, and Poland for three of Karol Szymanowski's Quatre Danses polonaises. Testifying to the pianist's commitment, Marticcui's piece was already available in solo piano and orchestral versions, but Noack deemed the former too restrained for his liking and so created a new one based on the latter. At eleven composers and thirty-six tracks, A Travel Album obviously ventures far and wide.

Noack's Prokofiev recital is interesting for many reasons, including an inspired and imaginative set-list. Across seventy-two minutes, the pianist presents the composer's Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major op. 82 and Four Études for piano op. 2 but as strikingly the four-movement Tales of an Old Grandmother op. 31 and twenty-part Visions fugitives, op. 22. The incredible technique accounted for in the first La Dolce Volta release is here too and used in humble service to the great Russian. One might have expected the release to include Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, given the fascination Noack had for it as a teenage pianist, but it's hardly missed when the four pieces selected are so rewarding. Or perhaps its exclusion simply reflects, as Camille De Rijck writes in liner notes, the change from “the teenager he once was [to] the mature adult he has become.”

Noack cannily opens Prokofiev with Tales of an Old Grandmother, which the composer wrote while working on the opera The Love for Three Oranges. Rather than overwhelming the listener with a crushing attack, the material's gentle and nostalgic character eases the listener into the project in a way that makes the recording instantly appealing; the subtle hint of Mussorgsky that emerges in the impish “Andante assai” only adds to the effect. The shift in tone couldn't be more pronounced than the one that sees Noack shift from the opening work to the high-intensity etudes, the towering “Allegro” serving notice that a radical change has occurred. Whereas gracefully rippling cascades imbue the “Moderato” with a dream-like air, rapidly ascending and descending runs lend the “Andante semplice” a boisterous impishness. One is advised to strap oneself in for the gymnastics of the concluding “Presto energico.”

Sequenced next is the work that was Noack's primary motivation for making the Prokofiev disc, Visions fugitives. Performed with nuance and sensitivity, the twenty delicate miniatures encompass a panorama of moods, from pieces hushed, lyrical, and pensive to others brooding and tinged with mystery. Nowhere is Noack's humility more in evidence than it is here, as the pianist channels his technical and interpretative gifts into a probing examination free of mannerism and affectation. The short lengths can make the experience of listening to it feel somewhat like channel-surfing, though not unpleasantly so. The composer's at his prettiest in “Comodo,” mischievous in “Ridicolosamente,” animated in “Feroce,” and ponderous in “Dolente.” Adding to the work's impact, some of the pieces exude a bluesy quality and one could even imagine a few influencing Gershwin. A heavy percussive declamation announces the arrival of the recording's last work, the sixth piano sonata. At times flirting with dissonance, the piece progresses through four explorative movements, the “Allegro moderato” with which it begins a muscular affair that captures Noack's deft handling of tempo fluctuations and intricately entwining passages. The mood lightens for the cheeky marches of the “Allegretto” and turns plaintive for the “Tempo di valzer lentissimo” before the high-velocity “Vivace” brings the work to a breathless close.

As accomplished as Noack's earlier La Dolce Volta releases are, his seventy-minute presentation of Sergei Lyapunov's 12 Études d'exécution transcendante, op.11 might be the most impressive of the three. Its pieces are also perhaps the most demanding, technically speaking, so much so that only a pianist of staggering ability would attempt them. That being said, they also require the interpreter to bring a poetic sensibility to the material in order to bring the work to its fullest realization. The magnificent readings given by Noack shows he's the perfect candidate for the job. Having discovered Lyapunov's Études at the age of fourteen, the pianist had long been a supporter of the composer and, in fact, preceded the present recording with two other volumes (in 2013 and 2016) of the composer's music. Even as a teenager, Noack was incredulous at how few were aware of folkloric material he deemed “so beautiful, so finely written for the virtuoso, and so accessible to the music lover.”

Lyapunov revered Liszt—something the work's concluding piece makes explicit—and dedicated his Études to the elder in spirit. In the booklet, Noack argues that Lyapunov's cycle is not only a tribute but also an extension of the cycle of twenty-four etudes Liszt intended to write, but in its final form totaled twelve. It's thus possible to regard 12 Études d'exécution transcendante as the completion of his elder's Études transcendantes, though Chopin emerges as an influence in the Lyapunov work too and parallels to Rachmaninoff might also occasionally be drawn.

The pianist's virtuosic side is called upon repeatedly, whether it be the torrential Rondes des fantômes, Carillon, and Lesghinka or the engulfing Térek, Tempête, and folkloric, aptly named Chant épique. Offsetting passages of monumental dynamism are introspective ones marked by tenderness and fragility, the opening Berceuse, lyrical Idylle, and the final moments of Nuit d'été three examples. All such instances capture Noack's artistry in full bloom, specifically in his gentle touch and expert handling of tempo and phrasing—music not so much played as caressed. Whereas Harpes éoliennes, an engrossing expression of captivating beauty, sparkles radiantly, Elégie en mémoire de François Liszt caps the work with a twelve-minute statement towering in scope. Lyapunov doesn't have the brand name recognition of, say, Prokofiev, but if there's any justice in the world Noack's recording should help correct that. This remarkable trio of releases suggests that as a pianist there's nothing he can't do.

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