November 1998

Fabio Bidini: in recital II - 20th Century Music
Debussy: Images Book 1
de Falla: Fantasia Baetica
Stravinsky: Three Movements from Petrushka
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2

Fabio Bidini, Piano
Encore EPR-9816
Released: 1998

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance *1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment *1/2

[Reviewed on Gold CD]"Music That Sounds Right" is what the back cover of this disc proclaims; and I suppose your reaction to the disc is going to depend on exactly what you understand that slogan to mean.

First, the good news: This is undoubtedly one of the finest recordings of a piano I have ever heard. From the earliest days of recording, the piano has notoriously been one of the most difficult instruments to get right. Ron Meyer and his team have certainly succeeded in capturing its presence in a way I have seldom, if ever, heard before. There is an almost tangible sense of the instrument, its full range -- both tonally and dynamically -- and its uniquely percussive attack, plus a good feel for what sounds like a very warm hall.

In short, if what you are looking for is a first-class recording to demonstrate your state-of-the-art sound system to the neighbors, this may be just the thing.

Depending on the neighbors, of course. There is an old joke about the hi-fi fanatic who spent all his money on equipment only to play recordings of no redeeming value whatsoever on it -- "And this is the 8:24 from London to Carlisle, breasting the summit of Shap Fell!" -- and while I'd not put this disc on a level with recordings of steam engines, I have listened to it repeatedly trying to discover exactly why I find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it. Perhaps the fabulous recorded sound is a double-edged sword: It is so revealing that Bidini has nowhere to hide. Yes, it displays his note-perfect pianism, but it also displays the emptiness of much of his playing.

The first book of Debussy's Images, which opens the disc, is the most successful item here. Debussy's music is mostly impressions -- of reflections in gently rippling water, of fleeting, scarcely glimpsed movement -- and Fabio Bidini's playing is delicate and colorful. There is no real sense of the shape of each movement, but then Debussy was hardly the world's greatest musical architect.

Manuel de Falla's Fantasia Baetica is not a work one encounters very often, yet the composer's identity hovers over virtually every bar, and there are definite echoes of his earlier, better-known works (El amor brujo, The Three-cornered Hat) throughout. Again, Bidini plays all the notes, but his tonal palette here, appropriate enough for the Debussy, seems out of place. I can imagine the climaxes having more force and excitement too.

Matters really take a turn for the worse in the Stravinsky. The three movements he extracted from the ballet Petrushka are notoriously difficult. Arthur Rubinstein, for whom the transcription was made, bowed out of the premiere because of the technical demands (the premiere was given by Leo Sirota). Bidini's technical abilities are certainly up to the music, although there are occasions when the pulse is slightly irregular as he adjusts to a particularly tricky passage. But where is the sense of drama, of Stravinsky's spiky, quirky sense of humor, of his Russian-ness?

Comparisons are essential in a work which has become something of a benchmark in 20th-century pianism, and Bidini does not come off well. Maurizio Pollini (on the Deutsche Grammophon label) is given only a mediocre recording, but his blistering virtuosity -- listen to the way he handles the most difficult passages at tempo, and his tempos are on the quick side to begin with -- and his overall sense of form more than make up for the deficiencies of sound. Pollini's long crescendo in the last movement, for instance, is not only a wonder of digital control, it also gives a shape to music which can otherwise, as on this disc, seem to ramble. The 73-year-old Shura Cherkassky (Nimbus), whose technique may have already been deteriorating at the time of his 1985 recording, and despite some extremely slow tempos at times, puts more character and life into a single bar than is present in Bidini's entire performance.

Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No.2 is something of a problematic work -- or was for its composer, who in 1931 revised the work he had composed 18 years earlier. But even that version did not entirely satisfy him, and by 1940 he was reputedly still unhappy with it. Vladimir Horowitz suggested reworking the Sonata, but it was left to Horowitz himself to produce a third version (which he later recorded) from the previous two.

Bidini's performance of the Rachmaninov simply evokes the same litany of complaints: competent, (near) note-perfect playing of an almost stultifying blandness. Listening to this recording, one would be hard-pressed to identify the composer of the Second and Third Piano Concertos or the Paganini Rhapsody. Yet turn to Ruth Laredo (in her 1970s complete survey of Rachmaninov's solo piano music on Sony) and you can immediately hear the composer’s presence. Again, the more limited recording (although a good enough example of late-‘70s analog) cannot mask the greater depth of feeling and sympathy with the music; here is the heart-on-the-sleeve emoting we have come to associate with Rachmaninov.

I wanted very much to like this disc -- it does, after all, sound superb. The liner note's encomium on the recording process claims that "the resultant CDs produce a performance so natural and lifelike you will be tempted to listen for hours on end." Not to these performances, I'm afraid.

So if you believe that "sounding right" means conveying with almost unprecedented clarity and depth the sound of the instrument, then this disc is for you. If, on the other hand, the quality of the music-making is a priority, there are better performances available of this music. And, just to put the final nail in the coffin, am I the only one who thinks that titling this collection of works, none of which was composed after the 1920s, 20th Century Music is just a tad disingenuous?