In 1976, when the cold war was cold indeed, wrote the New York Times, Lazar Berman appeared virtually unannounced from behind the Iron Curtain and provided the West with an exotic glimpse of a secretive Soviet musical life. On his first United States tour, Mr. Berman made an overwhelming impression as a performer who did more than just overcome technical problems; he seemed to crush them into insignificance. Bermans recordings, though relatively few in number, confirmed that impression.
Études are primarily intended as exercises to train musicians in specific techniques, but since the Romantic era they have become associated with other miniature forms, such as the prelude and the intermezzo, and frequently regarded as evocative character pieces or tonal pictures. Garrick Ohlsson's album of piano études by Claude Debussy, Sergey Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók offers a brief survey of the genre in modern practice, and demonstrates the blending of pedagogy and poetry in these works. Ohlsson has become internationally known as an exquisite interpreter of the music of Frédéric Chopin, and much of the subtlety and atmosphere found in his previous recordings is present here. Ohlsson's finesse and humor are perhaps most evident in Debussy's Études, L. 143, which have a lighter character than Prokofiev's Études, Op. 2, which tend toward the sardonic side, and Bartók's Études, Op. 18, which are intensely virtuosic and mysterious. Hyperion's recording captures the nuances of Ohlsson's playing, and the piano is close enough to hear every detail, while the acoustics lend it a pleasant natural aura.
Dutch violinist Janine Jansen has made some unorthodox recordings (check out her Vivaldi Four Seasons sometime), but here, in a work in which proportion and technique are exquisitely balanced, she plays it straight with impressive results. Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, composed in 1935 just before his return to the Soviet Union from France, has always been a popular repertory item, but Jansen's reading, ably accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, has a pearly quality throughout, a kind of bright ease, that comes only at the highest levels of technique.