Martin James Bartlett

Love and Death

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Pianist Martin James Bartlett is one of England's notable rising stars, for he has combined competition success with a good deal of charisma, making him a prime concert attraction. In his image, and his playing, he has what might be called nerd-chic appeal; he was a natural addition to the roster of the somewhat image-oriented (and this is not a bad thing) Warner Classics label. The best news is with this, his debut album for the label, Bartlett delivers. He does not offer a conventional program, nor one that has the eccentric quality you might expect. Instead, he takes the age-old themes of love and death, and approaches them in unusual ways. Love and death overlap considerably in Bartlett's conception, which includes not only an arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, but also a pair of Bach arrangements that are, it's true, common enough on debut recitals. This all gives an idea of the interest of the program. These pieces introduce you to Bartlett's style, which is strikingly smooth, with a caressing quality that definitely sets him aside from the common run of young pianists. This is displayed to the hilt in the Liszt arrangement of Schumann's Widmung; if you want romantic, here it is. The Busoni and Hess arrangements of Bach also set up a nice contrast with the pianistic fireworks to come, in Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage, and especially in the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83. You may wonder what this formidable work has to do with love and death, but of course the latter was part of the texture from which the sonata emerged, with World War II, and Soviet repression in full swing. Bartlett's bitter reading appears to support the idea that Prokofiev's sonata expressed the composer's reaction to the murder, by Stalin's secret service, of theater director Vsevolod Meyerhof and his wife, Zinaida Reich. This idea can be debated, but the fact it is present at all on a debut album promises great things.

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