Great piano music from a U. of C. master to celebrate the new year

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The days between Christmas and New Year are typically very thin on the ground for classical music performances. So, this year I spent part of that time listening to CDs of a long-time local performer and pedagogue.

Svetlana Belsky was born in Kiev during the Soviet era and began piano lessons at the age of seven. She was soon giving performances in the major concert halls of Ukraine before her family emigrated to the United States. She has degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School of Music.

She has performed from Carnegie Hall to the Kiev Philharmonic Hall as well as in concerts in Russia, Poland, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. She has performed throughout the US. She is also a teacher and mentor. Belsky is the Coordinator of Piano Studies at the University of Chicago where she offers individual lessons and coaches chamber ensembles as well as organizing student performances and master classes. She has written extensively.

She has been reviewed in these pages (her website quotes a Hyde Park Herald review wherein I described her as a “passionate pianist and scholar”) and a few months ago I requested a handful of her recent CDs.

If, like me, you sometimes want to stay home and enjoy classical music, here are some of her recent recordings which may be of interest. “Myth and Romance” features works for violin and piano by Polish composers with Belsky joining violinist Marta Szlubowska.

The main work on the disc is Paderewski’s Violin Sonata Op. 13. The music is romantic and inventive, and the recorded performance (made at Chicago’s PiantoForte Studios) is full of vigor and vitality. The violin is bright and warm and the piano, fluid and flowing. There is beautiful interplay between the two musicians and nuanced details.

The disc also features “Mythes” by Karol Szymanowski. Here the performers draw out the poetry and exoticism of the score. The shorter works on the recording are a Chopin nocturne, the “Kaprys Polski” by Bacewicz, and the dark, complex, and intriguing “Hommage a I.J. Paderewski” by University of Chicago composer Marta Ptaszynska.

Belsky is an expert on Ferruccio Busoni, having undertaken an annotated English translation of “Busoni as Pianist” by Soviet musicologist Grigory Kogan. She subsequently turned her dissertation into a book published as part of the Eastman Studies in Music series.

She frequently performs Busoni, and her disc “Ferruccio Busoni: The Late Works” is a marvelous exploration of this composer’s work. When it was released less than a year ago, Belksy described it as “My work of a lifetime, my proudest achievement, my labor of love.” Listening to it, it is easy to understand why.

The first track is Sonatina Seconda, a 1912 work written without bar lines or key or time signatures. Belsky is untroubled by these technical challenges and offers clarity and crispness and digs deep into the keyboard when required. Jagged lines merge with furtive calm. It ends with flashes of striking dissonance that Belsky renders with electric excitement.

She is similarly superb with Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude. This work was a long time in the making, originating in 1884, but reaching its final form only in 1925. It is engrossing music played with strength and enthusiasm. There are hymn-like moments played with reverence. There are quiet moments she whispers with gentle fingers. There is pert and light-handed leap-frogging, and glorious arpeggios that flow in singing fashion.

The last works on the disc are Busoni’s 1908 Elegies. These marked a change in Busoni’s compositional style, as he moved from romanticism to music far more chromatic and at times employing bitonality. One contemporary critic of Busoni called the Elegies “a veritable source of dismay,” but Belsky’s recording is ravishing and reveals the genius of the composer.

Belsky gives each section a deeply considered interpretation. Her playing is natural, unrushed, and at times deeply tender. There is a clarity of purpose, and her dynamics often subtle. She knows when to brood and simmer when to laugh and tickle. She finds all the joy in “All’ Italia” and there is luminous sunshine in “Turandot’s Bower.”

The third CD shows yet another side of Belsky. She has often performed with other pianists and this CD features the Estrella Piano Duo made up of Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya. Entitled “Tales from the East,” it features works for piano duet by Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. The subtitle, “Stories of Romance, Adventure and Magic by Russian Composers” captures the music on this CD.

Three movements from “Petrushka” (arranged for two pianos by Babin) offer big sound and bracing rhythms. There is bell-like tone in the Russian Dance and lots of mystery and more than a bit of mischief in “Petrushka’s Room.” In “The Shrovetide Fair” they draw out the hustle and bustle with bracing staccato.

“Festival in Bagdad” is an excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” full of whimsical action that is rendered with a gorgeously light touch and a lot of good, old-fashioned speed executed with precision and great musicality.

The lovely and popular Polovetsian Dances from “Prince Igor” are utterly charming. The disc ends with Prokofiev’s “Fantasy — Suite “Cinderella.” The dream-like quality of the music is drawn out with warmth. Sometimes four hands are truly better than two.

For more information on these CDs, including how to purchase them online, visit svetlanabelsky.com.