Belgian pianist Florian Noack is quietly carving a name for himself, primarily in romantic repertoire. He is engaged in recording the complete piano music of Sergei Liapunov, a worthy project that has impressed me immensely (Ars Produktion ARS38132 and ARS38209; see a review of the latter). In the style of the Golden Age pianists, he has also made many idiomatic transcriptions, including works by Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Johann Strauss. He has recorded some of these on Ars Produktion ARS38148 – other pianists, including Cyprien Katsaris, François-Xavier Poizat, Valery Kuleshov and Boris Berezovsky, have included them in their repertoire.
This album, then, is something of a departure but is also a return to roots. Noack recalls his teenage fascination with Prokofiev’s G minor Concerto. The booklet tells of the young pianist as he “hammered his keyboard with greater intensity than before, distilling in Prokofiev’s percussiveness the ardours of his brooding adolescence”. Not that percussiveness is what this album is about. Noack may have chosen to record Prokofiev to avoid the label of a pianist who hides his true self behind transcriptions and the novelty of rare music. But he approaches this music with all the lyricism and charm that has been the trademark of his earlier recordings as well as, it must be added, with a technique that is as rounded as it is astounding.
Many aspects of Prokofiev’s writing style are here. The super-virtuosity of the Op. 2 Études follows the gentle humour and aching nostalgia of the Tales of an old Grandmother, written while the composer was working on his opera The Love for Three Oranges. The final item on the disc, the sixth Sonata, dissonant, stark and comic by turns, is preceded by the twenty pieces entitled Visions fugitives, miniatures that inspired the poet Balmont to write a verse, describing them as “fleeting visions, worlds filled with the fickle play of rainbows”.
I became aware as I listened to Noack’s playing of the Visions that, radical harmony aside, they were written in a world where the piano miniatures of Liadov, Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Glière, Prokofiev’s first composition teacher, were still in the repertoire. Their figurations echo through these short gems. Noack’s beautifully phrased, nuanced playing is ideal here, bringing out the kaleidoscope of colours and moods that lie within. Whether it is the perfect blend of mystery and fantasy in the second, the jocund humour in the quasi-Scarlattian fourth, crisp intensity in the ninth, or the superbly balanced languid exoticism of the final number, Noack finds the appropriate mood for each, and presents it without fuss or mannerism.
I have dipped into this recital with great pleasure. The playing is extraordinary throughout. From the gentle simplicity of the second of the Grandmother’s Tales or the opening Vision to the high-octane Études, Noack is as beguiling as he is peerless, brimming with an understated but astonishing technical skill. He clearly relishes the relentlessness of the D minor Étude or the cascades of notes in the C minor Étude, with its foreshadowing of the Toccata Op. 11. Wonderful stuff.