On An Overgrown Path

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Gramophone magazine, Awards Issue 2010

‘Romanticism, intimacy and sinister moments in an outstanding recital’

Richard Saxel’s programme takes its title from Janácek’s On an Overgrown Path, and here and in Schumann and MacDowell he makes a haunting claim for intimacy, reminding you of Goethe’s belief that greatness often lies in the lyric rather than the epic. Never less than stylish and affectionate, he recreates Janácek’s vision – the music of one of music’s truest originals – with every note to be played “as if dipped in blood” (Janácek). He is fully sensitive to the nagging rhythm and insistence on pain in “In Tears” yet responds with equal sympathy to the more innocent, less heavily charged world of Schumann’s Waldszenen and MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches.

Not that either composer is without his sinister moments. Schumann’s “Verrufene Stelle” in particular speaks of dusky red flowers that get their colouring from dead men’s blood (a foretaste here of the darker side of German Romanticism evoked in Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony) while MacDowell, less dramatically, tells us of a clearly sad plight in his “From an Indian Lodge”. There is strong competition in the Schumann (Richter, Pires and Volodos) and Janácek (Firkusny, Crossley and Andsnes), but to anyone who warms to introspection presented with an enviable taste and clarity this recital is outstanding. Saxel is finely recorded, his own notes reflect his intimacy with music he clearly cherishes and Quartz’s opening essay generously quotes no fewer than eight poets in four paragraphs.

Bryce Morrison

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International Record Review, September 2010

Richard Saxel is a pianist new to me, but on this showing I hope to hear much more from him. At first sight, this may seem a rather unusual collection of music; although the connections are clear, I was initially unsure if, as a programme, it would ‘work’ – Janacek and MacDowell? My suspicions were entirely unfounded, for the order of the music on the disc (Schumann, MacDowell, Janacek) lays out the premise behind its selection admirably – and Saxel’s playing is outstandingly, unfailingly musical and wholly sympathetic to all three composers.

Thus he does not present MacDowell as a kind of rather inferior creative figure. Saxel’s voicing and colouration, his phrasing and genuine grasp of the best qualities of this music, raise the stature of MacDowell’s inspiration by several cubits, so that, 100 years or so after the composer’s death, we can begin to grasp just what it was about his music that led to him being so highly fêted and regarded by those of his contemporaries – by professional musicians as well as by the general public. In the final analysis, MacDowell was not a ‘great’ composer, of course, but he was surely a more significant figure than the admirable Cécile Chaminade, with whom he has – not entirely unworthily – been compared. In this instance, Saxel plays each of these ten short pieces with a sense of style and inner conviction which is commendable: no wonder Grieg was such an admirer of MacDowell.

Schumann’s Waldszenen are given with just the right amount of poetry and strength; Saxel’s sense of characterization here is excellent, creating tiny tone-pictures which are none the less unified by the composer’s macro-cellular construction. Following these very fine accounts of these two books of nature-pictures, the different world of Janacek is equally well conveyed, and in so doing the pianist causes one to pause and consider that this composer was not quite the ‘outsider’ of his generation that he is often considered to have been. Of course, in his later and more strikingly powerful large-scale works, and in his operas, he was the great composer we know him to be; but in these more intimate creations he aligns his work more closely (but not too closely) with that of his contemporaries.

As Saxel says in his very good booklet notes, not all of these pieces were written with the piano in mind, but he makes all of them appear wholly pianistic, and more of a complete set than others have been able to do. The recording quality of the piano on this CD is quite exceptional: true to life and beautifully placed within the acoustic. I found it a genuine pleasure to listen to this disc, which I recommend most keenly.

Robert Matthew-Walker

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BBC Music magazine, Christmas 2010

During the Romantic era the forest became an especially potent image for composers who longed to retreat from the harsh realities of increased urbanisation. A similar sense of longing binds all three works featured in this warmly engineered release, but other more sinister images of the forest are also prevalent, in particular mystery, anxiety and danger.

Saxel’s delicately nuanced playing, captured in a warm but clear sound, certainly conveys both the intimacy and longing that epitomises his chosen character pieces. If there are occasional moments in Schumann’s Waldszenen where the phrasing seems a little stiff and prosaic, this is more than compensated by the spellbindingly eerie account of ‘Vogel als Prophet’ and the warmly affectionate shaping of the line in ‘Abschied’.

No quibbles about Saxel’s finely nuanced account of MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches. These unpretentious miniatures, heavily indebted to Grieg in terms of their harmonic style, are played here in a relatively straightforward and refreshingly unsentimental manner. Likewise in On an Overgrown Path Saxel demonstrates a sensitive understanding of the composer’s idiosyncratic means of expression.

Erik Levi

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Classical Music magazine, 28th August 2010

The woods that form the theme for the three piano works on this disc – Schumann’s Waldszenen, MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches and the title work from Janácek – offer more allure than threat. Saxel’s delicate phrasing is at its best in MacDowell’s bucolic suite but he takes Janácek’s Overgrown Path at a brisk pace, occasionally missing its darker stretches.

Phillip Sommerich

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