I first had the privilege of listening to this recording by Simon Trpceski in December 2002, and I have been listening to it ever since. This is the sort of recording that you can listen to many times and find something new and wonderful each time. I have already inducted it into my personal pantheon of exceptional recordings, and it ranks with such legendary recordings as Horowitz's 1986 Moscow recital, Gieseking's performances of Debussy's piano music, and Richter's sublime Schubert from the 1970s, to mention but a few.
Trpceski was born in 1979 in Skopje, Macedonia, and has won many international competitions. This is his first disc, and it has deservedly garnered many awards, including Gramophone's "Editor's Choice of the Year" award for 2003 and BBC Music magazine's "Disc of the Month" award. The disc starts off with Mikhail Pletnev's piano transcription of seven movements from Tchaikovsky's popular ballet The Nutcracker. I unfortunately have not heard Pletnev's own recording of his transcriptions, but with all due respect to Pletnev's impressive playing, I cannot imagine a better recording than Trpceski's.
Pletnev's transcriptions of the nutcracker are certainly spectacular, but it is not just Trpceski's virtuosity that makes this recording so special. What makes this recording wonderful is the fact that Trpceski plays with incredible passion. The "Pas de deux" is the most incredibly powerful recording of any piece of music I have ever heard - while I am not an overly sentimental person, I cry every time I listen to it. When I hear this track I often think of Joseph Campbell's quote that in life we "participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world," for Trpceski plays the piece with life affirming joy, while also acknowledging the more poignant undertones so that we can truly appreciate the brighter side of the music.
The next item on this recording is Alexander Scriabin's Fifth Sonata. It is an excellent recording, and I think that it compares favorably to Horowitz's 1976 recording, which is often cited as the benchmark. Horowitz's recording is considerably slower than Trpceski's (Horowitz plays the sonata in slightly over twelve minutes, while Trpceski clocks in at slightly under eleven minutes), and to my ear Horowitz gives a more fiery, heavy performance than Trpceski, who tends to be more lyrical and soft. I would not like to choose between the two versions, for each of them has something special to offer.
The ballet "Petrushka" is my favorite work by Stravinsky, and I am constantly delighted by the composer's own piano transcription. I once read that Artur Rubinstein, who commissioned the transcription, pronounced it unplayable, and as a pianist myself I can imagine the difficulty of the piece. Trpceski, however, has no problems handling its massive technical challenges. Yet while I cannot help but be amazed at Trpceski's technical feats, what really holds my attention is his musicality. According to the informative CD booklet, Stravinsky wanted the three movement transcription to be seen as a work in its own right, rather than just "mere" transcription, and Trpceski clearly realizes this. I hesitate to compare the transcription to the orchestral original, but since I have not had the opportunity to hear another recording of the piano transcription, I must say that Trpceski's recording complements Stravinsky's own recording of the orchestral original.
Prokofiev's sixth sonata rounds off this generous disc (the total time of the disc is 72:42). When I first got this disc I did not listen to the Prokofiev sonata as often as the other pieces, but since then I have come to cherish it. Hearing Trpceski's recording made me begin to understand this piece for the first time. I had previously listened to recordings by Evgeny Kissin and Sviatoslav Richter, both of whom are legendary for their interpretations of this piece. However, for me their recordings, while excellent, simply don't compare to Trpceski's. His performance never sounds harsh or acidic, and yet it avoids the other extreme of bleakness and bland dissonance. Before listening to Trpceski's recording, I had never understood or appreciated the two inner movements of the sonata, and I only appreciated the fast movements for their technical difficulties. However, Trpceski succeeds in making this music very human. It is at once both tragic and compassionate, and it is certainly my benchmark for this piece.
This recording was made at EMI's legendary Abbey Road Studios, and the sound quality is up to today's usual high standards. On the basis of this recording (and the odd radio broadcast that I have been lucky enough to hear) I think it is fair to say that Simon Trpceski is already one of the "great" pianists. I will be looking for any future CDs that he makes, and, while I do not attend concerts often, I will certainly go out of my way to see Mr. Trpceski perform. He is one of those rare musicians who has awesome technical abilities combined with an obvious love of music, and it is, very simply, a joy to listen to him.