Chisato Kusunoki is a Japanese-born pianist who grew up in Germany and studied at the University of Oxford, where she was already developing something of a reputation for perceptive and commanding performances of Russian romantic repertoire. Often the type of programme offered here is the preserve of native Russian artists, but there is plenty to be gained from hearing it from a relative outsider, who may sometimes bring an instructive kind of objectivity to the task and show the music in a refreshing light. In any case, Medtner's dual Russian/German ancestry and cultural upbringing invite this, and (slightly improbably) Scriabin spent a period studying in Belgium during the first decade of the 20th century.
Kusunoki brings considerable technical assurance to these works. Her poetic sensibility isn't in doubt, though more than once one senses that the recording itself lets her down a little (the more clamorous climaxes tend towards a harshness which more judicious engineering, rather than a different approach to the keyboard, might have avoided). Four stars seem a reasonable averaging of three for the engineers, five for the pianist, who impressed me most in the Scriabin Fantasie. This transitional, mid-career work is shrewdly paced and structured in Kusunoki's dramatic performance, proceeding with clarity and structural control towards a suitably impassioned climax. She brings a consciously (and appropriately) lower-key drama to Medtner's elegantly-crafted and (in purely structural terms) Liszt-influenced G minor Sonata. The early Rachmaninov pieces are affectionately played, but have a hint of reserve that is welcome in music which can easily become sentimental or even self-pitying. The formidable E minor piece (no. 4) is dispatched with very impressive panache, giving dramatic space where it's needed but otherwise hurtling forward in a way that compares very commendably with more celebrated technicians such as Gabriela Montero in the same repertoire. In the first two of the three chosen Liapunov Etudes Kusunoki faces competition from no less than Stephen Hough (an early recording under the auspices of the Naumburg Foundation), but has her own ideas and a fearless command of everything thrown at her by these daunting pieces. 'Tempete' (actually no.6 in a set of 12) isn't an obvious curtain-call and ends tersely, but it's certainly better to be left wanting more than less. Kusunoki refuses to sell out to any empty display of virtuosity, concentrating instead on the elemental drama of the music and its atmospheric purpose. There could be a touch more whirlwind about this even so, and less gravitas, but elsewhere in the programme there's wit and a lighter touch. These are performances of strength, integrity and understanding, and the programme itself is a very handy bringing-together of works seldom heard at all, let alone in one place. Certainly well worth the investment.