Monday, 6 July 2015

Remarkable performances from pianist Vytautas Smetona on a welcome new release of works by Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann from Navona Records

Vytautas Smetona is a most interesting musician. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA to parents who narrowly escaped the 1940 Soviet invasion of Lithuania. Vytautas’ grandfather, Antanas Smetona, was the last President of independent Lithuania. The family arrived and settled in the United States in 1941 after travelling through Germany, Portugal, and Brazil.

Vytautas Smetona’s principal teachers were his mother, Birute, and brother, Anthony both accomplished pianists. He studied theory and composition with the composer Starling Cumberworth (1915–1985).

Smetona made a successful New York debut in 1976 followed by three additional, well-received New York recitals. He made his London debut at Wigmore Hall in 1980 and performed a live recital over radio station WQXR in New York City. Among the orchestras with which he has appeared as piano soloist are the Baltimore Symphony, the Dallas Symphony, and the St. Louis Symphony. His recording debut, Vytautas Smetona plays Chopin Liszt, and Rachmaninoff was released in 1979 and was enthusiastically received.

His musical career was interrupted in March of 1983 after a final performance given at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He returned to school, earned master’s degrees in mathematics and operations research and became a Fellow in the Society of Actuaries. He established a consulting firm but never lost touch with music.

Vytautas has a great interest in composing as well as performing, having written a number of works including his Canonic Variations and Fugue for strings, A Country Song and Fantasy for piano. In addition to his musical and professional accomplishments, Vytautas is a fitness and sports enthusiast. As a college tennis player, he participated in the N.C.A.A. Division III singles championship. After graduation, he was the top ranked men’s singles player in Northeastern Ohio and was ranked top ten in men’s singles in the Midwest.

After a prolonged absence Vytautas Smetona has once again become active in musical life.

Navona Records have just released a new CD entitled All the Way Back featuring Smetona in works by Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann as well as his own Capriccio in D major.

Vytautas Smetona has a great spring in his step as the various musical lines of his own Capriccio in D Major fairly tumble over each other in this Bach inspired piece.  

Bach proper arrives in the form of the Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Major, BWV 848 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: No. 3). What terrific drive Smetona brings to the prelude showing a terrific technique and fine clarity. The fugue shows a fine sense of form and structure. This really is fine Bach.

Brahms: Intermezzo in B-Flat Minor, Op. 117: No. 2 Smetona brings a dreamy flow to this piece. It is beautifully laid out with a lovely poise, allowing the music to develop so naturally. There is real poetry here, a lovely thoughtful presentation.

It is Smetona’s Schumann that simply knocked me flat. He brings terrific assurance to the opening of Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen of the Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17. Though very finely controlled this pianist seems charged with a great volatility, allowing full reign to Schumann’s emotional intensity. There are passages of withdrawn poetry in this very fine and personal Schumann where he follows every sudden turn of emotion. His playing is quite spellbinding. 

He delivers a very fine Mässig. Durchaus energisch providing some beautifully light and buoyant playing as well as subtle changes of dynamics and tempi. Again this pianist brings a formidable power to many passages, fine rhythmic playing with such a fine technique and such a strong musical presence.

The final section, Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten, has a lovely flow, finely controlled tempi and dynamics, often holding a tension in the most poetic of passages. What power he brings as the music rises in strength.

This is really terrific Schumann.

Vast funereal chords open Liszt: Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173, given a formidable presence by Smetona as the music develops. This pianist carefully builds through quieter passages, every note seemingly counting, through moments of reflective thoughtfulness, building to moments of great power with some lovely pianistic flourishes. As the music develops there are some mighty passages played with a formidable presence before a terrific coda.

Vytautas Smetona brings a fine rhythmic panache to Chopin’s Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7 No. 3, such a light and free touch. There is more fine rhythmic spontaneity in the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30 No. 4 giving it such a lovely lift.

Smetona gives us a deeply considered Nocturne in D-Flat major, Op. 27 No. 2 allowing the harmonies, textures and lines to be beautifully revealed. Perhaps this pianist’s rubato is not always as idiomatic as it could be but, as the music builds, he brings a real spontaneity.

With the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23 we have a finely balanced, beautifully developed performance. Smetona gives some terrific flourishes, often providing a real ‘billowing’ of sound bringing to mind Schumann’s vivid description of Chopin’s own playing. There is never a routine phrase here. This pianist brings a real volatility especially as he heads for the coda. A remarkable performance.

I was really pleased to receive this terrific disc from Navona. I would very much like to hear more from Smetona, particularly his Schumann.

Navona Records should be congratulated for allowing us to hear this fine pianist. The recording is made in a fine acoustic with excellent detail and there are informative booklet notes.

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