Review by Dave Lewis
Piano Works of Ravel and Balakirev, self-produced by Florida-based pianist Yoko Sata Kothari through her own YDK Productions imprint, has an interesting and inspired programmatic theme behind it. Subtitled “French Impressionism and Russian Romanticism,” it takes advantage of the natural confluence between the nineteenth century Russian nationalists with French impressionist literature by splitting her disc between well-chosen examples from each genre. The disc opens with Ravel‘s Gaspard de la Nuit, and a superb “Gaspard” it is; Kothari is broad and muscular in “Ondine,” appropriately static and restrained in “Le Gibet,” and she brings out a wealth of hidden dynamics in the difficult “Scarbo,” a piece some pianists are just satisfied to get through. Her Pavane pour une infante défunte is sensitive and well measured; Kothari avoids the trap of lingering too much on certain phrases and delivers a balanced, nuanced interpretation of what many might consider an overly familiar piece.
Balakirev was by all accounts the finest pianist to be found among the “Mighty Handful,” though of his many piano pieces, only the flashy Islamey has managed to retain its place in the repertoire, which is dominated by Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition. Islamey is certainly here, in a strong, aggressive reading that is nonetheless very clear in its exposition of the many lines of counterpoint in Balakirev‘s harmonically busy piano piece, and Kothari‘s reading of the slower middle section is especially good. The real gems, though, are Balakirev‘s stormy B minor Scherzo and the Nocturnes. One aspect of Kothari‘s playing that is appealing is her power; she has a strong, masculine approach that is refreshing in a piano market where delicacy and holding back is considered king. However, when sensitivity is called for, Kothari can deliver it without descending into bathos; she keeps things moving.
The piano sound is warm with a very good sense of stereo spread; the sense of space helps open up the Ravel, particularly in the Pavane. Piano Works of Ravel and Balakirev is a better-than-average piano disc made by an artist for supporting one’s concert appearances, which in Kothari‘s case have been largely concentrated in Florida, where she teaches. The disc is available through her website, www.yokoskothari.com.