Review by Scott Noriega, Fanfare USA, Jan-Feb 2015

Fanfare-magazineJanuary/February 2015


ICSM? The International Society for Contemporary Music? No. That would be the ISCM. ICSM is a new record label—Independent Creative Sound and Music Records—founded this year by its first two recorded members heard here, the pianists, Ivo Varbanov and Fiammetta Tarli, based in London, England. And what is the premise of this, yet another independent record label? That the musicians chosen to record should be in charge of virtually every aspect of the recording from the beginning to the end, both in terms of the artistic product and the intellectual property: the repertoire chosen; the sound of the recording itself; and, of course, the financial benefit, as they claim, “musicians are often the last people to be paid.”

But their long-term goals are loftier than just providing high-quality recordings: It is also helping to sustain an active interest in classical music for future generations, through musical education and through the support of a variety of artists who have worked tirelessly in its promotion. Eventually they hope to feature more contemporary compositional voices in the classical world as well as that of jazz.

They have assembled a small team of experts who run the whole project in addition to the two co-founders, from the Grammy-Award-winning sound engineer Tony Faulkner—who has seemingly worked for every major label out there: Decca, EMI, Chandos, Hyperion, DG Archiv, BBC Legends, LSO Live, and more—to their visual concept designer, Ivo Christov, himself a music producer. And in addition to working with some of the top names in the business, they have been privileged to both record on a very fine instrument—a hand-crafted concert grand E-272 on loan from the German company Steingraeber & S?hne, based in Bayreuth—while also being granted access to some of the leading concert venues in the London area: Henry Wood Hall, Langley Park Theatre, Wyastone, and the Menuhin School Concert Hall.

Programming seems to be highly important to these artists, as they have already set up a number of series, four subcategories in total, for their label: Omnia (comprising a composer’s entire oeuvre, in a given category); Solo (a piano recital-style program of a number of works, held together through a given theme); Dialogue (a program dedicated to chamber works); and Concerto (orchestral recitals, though they do not explain further whether the concerto itself will play a prominent role in this category). Each of these releases will, in addition, be available in three formats, the first of which I have for consideration: CD, LP, and downloadable audio files, available in High Definition 192/24 Studio Master Quality sound.

Both pianists/co-founders are featured on the first four of the label’s recordings reviewed here, both in solo recitals and in the duo-piano music of Brahms, two of the four subcategories being featured, the Solo and the Omnia series. Apparently Brahms’s piano music for four hands is categorized in the Omnia series, as part of the ongoing “Brahms on the Piano” project: Will this also comprise his Lieder and chamber works including piano, or will that be part of the Dialogue chamber series? Only time will tell—though I will say that, at least at this early date, all the series, other than Omnia, seem to be recital-like or concert-like in their approach to programming, highlighting a number of composers per disc.

What of the performers? Ivo Varbanov, born in Bulgaria, has performed chamber music, solo recitals and concertos in a variety of countries, from his native Bulgaria to Germany, the UK, Turkey, Russia, Holland, Italy, Poland, and the USA, among others, collaborating with an array of artists, including his wife Fiammetta Tarli, Konstantin Lifschitz, L?szl? Feny?, and the Allegri Quartet. Fiammetta Tarli, too, has quite the biography: giving her first concert at the age of 9, she later went on to study with Maria Tipo; she obtained both her Master’s of Musicology and Ph.D. degrees from King’s College, London; and she now regularly performs throughout Europe, everywhere from Italy and Spain to Germany and the UK.

Now that all the background information has been given, what of the most important aspects other than repertoire of any recording: the performances? In general these two artists have solid techniques, easily handling the music on these recitals. And the more fascinating, more interesting, and more successful performances here are on the Solo series CDs, the ones featuring full recitals of a variety of music, for two reasons: the connections that these artists make between various composers, and their overall approach to the music.

Varbanov’s solo recital, entitled Legacy, features the late-in-life compositions of three composers: Beethoven’s quirky last set of Bagatelles, op. 126, Schumann’s beguiling and lyrical Ges?nge der Fr?he, op. 133, and excerpts from Brahms’s very last opus, in transcriptions by Busoni, the Chorale Preludes, op. 122. And it is this idea of late style that seems to inspire Varbanov: His playing has a quality of utmost subtlety, reverence, and seriousness of purpose; it is profound music, yet delivered in a simple and recognizable manner. The pianist’s playing is ideally suited to this anything but virtuosic program—though one not without its difficulties—especially in the more lyrical moments, as in the opening of the first of the Ges?nge der Fruhe, (Songs of the Morning), with its unison opening, followed by a simple yet warm harmonization or the heart-wrenching final Brahms-Busoni Chorale Prelude, O Welt, Ich muss dich lassen (O World, I must leave thee), the composer’s final statement. It is in Varbanov’s relaxation in the more eccentric and quirky moments of the Beethoven that I find anything lacking in these performances.

Tarli’s recital, entitled Freedom, is comprised of the collections of three Germanic Ss—Schubert’s Moments musicaux, Schumann’s Fantasiest?cke, op.12, and Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierst?cke, op. 19. This recital is based more on contrast within a collection and the idea of fantasy than with a late, reverential style, though Schubert’s were written, or at least collected, at the very end of his life. Tarli, too, seems to take her theme to heart in the performances featured on this recital: As experimental as these pieces may have been in their day is the way she performs them now, with both style and flair, though at times she too seems a bit too calculated in approach. Some of the highlights of her disc, however, are magical, such as her fiery, yet at times light-hearted reading of Schumann’s “Aufschwung,” her impassioned way with “In der Nacht,” or the ultimate stillness she creates in the last of Schoenberg’s six pieces, marked Sehr langsam, written to commemorate the death of the composer’s good friend and confidant, Mahler.

The other two CDs are dedicated to their aforementioned ongoing project entitled Brahms on the Piano, one a solo disc (featuring the C-Major Sonata, the early E?-Minor Scherzo, and the Ballades, op. 10) again performed by Varbanov, the second a duo-disc of Brahms’s waltzes: the op. 39 and the two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes.

The solo disc performed by Varbanov is notable for a number of reasons: his big sound in chordal playing; his overall lightness of touch, giving this music a bit more texture than one normally hears; and again his lovely sense of line and lyrical playing. This lightness works wonders in such examples as the Scherzo, op. 4, where too heavy playing can not only bog down the playful character of the piece, but also inhibit its, at times, almost puckish qualities. He does a wonderful job in the Ballades, op. 10—my favorite among them the fourth delivered here with impeccable simplicity, directness, and tonal sheen. My issues with this recital are similar to those found on his Solo disc: Brahms has all of these aforementioned qualities in his music, but where is the youthful vigor, the open virtuosity, and the gruffness in much of this music? Varbanov’s Brahms is a bit too serious, even at moments too nice. The opening of the C-Major Sonata lacks that intensity surely derived from Brahms’s source of inspiration, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. This music should sound grand, uninhibited, and bigger than life; it does not do so here.

The second Brahms disc, dedicated to the four-hand waltzes, works well, though at times these two pianists also seem as though they do not have as much fun with the earliest set of waltzes as did, say, Dinu Lipatti and Nadia Boulanger in their famous recording of a select number of these pieces. That is not to say that I always prefer Lipatti’s and Boulanger’s approach better: In the most famous example of the set, the A?-Major Waltz, I much prefer the simple and subtle approach of Varbanov/Fiammetti to the more giddy and playful performance of the former. And most of these pieces are nothing if not charmingly rendered by this current duo. The Liebeslieder Waltzes are a different story. Based on verses from G. F. Daumer’s Polydora, these works were originally composed with vocal forces and accompanying instruments (either piano or orchestra) before Brahms rearranged them for piano duet alone (signified by the ‘a’ after the opus number). These are far more unabashedly Romantic in tone and feeling, bringing the same qualities out in their performers here. Their subtle use of rubato, of agogic accents, of pause and breath belie that they are two separate performers playing here, so in tune, so in sync are their conceptions of this music. This is, simply put, Brahms as it should be played.

For all of my aforementioned quibbles, there is much to enjoy in these recitals. Recorded on a beautiful instrument, one with a rich and warm sound, and clear lower register, the piano placement seems both direct and upfront, while still possessing a rich tonal glow. The program notes, written by Malcolm MacDonald, are both informative and well written, while the cover art (nature photographs taken by Ansel Adams) is evocative and quite beautiful. All in all, this seems like the beginnings of a most worthwhile project, one with numerous ventures already scheduled for the coming year (which can be read about on the project’s web site at If every recording they produce is as well conceived and beautifully recorded as have been the first four then one should start their collection now; this will be a series to treasure. Scott Noriega

This article originally appeared in Issue 38:3 (Jan/Feb 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.