On the strength of this recording and his brilliant collaboration with Martha Argerich in the Lutoslawski Paganini Variations Martha Argerich & Friends Live from the Lugano Festival, 2007, also in the dvd Martha Argerich, Evening Talks, Mauricio Vallina is a passionate pianist of the highest caliber, in full bloom, with a transcendental technique, keen musical insight, power and command of his instrument that place him in the exalted plane of his more-or-less generational peers, the two great Yevgenys, Sudbin and Kissin.
Robert Schumann's "Carnaval" is a masterpiece which is not as frequently programmed these days as it seems to have been in the past. In addition to technical mastery it requires a poetical imagination that perhaps is absent in much piano playing today. The alternation between Florestan and Eusebius episodes, requiring brilliance at one point, chiaroscuro in another, always subtle highlightings of inner melodies, flexibility of rhythms, while preserving structure and sweep, make Carnaval a piece most demanding of fingers, intellect and the heart of a pianist. It has to dance, pine, love, regret, exhault, rejoice, dream all within relatively short pieces that at times are so fleet that only an evanescent whiff of emotion seems to have passed by. To play it well, I think, a pianist must intuitively grasp the emotional core of the piece when first reading the score, there must be instant affinity and intuitive understanding of what Carnaval is about. Disciplined work then follows, to realize the fantasy and continuity inherent in the piece (very different from working out a Beethoven sonata). Mr. Vallina creates this Janus-like (never schizoid) Schumanesque world of Eusebius and Florestan with a mastery of structure and brilliance of execution that recalls the great recorded interpretations of the past, notably those of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Given his brilliance, he remains spontaneous, shedding light in phrases and colorings we perhaps had forgotten how beautiful they were. The independence of the fingers is astounding, all put to musical use, never to call attention to itself. Mr. Vallina here is both poet and virtuoso and we are the richer for it. It is as natural music-making to him as it is breathtaking to us.
The Rachmaninoff Variations on a Theme by Chopin is not as interesting a piece as Carnaval. Indeed, the structure is much more formal, in spots somewhat contrapuntal, and though unmistakably by Rachmaninoff, it is short on his usual romantic sweep. It requires a big technique (Mr. Vallina uses the more "brilliant" alternative ending Rachmaninoff composed rather than the more usually performed quiet one). Again, we are in the hands of a master who illuminates and reveals a score and dazzles us in its execution. The piece is perhaps more pianistically arresting than musically so. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with the score, it is eminently listeanable and one will rarely encounter a better performance.
The final piece is the Andrei Schulz-Evler "Arabesques" on Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz. This is a throwback to the age of the great virtuosos: in Mr. Vallina's hands it is shameless and glorious, technically outrageous, performed with great panache, virtuosic exhuberance, and exquisitely fine taste.
Why EMI does not have it available in this country is beyond me. Other volumes in the "Martha Argerich Presents.." series are available. I obtained my copy through Amazon.com UK.
Mr. Vallina is a Cuban pianist, born in Havana in 1970, trained there, at the Moscow Tschaikovsky Conservatory and at the Madrid Conservatory. I believe he resides in Belgium. His career is European based. I first saw him on YouTube (there are snippets there, nothing too consequential but a charming rehearsal of the Bach-Kempff Siciliano with Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich in the background). That started the search which eventually led to this item. There do not seem to be any other recital or concerto discs. In addition to the items mentioned above, I think he also appears with Argerich in two-piano items of much charm but little consequence composed by Gustavino in one of the earlier Lugano sets.
We are the poorer because Mauricio Vallina does not seem to have an American career. I was lucky to hear Richter once in Carnegie Hall; he was, arguably, the greatest pianist of the 20th century yet he played exceptionally little here (he hated to fly too). I hope Mr. Vallina starts to visit us soon.
All lovers of the piano should seek out this CD and get it.