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Recording of the Week, Mishka Rushdie Momen - Reformation

Rushdie Momen: Reformation (cover shows a jewelled hand resting on a virginal)I begin with a confession, that had I not been working at Presto I may have overlooked Mishka Rushdie Momen’s Hyperion debut, with so much music vying for my attention and a continuing stream of new recordings. It would have been my loss to miss this album of captivating music, musicianship and pianism. 

This new album features music by Byrd, Gibbons, Bull and Sweelinck, from a time when there was no instrument like the fortepiano, never mind the modern pianoforte. Theirs was a world of virginals and organs, instruments on which interpretation relied on articulation, tempo and texture, without the possibilities offered by a wide dynamic range.

During the years in which so-called ‘authentic’ performance was a topic of hot debate, an album such as Reformation would have stirred consternation. Thankfully, we live in a time of fluidity between performances on historical instruments and historically informed performances on modern instruments, and this variety of approach has increased our understanding of both music and instruments. 

Momen achieves an ideal balance between utilising the tonal and dynamic possibilities offered by the Steinway Model D she plays, without ever imposing the scale of the instrument on the music, such that the modern piano sounds like a natural home for these pieces. In the informative liner notes Momen is open about her use of the pedals, yet she applies them with such sensitivity that they help the music to speak without ever becoming obvious. The sustaining ability of the piano is of great potential benefit in polyphonic writing, but in less sensitive hands it could well over-burden the music with too much sympathetic resonance, and overuse of the una corda could negate the benefits and prove restrictive. In these recordings, Momen successfully navigates this in service to the music, and listening to Reformation alongside her excellent SOMM recital of Romantic repertoire demonstrates how finely attuned she is to the music at hand.

Mishka Rushdie Momen

It may come as little surprise that an early precedent in playing Renaissance keyboard music on the piano lies in recordings by Glenn Gould, ever the explorer. Gibbons’s Pavan and Galliard, ‘Lord Salisbury’, proves an interesting point of comparison. Gould brings his characteristic sense of line to this piece but takes a somewhat weightier approach, labouring the trills where Momen finds elegance in their decorative qualities without interrupting the flow of the music. Of course, the piano itself plays its part in this, Momen’s offering more finely graded shades than the brighter instrument played by Gould. Full marks to Hyperion for crediting piano technician John Elliott in the booklet, something I would like to see more often given how vital preparation of the instrument is. The recording quality is also typical of their usual excellence in capturing piano sound.

More recently, both Kit Armstrong and Daniel-Ben Pienaar have recorded some of this music on the modern piano, and comparison with the latter again demonstrates how subtle Momen is in her approach. Where Pienaar brings a sense of Elizabethan pageantry and retains much of the attack of a harpsichord, Momen brings the dance-like movements and moments of introspection to life with a more elegant approach, painting mostly with a softer tonal palette but steering away from excessive fragility. Such comparisons show how this music can be transferred to the piano with different approaches but equal success.

In ‘The Bells’ (Byrd), Momen’s control of timbre and resonance mirrors the title of the piece, the piano ringing more like bells than a virginal or harpsichord could, without being cast into an Impressionist mist. Momen’s dexterity ensures the level of clarity this music demands, and her control makes great use of the dynamic capabilities of the piano, delineating the lines of the music in a finely judged balance that sounds effortlessly natural. A comparison with Andreas Staier’s recording on harpsichord makes for fascinating listening, and having heard them I wouldn’t want to be without either.

In short, there is much to explore and enjoy here, in an album which rewards repeated listening and which leaves me in anticipation of what we hear next from this exciting new addition to Hyperion’s armoury of superb pianists.

Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Clara & Robert Schumann - Brahms - Mendelssohn - Muhly - Iyer

Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC