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CD Review

Donald Isler Recital

  • Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in E Flat Major, D 568 (23:01)
  • Robert Schumann: Waldszenen, Op. 82 (19:15)
  • Johannes Brahms:
  • Ballade in D minor, Op. 10 #1 (3:25)
  • Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116 #6 (2:44)
  • Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119 (13:36)
Donald Isler, piano
Recorded July/August 2004
Kasp Records 57651 62:05
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Schubert – Kempff/DG, Damgaard/CLASSICO, Endres/Capriccio
Schumann – Richter/DG, Ciccolini/Cascavelle, Wirssaladze/Live Classics
Ballade – Michelangeli/DG, Katchen/Decca, Biret/Naxos
Intermezzo in E Major – Cliburn/RCA
Four Piano Pieces – Edlina/Chandos (Intermezzo in B minor), Katchen/Decca

This is a recording made by the pianist Donald Isler on his personal label KASP Records. Isler graduated from New York City's High School of Music and Arts and the Manhattan School of Music where he earned Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. His teachers included Sina Berlinski, Bruce Hungerford, Constance Keene, and Lilian Kallir. He has given recitals at Carnegie Recital Hall, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and other locations within the United States as well as in England. He is also active as a teacher and has served on the jury of the Julliard School's Pre-College Concerto Competition and the Bruce Hungerford Memorial Award jury at the Young concert Artists competition.

On the basis of this recording, Mr. Isler is a very impressive pianist with deep feeling for the music he performs. He's also a fast-paced pianist, sometimes delivering the quickest version on record of a specific piece. Isler exhibits fine technical and architectural command, but it is his sense of musical urgency that most strikes this reviewer. Further, he reveals a strong identification with the soundworld of each of the three composers. The soundstage is also very much to my liking: low reverberation, excellent clarity, and a slightly clinical aura.

Here's the account of my highly rewarding traversal of the disc:

Schubert Sonata – The year 1817 was a very productive one for Schubert as he started eight piano sonatas, the E Flat Major being one of them. Let's get right to the comparison versions, because they well demonstrate two specific approaches to the work. John Damgaard and Michael Endres treat the work in a dark manner with strong emphasis on the angst and melancholy in the music. On the other hand, Kempff greatly lightens the emotional severity while highlighting the sparkling nature of the work and its conversational properties. Actually, I've not heard Schubert's cantabile style better executed than in Kempff's interpretation.

Isler is in Kempff's territory concerning lightened moods and the music's sparkle. Where he greatly differs from Kempff is in tempo and its effects. Kempff's pacing is much slower as he extends the work to almost 30 minutes. Kempff luxuriates in the music and also provides the maximum degree of detail and interaction among the musical lines. In Isler's faster reading, the buoyancy picks up considerably, and he is more playful than Kempff as well. Ultimately, I would choose the Kempff as my favored version primarily because of its compelling voice interaction, but Isler's performance is close behind and a delightful alternative to the fine Damgaard and Endres recordings.

Schumann's Waldszenen – Schumann composed this work late in 1848 about eight years after his marriage to his beloved Clara. Schumann, as with other German artists, was very attracted to the romanticism of the forest. His tribute to the forest is Waldszenen which consists of nine scenes representing a full day of hunting game, exploring nature, sharing companionship, and contemplating one's life and dreams. I should also relate that there is the view that Schumann's creative juices were in decline by the time he composed Waldszenen, and I also hold this opinion. The work simply doesn't possess the magnificent inspiration found in his earlier piano works including Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, Carnaval, and the Fantasy in C Major. However, each scene does provide excellent music, and "Bird as prophet" is frequently programmed on its own in piano recitals. Put another way, lesser Schumann is much better than what most other composers of his era had to offer.

As with the Schubert work, there is fairly stiff competition from other Waldszenen recordings. My current favorites come from Sviatoslav Richter, Elisso Wirssaladze, and Aldo Ciccolini. Richter's version has his patented architectural command and an emotional breadth not equaled in any other recording of the work. Wirssaladze's great distinction is the poignancy and wisdom she imparts to Schumann's alter-ego Eusebius, although she also gives an excellent portrayal of Schumann's other alter-ego Florestan (the man of action). As for Ciccolini, his account is absolutely gorgeous with a strong improvisatory element.

Where does Isler's account reside in the above matrix? I think it occupies its own ground based on a sense of urgency throughout the performance that even permeates the playful "Friendly Landscapes". Isler's version is quick compared to most others, and this might play into the urgency. However, I feel it's more a matter of his articulation, inflections, and meaningful spaces between notes that create a very compelling woodland tapestry. I must admit that it took me a few listenings to fully appreciate this vital pressure, but I am now smitten with the interpretation.

Brahms Pieces – Although Brahms is not associated with program music, his early Ballade in D minor gets its inspiration from the Scottish ballad "Edward" that dives into the underside of the human condition. The tale is about a son who kills his father and throws venomous words at his mother. Needless to say, the music that Brahms set to this ballad is very dark. It also has some of the most tender passages Brahms ever wrote and a concluding series of halting triplets that is mesmerizing.

The Katchen and Michelangeli versions are often cited as the most rewarding on record, and I wouldn't disagree with the assessment. Also exceptional is the Idil Biret performance; she extends the piece to over 5-½ minutes, savoring each note and musical strand. Further, the detail and projection of the bass part at the conclusion is quite unique and chilling.

Isler's version of the Ballade is very quick, and this does have consequences. The mystery and luxury of the comparison versions is absent, replaced by a more primitive approach as well as the greater urgency I noted in Isler's reading of Waldszenen. I imagine that some will consider the performance outside their comfort zone, but I find it rather distinctive and certainly in line with the emotional content of the Scottish ballad.

The Intermezzo in E Major is a wonderful piece highlighted by an anxious/yearning middle section of descending steps. Van Cliburn's version has been my favorite for many years – great drama and melancholy while also giving full measure to the music's ability to inspire. Isler's performance at well under 3 minutes is the fastest I know, and some of the stature of the first section is reduced. However, his middle section is as angst-ridden as the Cliburn.

Isler concludes his program with the Four Pieces, Op. 119. These consist of three intermezzos and a rhapsody. Isler continues to perform splendidly, and I'd like to make special mention of the Intermezzo in B minor. It is one of the most gorgeous pieces that Brahms composed, and Isler captures most of its allure. He might be a little too quick to get its full measure in comparison to the heavenly version on Chandos by Luba Edlina that is about 20 seconds slower, but his performance compares admirably to the other alternatives I own including the Katchen.

Don's Conclusions: Donald Isler is definitely a prime-time pianist deserving of a much wider reputation than he presently holds. Having heard his way with three of the greatest composers of the Romantic period, I'd love to hear him in a recording of Bach keyboard works. At any rate, Isler's disc can be found on the internet at; three other recordings of his are also available for sale on the site.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz