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US-born, UK-based pianist Kirsten Johnson has already shown considerable enterprise in recording music by Arthur Foote, Amy Beach, Hermann Goetz and Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen. Here, she turns her attention not just to a neglected composer but to a whole neglected area, a country little known and rigidly controlled.

Under president Enver Hoxha, composers were allowed to study abroad – provided they posed no threat to the state. However, foreign music composed after 5 March 1953 (the death of Stalin) could not be studied, and all new Albanian compositions had to be approved by the League of Artists and Writers before being performed publicly. Works like Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances were not even premiered there until 1967 – and Kirsten Johnson herself premiered Maple Leaf Rag while touring in the 1990s.

The first disc in this duo is called Këngë (‘Songs’) and the second Rapsodi. Both discs open and close with toccatas: their Bartókian language and rhythmic freedom pervade both discs. Various Themes and Variations elsewhere reveal folk origins favouring minor keys; other waltzes and marches approach the commonplace, perhaps fearfully obeying the diktat that ‘the people should like them and be encouraged by them’. Some recall music composed by Chinese committee under Mao Zedong.

Kirsten Johnson’s performances on these well-filled discs are effortlessly musical. Her booklet notes alone would be priceless to ethnomusicologists and students of politics in music; for further information, consult her website. Bravo, bravissimo – or whatever the equivalent is in Albanian.

MICHAEL ROUND Read the full review on Agora Classica


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