Classical Pianist Ruth Slenczynska Releases a Thoughtfully Lyrical New Album With a Record-Breaking Backstory
Pianist Ruth Slenczynska’s new album My Life in Music – streaming at Spotify – is an attractive and individualistic mix of standard repertoire and a handful of surprises.
She opens with a thoughtfully opulent take of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies, from his Romances, Op. 18 and follows with his Prelude No.5 in G major with its dancing, glittery righthand clusters. She plays Samuel Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field) with a considered, brooding simmer. She gives a deadpan steadiness but also a determined grit to a considerably different, ragtime-tinged Barber tune, Let’s Sit It Out and Wait, from his suite Fresh From West Chester.
Slenczynska opts for a balletesque grace in Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in Eb, op. 18, eschewing the floridness so many other pianists give it, an approach that works equally well a little later in Grieg’s Wedding Day in Trodhaugen. And in her hands, her tenderly yet playfully articulated version of Chopin’s famous Berceuse is a revelation: those echo effects are irresistible. As is her generous use of space in an unselfconsciously unhurried interpretation of Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.
The other Chopin pieces here have similarly distinctive insights. There’s a lowlit Etude No. 3 in E Major, and a cheery, strolling Prelude in G Major, Op. 18. The longest and most energetic work here is the Fantaisie in F Minor: Slenczynska slows much of it down practically to dirge speed and volume, an effect which is both comedic and enlightening, as she picks up a remarkable amount of detail and dramatic contrast. She closes the album with a methodically articulated version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C# minor, BWV 849.
Now for the punchline: Slenczynska is 97 years old. It is astonishing how undiminished both her chops and her ideas are.
She made her stage debut at four, her European debut at five. Every major pianist of the 1930s including Sergei Rachmaninoff was eager to coach her. She is his last living student; she treasures the Faberge egg necklace he gave her. She would go on to record ten albums and tour the world, earning a reputation as a very colorful, entertaining performer. This new album is her first in sixty years, undoubtedly a record-breaking achievement. Let’s hope she got at least a two-album deal out of it.