The Estonian pianist Age Juurikas caught my attention some years back. Video performances of Rachmaninov's D-flat Prelude, Tchaikovsky's October, and Albéniz's La Vega revealed an artist capturing resonantly old-world qualities of timing, emotion, nobility, tone and fantasy. Subsequently, I discovered her penchant for off-the-beaten-track concertos – Anton Rubinstein's Fourth (aspiring to grand heights) and the Rachmaninov G-minor (a work she sees as “dark and tender”), both with Neemi Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Her seriousness of application and resources of power and delicacy, structural tension, poetic spirit, her refusal to stoop to the gallery, make for a compelling chemistry. You get what you see, no frills, just an occasional telling smile.
A graduate of the Tallinn Music High School, the Estonian Academy of Music, and the Moscow Conservatoire (2003-07), winner in 2003 of the first Neeme Järvi Young Musician Award, Juurikas benefitted additionally from studies at the Sibelius Academy Helsinki, and the University of Music Karlsruhe. In Moscow she worked with Vera Gornostayeva, from the Neuhaus stable, as well as attending masterclasses with Victor Merzhanov, Feinberg trained, and the Saint Petersburger Niina Seregina, from the Bashkirov camp. She credits the veteran Estonian grandee Matti Reimann as a decisive influence and mentor. Despite claiming that she's drawn most to music from the first half of the 20th century, her programming is tartly catholic (“swimming upstream” she calls it) – from Beethoven's Emperor to Stockhausen's Mantra, Scriabin to Tubin and Tulev (most recently, premiering the latter's Piano Concerto in Tallinn in April 2019). She's a purposeful chamber player.
With The Soul of Fire, her debut album, winner of the Chamber Music category in the 2019 Estonian Music Awards, Juurikas makes a trident-pronged “Fire” statement. “Firstly, fire in its different forms. In Falla's El amor brujo fire is spellbinding and sacred. In Albéniz's La Vega fire is as though under the ashes, symbolizing equally the fiery soul that is the gipsy's. The fabulous Firebird of fairytale is Stravinsky's subject. Secondly, since I was a child, I've been described as a 'spark of fire'. Thirdly, I'm a Sagittarius − astrologically a sign that's part of the Fire Trigon.”
Orbitting the minor and major of A-flat and its neighbouring planets, La Vega (1897) is a quarter-of-an-hour evocation of the plains edging Granada – a "musical reflection", as the composer put it, contemplated from the Alhambra Palace and its park of English elms planted by the Duke of Wellington in 1812. It's a gorgeous pre-Iberia tapestry, as demanding as that cycle technically, dynamically and expressively. A staple of her repertory, Juurikas weaves magic and mood, precisely attentive to the articulation and detail of the composer's writing without necessarily giving us all the maxima at either end of the soft/loud scale. Alicia de Larrocha (EMI 1959), quicker overall, can rise to more velvet cushioned moments. Arcadi Volodos, longer, likes to linger more. But the brittle harshness of Larrocha's forte and declamation, the explosive torrent of Volodos's virtuoso stretches, can arguably be invasive, not appealing to everyone. When it comes to these pages, Juurikas is a purist painter, clarity before smokiness uppermost in her vision. She gifts us a perfectly formed photograph, her wandering gaze caught in cinematic cameo, the heat of the day past the noon hour.
The chiselled refinement of such playing likewise distinguishes her Catalan 'encore', Mompou's lissome post-Satie Pájaro triste from 1914. Here, slightly quicker than the composer (2'12" against 2'44"), she incorporates the textual changes of his 1974 Barcelona recording (Ensayo) while coolly understating his tenutos and rubato, leaving us more with fragile sigh than pressing voice. It's all very graciously shaped.
The two ballets suites – encapsulating seminal works written within five years of each other – present a bolder canvas where Juurikas is both contributor and recreator. In her amplification and re-ordering of Falla's own (later) Love the Magician transcription she acknowledges the “great influence” of Laroccha's 1973 recording. The grand lady's subtle embroidery of southern pulse and phrasing, her languorous melodic bloom and “midnight” chording, plus an instrument of richer depth and harmonic lusciousness than the leaner-toned Steinway Juurikas has at her disposal, is certainly a hard act to follow. But not an insurmountable one. Others (who can forget Arthur Rubinstein) may fancy punching home the Ritual Fire Dance more viscerally, but Juurikas's global concern for detail and finesse brings its own rewards, informing much of the score with luminous intimations. Her spiritual commitment, cultured musicality and core identification, the thrilling pianistic bite of movements like the Dance of Terror – not a crudity within earshot – is never in doubt.
Dedicated to the memory of his teacher Busoni, Guido Agosti's 1928 transcription of Stravinsky's 1910 Firebird Juurikas understandably calls a neckbreaker. Living with the orchestral original intimately (she singles out Gergiev's Salzburg Festival performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2000, besides recalling another Gergiev account, “breathtaking”, in her Moscow student days), she has articulate views on what she wants. “I've had trouble relating to the transcription as a pianist. The dense musical text of the Infernal Dance is often performed with romantic and virtuosic agogics, but to me that dilutes the archaic subject and rusticity of the piece and the whole style of the suite.” Re-ordering the score, together with adding one of the key sections omitted by Agosti – Kaschei's Awakening (in Stravinsky's 1910 short score reduction) – she gives a magnificent reading: theatrically and pianistically regal, provocatively imaginative, climactically roaring in ways fascinatingly reminiscent of Nyiregyházi's Liszt.
Captured in demonstration sound (by the infinitely experienced Tanel Klesment), the naked juxtaposition of the Infernal Dance and Lullaby convey in a nutshell the breadth and intensity of her personality, the magnitude of her pianistic armoury. A musician to be reckoned with, of questing intellect. One wants to get to know her playing better. The fire burns deep.