Pianist Sergei Edelmann tackles difficult music with determination and grace

Stephen Wigler

December 12, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

ASK SERGEI Edelmann how he's preparing for his piano recital Sunday afternoon at Temple Har Sinai and he'll tell you he's "working the Bible."

The 31-year-old pianist doesn't mean Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy, but he's sweating over something that has comparable status for most pianists -- the Chopin Etudes. Edelmann is now recording all 24 of these pieces for RCA Victor Red Seal -- he'll play six of them on Sunday -- and he's the first to admit that the etudes are as transcendentally difficult as they are beautiful.

"The etudes encompass every technical and expressive difficulty pianist faces," Edelmann says. "To play them well requires a lot of maintenance -- you cannot leave them alone for a minute."

Edelmann was born to play such difficult music. His father, Alexander, is a famous teacher and was himself one of the first students of Heinrich Neuhaus, also the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. And, after Edelmann and his family emigrated to this country from Lvov in Ukraine in 1979, he has been sponsored by the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jack Pfeiffer, the senior producer at Red Seal Records who made most of the great recordings of Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz and Van Cliburn.

Pfeiffer learned about the pianist from Ella Brailowsky, the widow of the famous pianist Alexander Brailowsky.

"The boy's playing blew my stack and we [RCA] immediately signed him," Pfeiffer says.

The contract led to a number of discs that began to be released about six years ago -- among them a performance of Chopin's "Polonaise Fantasy" that ranks among the finest ever made. The Chopin so impressed Pfeiffer that he played it for Horowitz.

"With the first measures of the piece he bolted upright and said, 'He's been listening to my record!' " Pfeiffer says. The pleased Horowitz insisted that the youngster be introduced to him and the meeting took place six months before Horowitz' return to Russia, then a carefully kept secret.

"It was all quite wonderful," Edelmann says. "It made him happy to talk about people who were dead in his own language with someone who understood -- but I had a feeling that there was something he wanted to ask."

Finally, at the end of the long evening, Horowitz asked: "Do you think they'll remember me if I go back to Russia."

"What could I say," Edelmann says. "I told him that he surely knew that he was a living legend in Russia."

But Horowitz looked at the youngster expectantly.

"So I told him that if he returned it would be a national occurrence, but he still looked unhappy."

Then Edelmann remembered what Pfeiffer had told him about Horowitz' need for hearing that people loved him.

" 'If you return it will be second only to the Second Coming,' I told him," Edelmann says. "Finally, he smiled a little smile, and said, 'I think maybe I'll go.' "

Edelmann will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday at Har Sinai, 6300 Park

Heights Ave. The event is free; call 764-2882.

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