Recordings allow many great musicians, now long gone, to continue to play

SOUNDS ADVICE

November 08, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The RCA logo of little Nipper listening with surprise to his master's voice on an acoustical horn omits an important detail from the original painting: Nipper is seated on master's coffin.

That is, of course, the most important fact about records: Long after he or she is dead, records make it possible for the musician to keep playing. And such is the nature of musical celebrity that record companies scour their vaults and those of broadcast archives for performances by famous departed artists. That explains the recent appearance -- with decidedly mixed results -- of "new" performances by the pianists Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) and the conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

Deutsche Grammophon (DG) is now publicizing what it calls the "final recordings" of Bernstein. These include the final concert of the conductor's career (with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in August 1990), a recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 9 from his only appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic, and a set of the Beethoven Concertos with the pianist Krystian Zimerman and the Vienna Philharmonic in which Bernstein conducts Nos. 3-5. (Since Bernstein did not live to complete the set, Zimerman conducts the first two for himself.) The Mahler can be recommended wholeheartedly. It is a beautiful, intense performance without the eccentricities and longeurs that afflict the conductor's 1986 reading on the same label with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra.

The Beethoven concertos can also be recommended -- but only to listeners who like to collect multiple performances. Zimerman is one of our best young pianists, but his light-fingered, elegant and subtle style sometimes contrasts unhappily with the conductor's deliberate weightiness and portentous emotionalism. The "Emperor Concerto" shows Bernstein in his familiarly heroic mold, but still providing enough energy so that the pianist is able to take poetic flight. And the Fourth Concerto is more successful still, with a reading of the great dialogue in the slow movement -- with Bernstein gruff and angry, Zimerman pleading and lyrical -- that is among the most original on records. But the gravitas of the conductor and the high spirits of his soloist in the Third Concerto are an unwelcome reminder that the best performances of these pieces come from partners who see eye to eye.

Bernstein's "final concert," which couples Britten's "Sea Interludes" with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, should never have been issued. The conductor was a dying man -- his emphysematous coughing can be heard throughout -- and that's clear from his enervated conducting. Because the conductor is Bernstein, there are some magical moments -- Britten's "Storm" Interlude, taken at a much slower tempo than usual, is filled with jagged, violent accents that expose the composer's kinship to Shostakovich, and the beginning of the Beethoven has a terrible, almost chilling, beauty. But for the most part, the great orchestrasounds ragged, and the Beethoven, particularly, drags on forever, growing weaker by the moment.

But bad as DG's Bernstein concert is, Rubinstein's "The Last Concert for Israel" on RCA Red Seal is worse -- truly a case in which the werewolves of the record industry have dug up something they shouldn't. In 1975 the 88-year-old pianist was blind and feeble, and his playing was in worse shape than he was. Beethoven's "Appassionata Sonata" and Schumann's "Fantasiestucke" are a mess, and a Chopin group contains only faint reminders of why Rubinstein was considered the pre-eminent Chopin player of his time.

Rubinstein's memory is much better served by the same label's mid-priced reissues -- some of which merely repackage already available material, and others that make available performances that have been out of the catalog for more than 30 years. The latter include Rubinstein's 1942 recording of the Grieg Concerto, a Spanish album that includes the pianist's astonishingly fiery, erotically charged 1949 recording of Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," and his 1956 set (two inferior sets were to follow) of the Beethoven Concertos. This is Rubinstein as we want to remember him -- the grand seigneur of the piano, playing with a naturalness and a joie de vivre that no other musician matched.

But best of all these records, however, may be Horowitz's "Discovered Treasures" on Sony Classical -- recordings of Scarlatti, Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Medtner, Scriabin and Liszt from to 1972 that have never before been issued. These performances tell us why Horowitz was the century's most famous pianist. Horowitz's sound is instantly recognizable: No other pianist had that kind of chiaroscuro clarity, pianistic wizardry and incandescent temperament. The treasures here are too many to enumerate, but one must mention a Chopin "Raindrop" Prelude in which the pianist dispenses with tradition with a marcato buildup to the central climax that presages a storm like no other on records. It really gives Nipper something to bark about.

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