Recordings by Arrau and Egorov bring to mind what was and might have been


March 07, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The posthumous release of recordings by two pianists evokes contrasting emotions. In the case of Youri Egorov, who died of complications of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 33, they make one wish that he had lived at least another 20 years; in that of Claudio Arrau, who died in 1991 at the age of 88, they make one wish that he had stopped playing at least 10 years earlier.

Arrau had a long, glorious career, and Philips, the record company he had been associated with since the early '60s, has released the first two volumes of what it bills as "The Final Sessions." The releases consist of an all-Schubert program (the late G Major Sonata and the "Moments Musicaux") and an all-Debussy disc (the "Suite Bergamasque," the sarabande from "Pour le Piano," "La Plus que Lente" and "Valse Romantique"). The four Egorov CDs (on the Canal Grande label) are not studio recordings but transcripts of radio broadcasts made between 1976 and 1988 (some of the latter just before the pianist's death). They consist of an all-Schubert disc (the late C Minor Sonata and "Moments Musicaux"); a disc that combines Bach's E Minor Partita, the Bartok Sonata and Chopin's Opus 10 etudes; a third that offers Haydn's C Minor Sonata, six Scarlatti sonatas and two versions of Beethoven's "Andante Favori"; and a fourth that fills out Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8 and Shostakovich's Sonata No. 2 with six little pieces by the Armenian composer, Arno Babadjanjian.

Comparison of the two pianists must begin with Schubert's "Moments Musicaux" because both the Chilean-born, German-trained Arrau and the Russian Egorov knew they were dying when they performed these pieces. Both pianists play the music much more slowly than is usually the case. In Arrau's version, the music is heavy and lifeless. In Egorov's, these pieces, which are not among the composer's best, are performed with a profound, often heartbreaking sense of leave-taking. The performances are made even more touching by the knowledge that he was dying young.

The pianist that Egorov most recalls is Dinu Lipatti, who died in 1950, also at the age of 33. They resembled each other physically, with sensitive, soulful faces and slim builds that belied their pole vaulter's arms and shoulders.

Even more similar were their peculiarly and, for the piano, wonderfully shaped hands: Each had a remarkably long thumb and fifth finger. But what was uncanny about the two pianists -- perhaps the greatest talents of their respective generations -- was the spirituality that informed their playing. No matter how virtuosic and brilliant the piece, Egorov and Lipatti were almost always able to endow it with a poetic, otherworldly quality that was sometimes marked by an ineffable sadness. It was almost as if they knew from the beginning that their lives would be cut short.

Anything Egorov recorded should appeal to anyone who likes the piano. But the one record all music lovers should buy is the Bach-Bartok-Chopin disc. With the possible exception of the earlier of Vladimir Ashkenazy's two recordings (Melodiya), Egorov's may be the finest version of Chopin's Opus 10. This is playing of precise articulation, elegance and refinement that only a handful of other pianists could match. What sets it apart is the poetry Egorov brings to these exercises -- the floating joie de vivre of the arpeggios in No. 1; the carefree accuracy of the last three fingers of the right hand in No. 2; the unearthly legato of the phrasing in No. 3.

The Bach partita is just as wonderful. Egorov plays this music in the tradition of Lipatti and Edwin Fischer -- with honesty and sincerity that is unencumbered by matters of stylistic questions. This is Bach for music lovers, not for Baroque specialists. The Bartok is simply awesome -- one of the best performances of this knucklebuster on records.

The Prokofiev-Shostakovich-Babadjanjian disc is only slightly below this level. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 is not quite as great -- nothing is -- as Sviatoslav Richter's on Deutsche Grammophon, but it's a terrific performance that gives this music a poetic dimension and a warmth of sound rarely heard. The tragic Shostakovich sonata gets the best performance it will have on records until the long out-of-print Emil Gilels account is restored. But not even Gilels, though he organizes the piece more coherently than Egorov, brings the same sense of sadness to it. The performance of Schubert's C Minor Sonata is also superb, with the galloping finale a particular tour de force. The Haydn-Scarlatti-Beethoven record is not as persuasive, but only because Egorov's Scarlatti sonatas are not as focused (he was only 21 when he performed them) as they would become a few years later. The Haydn sonata, however, is a beauty. The speed, articulation and lightness Egorov achieves are what only fortepianists are supposed to be capable of, and all of it is informed by the depth of feeling and beauty of sound that were Egorov's benchmark.

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