Gaining a new appreciation for the Russian pianists

June 04, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz made his American debut in 1928, his nationality caused almost as great a stir as his virtuosity.

"Blood is blood," wrote Olin Downes, then the music critic of the New York Times. "The call of the wild is heard, whether it is a savage beating on a drum or a young Russian, mad with excitement, physical speed and power, pounding on a keyboard."

That image of the Russian pianist -- a heaven-stormer with a sovereign disregard for tender ears and with musical instincts unimpeded by musical culture -- still persists. Bernard Holland, one of Downes' successors at the Times, frequently rails against Russian pianists and hopes that the breakup of the former Soviet Union presages an end to Russian pianism, with its "rows of glum virtuosos [who] regularly rolled over their soft-bellied capitalist rivals, accomplishing with 32nd notes and thundering fortissimos what their political leader and potential missile-launch of a generation ago, Nikita Krushchev, could only threaten."

But the popular notion of Russian piano-playing as blood sport says more about American ignorance of Russian musicians than it does about the playing itself.

A remarkable new 11-CD set from BMG Classics, "The Russian Piano School," should correct such ignorance. That the names of many of the 10 great pianists featured in this collection will be unfamiliar to most American music lovers is significant in itself. And the recordings -- beginning with those of Alexander Goldenweiser, an intimate of Tolstoy's, and ending with Evgeny Kissin, born a century after Goldenweiser -- suggest that Russia produces pianists who are as different in style as they are alike in great-ness.

The common perception of the "Russian style" -- bigger than life, with dramatic contrasts in dynamics and tempos -- is somewhat applicable to Lazar Berman and, perhaps, to Emil Gilels. But it does not begin to describe the gracious, Old-World elegance of Goldenweiser, who made recordings as late as 1955, the expressionistic intensity of Vladimir Sofronitsky or the profound introspection of Sviatoslav Richter.

"A Russian school in terms of temperament is ridiculous," says Vincent Lenti, a faculty member of the Eastman School of Music and a historian of keyboard style. "What unifies the Russians is their unparalleled mastery of the instrument -- their hand position, their posture, their relaxation. If you want to talk about the large numbers of superior Russian pianists, then what you have to talk about is the superiority of their teaching and training."

Russian piano playing has its roots in the 1860s, when the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, founded the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, respectively. By the beginning of the 20th century, such remarkable pianists as Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne, Alexander Siloti, Felix Blumenfeld, Goldenweiser and Konstantin Igumnov had emerged, many with talented pupils of their own.

The revolution of 1917 led to the departure of some, but most remained behind. And the pedagogy that had produced a Lhevinne and a Rachmaninoff was elaborated, extended and systematized. One of the most important innovations was the founding in the 1930s of the Moscow Central School, which prepared extraordinarily gifted children for the Moscow Conservatory.

The Central School was followed by similar schools in other large Soviet cities. Each year, music teachers from cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow scoured the provinces for gifted children. Many of the most promising were relocated to those cities with their families so that they could study with the best teachers. Such was the case with 9-year-olds such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Lazar Berman. This approach is a key difference between the training of Russian and American pianists.

"When you get really young people that get molded by a really strong force, you achieve interesting results," says the well-known pianist Ivan Davis, who teaches at the University of Miami. "I don't see pupils until they are graduate students. At that age, you can refine them, but you can't awaken them to music. The Russians have always had an ability to teach really young kids, and they don't wait until they're 18 to match them up with good teachers."

Nelitta True, the chairwoman of the piano department at the Eastman School, has observed and studied Russian teaching methods, and she agrees that they're the most successful in the world, particularly with young children.

"I saw kids with one or two years of training play with ease and with a great sound," True says. "And the thing about Russian musical education is that the best pianists become the teachers."

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