Early recording shows time difference Concerto: Interpretation by pianist Tchaikovsky admired provides insight into the process of musical change.


November 19, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1, and encore pieces by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Liadov, performed by pianist Vassily Sapellnikoff and (in the Tchaikovsky concerto) the Aeolian Orchestra conducted by Stanley Chapple (Pearl Gemm CD 9163).

This 1924 recording, made through an acoustic horn the year before the introduction of microphones, is a fascinating document. Sapellnikoff (1868-1941) was one of the important pianists of his time. George Bernard Shaw, enthusiastically reviewing a concert by the pianist in the 1880s, compared the force of the young Russian's octaves to "an avalanche." More importantly, Sapellnikoff was close to Tchaikovsky and was the composer's favorite interpreter of this most popular of all concertos.

Because Sapellnikoff was nearly 60 at the time of this recording it's difficult to tell how closely he resembled the young pianist Tchaikovsky admired. Nevertheless, this recording -- perhaps the first ever of this concerto -- suggests that there may be an bTC enormous difference between what Tchaikovsky intended and what we hear today, 71 years and hundreds of recordings later.

The first thing modern listeners will notice is a lack of theatricalism. Sapellnikoff plays the double octaves in the last movement's cadenza at what would be considered a practice tempo by most conservatory students. (Martha Argerich could repeat this octave run three times in the time Sapellnikoff takes.) But to judge by the accuracy and speed of his octaves in Liszt's "Gnomenreigen," which the pianist recorded at about the same time, Sapellnikoff's octaves in the Tchaikovsky represent a choice rather than necessity.

The pianist simply did not view the Tchaikovsky as a vehicle for virtuoso display. He plays it almost as if it were the tender and lyrical Schumann concerto -- to which, incidentally, Tchaikovsky compared his concerto,

Then there is the matter of Sapellnikoff's tempos. On the whole, they are much faster than those of pianists now. He plays the first movement in a little more than 18 minutes, nearly as fast as young powerhouses of the time such as Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein, and about two or three minutes faster than pianists today. His fast tempo for the opening makes the piece less portentous (and less ponderous).

And his tempo fluctuations within individual sections tend to be very flexible. In the first movement cadenza, for example, he plays both much faster and slower than one hears today, and the effect is a sense of freedom and fantasy that suggests that the Tchaikovsky First is closer to its antecedents in the Schumann concerto than to its successors in the concertos of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

What changed interpretation of the Tchaikovsky concerto may have been the nature of recording itself. Five years after Sapellnikoff recorded it, the British pianist Solomon made the first electric recording of the concerto and it resembles that of the older pianist. But in 1932 Rubinstein recorded the piece in a considerably more theatrical, virtuosic manner. That recording, which was the most popular of the day and remained in the catalog for 10 years, changed forever the way the Tchaikovsky was played. And Rubinstein's was succeeded in 1941 by a Horowitz version even more stunning in its force and power. The recording process -- originally intended as a way to keep an interpretation alive in memory -- can prove instead, it seems, to be the death of interpretation.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts of the Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Vassily Sapellnikoff, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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