Piano collection includes the great, and the others Keyboard: Boxed set of recordings shows why Russia is called "the mother of pianists."

Classical Sounds

September 15, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

BMG Classics subtitled last year's boxed set of Volumes 1-10 of the "Russian Piano School" as "The Great Pianists." Whether by accident or design, the newly issued set of Volumes 11-20 -- which should reach stores this week -- has dropped the subtitle. Not all of the pianists in the new collection deserve to be called great.

One whose greatness is indisputable is Grigory Ginzburg (1904-1961), who is represented by remarkable performances of five Liszt operatic fantasies (Volume 12).

Ginzburg's playing possessed the flexibility and naturalness of phrasing that one associates with great singers and it permitted him to raise the stature of the operatic fantasy from a mere keyboard extravaganza to an exalted level. He endows each strand in the "Rigoletto Fantasy," for example, with its own quasi-vocal color. Moreover, his taste and musical intelligence lead him to play the chromatic scales that open the "Don Giovanni" paraphrase at less than the ear-shattering levels chosen by other pianists, but with an insistently sinuous quality that allows them to grow more menacing.

Ginzburg's lightness of touch also enabled him to perform Liszt's acrobatics on the modern piano, which has a much heavier action and more powerful sound than the instrument the composer used, without letting tempos drag or textures become muddied. This disc explains Vladimir Ashkenazy's remark that Ginzburg may have been the best equipped technically of all the great Russian pianists.

Ashkenazy himself (born 1937) is represented in Volume 17 by his youthful recording of Chopin's 24 etudes and by the second and best of his three recorded performances of Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz." The etudes sound more spontaneous and poetic than the pianist's Decca recording 15 years later, and this disc, the best-sounding transfer they have enjoyed, makes them widely available for the first time. Next to this order of playing, the otherwise fine Chopin of Ashkenazy's slightly younger contemporary, Eliso Virsaladze (born 1942) (Volume 18), fades into insignificance.

Edvard Syomin (born 1945) -- whose name is likely to be unfamiliar even to aficionados -- does not take a back seat to anyone, however. Why this remarkable pianist seems to have been blackballed by the Soviet concert bureaucracy in his youth is a mystery. His account (Volume 19) of Busoni's Sonatina No. 6 (the fantasy on themes from "Carmen") eclipses the celebrated versions of Petri and Arrau, and his performance of Godowsky's transcription of Strauss' "Kunsterleben" illuminates with X-ray clarity this monstrously difficult work. How Syomin might fare in greater music remains to be answered, but this disc could create a cult around him.

Tatiana Nikolaeva (1924-1994), whose great playing of Bach inspired Shostakovich to write his 24 Preludes and Fugues, is represented in Volume 15 by a performance that sheds new light on Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8, supplanting the steely strength and dry-point wit of the Richter-Gilels variety with romantic warmth and heretofore undetected contrapuntal detail. Less characterful playing is found on an all-Prokofiev disc by Yekaterina Ervy-Novitskaya (Volume 20), who recorded most of this material shortly after she won first prize in the 1968 Brussels Competition. Though her youthful Prokofiev is smooth and powerful, Novitskaya (born 1951) would have been better served by her recent recording of Brahms' F Minor Sonata.

Maria Grinberg (1908-1978) was the first Soviet pianist to record a complete Beethoven cycle, but Volume 14 presents her in rather wooden performances of Scarlatti, Soler, Mozart and Brahms, recorded late in her career. A performance of Schumann's "Bunte Blatter," which was recorded 20 years earlier, reveals more passion and fewer mannerisms.

Lev Oborin (1907-1974), remembered primarily as David Oistrakh's chamber music partner, performs sonatas by Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin (Volume 13) in a well-organized, if slightly labored, manner. But the four pieces in Brahms' technically less challenging Opus 119 are delicately pointed in rhythm, exquisitely detailed and poetic.

Igor Zhukov (born in 1936) is known to Western collectors because of several recordings of obscure Russian repertory, but Volume 16 shows a pianist comfortable exploring the romantic inwardness of Schumann's "Waldszenen" and putting a keen sense of rhythmic pulse to use in his own grandly scaled transcription of Bach's Passacaglia in C Minor.

The listener samples rarely heard Russian salon repertory in the performances (Volume 1) of Yelena Bekman-Shcherbina (1882-1951). The pianist recorded these miniatures by Glinka, Anton Rubinstein, Liadov and others in her last years, but her lovely tone, elegant phrasing and depth of feeling are unmistakable.

The sometimes uneven quality in this nevertheless worthwhile collection does not mean that the pianistic well in Russia's Melodiya archives has begun to run dry. It's not for nothing that Russia is called "the mother of pianists," and at least 10 genuinely great figures -- Jakov Fliere, Jakov Zak and Rosa Tamarkina among them -- are conspicuous by their absence in this series so far.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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