Masters of the grand The 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' is a collection that was years in the making. Ultimately, it will include 200 CDs.

November 01, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Philips label is billing its "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" as the largest undertaking of its kind in the history of recorded music. Indeed, it's hard to think of anything else on the scale of this series, which by next September will include 200 CDs devoted to 72 pianists.

This undertaking was years in the planning and involved the cooperation of several major (and not-so-major) labels. The first 10 double-CD volumes (around $22 per volume) were issued a few weeks ago, and the next 10 volumes should be in stores within the next two weeks.

So how does this series measure up to expectation?

The answer (with one or two quibbles and one major complaint) is that the "Great Pianists" is a success that belongs in any comprehensive library. The best thing about it is that some of the individual volumes restore to the catalog performances that have been missing for far too long.

While some of October's releases are devoted to performances by certain pianists (Martha Argerich, Alfred Brendel, Clara Haskil, Vladimir Horowitz) still in the catalog, those devoted to Claudio

Arrau, Wilhelm Backhaus, Julius Katchen, Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff and Stephen Kovacevich may surprise younger collectors.

The most important of these may be the Backhaus release. Backhaus (1884-1969) had one of the longest recording careers of any pianist. His first records date back to 1907, and his records follow his career through his last recital in the final year of his life - which demonstrates that he kept his remarkable virtuosity intact until age 85.

But the material on these two CDs dates mostly from 1954, when the pianist was a relative youngster of 70. It includes all of his 1954 Carnegie Hall recital and his studio recording of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with Carl Schurict conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as some encores from a 1956 recital at Hunter College in New York. None of these items have been available before in the United States or Europe on CD, only on hard-to-find Japanese imports.

And they are great performances. Backhaus' Beethoven was not as searching as Artur Schnabel's nor as nuanced as Kempff's, but he possessed one of the great techniques in the history of his instrument and his pianistic plain-speaking yielded a granitic sense of grandeur.

I don't know of a finer performance of Beethoven's opus 111. Backhaus avoids the distortions that afflict most performances of this work. His fast tempos convey a sense of impulsiveness, rather than of impatience, and the total effect is nothing less than sublime.

It will also come as a surprise to younger admirers of Claudio Arrau (1903-19991), who know the pianist only through his Philips recordings from the last three decades of his life, that this philosopher-king of the piano was once a daredevil virtuoso. While the first two volumes devoted to him show us the Arrau of the later years in Brahms and Liszt, they also demonstrate the youthful speed merchant whose performances of Balakirev's

"Islamey" (1928) and of Liszt's "Spanish Rhapsody" (1936) remain unsurpassed for their brilliance.

Here are some other good things about the series so far.

The first of the three volumes devoted to Gilels (1916-1984)

restores his big-hearted, unfashionably romantic, 1960 recording of Bach's French Suite No. 5 to the catalog.

The first of the two devoted to Kovacevich also returns seven

of the Beethoven sonatas he recorded for Philips in the 1970s. The pianist never completed his Beethoven series for that label - he absented himself from the recording studios for almost a decade after 1978 - but these performances have a kind of polish and purpose that is missing from his current series for EMI.

The first of three volumes devoted to Kempff (1895-1991) also reissues some of that master's earlier recordings. The prize here is the pianist's 1956 performance of Schumann's "Kreisleriana," which is matchless in its sense of fantasy and in Kempff's ability to create light textures in passages that other pianists make turgid.

"The Great Pianists" series is a result of Philips producer Tom Deacon's lifelong love affair with the piano. In a recent article in Gramophone magazine, Deacon warns potential buyers that his list "is just one man's view." Nevertheless, the magnitude of this set makes it important to air a few reservations.

One of them has to do with omissions. While it's laudatory that Philips gives us items that have been unavailable for years, there should have been more. Why, for example, did Philips choose to eschew Backhaus' 1930s recording of Schumann's Fantasy in C, possibly the finest ever of this masterpiece?

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