Gathering the 'Great Pianists' of the 20th century

More than half of Philips' 200-CD series has been released, and while there are gems in the collection, nagging questions remain about the artists who were not included.

April 18, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Since the first batch of 10 two-disc albums in Philips' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" were issued and reviewed in this space last November, five additional releases -- totaling 50 albums -- have appeared.

We are now more than halfway to the final goal of this project, which by this fall will document the work of more than 70 pianists on 200 CDs -- about 240 hours of music.

Everyone interested in this project will have thought, "How could they have selected him and neglected her?" or "Why did they choose his inferior 1966 stereo version of Chopin's 'Barcarolle' instead of his great mono 1946 recording?" I have such questions myself -- some of them serious.

More of that later. First, brief mention of just a few of the many memorable moments in the more than 100 hours of piano playing issued since November.

One of the most exciting aspects of the series has been the restoration of favorite performances missing from the catalog for so long that my ancient LPs are now reserved for special occasions.

One such album is the first -- there will be a second -- devoted to the performances Byron Janis (born 1928) recorded for RCA Victor from the late 1940s until 1960. It was in the late 1950s that the Victor label became so obsessed with recording Van Cliburn, after his sensational 1958 victory in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition, that Janis decided to switch his allegiance to Mercury. In the Mercury studios, Janis concentrated almost entirely on concerto repertory. Thus the recorded legacy of his solo recital repertory is largely confined to his Victor recordings, all of which were made before his 30th birthday and all of which have been out of print for about 40 years.

Along with Cliburn, Leon Fleisher and William Kapell, Janis was one of the biggest pianistic talents ever to emerge from this country. And, like the others, his career was prematurely shortened. In the late 1960s, Janis (not yet 40) fell victim to psoriatic arthritis. Before the end of that decade he couldn't make a fist, his wrists lost their strength and flexibility and his fingers and joints became painfully swollen. Fitful attempts at comebacks have been failures.

What Philips has given us here are most of Janis' Chopin recordings for Victor, plus a generous helping of Liszt, as well as Beethoven's "Tempest Sonata" and works by assorted other composers. This pianist's performances of Chopin's B-flat Minor Sonata ("Funeral March"), C-sharp Minor Scherzo and several etudes -- including the G-flat ("Black Key") and F Major from the composer's Opus 10 -- were among the first I ever heard, thus setting a standard that remained definitive for me throughout my adolescence and young adulthood.

If I now find them slightly lacking in personality, imagination and color, I can also understand why I once preferred them to all others. Janis possessed a brilliance and clarity of articulation comparable to that of his mentor, Vladimir Horowitz. Unlike his teacher, however, Janis played in a manner unusually faithful to the notes and to the rhythmic scheme. These are clear, beautifully organized performances. The C-sharp Minor Scherzo is extraordinary: Janis strives for a linear quality, and he achieves it in breathtaking fashion.

The album dedicated to Janis' exact contemporary, Leon Fleisher, restores that pianist's great 1958 recording of the Liszt Sonata. On this recording (and in the concert hall) the young Fleisher's version hit my teen-age ears with the force of divine revelation. This was not simply the best performance since the 1932 Horowitz, it was better.

There is now room in the Liszt B Minor Sonata pantheon for Gilels, Richter, Arrau and Argerich; but Fleisher's, for my taste, remains the most lucid, as well as the most ferociously energetic interpretation on disc.

Another superb pair of CDs is devoted to the Brazilian Nelson Freire (born 1944). Why this man, one of our five or six greatest living pianists, continues to be so undervalued remains a mystery. But he certainly deserves his passionate, near-cult following. The performances here maintain what may be the single highest standard in the series so far. This is as true of Freire's interpretations of major works by Chopin, Schumann and Brahms as it is of his performances of salon pieces.

His reading of Brahms' F Minor Sonata, recorded when the pianist was only 22, ranks with those of Curzon, Grimaud and Lupu. The playing is majestic, lyrical and sensitive. No other pianist has ever made the composer's gnarled, difficult writing -- even in the third movement's Allegro energico -- sound so effortless.

And Freire's manner with music, seemingly sculpted from marzipan, such as the Liszt 10th Hungarian Rhapsody and the Strauss-Godowsky "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from 'Die Fledermaus' " is remarkable. His performances -- from unedited transcripts -- are as delicious as those of a great pastry chef.

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