Two versions of `Petrushka' are startlingly different

Music: Piano aficionados will find that listening to the `Great Pianists of the 20th Century' invites comparisons between some of the worlds finest musicians.

April 20, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Pride and avarice are the first and second of the Seven Deadly Sins. For the piano aficionado, therefore, the Philips label's "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" -- now 120 CDs strong and heading fast for completion at 200 -- is the Devil's Playground.

Collectors are obsessed by possessing everything and are driven to compare what they acquire by compulsions civilians cannot understand.

There is almost nothing in the Philips series that I hadn't already collected. But since Martha Argerich's version of Chopin's "Barcarolle" is separated from Krystian Zimerman's by thousands of CDs and LPs spread over three floors, the idea of comparing them rarely occurs to me.

But the entire Philips series is no wider than my outspread arms. That means that two of last month's purchases in "The Great Pianists," volumes devoted to Maurizio Pollini and Emil Gilels, are only separated by inches. Both albums contain celebrated interpretations of Stravinsky's "Three Scenes from Petrushka"; comparison was foreordained.

Listening to two great pianists going head to head in some of the most excruciatingly difficult music ever written is for piano fans what the Super Bowl, the Final Four and the World Series are to sports fans.

I'm sometimes asked this question: if two musicians are using the same score, how can one performance be significantly different than another.

An answer might be to compare music to language. Give two great actors Hamlet's "To be or not to be . . " soliloquy and you will get two different interpretations.

Every good musician tries to express the composer's intentions as closely as possible. But the results are likely to vary as widely as those of the actors reciting Hamlet. It is the performer's self-conception that accounts for these differences.

In Pollini's "Petrushka," the piano seems to have vanished and the musician's vision focuses upon "Petrushka" with such laser-beam intensity that we may think we are listening to the familiar orchestral original. Gilels, however, forces the listener to pay attention to pianistic art and to "Petrushka" as a work specifically written for the piano.

If I could own only one recording of this piece, it would be Pollini's.

He must have studied Stravinsky's orchestral score very closely. His performance of Stravinsky's transcription clarifies and distills rather than simply imitates the original. Every dynamic marking, every tempo, every change in rhythm is so closely observed that the human factor -- the presence of an interpreter capable of making mistakes -- seems missing: This is simply "Petrushka."

While Pollini isn't ordinarily considered a great colorist, his thinking is purely orchestral. He does not try to make the piano sound beautiful.

"Petrushka's" shrieking trumpets, deafening snare drums, bleating clarinets -- they're all here. Pollini's apparent inobtrusiveness leads some listeners to describe his music-making as cold and inhuman. In the case of this "Petrushka," I'd call it unblemished perfection.

Gilels' performance is far more distant from the composer's orchestral original and from his intentions.

In this recording -- an unedited transcript from Prague in 1974 -- the pianist plays the first two movements virtually in accordance with the 1921 version for Rubinstein. But he expands the third scene, adding his own transcription of other parts of "Petrushka" (notably the "Dance of the Peasant and the Bear"), then cuts the last few pages of the 1921 original drastically.

Stravinsky hated the way Gilels performed this music -- and it was more than a matter of interpolated notes.

In his 1911 orchestral original, and even more in his piano reconstruction of 10 years later, Stravinsky strove for clarity of texture and (certainly by the 1920s) also for a kind of neo-classical detachment from sentiment. And like other 20th-century composers such as Prokofiev and Bartok, Stravinsky embraced the piano's percussive qualities, rather than trying to disguise them as earlier composers had.

The composers of the later 19th century asked the pianist to create the illusion, through touch, phrasing and pedaling, that the piano was a singing instrument capable of sustaining musical tones. Stravinsky threw all that out the window.

But Gilels succeeds in retrieving it. If Pollini's thinking is purely orchestral, then that of Gilels is purely pianistic. In rapid scales, for example, Pollini is absolutely even, rhythmically and dynamically; in such passages, Gilels is more likely to speed up and slow down, to make crescendos as lines rise and diminuendos as they fall. He also suggests a quality of heartbreak beneath "Petrushka's" brilliance, bustle and surface gaiety.

In other words, Gilels makes "Petrushka" sound like music written by a Russian composer of the late 19th century -- which was exactly what Stravinsky was trained to be and precisely what he was trying to hide.

When I want to hear what Stravinsky wanted me to hear in his "Three Scenes from "Petrushka," I listen to Pollini. When I want to hear what Stravinsky didn't want to acknowledge as his heritage, but nevertheless was, I listen to Gilels.

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