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Daniel Pollack The Legendary Moscow Recordings
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat major, Op.83 (1939-42) *
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Toccata and Fugue in E minor, BWV 914 **
Bach-Busoni Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 **
Gian-Carlo MENOTTI (b.1911) Ricercare and Toccata on a Theme from "The Old Maid and the Thief" (1951) **
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op.79 (1809) **
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No.3 in A minor, Op.28 (1907, rev. 1917) *
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Berceuse in D flat major, Op.57 (1844) **; Nocturne No.20 in C sharp minor, Op. posth. *
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Intermezzos in E major, Op.116/4, C major, Op.119/3 **
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Consolation No.3 in D flat major (1850) **
PAGANINI-LISZT-BUSONI La Campanella **
Daniel Pollack, Piano
Recorded Bolshoi Zal, Moscow, April 1958 *
Recorded Melodiya Recording House Studios, Moscow, February 1961 **
CAMBRIA 1133 [75:53]


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The year was 1958, and the 1st International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was being held in Moscow. Van Cliburn won first prize, instantly becoming an international household name and signing a major recording contract with RCA.

Daniel Pollack also competed in the event and did win an award. However, a big recording contract was not at his doorstep and he never received much popular acclaim except from the Russian people. While Cliburn went home to a ticker-tape parade, Pollack was invited to remain in the Soviet Union for three weeks of concerts and recordings. In 1961, he returned to the Soviet Union for a two-month stint and performed 23 concerts. He was the first American to record for the Melodiya record company and the first American pianist to give a Master Class at the Moscow Conservatory. Pollackís career in the ensuing decades developed gradually into one having a mix of concertizing, recording, teaching and participating on numerous international competition juries.

The big question mark concerning Mr. Pollack is why his popularity is much greater in Russia than in the United States. From my view, the Cambria disc might well supply the answer. In terms of articulation, inflections, and the intervals between notes, Pollack very much plays like a Russian pianist trained in the traditions of the Russian Piano School. The potential result of this similarity of style is a melancholy and tension perfected by pianists such as Scriabin and Sofronitsky.

The Russian style employed by Pollack even manifests itself in the Beethoven Sonata in G major, particularly in the 2nd Movement Adagio where Pollack offers an Eastern Slavic rhythmic pacing that conveys the traditional trudge through life. I listened to about 10 other recorded versions, and none of them used Pollackís rhythm. His first and third movements are fast and moderately exciting, but it is the 2nd Movement that stands out as distinctive.

I have had a great time listening to different versions of Prokofievís 3rd Piano Sonata in A minor that was originally composed during his student years and then revised when he was in the midst of an avant-garde period. The liner notes to the Bernd Glemser recording on Naxos tell us that the one-movement work is tonal, and Glemser offers an extra dose of tonality by essentially removing the first subjectís dissonance. To my surprise, Emil Gilels also plays down the dissonance in addition to conveying insufficient tension throughout his performance.

The version of the A minor I favor comes from Grigory Ginsburg in a live recording made in 1957. He picks up the intense brutality of the first subject, and the lyrical second subject is permeated with melancholy and a subtle tension; contrast is heightened and Ginsburg fully reflects Prokofievís avant-garde musical preferences at the time of revision. For a modern-era version, both Matti Raekallio on Ondine and Elena Rozanova on Harmonia Mundi give highly rewarding and penetrating interpretations.

Daniel Pollackís performance of the A minor Sonata holds up very well in the above company. The dissonance in his first subject is rather weak, but the momentum and strength are tremendous. In the lyrical second subject, Pollack applies the Russian Schoolís concept of tension and articulation splendidly. However, the 1958 recordings are constricted and bass-heavy with lower notes having little definition.

Prokofievís War Sonata in B flat major receives a powerful and urgent reading from Pollack who also emphasizes the emotionally unbalanced and frenetic nature of the music. The similarities with Vladimir Sofronitskyís recording on Russian Disc are readily apparent, both employing fast tempos with industrial-strength interpretations.

Judging from Pollackís performance of the Bach Toccata in E minor, Bachís music might not be in Pollackís comfort zone. He is too fast, superficial, and lacking in detail. Glenn Gouldís stunning interpretation on Sony clearly reveals Pollackís deficiencies. Gould, not a slow pianist by any means, takes about 8 Ĺ minutes to traverse the Toccata; Pollack only uses 7 minutes, not allowing sufficient time to apply meaningful nuance. The detail in Gouldís reading is intense, while Pollackís is diffuse. Given that the recorded sound is significantly cleaner in Pollackís 1961 recordings, the pianist must take responsibility for the problem. Of course, most alternative piano versions will not compare well to the Gould.

I am not a big fan of Busoniís arrangement for piano of Bachís BWV 565 for organ, because the piano canít possibly match the fullness and the washes of sound that the Ďking of instrumentsí offers. Also, most recorded performances try to compete with the organ, ending up in a continuous regimen of key banging. Fortunately, Pollack takes a gentler approach than the norm, emphasizing the musicís architecture and lyricism.

Pollack does very well with the two Chopin pieces. He plays up the flighty nature of the Berceuse, although I do prefer a slower version such as Murray Perahiaís which savors the music with sublime comfort. The Nocturne in C sharp minor gets an exceptional performance from Pollack who conveys an intense melancholy without getting overtly dramatic about it as in the Arrau recording on Philips. There is an alternative Pollack version from the 1990s on Sony/Infinity Digital that is excellent but doesnít possess the incisiveness of his earlier effort.

The Pollack traits of quick pacing and urgency pay significant benefits in the two Brahms Intermezzos. The readings might startle some listeners, but I feel that Pollack gives the two pieces a rhythmic vitality that is quite appealing and surely bests those recorded versions that can put the listener into a stupor. His performance of the Intermezzo in E major is particularly gorgeous and compelling.

Pollackís reading of Lisztís Consolation No.3 is another triumph. He brings out the delicate and sparkling elements of the music while offering a subtle urgency that makes the version one of the best on record. In La Campanella, Pollackís playfulness wins the day.

Menottiís "Ricercare and Toccata" takes early Baroque forms and gives them a 20th century sensibility replete with much dissonance. The approach reminds me of the Shostakovich Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues, and I would have preferred that Pollack play some Shostakovich instead of the Menotti, which isnít memorable at all.

Overall, I find the Pollack recital a very rewarding listening experience. It has three outstanding performances in the Beethoven Adagio from Sonata No.25, Lisztís Consolation No.3, and the Brahms Intermezzo in E major. The discís weak link is the Bach thru Menotti tracks, and thatís mainly a programming consideration. Recorded sound is more than acceptable in the 1961 recordings, but the 1958 sound is rather muddy in the lower registers.

Daniel Pollackís playing style is aligned with the Russian Piano School, and I readily admit to being an enthusiastic supporter. For the many piano enthusiasts who are skeptical of the Russian approach, the Pollack disc can be safely passed-by. Others could well consider the performances highly enjoyable and enlightening.


Don Satz

 



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