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The Great Pianists
CD1
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major played by Edwin Fischer (1186-1960)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata in C Sharp Minor, Op.27, No.2 "Moonlight" played by Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948)
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso (1st.movement from Piano Concerto No.1)
Played by Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989)
Johann STRAUSS (1793-1866)

Blue Danube Waltz played by Joseph Lhevinne (1874-1944)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Allegro vivace (3rd.movement from Piano Concerto in A Minor)
Played by Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op.3, No.2 played by William Kapell (1922-1953)
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Allegro molto moderato (1st movement of Piano Concerto in A Minor)
played by Benno Moseiwitsch (1890-1963)
CD2
Sergei RACHMANINOV

Adagio sostenuto (2nd.movement of Piano Concerto No.2)
played by Sergei Rachmaninov
Frederyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Nocturne in E Minor, Op.72, No.1 played by Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Adagio (2nd.movement of Piano Concerto No.1)
played by Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Vivace (3rd.movement of Piano Concerto No.4, Op.58)
Played by Artur Schnabel (1882-1951)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Sonata No.5 in G Major, K283 played by Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)
Frederyk CHOPIN

Larghetto (2nd.movement of Piano Concerto No.2, Op.21)
Played by Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
Johannes BRAHMS

Rhapsody in B Minor, Op.79, No.1: Agitato played by Egon Petri (1881-1962)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Andante-Allegro (1st.movement of Piano Concerto No.3 in C)
Played by Sergei Prokofiev
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110783-84 [76:55+68:49]

I have an extremely emotional response to discs like these that enable us to hear the great artists of the past and I feel humbled by the experience. The result is that I find it hard to be too critical of such musicians who are no longer around to defend themselves. I have no problem with discussing whether or not I enjoyed listening but am loath to be nit-picking about the specifics of performances. Having got this out of the way at the outset letís have a look at what these two discs have for us.

First offering on CD1 is a delightful performance of Bachís Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major, played by Edwin Fischer, in a recording made in the 1930s. Fischer (1886-1960), whose pupils included Alfred Brendel and Paul Badura-Skoda, was a renowned interpreter of Bach as well as many other composers, both romantic and contemporary, within his extensive repertoire.

Next is Ignaz Friedman who was born in Podgorze, Poland in 1882. The son of pianist Wolfgand Freudman (Ignaz changed the spelling of his name later in life, as well as his first names which were Soloman Isaac) was a pupil, and later assistant, of the great teacher Leschetizky. He made his debut in 1904, and lived in many places in Europe before finally settling in Australia. He was considered a particularly fine exponent of Chopin and made this recording of Beethovenís "Moonlight" sonata in 1926. Soon after the beginning you are able to ignore the scratchy sound as Friedmanís playing holds you in its spell. Though a little faster that I prefer it played it nevertheless holds up well against modern interpretations.

Friedman is followed by the great Vladimir Horowitz with a movement from Tchaikovkyís first piano concerto with an orchestra under the baton of his redoubtable father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini. It is a committed performance that, though rather heavy in its delivery, left me frustrated that this 1941 recording was incomplete.

Next in line in this "champions league" comes Joseph Lhevinne who studied at the Moscow Conservatoire with fellow pupils Rachmaninov and Scriabin, and who later taught both Van Cliburn and James Levine (no relation), at the Juilliard School in New York. He is represented by his best-known Ďencoreí piece, Adolf Schulz-Evlerís transcription of the Blue Danube waltz. It a scintillating performance that belies the fact that it was recorded in 1928.

One of wartime Britainís favourite people comes next in a performance of the third movement of Schumannís piano concerto. Dame Myra Hess deservedly won huge admiration among concert-goers for organising the lunch-hour concerts at the National Gallery following the closure of concert halls during the second world war. The recording presented here dates from 1937 and has that distinctly antiquated orchestral sound that appears so strange when set against a piano sound that has worn so much better and which still sounds fresh and appealing.

William Kapell the American pianist, whose promising career was so cruelly cut short at the age of 31 when he was killed in a plane crash on the way home from a tour of Australia, is represented in this collection by Rachmaninovís famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor, recorded in 1945. It is particularly sad that this is one of the relatively small number of recordings he left behind. Such is the power and majesty of this performance that I was left yearning for more.

The first disc of this fascinating set is completed by the first movement of Griegís piano concerto played superbly by Benno Moseiwitsch, who was born in Odessa in 1890, and whose concert debut was in London in 1908. His friends included Rachmaninov and Medtner, whose music he was a noted interpreter of. The orchestra in this extract sounds less dated than in Myra Hessís, though it was recorded, in Manchester only four years later in 1941. As with all the extracts from longer pieces, it would be wonderful to have the complete works and so be able to form a view on the complete performance.

One of the most fascinating and exciting aspects of historical recordings like these are those where composers play their own music and there are two examples of that on this set, both on the second disc, which begins with Rachmaninov playing the second movement of his second piano concerto. Recorded in 1929 it is a beautifully measured performance, full of pathos, and which in no way sounds 74 years old. It has encouraged me to want to get hold of his complete recordings of all his concertos, also, I believe, available on Naxos. Whilst it is true that composers do not necessarily make the best interpreters of their own music, whether as soloists or conductors, this is an example in which the composer reveals new insights into the music. It is well known that he is said to be one of the greatest pianists who ever lived Ė how lucky then that we are able to make our own judgement on that with recordings like this. Having left Russia after the revolution he was forced to devote a great deal of time to performance rather than composition but how thrilling it must have been for those fortunate enough to have heard him play!

Chopinís Nocturne in E Minor is the offering representing Rubinsteinís art. He was particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin, and this 1937 recording is an eloquent example as to why. He was 50 when it was made and amazingly he had almost another 40 years of performing life ahead of him, and those lucky enough to have seen him play will never forget the experience.

Wilhelm Backhaus, like all these pianists, was a name from my parentsí generation and they told me of the thrill they felt when they saw him at one of his over 4,000 concerts. His first recordings were made in 1907 but the one on this disc, mercifully, dates from 1932, and is of the second movement of Brahmsí first concerto. The art involved in cleaning up original recordings is shown here to perfection, as it sounds remarkably hiss free for a performance from over 70 years ago and, once again, I was left wishing I could hear the entire work.

Next comes Artur Schnabel with a movement from Beethovenís 4th concerto with Malcolm Sargent conducting the LPO in 1934 Ė seven years after playing in Berlin to mark the centenary of Beethovenís death. It is fresh and exciting performance that demonstrates why Schnabelís name was so closely associated with interpretations of Beethovenís music.

The great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau plays Mozartís 5th sonata made in 1941, the year I was born and whilst Iím definitely beginning to feel my age this recording still sounds lively and delightful.

The name of Alfred Cortot is connected in my mind mainly with the famous trio founded in the 1930s, with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, whose records my parents had many of, and which are among my earliest musical memories. I hadnít heard many of his recordings as a soloist and this 1935 performance of the second movement of Chopinís 2nd. piano concerto made me want to compare the 68 year old recording of the then 58 year old pianist with my 19 year old recording of Evgeni Kissinís Moscow Conservatoire debut performance at the tender age of 121/2. It showed how well the old recording fared as well as being an illuminating demonstration of the precocious talent of the schoolboy pianist.

Egon Petri, the Dutch born pianist and son of a pupil of the great Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote his violin concerto, studied piano with no less a musician than Busoni. His recording of Brahms' Rhapsody in B Minor, made in New York in 1940, is full blooded though the sound is rather muddy with more bass than I care to hear, which looses some of the definition a touch more treble would have given.

The final offering on this 2 disc set is of Prokofiev performing the first movement of his 3rd piano concerto, recorded in 1932. Although he was apparently a rather recalcitrant pupil, this extract shows that his talent was substantial and my disc with Michel Béroff as soloist is no more enjoyable than this historic recording.

To sum up, this set is a wonderful compilation of fabulous talent from musical history and such a valuable document for study, as well as for pure enjoyment, and comes at an incredible give-away price of £4.99 (around $6). This once again highlights Naxosís commitment to providing the widest possible public with quality discs. I recommend it unreservedly.

Steve Arloff

 



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