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
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
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