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Grigory Ginzburg: Live Recordings Vol. 1
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Piano Concerto no.1 in E flat, S.124 [17:45]*, Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125 [20:01]*, Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254 (arr. Busoni) [13:31]*, Ständchen (after Schubert), S.560/7 [06:13], La campanella (after Paganini), S.140/3 [4.25]
Grigory GINZBURG (1904-1961)

Fantasia on a theme of "Largo al factotum" from Rossini’s "Il barbiere di Siviglia" [04:45]
Grigory Ginzburg (piano)
* USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Nikolai Anosov
Recorded February 24th 1949 in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire
VOX AETERNA VACD 00101 [66:11]
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Here, miraculously preserved from the murk of early post-war Soviet history by courtesy of the Ginzburg family archives, and in better sound than one would have dared to hope, is a complete concert, with encores, by one of the greatest of all romantic pianists.

And it is with the encores that I would like to start, for they reveal much about his art. The opening bars of "Ständchen" are curiously dry, and faster than what is to follow, but when the melody enters we are bathed in a world of luminous warmth. I would frown upon a singer and pianist who applied such agogic freedom to the Schubert original but, if questionable as Schubert, this is wonderful Liszt. Most remarkable of all is the last verse where the theme is echoed in little counter-phrases; the dialogue between the warmly sung melody (as if played on massed cellos), the gently lapping accompaniment and the delicate counter-phrases (as if on a flute) is extraordinary and it is here, rather than in mind-boggling virtuosity, that we find the essence of golden-age pianism. There are plenty of young bloods and blades around today who can play as fast as Ginzburg, but this sort of "keyboard orchestration" proves harder to recapture.

And so it is with "La campanella"; you will certainly be amazed at the notes-per-second in the later stages, and the final burn-up is breathtaking, but I hope you will notice how earlier on you are surrounded by bells, each with its different timbre, each with its own part in the texture. You’ll have to go back to Ignaz Friedmann for something matching this. And then we have Ginzburg’s own Rossini Fantasia, full of impish wit and devil-may-care exuberance. These three pieces would alone suffice to place Ginzburg among the greats; the irresistible conclusion is that, if he had moved to the West and lived somewhat longer, he would have given Horowitz quite a run for his money.

Mention of Friedmann is a reminder that, with so many of these golden-age pianists, we know them only in shorter works and, when something larger has been preserved, doubts arise as to their ability to realise larger structures. Liszt concertos are very different beasts from those of Beethoven or Brahms, but insofar as they can be taken as evidence, Ginzburg seems to have had an innate sense of architecture. He enters fully into each mood – from the diabolically malevolent to the impishly humorous and then to the radiantly poetic – yet each moment takes its place in the larger scheme. Notice how the poetic reveries near the end of no.2 appear as a genuine parenthesis and not mere directionless meandering. He is helped by the very positive support of Nikolai Anosov, who obtains some whiplash attacks and a tension that seems positively Mravinskian, though his orchestra is not up to Leningrad standards. There is a very Russian feeling to his work – I couldn’t help thinking of Mussorgsky’s unhatched chicks during the scherzo of no.1. Interpretatively and pianistically these performances stand at the pinnacle of the discography of the Liszt concertos, though on account of their sound they will remain confined to specialist collectors – for the general public there is jaw-dropping greatness a-plenty in the versions by Ginzburg’s younger compatriot Richter (with Kondrashin), far better recorded.

All the same, if you are a fan of great pianism you cannot afford to miss this issue.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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