Great Pianists - Vol. 2: Brailowsky, Cherkassky, Serkin

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K.488 (1. I. Allegro [9:46]; 2. II. Adagio (Andante)* [6:18]; 3. III. Allegro assai (Presto)* [7:08])
Alexander Brailowsky (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitsky
rec. live 26 June 1945 (previously unissued).
*The differences in tempo indication result from the differences between the original and later editions of the work.
Announcer [0:12]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Don Giovanni Fantasy [2 versions: 17:25, 16:59]
rec. 7 February 1952; 5 March 1953
Shura Cherkassky (piano)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Burleske in D minor, for piano and orchestra [19:30]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. live, 9 February 1958
GUILD GHCD2367 [77:18]
In my recent review of the last recital of Dinu Lipatti I said (not for the first time) that future generations will be very fortunate indeed. They have such a rich source of recorded material in every medium to refer. This will enable them to have an extremely accurate picture of what 20th and 21st century man read, watched and listened to. This disc is further proof that we are already enjoying the privilege of aural insights into our listening past.
Guild is one of several record companies that have released CDs of historical, and often rare, recordings of great instrumentalists. Volume 1 of their Great Pianists series was of Wilhelm Backhaus, Lili Kraus and Artur Rubinstein. This one turns its attention to Brailowsky (1896-1976), Cherkassky (1911-1995) and Serkin (1903-1991). One of the things that make such recordings so fascinating is the line that can be traced from us as present day listeners via these pianists to amazing historical musicians from even further back in time. Alexander Brailowsky born in late 19th century Russia studied with Francis Planté, a child prodigy who was friends with both Berlioz and Liszt. He was born when both Mendelssohn and Chopin were still alive! It is impossible that influences from this background are not part of the pianist we are hearing play the Mozart A major concerto. One has to admire the hard work re-mastering involves that enables us to hear these musicians as clearly as this. That said, the Mozart whilst brilliantly played, still suffers from its age. The orchestra in particular sounds very much of its period so though fascinating it would clearly not be one’s choice of recording if you could only choose one. That can’t be levelled at Cherkassky’s recordings of the Liszt Don Giovanni Fantasy which to my ears sounds so fantastic (both of them) that I would be perfectly happy to have either of them as my only recording of this work. I am unsure as to why Guild decided to include both recordings of the same work as I would imagine only another pianist could tell what differences there are between them (only 26 seconds in time terms!); I certainly can’t. One is immediately struck by the power of Cherkassky’s playing which is simply magisterial. He was a small rotund man who liked to play without shoes as I remember when I was fortunate enough to see him in concert in the early 1970s.

While Brailowsky and Cherkassky were products of the Russian piano school, Rudolf Serkin, though of Russian Jewish parentage was born in Bohemia - today’s Czech Republic, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Once again as far as I’m concerned it would take another pianist to tell that he was of the Austro-Germanic school of piano playing; I can’t but then I don’t know what to listen out for. The long line of musical history is once more revealed here as Serkin studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg following his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic at the tender age of 12. He married the daughter of the great German violinist Adolf Busch and one of their children is the pianist Peter Serkin. In addition to his mastery of the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms he enjoyed playing the music of those composers he had got to know like Reger, Bartók and the composer represented on this disc, Strauss. This Strauss work, written when he was only 21 is a powerful piece. Serkin gives it a great performance that, even if the orchestra again shows the era it comes from, is one to treasure. It is a work that has had a chequered career being dismissed by Hans von Bülow, who Strauss had hoped would play it. Even Strauss himself became ambivalent towards the work though he later reappraised it. It deserves to be heard more often and this rendition should help popularise it as it is a pianistic tour de force and Serkin has no problem showing that.

All in all this is a disc to marvel at. It serves to show that piano giants of today are part of a musical heritage that stretches way back and which allow us an insight into the traditions of pianism from the past we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy today.
Steve Arloff 

A disc to marvel at.