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Great Artists Collection: Pianists
full track-listings and timings at end of review
No booklet. ADD/DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9200 [10 CDs: c.11:45:00]

Experience Classicsonline



There’s something deliciously retro about discs stored in a sturdy cardboard box, each one encased in a separate sleeve; even the smell brings back fond memories of much-prized LP sets from the past. There’s an element of nostalgia in the performances too, some of which haven’t worn terribly well. Avid collectors of Brilliant’s bargain boxes will know these recordings have a history, as all of them are culled from the company’s earlier anthologies. Quite why such incessant packaging and repackaging is deemed necessary in a saturated market is a mystery to me, although I realise these boxes are aimed at classical newbies buying music on a shoestring. That said, these collections have a habit of appealing to veterans as well; is this one of them?

I regret not hearing the eccentric – and critically divisive – pianist Sviatoslav Richter in a live performance. Listening to these Schubert pieces – a very small part of his extensive and diverse discography – I was struck anew by the sheer intensity of his music-making. His is a total immersion that can so easily be interpreted as self-indulgence. But there’s real magic here too; every now and then Richter illuminates a phrase or articulates a rhythm in a way that defies all criticism. If I had to single out just one movement it must be the Molto moderato e cantabile of D.894; there’s profound inwardness and aching lyricism here, the music shaped and propelled with authority and power. And what a lovely, mercurial quality he brings to the closing Allegretto.

What an impressive start to this set, recorded in warm, detailed, not-too-closely-miked analogue sound as well. Any caveats? Well, there are sudden, quickly faded spurts of applause at the end of D.894 and D.915, the latter sounding a little too stern – studied, even. That’s certainly not an epithet I would use to describe Jean-Philippe Collard’s Fauré. There’s a spontaneity, a super-lightness of touch, to the four Valses-Caprices that’s most appealing. The recording is rather more distant than that provided for the Schubert; it’s shallower too, but the all-important inner detail isn’t compromised. The rhythms of No.3 – in G major – are especially well-sprung and there’s an irresistible charm and point to No. 4 that had me reaching for the repeat button.

The ‘short pieces’ are delightful, all characterised by a sparkle and delicacy that Collard brings out most admirably. The discreet underpinnings of the left hand are as subtle as one could hope for, and there’s a precise, beautifully etched quality to this pianist’s playing that’s just as captivating. If there’s a highlight it must be the will-o’-the-wisp Nocturne, which has seldom sounded so evanescent. This is masterly playing indeed; ditto the nicely turned Op. 32 Mazurka and elegant Romances. But it’s the four-handed Dolly Suite that crowns this most desirable selection. Bruno Rigutto is a sympathetic partner, the music tripping off the keyboard with disarming ease. Be sure to crank up the volume though, as this is even more distantly balanced than the earlier pieces and IT can seem a tad under-characterised at such low levels. Highlights? The mischievous, bright-as-a-button rendition of Mi-a-ou and Le pas espagnol. Fauré’s homage to Wagner is more overtly virtuosic, this well-matched duo despatching it with commendable brio.

And now for the heavyweights, starting with Gilels’ live recordings of Beethoven’s fourth and fifth concertos. He recorded the works several times, most notably with Georg Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and anyone familiar with his Beethoven sonatas will know just how patrician – albeit uneven – these performances can be. Regrettably, the G major concerto is spoiled by a bloated orchestral sound and that curious, rather lifeless acoustic one often gets from a packed hall. Masur isn’t terribly inspired either, Gilels’ playing – and his piano – somewhat below par as well. Factor in tuttis that sound congested and too short pauses between movements and you begin to see why this version of the Fourth is so disappointing.

In a recent review I remarked on how we ‘imprint’ on certain recordings, which then become benchmarks against which all others are measured. Stephen Kovacevich’s ‘Emperor’ with Sir Colin Davis was an early infatuation of mine; it’s stood up well to years of comparison and scrutiny, so Gilels and Masur have a lot to live up to. Even allowing for the historic/archive nature of this recording and the imprecisions of a live performance – the opening has never sounded so spongey or perspectives so strange – this is a non-starter. There’s none of the joyful energy and bounce we usually hear in the Allegro, Gilels effusive but dull; as for the graceful Adagio, it’s as leaden as I’ve ever heard it, Gilels no match for the inspired Kovacevich in his first entry or in the music that follows. Poor orchestral intonation, peculiar balances and the piano’s unpleasant twang in the trills doesn’t help either. A desperately prosaic reading of what is one of Beethoven’s most poetic works.

Moving on, the Hungarian pianist Géza Anda’s reading of Schumann’s Kreisleriana is beautifully poised and exceptionally well recorded, the second movement especially memorable for its gentle pulse and softly glowing colours. The studio acoustic is quite lively, adding some brightness to the louder passages, but that’s also an advantage in a score of such clarity and detail; indeed, the recording hardly shows its age at all. One of the many felicities of this magical performance is the unbroken, singing line of the second Sehr langsam, Anda judging the music’s dynamics to perfection. And there’s muscularity too, notably in the vital rhythms of the last two movements.

That’s certainly true of the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic of the Davidsbündlertänze, Anda alternately playful and imperious. There’s no denying the precision and power of his playing, but some may find him a little short on charisma at times. So, no real highpoints, and while I don’t share JW’s enthusiasm for Anda’s way with this piece – review – it’s still a good, solid performance, well recorded. One of the real pleasures of these collections is that one is able to hear these much-lauded artists in the company of those who have followed since; perhaps Anda isn’t the transcendental pianist he once seemed, but his Kreisleriana is very special indeed.

Alfred Brendel – who retired from the concert platform last year – is another of those iconic artists whose talents will be reappraised in years to come. I must confess to some ambivalence where this pianist is concerned, but hearing his first dainty entrance in Mozart’s K.459 I began to wonder if my own reappraisal was destined to begin here and now. Brendel’s playing certainly has a doll-like charm and scale that’s most appealing, but one needs to remember these recordings were made at or near the start of his long career, and that he went on to record these works with more august ensembles than the Vienna Volksoper band. That said, this orchestra plays well enough here; indeed, these original Vox/Turnabout releases are perfectly respectable, the sound in K.459 a little wiry but not distractingly so.

The recording of K.466 is somewhat drier, the piano more backwardly balanced; it’s a little fatiguing, too. And while K.459 doesn’t sound quite as old-fashioned as I’d expected, K.466 does; it certainly won’t appeal to those used to the transparent, period-influenced performances we hear today. The blowsy, big-band style of the Allegro is a case in point, and it’s a good snapshot of this performance as a whole. As I said earlier, perfectly respectable, especially in the context of this ‘beginner’s box’, but not at all memorable. Brendel’s later versions of these concertos with Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF – available as part of a big box from Philips – are infinitely preferable.

Halfway through and it’s more credits than debits – just – Collard’s Fauré the best thus far. And if I’ve never really warmed to Brendel I’d have to say the same about conductor Michel Plasson. I’m invariably underwhelmed by his recordings, so it was with some surprise that I found myself enjoying his bold but tasteful version of Liszt’s first concerto, pianist Nelson Freire in commanding form. The Dresden band sounds rich and full-bodied, the piano ideally placed in the aural soundscape. This concerto is less self-consciously ‘pumped up’ than the classic Zimerman/Ozawa recording, and it’s none the worse for that. And what a relief to hear a big orchestra in full flood, every section present and correct.

Prolixity can be a problem with orchestral Liszt, but there’s a pleasing economy of style and content in the first concerto that makes it a very pleasing listen. The second suffers from a degree of bloat, notably in the overbearing second movement. That said, there’s a gorgeous dialogue between piano and cello in the Allegro moderato, heralding some of the Abbé’s loveliest music; Freire’s ardent rhapsodising is a joy to hear. Unfortunately, Lisztian bombast is never far away, the following movement the very antithesis of what’s gone before. Freire certainly relishes the big moments, which leap out of the speakers in a way that suggests over-enthusiastic knob-twiddling in the control room.

Bracing stuff and as good an introduction to these works as any. And if that’s not demonic enough there’s always the feverish Totentanz. This is pure exhibitionism, and Freire et al play this gaudy, unsettling danse macabre for all it’s worth. Just listen to those maniacal runs, thrillingly done, and to the gentler, more reflective episodes that follow. As with so much large-scale Liszt, structures can seem a little arbitrary, but that matters little when the devil’s in charge; indeed, this blistering, overworked paraphrase on the Dies irae will really make your system sweat. All good fun, and very well recorded to boot.

Nikolai Lugansky’s Rachmaninov is very highly regarded, and listening to these two sets of Études-Tableaux it’s not hard to see why. His technique is simply staggering, the sheer volume of sound he draws from the piano equally so. Fortunately, he is not one of those pile-driving pianists who has little feeling for colour or nuance, and that makes these turbulent pieces much more rewarding than they might otherwise be. These are among the most recent recordings in the box, which shows in terms of weight and range; that said, there’s more than a touch of stridency in the treble – in the ringing Allegro con fuoco of Op. 33, for example – that’s a tad wearying after a while.

Studies can be somewhat unrelenting, but as the Grave in C minor and the Moderato in G minor demonstrate there’s a welcome vein of lyricism here as well. The Op. 39 set is cut from the same cloth, the opening Allegro agitato sounding wonderfully florid in Lugansky’s hands. The sound s still inclined to jangle in the climaxes, but then we are talking about expressive extremes here. As these are incredibly bipolar pieces, veering between quiet introspection and manic outbursts, it’s best to listen to this disc is small chunks. Some may find Lugansky’s powerful musical persona a little threatening at times, but there’s enough thought and insight here to warrant a solid recommendation from me.

We’re still in credit at this point, with just three CDs to go. But seconds into the dreadful, boxy sound of Kissin’s Chopin and we’re in danger of slipping into the red. This is one of those awful, scrappy Soviet-era performances, full of bleat and bluster, that I simply can’t abide. In more sympathetic surroundings, Dmitri Kitaienko is everything this recording isn’t – his recent Tchaikovsky Manfred is a case in point – and Kissin’s youthful pianism is soulless and self-regarding. The screeching harridan of a second concerto is much, much worse; indeed, a more charmless pair of readings it would be hard to imagine. Nul points for this one, I’m afraid.

Before moving on to the next disc I must say I’m perplexed at the thinking behind this and similar anthologies. I accept these are super-budget ssues, so licensing costs will limit the range of talent available. That said, there’s nothing remotely second-rate about Collard’s Fauré or, to a lesser extent, Richter’s Schubert and Anda’s Schumann. To lump these together with Gilels’ dreary Beethoven and this awful Chopin strikes me as self-defeating; even if this box is intended for newbies these performances don’t begin to show how good these works – and artists – really are.

Not too many reservations about Artur Pizarro’s light and bright survey of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Played on a Blüthner, with its distinctive, agile sound, these showpieces emerge with a freshness and clarity that’s most engaging. Pizarro handles Liszt’s sophisticated rhythms and harmonic subtleties with real authority and style, although there are moments when a weightier, better-defined piano sound would be preferable. In fact, the recording is prone to jangle in the extreme treble, and climaxes can sound a tad clinical. That said, the inner detail of these flashing gypsy scores is laid bare, and that brings its own musical rewards. Best of all, Pizarro isn’t a virtuoso cast in the relentless, self-regarding mould, which makes this one of the better discs in the set.

After all that glitter and go, Hélène Grimaud’s low-key Rachmaninov may come as something of an anti-climax. There’s a winning thread of lyricism in this performance that makes up for its general lack of fire. This soft-centred approach is also evident in a rather diffuse recording and the conductor’s relaxed tempi. Grimaud is no stranger to this piece and has since recorded it with Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia (Teldec); this Brillliant release – from a Denon original – only hints at what was still to come. The Ravel G major concerto is much more to my liking; affectations aside, Grimaud is adept at capturing the work’s air of cool Gallic sophistication. There’s plenty of urgency and point from the RPO, but that Ravelian shine becomes a glare at times. On the whole, the recording is fine, but it’s the soloist who impresses, especially in the delectable Adagio. A pleasing sign-off to this anthology.

Opening the ledger to check the final accounts I’d say Pizarro’s Liszt and Grimaud’s Ravel help to keep this set in the black – but only just. As a one-box introduction to these pieces I suppose it will have some appeal, but even at this super-budget level it’s much too variable.

Dan Morgan


Track-listing

CD 1 [73:23]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 6 in E minor, D.566 (1817) [20:01]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in G major, D.894 (1826) [45:02]
Allegretto in C minor, D.915 (1827) [7:23]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. 3 May 1978. Venue not given

CD 2 [75:07]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
4 Valses-Caprices (?1882-1894) [26:15]
8 Pièces Brèves, Op. 84 (1869-1902) [17:37]
Mazurka, Op. 32 (c. 1878) [6:18]
3 Romances Sans Paroles (?1863) [5;53]
Dolly Suite, Op. 56 (1894-1897) [13:48]*
Souvenirs de Bayreuth (?1888) [4:12]*
Jean-Philippe Collard, *Bruno Rigutto (pianos)
rec. 1970-1983, Salle Wagram, Paris, France

CD 3 [71:55]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 (1806) [33:02]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 'Emperor' (1809-1811) [38:43]
Emil Gilels (piano)
State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR/Kurt Masur
rec. December 1976. Venue not given

CD 4 [57:27]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838) [27:32]
Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (1837) [29:39]
Géza Anda (piano)
rec. May 1966, Studio Rosenhügel, Vienna, Austria

CD 5 [61:00]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, K.459 (1784) [30:03]
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466 (1785) [29:57]
Alfred Brendel (piano)
Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper/Wilfried Boettcher
rec. 1959-1967, Vienna, Austria

CD 6 [52:47]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S124 (1849/1856) [17:35]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125 (1839/1861) [20:35]
Totentanz, S126 for piano & orchestra (1849/1859) [14:37]
Nelson Freire (piano)
Dresdner Philharmonie/Michel Plasson
rec. dates and venue not given

CD 7 [63:57]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 (1911) [25:01]
Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39 (1916-1917) [38:56]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
rec. 1992, Concert Hall of the Russian Academy of Music, Moscow, Russia

CD 8 {63:05]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [35:06]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (1829-1830) [27:59]
Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitaenko
rec. 27 March 1984; venue not given

CD 9 [74:36]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsodies, S244 Nos. 1-19 (1846-1886)
Artur Pizarro (piano)
rec. 1-6 March 2005, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK

CD 10 [55:04]
Sergey RACHMANINOV
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901) [33:39]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-1931) [21:25]
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,/Jesús López-Cobos
rec. 16-17 June 1992, Abbey Road Studio, London, UK

 


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