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Discovering a Legend - Vol. IV
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 [17:09]
Aufschwung, Fantasiestück Op. 12 No. 2 [3:32]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Valse oubliée No. 1 [2:45]
Funérailles [12:55]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Suite of fifteen waltzes, compiled by the pianist [15:04]
Wanderer Fantasy in C, D. 760 [19:57]
Vera Gornostaeva (piano)
rec. live, 7 February 1968, Moscow Conservatory Small Hall (Kinderszenen, Wanderer), unknown date and location in Moscow, 1976 (waltzes), and 3 October 1979, Moscow Conservatory Great Hall (Liszt, “encore”), USSR
LP CLASSICS 1012 [71:21]

“Discovering a Legend,” the cover says. “Creating a Legend” might be more like it. Vera Gornostaeva is an extraordinary pianist, maybe one of the greats. She builds her performances from fire and tempered steel, but is capable of poetic softness. She embraces huge contrasts, steering with complete control from an explosive fortissimo to a hypnotic sung melody. She takes no half-measures. When you consider that this pianist is totally unknown and has only been reviewed on MusicWeb International once before, her every performance is stunning.

Vera Gornostaeva was born in 1929 and studied in Moscow with Heinrich Neuhaus, who also taught Richter, Gilels and Radu Lupu. Gornostaeva refused to join the Communist Party, and she was openly religious, which earned her a place on the government blacklist. She was allowed to travel and perform inside the Soviet Union, but only became known outside the Soviet Union when the curtain fell.

Gornostaeva died very recently, aged 85 - see here for a tribute. She spent the decades teaching, and her students included Ivo Pogorelich and Sergei Babayan. Wikipedia claims that she once recorded for Philips, but I can find no evidence for this. Other sources say she cut albums for Melodiya, but these have not been reissued. LP Classics, a tiny label managed in part by her student Vassily Primakov, is taking up the mantel with this series of live recordings. Christopher Howell reviewed one previous volume.

This is Volume IV. It begins with its least great performance and improves track-by-track. Gornostaeva’s Schumann Kinderszenen starts with a rather ponderous, sleepy introduction, but then it opens up into a performance of great variety, intimacy and colour. Every movement has a wholly different character, in keeping with the titles. She swings from the hobby-horse’s swagger to the “too serious” movement with ease, and captures both the witty clamour of the card game and the dreaminess of Träumerei. Her penchant for contrast and her ability to take on many moods and tones make this an excellent performance.

Then the disc kicks into a higher gear. Gornostaeva moves on to Liszt, the chatty Valse oubliée and the mighty dark monolith that is Funérailles. This is a titanic performance: long at 12:55, with a terrifying introduction that builds until the tension is unbearable and you start to sweat. The sweeter central section is indulgent and luscious, but the final climax, again, brings back an urgent power. Many pianists offer one of those qualities, but few have both.

Often when I need a second opinion, I turn to my trusted fellow listeners at the Good Music Guide. They listened to Gornostaeva’s Funérailles completely blind, alongside recordings by Arthur Rubinstein, Sergio Fiorentino, and others. Here are some accolades for “Pianist #2,” who was Gornostaeva: “A powerful keyboard virtuoso as well as an intensely musical thinker who isn't afraid to take risks …. an exceptionally intelligent, imaginative, exciting, assertive, and individual performance.” “Deep, sculptured, sometimes quite liberal dynamics, nuances and accents. Every crescendo is played to the hilt.” “More tonal luster would be nice, but it’s still really good stuff.”

We get a reprieve in the form of Gornostaeva’s own selection of fifteen Schubert waltzes. They’re as sweet, lovely, and lightly played as you can hope for. Then comes the Wanderer Fantasy. Wow. This is a tour-de-force: technically flawless, and artistically convincing. There’s no ambiguity about the way she begins the piece: it’s as confident, heroic, and thrilling as can be.

How can she be so aching and sorrowful at the beginning of the Adagio, and so merciless on her keys five minutes later? How can she make those six minutes feel as universal and majestic as an hour-long symphony? Why does the fugue sound so much like Beethoven, and why does that work so well? I give up. My reviewer abilities have been exhausted. This is the playing of a genius.

I’m going to go ahead and quote my colleague Christopher Howell, in his review of Volume I, so you know it’s not just me. “If she sometimes leaves you doubting when a piece starts … within a few bars she has you following her every move. More than with a pianist, I’d compare her with the sort of singer who, once you’re hooked on their voice, you just can’t turn a deaf ear, whatever they sing, even however they sing it. The abiding impression is of a great richness of spirit. I’ve already used the word generous, but it came to mind continually…. I’m left in no doubt that this is a pianist we should all discover. In times of conformity, eccentricity, personality cults, technical exhibitionism and heaven knows what else, Gornostaeva offers a free-soaring spirit and a dedication to musical values that shine like a beacon.”

This recital is one of the biggest surprises I’ve had in years. After hearing it, I purchased two previous volumes in the series, a Chopin recital and a pairing of Mussorgsky’s Pictures to Rachmaninov. There are brand-new issues of Gornostaeva playing Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and more Chopin. I need to hear those. You probably need to hear them, too. I hope there are fifty more volumes in this series. For once, the title “Discovering a Legend” is not hyperbole. This is how legends begin.

Brian Reinhart