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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Etude-tableau in F flat, Op.33 No.7 [1:58]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Concert Etude in F, S144 No.2 [5:34]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Prelude & Fugue in D flat, Op.87 No.15 [5:12]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op.24 [28:28]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op.19 No.6 [11:11]
Alexander PIRUMOV (1930-1995)
Scherzo for piano [5:57]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No.3, Op.28 [7:39]
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 [34:12]
Johannes BRAHMS
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 [45:30]
András Schiff (piano)
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Kitaenko
rec. 1974, Moscow
MELODIYA MELCD1002386 [66:08 + 78:41]

András Schiff does not do competitions. Nor does he, as a rule, play the big works of the late Romantic Russian repertory. Yet here, on this archive recording made during the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition, we hear him in both. It provides a fascinating insight into the early career of a pianist who is today recognised as a musician of great intellectual strength and musical discernment, whose speciality is the music of the Classical Viennese masters and, of course, Bach. At the end of last year I heard him perform the Goldberg Variations in Singapore in what I consider one of the finest live recitals I have ever experienced and by far and away the most compelling and absorbing performance of Bach I have heard on the piano in my entire listening career. These recordings from Moscow are in a very different league.

Schiff was, at the time of the 1974 competition, just 20 years old and a largely unrecognised pianist on the circuit. We hear him in these performances still finding his musical feet, and while, in retrospect, we can recognise the great intellectual musician from his intensely focused performance of the Brahms Variations and from the wonderful sense of intimacy he brings to a distinctly conversational realisation of the Brahms first Piano Concerto, we can also hear a pianist whose technique does not always match his musical vision and whose sympathies do not fully support the programme he plays. I find his Rachmaninov uncomfortable and the Tchaikovsky concerto somewhat embarrassing, not least because of a level of smudginess which was certainly more acceptable in live performances of the 1970s than in recorded ones of the 2010s.

It is, nevertheless, fascinating both to hear young Schiff in an alien environment – he had made a reputation for himself in his native Hungary but was virtually unknown outside the country – and to read some of the comments made by those who heard him play at the Moscow competition. Leonid Gakkel is quoted as describing his playing as “creating spirit at every instance of his performance” while Hungarian critic M. Fejér observed that Schiff had the ability to “feel free in any stylistic field”. Clearly his early genius was evident to some of those in Moscow in 1974, even if in the view of the judges he did not warrant a placing in the top three. (For the record, Andrei Gavrilov was declared winner, while two other Soviet pianists – Stanislav Igolinsky and Youri Egorov – were awarded second and third prizes, with Igolinsky sharing his second prize with Myung-whun Chung; who, of course, became famous in a different musical capacity.). But competitions were never Schiff’s forte, and after earning third prize in the Leeds International in 1975, he never appeared on the competition stage again.

What comes across most vividly in these admittedly poor-quality archive recordings is Schiff’s visionary musicianship. Often, as in a brilliantly paced account of Liszt’s second Etude de Concert that musicianship is gloriously supported by some “burning fingerwork” (to paraphrase Gakkel), but there are times, notably in the Tchaikovsky Variations and the Rachmaninov Etude-tableau, where he seems unable to find the technical support to match his musical visions. Both the Shostakovich and Prokofiev performances are interesting rather than outstanding, and I’m afraid Schiff seems unwilling to exert much of his musical or technical energies on the competition’s test-piece, an uninspiring Scherzo by Pirumov; which may not have endeared him to the judges.

What I would very much have liked to have heard was Schiff’s performance of the Bach English Suite No.3, but we are promised this on a later Melodiya disc devoted to notable performances from various performers across the whole history of the Tchaikovsky competition. In the meantime, this two-disc set is a fascinating historical record, if not always a pianistically impressive one.

Marc Rochester



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