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Having enjoyed one or two of Bella Davidovich’s Phillip’s recordings over the years, I was very pleased to be given the opportunity to review this newly released collection from Australian Eloquence. The pianist’s Philip’s legacy dates from 1979 to 1983. The recordings have been gathered together for the first time, and include recordings previously unreleased on CD. The advertisements for her first Philips recordings lauded her as ‘Russia’s best-kept secret’.
Some biographical details wouldn’t go amiss here. She was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1928 into a family of musicians. She relocated to Moscow in 1939 to continue her education.
At the age of 18 she enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, studying first of all with Konstantin Igumnov and, when he died, with his pupil Yakov Flier. Her big break came at the IV International Chopin Piano Competition in 1949 when she clinched first prize with Halina Czerny-Stefańska. Her career took off swiftly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. She also held a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory for sixteen years. She married violinist Julian Sitkovetsky in 1950. They had a son four years later, the violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky. Sadly, Julian died in 1958 at the young age of thirty-two and Bella never remarried. In 1978 she emigrated to the States and took citizenship. In October 1979 she made a spectacular American début at Carnegie Hall to wide critical acclaim. She’s held a teaching post at the Juilliard since 1982, and is a regular jury member at many of the world’s major international piano competitions.
The pianist heralded in her collaboration with Philips with a substantial recording project set down between 10-16 March 1979. In these sessions she recorded two Beethoven sonatas, the Chopin Preludes and a Schumann selection. The Beethoven and Schumann appear on CD for the first time. As far as the Beethoven disc goes, it’s regrettable that she opted for the ubiquitous Moonlight. I, for one, tire of it somewhat. In her favour she does choose the lovely Op. 31, No. 3, a great favorite of Clara Haskil. It’s a characterful and stylish performance. The spirited Scherzo is followed by a Menuetto of elegance and charm. In the finale she pulls all the stops out to deliver an energized reading with lively pacing and lick.
From the same sessions we have Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28. The opening prelude and the one that follows sound a little on the heavy side. Davidovich certainly gets into her stride by the third, where the left hand semiquavers glisten. No. 4 in E minor is dreamy and has a wistful flavour. The melancholy of No. 6 and poise of No. 7 is counterbalanced by the torrent unleashed in No. 8. In No. 16 there’s a similar coruscating thrust, preparing the way for the lyrical No. 17. No. 20 has nobility, whilst terror underpins No. 22.
Finally from the March 1979 sessions Davidovich turns her attention to Schumann, another composer like Chopin she has an affinity for. In addition to conveying the intimacy and extroversion of the music, she captures its mercurial aspects as well. Carnaval, Op. 9, subtitled Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (Little Scenes on Four Notes) portrays revelers at a masked ball during Carnaval, a festival held just before Lent. Schumann represents himself, his friends, his colleagues and some Italian comedy characters. The characters portrayed include Clara Wieck ‘Chiarina’, Paganini and Chopin, in addition to his own imaginary alter egos Florestan and Eusebius, the former exuberant and energetic, the latter poetic and dreamy. Davidovich points up the contrasts, making a striking impact when she traverses the road of high octane and slapstick. The Humoreske Op. 20 is one of Schumann’s most inspired and elusive works. Sudden quicksilver changes of mood run its course. Davidovich gives equal weight to both the lyrical Eusebius sections as she does to the manic fiery passages depicting Florestan.
To Chopin’s Ballades the pianist brings power, poetry and passion, but light and shade does elude her at times. So, too, dynamic variety isn’t always in evidence. I think a lighter touch, with pianissimo whisperings, on occasion, wouldn’t have gone amiss. The mood changes in the F Major Ballade are very successful, contrasting the graceful lyrical melody with vehement outbursts. The F Minor Ballade evolves seamlessly and expansively, with the coda an impressive tour de force. I concluded that this recording won’t topple Krystian Zimerman’s as my preferred version. The Impromptus are as fine as any I’ve heard. My favorite, No. 3 in G flat, can stand shoulder to shoulder with Arthur Rubinstein’s distinguished recording.
The London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner partner the pianist in Chopin’s two piano concertos. The venue, on each occasion, is Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London. The acoustic and balance are ideal, and both make for satisfying performances. These are noble, passionate and mercurial readings, and don’t lack poetry either. Davidovich projects the long lyrical lines of the slow movements convincingly, with rubato always discreet, tasteful and restrained. Marriner is an ideal partner, offering cushioned, sympathetic support.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 is given a ravishing performance. Davidovich invests it with a wealth of detail and imagination and is ably supported by Neeme Järvi and his Concertgebouw forces. Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 is certainly the most appealing and popular of the five. Davidovich’s reading encapsulates its romantic fervour. Highly impressive are her Bachian flourishes at the start, both strongly rhetorical and striking, and you won’t feel short-changed in excitement in the final tarantella.
The final disc in the set features works by Prokofiev and Scriabin. Davidovich’s performance of Prokofiev’s single-movement Third Sonata communicates the young composer’s vitality and energy. In an agile and detailed reading, she maintains tension and direction throughout. At first, Scriabin had reservations about calling his two-movement work a sonata. As a compromise, it became known as the Piano Sonata No.2 in G sharp minor, Op.19 ‘Sonata-Fantasy’. An evocative work, it conjures up memories of the sea-shore, moonlight and oceanic rage. Davidovich doesn’t disappoint in terms of colour, dynamic range and fantasy. Her performance stands favourably alongside Nicolai Demidenko’s wonderful reading on the extinct Conifer label.
There we have it. This fine collection, especially the welcome first CD appearances, offer much to admire and appreciate, and offer a vivid insight into Davidovich’s musicianship. As is the norm, Eloquence’s production standards and splendid transfers are high. Mark Ainley’s liner contribution is generously detailed and informative, and the photographic reproductions are excellent. This set will grace the shelves of lovers of the art of fine pianism and should be just too tempting to resist.
Contents Beethoven, Ludwig van
Bagatelle no.25 in A minor, WoO59 'Fur Elise'
Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor, op.27 no.2 'Moonlight'
Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major, op.31 no.3 'The Hunt' Chopin, Frederic
Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise, op.22
Barcarolle in F sharp major, op.60
Impromptu no.1 in A flat major, op.29
Impromptu no.2 in F sharp major, op.36
Impromptu no.3 in G flat major, op.51
Impromptu no.4 in C sharp minor, op.66 'Fantaisie-Impromptu'
Krakowiak: Grand Rondeau de concert, op.14
Piano Concerto no.1 in E minor, op.11
Piano Concerto no.2 in F minor, op.21
Polonaise no.4 in C minor, op.40 no.2
Preludes (24), op.28
Rondo in E flat major, op.16 Prokofiev, Sergei
Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, op.28
Romeo and Juliet: Pieces (10) for piano, op.75
» no.2 Scene. Morning's Dance
» no.4 Juliet's Girlhood
» no.6 Montagues and Capulets
» no.7 Friar Laurence
» no.8 Mercutio
» no.9 Dance of the girls with lilies
» no.10 Romeo and Juliet at Parting Rachmaninoff, Sergei
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 Saint-Saëns, Camille
Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.22 Schumann, Robert
Humoreske in B flat major, op.20 Scriabin, Alexander
Mazurkas (2), op.40
Mazurkas (9), op.25
» no.3 in E minor
Piano Sonata no.2 in G sharp minor, op.19 'Sonata-Fantasy'
Poemes (2), op.32
Waltz in A flat major, op.38
London Symphony Orchestra/Neville Marriner (Chopin)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns)