Just as the last echoes of the University of Maryland Piano Festival are dying out, along comes the first compact disc edition of all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos, plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This item, with other piano records discussed below, should fortify even the most rabid piano addicts who may be going into post-Festival withdrawal symptoms.
The Rachmaninoff set (Chandos CHAN 8521/2, two CDs) features pianist Earl Wild, with the late Jascha Horenstein conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It is digitally remastered from a set recorded in 1966 when Wild was in his prime, and even amid the heavyweight recorded competition one gets with Rachmaninoff's music, the soloist and conductor stand out for technical brilliance and attention to details. Chandos is setting a fine precedent, by the way, in fitting three LPs' worth of music (nearly two hours and 15 minutes) neatly on two CDs.
Those who were dazzled by John Browning's performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata (the 1913 original, not the 1931 revision) during the Maryland Festival will be happy to know that it is available on Delos D/CD 3044, along with 11 immaculately played miniatures that bring the disc's playing time to 74 minutes and 29 seconds -- close to the maximum possible on CD. In both the sonata and the shorter works, Browning's technique is impeccable (particularly in the variety of coloration), and his emotional involvement is impressive.
For some, the climax of the festival was the recital by Shura Cherkassky, the great romanticist who has been playing professionally for 64 of his 75 years. On Nimbus NI 5045, he can be heard in his unique interpretations of three pieces well suited to his temperament and still dazzling technique: Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Stravinsky's Three Scenes from Petrushka. His playing is not flawless, but something better: imaginative.
Memories of the piano competition's climactic last round are evoked on Telarc CD-80124, which contains two of the three concertos played that evening: Tchaikovsky's First and Prokofiev's Third. Andre' Previn conducts the Royal Philharmonic, Jon Kimura Parker is the brilliant, eloquent soloist, and the performances are quite a bit better than those heard in the competition. Telarc's sound is fresh and natural. There are several CD recordings of the other concerto played that evening, the Brahms Second. Personally, I am fond of the old Gilels/Reiner version, digitally remastered on RCA RCD1-540S.
Other recent piano recordings are discussed briefly below.
Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120. Claudio Arrau, piano (Philips 416 295-2). There is no one "greatest" work for the piano, but Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations come as close as anything in the repertoire. One can quibble about this or that in Arrau's interpretation; the technical brilliance, profundity and wit of this music are richer than can be conveyed in any one reading. But in this well-recorded performance, Arrau encompasses the music's dazzling scope as well as any living performer. This should be a basic item in most piano collections.
Piano Sonatas No. 8 ("Pathe'tique"), 14 ("Moonlight"); 23 ("Appassionata"). John Ogdon, pianist (MCA Classics MCAD 25921). John O'Conor, piano (Telarc CD-80118). At last count, following the arrival of these two discs, there were nine different CDs offering this rightly popular combination of sonatas. In competition with Serkin, Brendel, Barenboim, Horowitz et al., Ogdon and O'Conor both perform commendably and either should satisfy the average fan looking for this music. Of the two, O'Conor seems to me slightly more precise, sensitive and well recorded -- but Ogdon is good and should be available at a lower price.
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960; "Wanderer" Fantasy, D. 760. Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano (London 417 327-2). Schumann: Arabeske, Papillons, Symphonic Etudes. Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano (London 414 474-2). Ashkenazy's blend of poetic sensitivity with flawless technique suits this music perfectly. He is also very well recorded. The Schumann pieces are prime samples of pianistic romanticism; the Schubert items are transcendent masterpieces that belong on the same shelf with the Diabelli Variations.
Chopin: The Complete Etudes. Louis Lortie, piano (Chandos CHAN 8482). This young Canadian pianist is a new name on the international circuit. If this technically fluent, emotionally expressive recording is a sample of what he can do, he is likely to be around and attracting serious attention for quite a while.
Aleck Karis, piano. Chopin: Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Carter: Night Fantasies; Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 (Bridge BCD 9001). Karis is a prime example of the BYP or Brilliant Young Pianist, the most endangered species in our musical landscape -- endangered not because its numbers are shrinking but because they are large and growing beyond any possibility of solid ecological support. Karis uses superb technique in the service of solid musical perception. His Chopin sings; his Schumann is imaginative. And like the best of his generation, he is able to perceive and perform noteworthy contemporary music as a part of the great tradition. This is the only CD recording of Carter's 1980 "Night Fantasies," a work that derives much of its inspiration from the Chopin and Schumann works. Karis perceives and conveys this dimension of the music effectively.
Boulez: Three Piano Sonatas. Claude Helffer, piano (Astre'e E 7716). Schoenberg: Complete Music for Solo Piano, Op. 11, 19, 23, 25 and 33. Claude Helffer, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMC 90752). Opinions may differ on whether the world needs a specialist in atonal piano music, but that's what we seem to have in Helffer.
In his hands, these works, with their tone rows, their angularities and brusqueries, their virtuoso demands and literary overtones, are beginning to sound emotionally expressive. This may be what happens, after many years, to music that is well made, even if it baffles audiences when it is new. Helffer clearly feels this music as emotionally as Arrau feels Beethoven. And what is more important, he manages to communicate this feeling.
Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies No. 1 and 2. Jean-Louis Hagenauer, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901192). Beethoven/Liszt: Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), Georges Pludermacher, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901193). Until the arrival of recordings, piano transcriptions, played at home, were the only way people had of hearing Beethoven symphonies when they wanted to, rather than when an orchestra was ready to give them. Liszt's transcriptions (very well performed on these discs) are considerably superior to the many others that were published in the 19th century. They show us one great musical mind examining the work of another, and they still have value for the curious or analytically minded listener even when orchestral recordings of the music are abundantly available.
The first two symphonies seem to slip into pianistic form more easily than the third, which makes Liszt's (and Pludermacher's) ingenuity at suggesting orchestral sonorities all the more admirable. The final variations movement of the "Eroica" makes a fascinating comparison with the set of piano variations (Op. 35) in which Beethoven used the same theme.
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 and 72. Artur Balsam and Gena Raps, piano four hands (Arabesque Z 6559). Unlike the Beethoven symphonies, these 16 short works were composed and published for the piano. They may be more familiar in the composer's later orchestration, but they fit comfortably on the keyboard and in this well-recorded performance; they are a pure delight.