Pianists of long ago reappear on CDs


It is hard to celebrate pianists whose recordings have been long out of print. But some recent reissues of Myra Hess (1890-1965), Solomon (1902-1988), Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) and Clara Haskil (1895- 1960) are intriguing enough to prompt such an attempt.

In a sense, all four were hard luck cases and only Hess enjoyed an international career on the largest scale. The career of Solomon -- he never used his patronym, Cutner -- -- was cut short by a stroke in 1956; Moiseiwitsch, who was the favorite pianist of such a giant as Rachmaninov, fell victim to alcoholism in his later years; and Haskil, who suffered from unbelievable physical and mental disabilities, died from a freak fall just as her career promised to transcend its obstacles.

Even Hess had her difficulties. But those difficulties made her famous -- the pianistic equivalent of Eleanor Roosevelt. Hess was the pleasant-looking matron in frumpy hats who braved the horrors of the Blitz to give hundreds of concerts in London's National Gallery.

Her deservedly heroic reputation, in addition to the recent centenary of her birth, accounts for the generous amount of Hess material that has become available: A two-CD set on APR presents early recordings that include the pianist's daintily elegant performances of the "little" Schubert A-major Sonata and Schubert B-flat Trio (with violinist Jelly d'Aranyi and cellist Felix Salmond); two separate Pearl discs contain celebrated performances of Beethoven's Cello Sonata in A major (with Emanuel Feuermann) and Schumann's "Carnaval"; and a "Great Recordings of the Century" budget reissue from EMI-Angel contains Hess' recordings of Beethoven's Opus 109 and 110 sonatas. Much of this material -- particularly the Schubert -- is charming, but one hesitates to call it great. When the music demands the most -- as it is does in the two late Beethoven sonatas -- Hess is merely pretty.

That can never be said about Solomon, who was the greatest pianist Britain ever produced. EMI -- for whom Solomon made all his records -- has just released a "Great Recording of the Century" of Solomon's performances of concertos by Bliss and Scriabin and Liszt's "Hungarian Fantasy." Except for the pianist's astonishing display of prestidigitation in the Liszt, this record does Solomon a disservice. The Bliss -- which the pianist premiered at the New York World's Fair in 1939 -- is a weak work and Solomon was so dissatisfied with the Scriabin that he didn't allow its release. When EMI has such Solomon treasures in its vaults as a peerless Brahms "Handel Variations," a Beethoven "Waldstein" Sonata with featherweighted repeated notes and sledgehammer sforzandos and a Schumann "Carnaval" in which fantasy and pianistic control are in perfect accord, one has to wonder about the choice of repertory on this disc.

Fortunately, Pearl has reissued some great Solomon performances from the 1920s and 1930s. This disc, which contains Solomon's first (1928) recording of the Tchaikovsky B-flat-minor Concerto and a generous helping of Chopin and Liszt, is the best piano recording so far this year. Solomon's ability to play Chopin without frills is illustrated magnificently by the 1932 recordings of the Polonaise in A-flat major and the F-minor Fantasy. The conception is absolutely fresh, the music making is totally without distortion and the pianism has a majestic sweep that makes most other readings sound trivial.

The playing of Moiseiwitsch was not as profound but scarcely less beautiful. The pianist, who was Russian-born but who lived most of his life in Britain, had an infinitely varied tonal palette, a floating right-hand singing touch that never lost its penetration in works requiring rapid finger work and a sense of fantasy that made miniatures such as the Godowsky and Rachmaninov paraphrases come alive as they did for few other pianists. No aficionado should be without the two-disc set on APR that contains Moiseiwitsch's performances of Mussorgsky's "Pictures" and smaller works by Liszt, Chopin and others.

It is fascinating to compare Moiseiwitsch's version of Liszt's "La Leggierezza" to Solomon's. The latter presents it with gripping intelligence that is both pensive and direct. Moiseiwitsch is more capricious, taking the listener through hairpin twists and turns that are the aural equivalent of trompe l'oeil. There is more dazzling Moiseiwitsch to be found on a Legacy disc that includes Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, performed with George Szell and the London Philharmonic. Moiseiwitsch does not play the piece with Solomonic lucidity, but it is nonetheless fascinating to hear him take risks by making the undulating contours of the slow movement so extreme or by having such fun with the dancelike rhythms of the final movement. No pianist today could play this way and get away with it. This is a matter of conviction. Moiseiwitsch played the "Emperor" in so individual a manner not because he wanted to be different, but because he felt the piece that way.

Clara Haskil, so self-effacing and pure an artist, was at the farthest remove from Moiseiwitsch. Philips Classics has just collected several of her performances of Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Falla in a budget-priced four-CD set. One wishes the Schumann -- performances of the Piano Concerto, the "Waldszenen," the "Kinderszenen" and the "Abegg Variations" that are rather routine -- had been eschewed for more of Haskil's superb Mozart or her equally fine Beethoven or Schubert. But this set would be a bargain just for Chopin's F-minor Concerto and Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain." The Chopin, which Haskil performs in her teacher Alfred Cortot's reorchestration, is filled with clarity of thought, beauty of sound and a soulfulness of expression that seems to come from a higher realm. "Nights in the Gardens" is just as spectacular. Although she was a small woman, Haskil had large hands that made the work's wide-ranging arpeggios sound easy. Her delicacy and boldness of color are matched by the superb accompaniment of conductor Igor Markevitch and the Lamoureux Orchestra.

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