"Pirate" recordings appeal to our outlaw instincts. It's the chance to hear great artists, sometimes in repertory they have never recorded commercially, when they weren't aware they were being miked for posterity. Exclusive, a new pirate label presumably of Italian origins and distributed by Koch International, has several new CDs that offer transcripts of radio broadcasts by Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich in works identified with these great pianists but which they have not recorded.
This whets the appetite because Pollini, while scarcely a stranger to the studio, makes fewer records than most pianists of his stature and popular appeal. And Argerich, who is perhaps the greatest woman pianist in history and certainly the most exciting pianist alive, is the Greta Garbo of the piano: She cancels most of her concerts, and she has eschewed recording solo repertory for almost 10 years, preferring to collaborate with friends like the violinist Gidon Kremer and the cellist Mischa Maisky.
On a single CD Argerich can be heard in Debussy's "Estampes" and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, as well as in Ravel's G Major Concerto (with the Rome RAI Symphony Orchestra and conductor Claudio Abbado) in performances from 1969. The pianist and Abbado made a fine-sounding studio recording of the concerto in London that dates from the same time, but the other items are new to the pianist's discography. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was an important part of Argerich's repertory throughout the '60s, and the pianist's impetuous and passionate nature dovetailed perfectly with the music. She plays the precipitous last movement in well under three minutes -- faster than any pianist in history, including the young Vladimir Ashkenazy. She almost runs out of steam in the final seconds, but that only makes the performance more lifelike and exciting.
Debussy's "Estampes" is in the same league. Argerich departs from tradition in that she is concerned less with creating an impressionistic haze -- although there is plenty of atmosphere -- than with emphasizing the composer's often neglected draftmanship. Her virtuosity throughout is staggering and she makes the Iberian dance rhythms in the central "La Soiree dans Grenade" almost indecent in their insistent seductiveness.
Because Pollini doesn't cancel his appearances as Argerich typically does, Exclusive has come up with much more material: a cornucopia of superb Mozart and Debussy. The Mozart Concerto No. 23 and the Beethoven "Emperor Concerto" on a single CD are not of particular interest because these exist in fine studio performances. But there is a two-CD set which combines Mozart's Concertos Nos. 12, 14, 19, 20 and 24. Except for No. 19, all of them are new to the Pollini discography, and all are remarkable for their wit, sense of drama and superbly disciplined sense of line. Even more attractive is a solo disc of a London recital in 1979 of some of Mozart's last works for piano: the Fantasy and Sonata in C Minor (K. 475 and 457), the B Minor Adagio (K. 540) and the Sonata in D Major (K.576). I have never understood those listeners who think Pollini's performances lack emotion. There is plenty of passion in anything Pollini does; but, as with those of another great Italian musician -- the conductor Arturo Toscanini -- Pollini's readings are filled with white heat that illuminates as it raises the temperature. Unlike most pianists today who seem to want to take Mozart back even further into the 18th century, Pollini performs these pieces in an intensely dramatic manner that reveals them to be the immediate predecessors of Beethoven's first mature keyboard works.
For several years, Deutsche Grammophon -- Pollini's label -- has promised the pianist's peerless performances of Debussy's 12 Etudes. (The perfectionist pianist is reported to have been unhappy with his results in the studio with this music.)
Until that record appears, we will have to be content with a CD of a 1986 Vienna recital that combined 12 Etudes with Chopin's "Fantasy" Polonaise. And we should be very content: Pollini surpasses even the remarkable Mitsuko Uchida on a Philips disc. If not for the occasional coughs from the audience captured on this disc, one could scarcely believe that anyone in actual performance could play this incredibly demanding music with such unfailing accuracy and with such prodigious speed. Compared to the other solo works in the Debussy repertory, the Etudes are usually given short shrift. This is partly because of their difficulty and because -- they're the composer's last works for the instrument -- they are more abstract and cerebral than anything else Debussy wrote.
Pollini's readings of the Etudes may be cerebral -- he makes us constantly aware of the composer's questing imagination -- but they are also filled with bravura, wit and drama that succeeds in humanizing them as never before. The performance of Chopin's most forward-looking Polonaise -- Pollini is one of our most skillful programmers -- that follows the Etudes is even better than the one the pianist recorded commercially in the 1970s.