American ignorance about Russian musicians is one of the minor tragedies of the Cold War. But it's likely to be corrected -- at least in pianistic terms -- by BMG's magnificent 11-CD collection, "The Russian Piano School: The Great Pianists."
The collection -- the first of many, courtesy of BMG's exclusive 25-year contract with Melodiya, from Russia's recorded archives makes one realize why Russia is sometimes called the "Mother of Great Pianists."
Volumes 1 and 2 are devoted, respectively, to Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961), a boyhood friend of Rachmaninoff and an intimate of Tolstoy, and to Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964), who is remembered in the West chiefly as the teacher of Horowitz, Gilels, Richter and Radu Lupu.
Goldenweiser was old -- the earliest recording date is 1946 -- when he recorded these miniatures by Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Borodin and Medtner. But his imaginative performances are textbook illustrations of the lost art of Romantic playing. One of the jewels of the entire collection is a performance, revelatory in its lightness and elegance, by Goldenweiser and his student, Grigori Ginzburg, of Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos.
Neuhaus had small hands, bad nerves and a big problem with alcohol, but he could produce wonderful performances. His straightforward readings of several Debussy preludes are not like those of his student, the super-subtle Richter, and surprisingly resemble those of the Frenchman, Alfred Cortot. A recording of Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major (K. 448) with Neuhaus' son, Stanislas, is red-blooded and robust.
The dainty Mozart of Samuel Feinberg (1890-1962) sounds dated, but performances of his own transcriptions of Bach organ works are deeply affecting.
Maria Yudina (1899-1970) was a cult figure in Russia who dressed in black and went everywhere in sneakers. After receiving a check for 20,000 rubles from Josef Stalin, Yudina wrote a letter informing him that she would pray that his sins against Russia and its people would be forgiven, and that she had donated the money to the church she attended.
She's represented by performances of Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Berg and Krenek, but would have been better served by reissues of her Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt.
An even greater cult figure was Vladimir Sofronitsky (1901-1961), whose motto was "True art is like red-hot, boiling lava held in check by seven plates of armor." His playing was not always secure -- his health deteriorated from periodic alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual promiscuity -- but these reissues show the pianist at his nutty best, particularly in a phantasmagoric performance of Schumann's F-sharp minor Sonata.
Few need an introduction to Richter, Emil Gilels, Lazar Berman, Mikhail Pletnev and Evgeny Kissin. Aside from rare performances of Chopin's Ballades Nos. 1 and 2, the Richter disc contains some early (1948) examples of his Bach, including an amazingly intense "Fantasia and Fugue in A minor." The only major addition to the Gilels discography is Liszt's "Spanish Rhapsody," but it is a performance that surpasses all others. Berman's performances Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" have been in and out of print for about 30 years, but BMG's transfer of these famous performances is without a hint of the clangor that marred its predecessors.
The Kissin material has been widely available on a number of smaller labels. But Pletnev's performances of his own ingenious transcription of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 should fascinate listeners. A performance of Mozart's Sonata in B-flat (K. 570) is another matter. This sort of playing -- infuriatingly eccentric and slow -- makes one understand why Yakov Flier once remarked that it was easier for him to prepare two solo recitals than to give one lesson to Mikhail Pletnev.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear Vladimir Sofronitsky perform Chopin's B minor Scherzo call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.