From Russia, with love -- of virtuosity Pianists: New discs from Evgeny Kissin, Alexander Toradze and Vladimir Bakk demonstrate the technical and interpretive brilliance well-known in the first and almost forgotten in the others.


Three dazzling piano releases come from Russian pianists: The first is from a deservedly celebrated musician; the second is not as famous as he should be; the third is someone you've never heard of.

Pianist No. 1 is Evgeny Kissin, whose most recent CD contains remarkable performances of Beethoven's Sonata No. 14 (the "Moonlight"), Franck's "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue" and Brahms' "Paganini Variations." Kissin's performance of the latter is one of the great achievements in the history of piano playing.

Brahms' two books of variations on the theme of Paganini's 24th caprice for solo violin (the one that also attracted Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and others) rank among the most difficult works ever written for piano(and are even harder to play than they sound). Only one pianist in every generation seems capable of doing them justice. That's three times in a century, and Kissin surpasses his two predecessors, Wilhelm Backhaus and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

Clara Schumann, who was one of the greatest pianists of her time and found the work too much for her, called them the "Hexen Variationen" -- or "Witches' Variations" -- and Kissin makes one understand why. Unlike other pianists, he never compromises to get the notes.

In the ninth variation of Book I, he conjures up a mood of terror and power; in the 15th variation, his shrieking octaves and tearing glissandos invoke demonic laughter; and the 14th variation bursts out like a hurricane that plunges into a coda that overwhelms everything that preceded it in passion and fury. Only Backhaus and Michelangeli in their prime could match Kissin's ability to solve the composer's baffling doublings in octaves, thirds and sixths, to make lightning-speed leaps and to suggest violinistic textures on what is a percussive instrument.

Where no one else touches Kissin, however, is in his ability to unmask the deep human feeling that underlies all the brilliance, wit and classical severity of these sets of variations. In Kissin's hands, the 12th and 13th variations of Book I are like a lovely, ethereal dream; the fourth variation of Book II is an exquisite and heart-rending waltz; and the 12th and 13th variations in the same book reveal veins of deep human sympathy and of pathos that, but for Kissin's interpretation, one would not have guessed were there.

His performance of the Franck work has qualities of majesty and ecstatic yearning equal to those in Sviatoslav Richter's famous account of 40 years ago, and his hypnotically slow-moving opening adagio and explosive fury in the finale of the "Moonlight" bring the romantic pianism of the last century to startling life.

Reversal of neglect

Alexander Toradze (pianist No. 2) is a great, original and fearless player, and his neglect by record companies -- he made two superb discs for EMI several years ago -- has always mystified me. That situation may now be remedied by his splendid, just-released two-disc set of Prokofiev's five piano concertos, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra (Philips 289462048).

It is in No. 2, the greatest of the Prokofiev five, that Toradze sets a new standard. Vladimir Ashkenazy, on a pirate of No. 2 taken from a 1963 broadcast, has some of Toradze's energy but cannot match the huge torrents of sound or sense of lyricism, even of heartbreak, heard in the latter's performance.

Toradze makes one hear all these pieces in a new way. His tempos tend to be slower than those of other pianists. But instead of making them sluggish -- indeed, Toradze's panache and virtuosity are never less than exhilarating -- the pianist reveals heretofore unsuspected weight and depth in the concertos.

His unusually flexible phrasing in the familiar Third Concerto makes one hear details and phrases buried beneath the usual hustle and bustle of other performances. In the slow movement of the Fourth Concerto -- which, in the interpretations of Ashkenazy, Fleisher, Serkin and others, sounds merely boring -- Toradze discovers the moon-drenched poetry found in such Prokofiev masterpieces as "Romeo and Juliet."

And he brings to the Fifth Concerto dry-point wit, technical control and sense of nuance that haven't been heard in this work since Richter was in his prime. Gergiev and his fine orchestra support Toradze's individualistic accounts with warmth and sympathy. May there be many more recordings from them.

Bakk again

Unless you read an article in The Sun a few years back when he briefly lived in Baltimore, you have almost certainly never heard of our Pianist No. 3, the Moscow-born and -trained Vladimir Bakk. More than 20 years ago, his idiosyncratic ways and political dissidence wrecked what promised to be a brilliant career in his native country.

In the United States, where he has been living for several years, Bakk has been threatening to pass from obscurity into oblivion. But a two-CD set, issued by the pianist himself, of his Russian-made recordings from the 1970s may change all that. These performances explain why his legend continues to persist in Moscow and why pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich and Magda Tagliaferro have admired him.

His reading of Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata (the "Funeral March") is idiomatic, beautifully judged, executed with exemplary mastery -- and strikingly original. His "Marche Funebre," for example, leaves one gasping. He adopts what should be an insanely slow tempo -- Bakk takes almost 11 minutes where most pianists take about eight -- and sustains the musical line all the more powerfully for it.

There are some other fascinating performances in this set, including a performance of Moszkowski's forgotten "Caprice Espagnole" that combines charm and virtuosity; some superb Scriabin; and a Franck "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue" that challenges comparison with those of Richter and Kissin.

(Bakk's two-CD set may be obtained by sending a check for $30 to Vladimir Bakk, 2334 Waterside Drive, Lake Worth, Fla. 33461.)

Also of interest

Bakk has certainly suffered, but he is alive and continues to play. The all-but-forgotten British pianist, John Ogdon, was less fortunate.

Despite a brilliant start -- he shared first prize with Ashkenazy in the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition -- his career, which had been undermined by subsequent bouts of schizophrenia and prolonged hospitalizations, ended with his early death at 51 in 1989.

His intriguing pianism is recalled by an all-Liszt disc (Testament SBT 1133) -- which was recorded between 1961 and 1967 and includes a demonically charged "Dante Sonata" and a noble and sonorous "Funerailles" -- and a disc of performances, by Ashkenazy as well as Ogdon, from the Tchaikovsky's final round (BMG Melodiya 74321 33219).

The British pianist performs Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" on both discs, and it's interesting to compare the live and studio versions. Fine as the latter is, the Moscow performance makes more of the music's mockery (the raucous flourish before the final headlong rush of octaves is particularly impressive) and insistent waltz rhythm.

Ashkenazy's live version of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 is also superior to the one he recorded a year later in London. It is a refreshingly fleet, whimsical and elegant performance -- a welcome-sounding contrast to the pianist's somewhat dour studio effort.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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