Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: The Art of Piano (DVD)

Fascinating documentary that should have been done a lot better

There is a great deal here that every piano buff will relish. For my part, Horowitz's stupendous performance of his ''Carmen Variations'' from his legendary TV concert in 1968 is well worth the price of the whole DVD. So far as I know this performance was watched, studied and very lamely copied by a number of modern virtuosi, but it has never been released officially otherwise.

There is a lot of other rare footage also. Some personal favourites include Rubinstein's playing a lovely cadenza to the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, or Cziffra's ridiculously fast but irresistibly virtuoso performance of Liszt's ''Grand Galop Chromatique'', which I cannot stand listening to but watching it always leaves me with my jaw hopelessly dropped. Also unforgettable are Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No. 12 from the same TV concert of Horowitz, or the old Cortot, looking like he has just stepped out of a horror movie, explaining to his students the mysteries of ''Der Dichter spricht'', the last piece of Schumann's Kinderszenen, or the equally ancient Wilhelm Backhaus interpreting Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, his favourite, in terms of the myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. Even the buffoonish posturing of Glenn Gould is an amusing thing to watch for a minute or so, to say nothing of his humming which is sometimes louder than his playing. And what of that G minor prelude played by the young Gilels for the Soviet military aviators by way of propaganda during the Second World War, or Benno Moiseiwitsch's mighty rendition of Rachmaninoff's B minor prelude, etc., etc., etc.

The documentary is full of such tremendously fascinating stuff. Yet I simply cannot give it more than three stars. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why.

Obviously there are two ways to make such a documentary: including many artists and spending little time on each one of them, or including a few great names but spending considerable time on each. This documentary uses the former approach, and it does a fine job encompassing a galaxy of keyboard geniuses from Paderewski and Hoffmann to Michelangelli and Arrau: nearly half a century of video performances, mostly in black-and-white and in subpar sound even for their time, but this is to be expected. Of course everybody cries that some of his favourite pianists are missing, and I may join the lines with the names of Kempff and Bolet, but this is inevitable. The problem here, though the approach is generally commendable, is that too many names are crammed into too short a time. Either the number of the former should have been reduced or the latter should have been extended.

The consequences of this incongruity between the number of the pianists presented and the total duration of the documentary is that many of the musical performances are badly cut. You may rest assured that you are not going to here more than a minute or two from the Polonaise Op. 53 with Rubinstein or the first movement of Appassionata with Myra Hess, let alone anything more from Tchaikovsky's First Concerto than the first movement's cadenza with Gilels or the notorious octaves from the finale with the absurdly young Richter. Even short pieces are often abridged, like Cziffra's ''Galop'' or Horowitz's Etude mentioned in the beginning. (At least Horowitz's ''Carmen'' is complete.) To put it mildly, such cutting is very annoying. Otherwise, the selections are admirably done and there is only one great pianist (Rachmaninoff, alas) for whom there is no footage available, apparently none has survived or ever been done (but the archive shots of Rachmaninoff are nonetheless precious for he is caught doing something very unusual for him: smiling). Hoffman's indifferent rendition of the C sharp minor prelude might well make one wondering what all the fuss about this fellow was, but it is rightly made clear that this is the only video recording of him; it was made in the 1940s when Hoffman was long past his prime.

Except elongation of the total duration of the movie, another fine opportunity to save more time for rare video performances would have been severe cutting of the commentary. There is a narrator who, well, narrates the main text, usually over some terrific photos of the incredibly dashing in their youth Backhaus, Rubinstein or Horowitz, and this is really fine. Also, there are some intriguing interviews with several fellows from the ''cast'', such as Rubinstein, Arrau and Moiseiwitsch, and these are rightly retained. However, in addition to all that, there is a great deal of commentary by contemporary pianists, and the fact that many of these are quite famous (Barenboim, Kissin, Vasary, Kovachevich, the first two speaking with appalling accents) cannot obscure the bitter truth that 99% of this commentary is pure junk of no importance. All that wasted time would have been much better used for showing more of those rare historical performances complete.

On the top of all that, sometimes the commentary is rife with stupid old prejudices which the documentary thus propagates, deliberately or not. The most explicit example concerns the most controversial of these great pianists: Vladimir Horowitz. Apart from some interesting details about his legendary return in Carnegie Hall in 1965, all Schuyler Chapin has to say about Horowitz is that he was a ''phenomenon'', ''extremely shrewd'' and a great ''showman''. Well, Horowitz certainly was a very shrewd showman, but this has nothing to do with his status as phenomenon – unless one superficially equals this with popularity, which is obviously what Mr Chapin does.

The gentle Horowitz-bashing continues with Tamas Vasary's preposterous claim that for him technique was more important than music! This is a very old story, indeed, and it may be taken seriously only by people who have either absolutely no idea of Horowitz's artistry or some personal animosity towards him. Vasary continues with other startlingly brilliant notions such as ''there is something about perfection and artistry which is contradictory''. It is not surprising that he makes a very poor case trying to put into words what that ''something'' might be. When a pianist has a natural technique which comes from the inside, rather than being imposed from the outside, and allows him to achieve technical perfection with ease, there is absolutely no contradiction with artistry. Needless to say, this is exactly the case with Horowitz, as with many other – though by no means all! – great technicians. Such ''gems'' of prejudice and stupidity should have been cut without ceremony.

All in all, a nice documentary full of rare video performances by great pianists that every piano buff will certainly appreciate. The DVD is accompanied by a fine booklet with extensive information about all performances and commentaries, including most years of recording which are not given during the movie. All the same, the documentary is too short, too sketchy and too fragmented, with too many too badly cut performances and quite a bit of useless rambling by contemporary fellows in between. There is a lot to enjoy here, certainly, but there is not a little to regret as well.

Review: Lugansky - Brahms, Wagner, Rachmaninov - DVD

Very much like his 2008 Verbier recital, Lugansky's 2002 performance in La Roque d'Antheron is a quite nice DVD to watch one or twice, but after that it is more likely not to bear another watching for years.

To begin with the more obvious negatives, the program is appallingly short (less than an hour, encores and all) and the visual side is pretty questionable. Now, when a DVD is offered at full price, the least that companies could do is to fill it nicely: 58 minutes or so sounds like a lame joke. Very much like the garish presentation of the DVD box, the concert itself is filmed in a dark place where the lightning is more often used to show the semi-asleep audience rather than Lugansky himself. Apart from that, the direction is rather ordinary, quite unlike some other DVDs in the series (with the cheesy name ''Les Pianos de la Nuit) such as Berezovsky's beautifully shot mutilation of Liszt's Transcendental Studies. Seldom is some imagination on the director's side shown; quite often the camera is too much focused on Lugansky's face and his mannerism at the keyboard.

However, it is the music and the performance that I rate here and it is this that grants four stars to this DVD but prevents it from getting five. Brahms' six ''klaviestücke'' Op. 116 are beautifully done as befits the generally tranquil and lyrical nature of the music. The only other piece in the program, if this is the word, is Lugansky's own transcription of excerpts from Wagner's Götterdämmerung. These are, naturally, the most famous moments: the duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Siegfried's Rhine journey and funeral march, and the fire consuming Valhalla in the very end. Well, two main complaints about Lugansky's contribution: his transcription is a bit too straightforward and attempts no full exploration of the sonority of the instrument; and in some of the more dramatic moments he resorts to mere banging and/or rushing which all but ruins the music. In contrast, the lyrical passages are wonderfully played.

But the best on the DVD, as in the Verbier case, are the encores. These are all Rachmaninoff pieces – Op. 23 Nos. 5 and 7, Musical Moment Op. 16 No. 4 – and here Lugansky is in his element. His G minor prelude is as dazzling as ever, and his demonic left hand in the Musical Moment has to be heard – and seen – to be believed.

There are no bonuses on the DVD save few dismayingly short excerpts from other DVDs in the same series. Among these one can hear, nay see, how a fine musician like Zoltan Kocsis wastes his time with a noise-parading-as-music by Gyorgy Kurtag. Well worth having at half price.

Review: Lugansky at the Verbier Festival - 2008, DVD

Lugansky not quite at his best

This is a rather fascinating DVD which captures Nikolai Lugansky at the 2008 Verbier festival. He is at his absolute technical best, of course, but he is in the wrong repertoire. The program here, to begin with, is neither especially long (less than 80 minutes, encores and all), nor especially varied. It consists of one historical curiosity (Janacek) and few piano transcriptions from a famous ballet (Prokofieff), both twentieth century works, and a bunch of Romantic masterpieces, mostly Liszt plus some Chopin and Rachmaninoff as bonus. Sadly, Lugansky's playing is much more varied than the program.

This was my introduction to the music of Janacek whom I had hitherto known only as a name. It didn't leave the impression that I had missed something special. The Sonata with the enigmatic title ''1.X.1905'' is an interesting, curious work. It is very short, 11 or 12 minutes, and it has but two movements, both of which have significant titles: ''Premonition'' and ''Death''. The music is rather modern, with sparse melody and a good deal of dissonance, but it is appealing enough for a starter. I particularly liked the more tender second movement.

Prokofieff has never been my cup of tea but his ballet Romeo and Juliet is one of the exceptions. Unfortunately, Lugansky has chosen only six of the ten excerpts transcribed for solo piano from the orchestral original that comprise Prokofieff's Op. 75. This is for sure the highlight of the recital, such as it is. Lugansky excels in all pieces, and he is especially memorable in the most lyrical ones such the closing ''Farewell''. My only mild complaint here concerns the most famous of these piano transcriptions – ''Montagues and Capulets'' – where Lugansky plays the ''trombones'' much too quietly: it doesn't work especially well. Somehow I have the strange feeling that, much like Arcadi Volodos, Lugansky has a colossal technique and often plays extremely demanding works with great ease, but he is really at his best in the most lyrical moments of them: the middle section of ''Montagues and Capulets'' is fabulously done.

Lugansky's Liszt is what downgrades this recital to four stars. The beginning was quite promising, if not exactly memorable. The two pieces from the ''Italian Year'' of Annees de Pelerinage are among Liszt's most tender and poetic works, and Lugansky plays both ''Sposalizio'' and ''Sonetto del Petrarca 123'' beautifully. In the former he slows down rather dangerously at few places, but he avoids the perverse dullness of Lazar Berman in his complete recording for DG; as for the latter, it is a nice touch to play it instead of the much more popular, not to say hackneyed, 104th sonnet. However, the four Transcendental Studies are all disappointing mixed bags, for they all combine sensitive playing in the more lyrical passages with ugly rush and banging in the climaxes. ''Chasse-Neige'' (No. 12) and No. 10 (titleless) are probably the finest of the bunch here, since Lugansky's playing is only occasionally marred by really unnecessary exaggeration. ''Feux follets'' (No. 5) has some charming moments but many passages sound like a technical exercise, having nothing to do with the whimsical and mischievous quality that this study evokes in the right hands; the climax is ridiculously perfunctory and sloppy. Alas, the same is quite true about ''Harmonies du Soir'' (No. 11). Lugansky starts nicely enough, but then his technical prowess gets the better (or the worse) of him: the climax of the piece is pure travesty, abominably fast and totally ruined. It must have been a shock for Lugansky too, for he didn't recover until the end of the piece.

I used to be baffled that the crispness and clarity, to say nothing of musicality, of Lugansky's Chopin and Rachmaninoff seem to vanish into thin air when he turns to Liszt. Then I read an interview with him from which it was clear that he holds Liszt in low esteem, apparently being victim of the old hokum about the duality of his nature which is supposed to be a combination of ''Mephistopheles and Abbe'', ''Charlatan and Prophet'' and other nonsense like that. Small wonder that such attitude would result in unsatisfactory performances. If he could look at Liszt with as little prejudice as at Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Lugansky would surely turn into a Liszt interpreter of the first order. Right now, thanks to these four Transcendental Studies, he looks like a little more than a crass banger. His two wonderful ''Italian'' pieces are by no means good enough to rectify this. I don't know if it is just a coincidence, but during Liszt's works Lugansky's mild physical mannerisms at the keyboard seem to get aggravated.

There are four encores and they are surely the best of the whole DVD. Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No. 8 and Rachmaninoff's rousing Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 are charmingly different than Lugansky's studio recordings but tremendously effective nonetheless. The beautiful thing about the Chopin's etude is that Lugansky forces you to notice that wonderful cornucopia of melodies in the left hand which is usually lost in the glittering figurations of the right hand when this etude is played by fabulous technicians who are inferior musicians. As for the G minor prelude, it is safe to say that Lugansky plays this extremely popular piece better than any other living pianist, both technically and musically. He generates a tremendous excitement from the march-like sections, played with astonishing clarity, and his middle section is almost unbearably beautiful. Indeed, it's saying a great deal that Lugansky's interpretation can hardly be mistaken for anybody else's – quite an achievement in a piece of such fame. The other two encores are Rachmaninoff's preludes Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12, both of which, so far as I know, Lugansky has never recorded in studio. I hope he soon will. They prove yet again, if any further proof is needed, that Rachmaninoff is certainly Lugansky's forte, as are more introverted and poetic works.

The sound is an ordinary stereo but it is quite good enough to enjoy Lugansky's artistry to the full. The picture quality is also very fine, the camera work rather less so. The concert was shot is a small and very dark place that looks more like a cave than like a concert hall. Besides, the direction is not top-notch either; there are many shots too distant to appreciate Lugansky's devilishly precise hands, and many of the close ones are taken from awkward angles. All in all, visually the production is rather mediocre. Perhaps one is not unjust to expect more from what is considered one of the most prestigious musical festivals in Europe.

There are no additional materials except few stingily short trailers from DVDs with highlights from other editions of the festival. Among the things worth seeing on these miserably short excerpts is Yuja Wang's stupendously fast and unbelievably accomplished performance of Cziffra's horrendously difficult transcription of ''The Flight of the Bumblebee'' and Kissin's butchering the finale of Horowitz's ''Carmen Variations''. Especially the latter could certainly use less speed and more musicianship – but then, so could the former. Why so many pianists mistake showpieces with technical exercises is a mystery to me. The former, in addition to being technically demanding, quite often have a good deal of intrinsic value as light entertainment, while the latter does not necessarily possess anything of the kind. Listening to Wang and Kissin, banging furiously the keyboard, one would never guess that the ''Carmen Variations'' have a good deal of mischievous charm, still less that the ''Bumblebee'' is a marvellously evocative tone poem.

In short, entertaining and enjoyable DVD but, after a few watchings, quite dispensable as well. Except for the encores and, to some extent, Prokofieff's music and the first two of Liszt's pieces, the rest of the recital is hardly Lugansky at his best, musically at all events. I wish next time he would record an all-Rachmaninoff recital, for this is sure to turn out a lot better than the present one. If not, he might think of making his program longer and more varied; inclusion of more Chopin and Rachmaninoff, for instance, would be most welcome. It would also help if he changes the director and the recording venue.

Review: Rachmaninoff - Sonata No. 2, Corelli Variations - Lugansky - 1993, Challenge Classics

Warning: the young Lugansky is dangerous for your speakers!

This CD is a re-issue of a recording made in January 1993 in Amsterdam and originally released by Challenge Classics. Two things are immediately fascinating: 1) Lugansky was but 20 years old at the time; and 2) a decade or so later, he re-recorded for Erato/Warner two of the pieces of this disc (the Musical Moment and the Corelli Variations).

Let me first warn you to be careful with the volume control. The sound here is quite amazing indeed. Seldom have I heard such crashing bass, yet never too loud to obscure the high register. The sonority is beautifully deep, the tone is warm and perfectly natural. Considering all that, some displaced furniture is a small price to pay. But the real reason to get this disc, especially at such a terrifically low price, is Lugansky himself.

That a youth of 20 could play Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata with such combination of musicality and bravura all but defies belief. It is only too easy, especially for an eager youngster with colossal technique, to make a hash out of such daunting work, turning it into a cheap show-off. Not Lugansky. If anything, he clearly shows that the tons of negative criticism as regards the musical value of the sonata are hokum. This is a magisterial work that requires a great deal more than stupendous technique, namely a superior artistry, and Lugansky delivers the goods splendidly. He doesn't have Horowitz's intensity, certainly, but he neither rushes the music, as Weissenberg often does, nor stumbles badly here and there as it happens with Ashkenazy. My top prize for the most sensitive interpretation of Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata still goes to Vesselin Stanev, but Lugansky is a sure runner-up; and sonically, as a matter of fact, he is way more impressive than Stanev. The Corelli Variations are equally mind-blowing, technically and musically, though here Ashkenazy puts a stiff competition.

The five bonus pieces consist of two original compositions and three highly imaginative transcriptions. The Musical Moment Op. 16 No. 2 demonstrates Lugansky's absolutely devastating left hand as well as his impeccable handling of those plaintive, melancholic and brooding melodic lines so characteristic of Rachmaninoff. The mischievous outer parts of Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 are a trifle rushed and lack the character of Rachmaninoff's own fabulous recording, but the lyrical middle section is miraculous. The two song transcriptions (Rachmaninoff's own ''Lilacs'' and Tchaikovsky's melting ''Lullaby'') are played with all the grace, charm and delicacy required to make them sound as the masterpieces they are. As for the notoriously difficult transcription of Mendelssohn's Scherzo from his incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, well, this is a blistering account that has to be heard to be believed. Lugansky takes the piece pretty fast, but with extraordinary control of every nuance. In terms of crispness and clarity, this is one of those rare cases when even Rachmaninoff's own recording pales in comparison.

As for the comparison between the two versions of the two pieces which Lugansky re-recorded later, this shows beyond doubt that his artistry was virtually fully formed in his early twenties – which is a much more unique phenomenon than his formidable technique. Certainly, he has developed since then, but not much. The astonishing thing is that there seems to be not much room for development, at least as far as the music of Rachmaninoff is concerned. I have recently heard Lugansky's exhilarating etude-tableaux, recorded in 1992 for the same label (though in Moscow), and I wish he would record them again for I believe his maturity might yield more profound interpretations. But I am not so sure about the Second Sonata. There is very little to improve here.

The original edition is completely out of print, of course, and all fans of Lugansky and all Rachmaninoff buffs should be grateful to Piano Classics for re-issuing this stupendous recording which ought to be on the shelves of every pianophile.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - Preludes, Musical Moments - Lugansky - 2000, Erato

Already a classic in the Rachmaninoff discography?

I simply cannot believe that this recording, now more than a decade old, has been reviewed so little on the Web; there are but seven reviews on Amazon, and at the time when the following review was originally written there was exactly one. It deserves so much more than that. If it is not already a classic, it will certainly become one. At least it should.

Nikolay Lugansky (b. 1972) is that rare type of pianist whose technique is prodigious but never stands in the way of mature musicianship; the latter is quite amazing considering that he was but 28 years old at the time of this recording. The sheer drive and crispness of Lugansky's rendition of the G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) blows completely away Ashkenazy's cautious recording on DECCA; he is also more dashing than his illustrious predecessor in other more explicitly virtuoso preludes such as Op. 23 Nos. 2 and 7, though his interpretation of the famous C sharp minor prelude (Op. 3 No. 2) is not quite as majestic. The amazing thing about Lugansky is that he is impeccable at all fronts. He never rushes or rapes the music, his tempi are perfect, and his sense for the delicate nuances of Rachmaninoff's piano writing seems unerring. The most lyrical among the preludes here – Nos. 1, 4 and 10 – come off every bit as tender and poetic, full of wistful melancholia, as they do under Ashkenazy's fingers. In short, this is a truly stupendous rendition of Rachmaninoff's 10 Preludes Op. 23 and the famous Prelude Op. 3 No. 2: technical and musical tour de force of which I know no analogue in these pieces.

Too bad that Lugansky didn't record the 13 Preludes Op. 32 for this might have become a perfect alternative to Ashkenazy's complete set on DECCA. Still, there is a nice compensation. Rachmaninoff's six Musical Moments Op. 16 are fairly early compositions (they date from 1896 when the composer was but 23) and they are certainly uneven. But there are at least three masterpieces among them, and Lugansky's performances, I guarantee, will knock your socks off. Nos. 2 and 4 are broadly very similar; both require a left hand of inhuman independence and overall virtuosity that truly transcends any technical difficulties. Lugansky delivers the goods with gusto. He is no less spectacular conveying the indescribable sadness of No. 3, one of the most shattering pieces Rachmaninoff ever composed.

Fortunately, the sound is every bit as terrific as the playing – a rare occasion indeed. Recorded in 2000 in the Teldec studios in Berlin, this is a disc that may boast, not just a great dynamic range and exemplary clarity, but also a fine balance and a bass of remarkable depth. Definitely one of the finest Steinway on record I have ever heard, quite on par with, though very different than, Ashkenazy's sound on DECCA (who doesn't play Steinway, incidentally). It might well be a coincidence but Arcadi Volodos' recent Liszt recording was made in the same studios, too. May more pianists record at this place; it seems to help producing a marvellous imitation of a live sound.

Unfortunately, it seems that the career of Nikolay Lugansky has not progressed as fabulously since 2000 as this disc strongly suggests it should have. He has recorded a great deal of Rachmaninoff, including a set of the four concertos not nearly as fine as his preludes, and quite a bit of rather fascinating Chopin, including a stunning complete etudes on Erato in the same glorious sound as the present recording, but also some rather controversial recordings of other pieces; his Beethoven is indifferent, his Liszt even more so.

Rachmaninoff's solo piano music, it seems, is Lugansky's forte, yet he has recorded very little of it during the last decade. Pity. However, his early recording (1992) of the complete etudes is difficult to find but well worth searching, for it is quite an achievement for a lad of 20. The original edition (by same obscure fellows Challenge Classics) is a bit too expensive, but Brilliant have reissued the recording at a very reasonable price (though coupled with Marietta Petkova's timid preludes). Lugansky’s equally early recording of the Second Sonata – and equally fine for so tender an age – has also been released at budget price by Piano Classics. It makes for a revealing comparison with his recent recording of the same piece (but this time in its original version); as a special bonus, you get a terrific rendition of Rachmaninoff’s vastly under-recorded First Sonata.

Anyway, whatever the vicissitudes of Lugansky's career and the vagaries of his artistic inclinations, this particular recording for Erato still remains an outstanding achievement that easily ranks among the finest renditions on record of Rachmaninoff's first 11 preludes and all of his Musical Moments. Such technical prowess coupled with so fine a musicianship, and splendidly recorded at that, is not something the piano lover often finds on record, even in the era of digital wonders today. The only thing Lugansky can, occasionally and slightly, be accused of is imitation of Ashkenazy in terms of interpretation. Well, he might have chosen a much worse example. If individuality means messing up Rachmaninoff's preludes as Weissenberg does on RCA, I will pass.

Review: Mozart - Horowitz - 1985-89, DG Masters

One and only one desert-island disc? This one!

If I am forced to spend eternity on a desert island and I am allowed to take but one CD with me (plus 5.1 audio system on solar batteries of course), I may well choose this one. It is very well filled with some of the most perfect keyboard music ever composed. What's more, this amazing music is played in a completely unique manner. It may not be "Mozartean" enough for the purists, but for me it is just about the finest Mozart I have ever heard.

The beautiful thing about this DG MASTERS release is that it combines in one place almost all of Horowitz's late recordings of Mozart. The Rondo in A minor is missing, but there is no space for it anyway. (You can find it on 
The Magic of Horowitz, see Hank's great review.) Otherwise these three sonatas, one Adagio and one Rondo are all studio recordings of Mozart's music for solo piano made by Horowitz in the last five years of his life (1985-89). Some of the sonatas have alternative live takes from Moscow (1986), Vienna (1987) or Hamburg (1987), and there is the 23rd Concerto with Guilini in studio (1987), but these are important only for Horowitz completists. For those who want to get introduced to the late Horowitz, this disc remains the perfect introduction.

No other composer benefited from Horowitz's miraculous Indian summer more than Mozart did. In earlier years Volodya played very little
of his music, a few sonatas and no concerti, and they didn't always bring out the best in him. But in the mid-late 1980s there was a new serenity in Horowitz's playing and it did suit the genius from Salzburg to perfection. To get a very clear idea how extraordinary this change really was, all you need to do is to compare the 1951 live recording of K. 333 (in the The Complete Original Jacket Collection, see Hank's great review) with the 1987 studio recording included here. The difference is, to put it mildly, enormous. The live recording is fine in its own way, yet it sounds harsh and brittle and cold in comparison to the poise, elegance, playfulness and charm of the much later studio reading.

If you want to appreciate how unique as a Mozart interpreter Horowitz is, all you need to do is to compare this disc with Maria Joao Pires' complete recording of the sonatas, incidentally made for the same label, at the same time, and in the same perfectly clean but rather dry sound. Maria is among the better contemporary Mozarteans; she is not terribly imaginative or daring, but she is certainly sensitive to Mozart's deceptively simple music. And yet! Listening to the same sonata with Horowitz is a complete revelation. The music takes on a new life, a much more varied and passionate one. Anyway, which performance one prefers is of course a matter of personal taste. What is not a personal matter but can be verified more or less objectively is that both performances are completely different – and that Maria's way is far more common among Mozarteans, especially modern ones.

We may truly regret that Horowitz didn't record more Mozart during those remarkably productive last years. But I think we had better be grateful for what he did record. The selection here demonstrates the whole range of Mozart's genius. K. 281 is among the finest of his earliest sonatas, especially the uniquely titled (Andante amoroso) and stunningly beautiful second movement. Likewise, KK. 330 and 333 are among the best solo piano works Mozart composed before his moving to Vienna in 1781; K. 333 is especially amazing as it is the only one among his sonatas to contain original cadenza, much like a piano concerto. Last but not least, the other works present Mozart in his late years, either in gloomy (Adagio) or in cheerful (Rondo) mood. None of these pieces contains even a single note too much. And in none of them does Horowitz play a single note which is not intensely expressive.

Finally, the liner notes of this edition – compilation of the original notes on the three CDs from the 1980s – are marvellous. A great deal of them comes from Horowitz himself, and he has some uncommonly interesting things to say. For example, he argues that separations like Classicism and Romanticism, except for didactic purposes, are pointless. All music is Romantic, he says, and Mozart should be played with as much rubato as Chopin – and with as much colour. If anything, such reflections give the lie to those foolishly uninformed claims that still circulate through the Web, namely that Horowitz was a kind of musical moron who didn't have the least idea what he played and whose only strength was his stupendous technique. Nonsense, of course, as the Mozart case amply testifies. Horowitz studied very seriously the music he played. He knew a great deal of Mozart's letters by heart; and it's probably safe to assume he was familiar with a very large part of Mozart's total output, not just keyboard compositions but also symphonic works, chamber pieces and opera.

In conclusion, this is a simply magnificent CD. It suits everybody. Horowitz completists and those who enjoy his late style would love to have it because it collects conveniently material otherwise dispersed on three discs. No need to worry that nearly 80 minutes of Mozart only would be boring. Not here, not with artistry of that calibre. Horowitz neophytes can hardly find a better introduction to Horowitz's late years. Keep in mind, however, that this was an extremely different Horowitz than the one for RCA in the 1970s and early 1980s, Columbia in the 1960s, or again RCA in the 1940s/50s.

Review: Horowitz - The Indispensable - RCA, 2 CDs

Except for few serious blemishes, 
an excellent introduction to the art of Vladimir Horowitz

If my personal experience is anything to go by, this double CD is certainly a terrific introduction to Vladimir Horowitz. It was my first serious exposure to his playing, and I got hooked for life. But let us get straight to the point.

On these two discs there are 29 (mostly short) pieces, all of them recorded by RCA, live or in studio, in a period of no fewer than 35 years (1947-82). Naturally, the sound quality varies greatly but - with few notable exceptions that are discussed below – it is excellent for its age. The selection is also fine (with the same exceptions in mind) and it rightly concentrates on the core of Horowitz's repertoire (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Liszt), but it does also include three sonatas of his beloved Scarlatti and several encore pieces by Moszkowski which he loved no less; in addition, there are three stunning examples of Horowitz's transcriptions/paraphrases/arrangements (no, these are not the same thing). It is also notable that the pieces are carefully selected as to illustrate not only the extreme dynamic range of Horowitz's playing, but also its even more impressive versatility: from tender and lyrical passages all the way to demonic and maniacal ones; there is everything.

Normally, I would give this collection five stars without hesitation. Unfortunately, I cannot do so in this case. The reason is simple and – let me stress this – has more to do with RCA than with Horowitz, although the latter is by no means guiltless. There are three pieces on these two discs that really should not have been here; oddly enough, these are the three longest pieces: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (live, 1979), and Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie (live, 1982). Altogether they make up for some 35 minutes, nearly one fourth of the total timing. It is safe to say that any of these three cases represents Horowitz at his worst. They are perfectly dispensable and, considering what other choices RCA did have, their inclusion is unforgivable. Even I, who would rather listen to Horowitz at his worst than to a good many pianists at their best, seldom play these recordings and certainly would never include them in a collection that is supposed to be representative of his artistry.

''Mannerisms'' is usually used as a dirty word, but I think they are an essential part of the interpretation. The problem with Horowitz was that in the late 1970s and early 1980s his mannerisms reached, not only the absolute peak during his career, but a degree which is all but incompatible with musicianship. This was especially pronounced in Liszt's music and created some, to put it mildly, extremely controversial interpretations, such as this bizarre Liszt-Busoni-Horowitz version of Mephisto Waltz No. 1; incidentally, Horowitz played it for one season only. In contrast, he played Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie all his life and recorded them several times. The performances here were recorded during his historical (first for more than 30 years) concert in London in 1982. Sadly, this was only one year before Horowitz's disastrous tour of Japan and his last retirement from the stage. The London concert was recorded on video and, though it is hard to find, if you happen to see it anyway, it cannot but strike you how terrible Horowitz looks: tired and apathetic, completely worn-out and rather inadequate. As a matter of fact, at this time Horowitz had fallen into the greatest of many depressions during his life, and he was indeed taking medications which had the most terrible side effect: he played badly. Considering his pathetic condition, it is amazing that he could play this London concert at all (and the program included Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata, too!), so it is hardly surprising that these Chopin masterpieces receive here a truly dismal treatment. For once, Virgil Thomson's notorious description of Horowitz as "master of distortion and exaggeration" rings true. It is only fair to say that Horowitz is not helped by RCA's staggeringly horrible sound. Leaving aside that screeching door at one place during the quiet introduction of the Ballade, this is some of most metallic, clangy, misbalanced and crude piano sound ever recorded. How such a mess was made and approved for release as late as 1982 is beyond me.

I understand this collection was issued when such terrific box-sets like the 
Original Jacket Collection (see Hank's great review) were not possible, so we could not have here Horowitz's finest recordings of Chopin's First Ballade (1965 and 1968, both live) made for Columbia/SONY. But as early as 1947 Horowitz did record the work for RCA as well. It is a raw and fiery performance that may be unacceptable to many people, but for my part it has an irresistible power and grandeur. As for the Polonaise-Fantasie, there is an amazing live recording from a Carnegie Hall recital in 1951. Both of these recordings are in excellent mono sound and musically infinitely superior to the London versions of 1982. Both were recorded for RCA and should have been included in this collection. As for Liszt, Horowitz's justly legendary recording of Funerailles (1950, RCA, studio) has a combination of lyricism and demonism that has never been equalled, let alone surpassed, and would most certainly have been a way better choice than the Mephisto Waltz. This is how the stupidity of recording companies leads to releases that might have been much better than they are.

Having said all that, there is a great deal on these two discs that is indeed indispensable. Few highlights cannot be passed without a word.

There are only four short pieces by Rachmaninoff here but they are among Horowitz's finest recordings. (It is a great loss to posterity that Horowitz actually recorded so little Rachmaninoff, but that's another story). One of his very few studio recordings from the second half of the 1970s (Prelude Op. 32 No. 5) clearly demonstrates that he, like all true virtuosi (which for me means pianists for whom virtuosity comes from the inside, not from the outside), could play very softly and with exquisite tenderness, too. The Barcarolle and Humoresque (Op. 10 Nos. 3 & 5, respectively) are fine live recordings from 1979. The Humoresque is an especially apocalyptic performance that makes Rachmaninoff's own, and very fine, recording sounds lacklustre by comparison.

But the real gem among Rachmaninoff's pieces here is the G minor prelude, recorded live in November 1981 as an encore after Horowitz's recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. This stunning performance has spoiled all other ''G minors'' for me. It is absolutely unbelievable that Horowitz had just turned 78 (!) when he played this. Sure he doesn't have the crispness and technical precision of a Lugansky, but there are here tremendously exciting climaxes of such an awesome power, that I don't in the least wonder why the audience goes wild immediately after the end. The beautiful inner voices of the middle part are wistfully brought to life with the same degree of uniqueness. The sound is a fine digital one and, like many other pieces, it is an improvement over the old remasters from the RCA Gold series. This piece alone is worth the price of both discs. And the most amazing thing is that the only other recording of the G minor prelude with Horowitz that exists is a dismal studio one from 1931 – dismal not just sonically but artistically as well. Apparently, during his whole career Horowitz seldom played the piece in public.

The Scriabin works here are only four etudes but they too demonstrate Horowitz at his absolute best and contain at least one performance that has spoiled all others for me. This is the famous Etude Op. 8 No. 12 recorded live, incidentally, during the ill-fated London concert in 1982. This is a fabulous performance, much closer to Horowitz's later interpretations of the piece (such as the one from his Moscow Concert in 1986), than to his earlier ones (the 1968 TV concert, for instance). Actually this is one of the most fascinating opportunities for comparison of Horowitz's evolution through the years. Both versions are very different and the later is certainly the better one: the tempo is slower, the dynamic range is expanded, from passages that are hardly audible Horowitz builds a majestic climax of epic proportions. Like Rachmaninoff's G minor prelude, this particular performance of this etude by Scriabin must be heard to be believed. Other Scriabin-highlights include the dreamy and melancholic Op. 2 No. 1 (1950) and the ''murderous'' (Harold Schonberg) Op. 42 No. 5 (live, 1953), both of them played as only Horowitz could.

Even though the Chopin selections are badly marred, there is a lot to enjoy here – if you enjoy Horowitz's interpretations that is. Like pretty much everything he played, his Chopin was larger than life, a Chopin of massive climaxes and stark contrasts, which was unacceptable, indeed unendurable, for many people. The rest of the Chopin fare here consists of three nocturnes, two etudes, two scherzi, one polonaise and the Barcarolle, most of them studio recordings from the 1950s in quite fine mono sound, none of them played in forgettable manner. Horowitz's incandescent (and only) recording of the Second Scherzo (1957) certainly has nothing to do with Rubinstein's aristocratic elegance; though I prefer the clarity of the latter, I wouldn't want to be without the demonism of the former. Chopin's First Scherzo was one of Horowitz's greatest favourites: he played it all his life and recorded in three times in studio (1951, 1963 and 1985). The first one is included here and it is positively explosive, though it might have been better to have the live version from 1953. Horowitz's blistering 1945 recording of the Polonaise Op. 53 is a most interesting alternative of his late recordings of the same piece for DG. Like Scriabin's Op. 8 No. 12, Horowitz's conception of this lovely polonaise changed out of recognition, with the later version losing technical brilliance but gaining musical insight. The nocturnes are among my greatest favourites, although some people dislike Horowitz's grand manner. But I, personally, love those heavy chords in the end of Op. 27 No. 2 played powerfully – and rather differently than all other pianists who play them as if it were three o'clock in the morning. If his four recordings (two studio and two live ones) are any indication, Op. 72 No. 1 was perhaps Horowitz's favourite Chopin nocturne. It is incomparably played and makes me wonder, yet again, what a mighty genius the man who composed such music at 17 must have been.

The Liszt selection, too, contains more than the unfortunate Mephisto Waltz. In fact, there are only two more pieces by Liszt here, but both of them are among Horowitz's most jaw-dropping recordings. His arrangement (not transcription) of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, with some marvellously creative touches in the friska section, is legendary today; his mind-blowing live recording from 1953, even more so. The famous Rakoczy March, on the other hand, can only be described as a paraphrase. Horowitz changed Liszt's original quite a bit and created a technical tour de force that sometimes verges on virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. I will leave to the puritans to be outraged at that, while I relish that thunderous left hand. By the way, gorgeously sonorous sound for mono from 1950.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is the only real transcription here. Horowitz did it as a token of gratitude to the US, the country that was his home for most of his life, and he created an excellent example of the ''Liszt-effect''. I have never much liked Sousa's brash original for a loud brass band, but after listening to Horowitz's mind-blowing performance (in great sound for 1950, too), I can't even stand Sousa's original anymore. In addition to Horowitz's frightening left hand, here is one of the most extraordinary illusions for four hands in any of his recordings.

Finally, there are the Carmen Variations, which are neither transcription nor arrangement; it isn't even a paraphrase. It is Horowitz's own composition, maybe not the most profound one in world, but certainly one of the most effective. The version here is the studio one from 1947 (in fantastic sound, RCA are really unpredictable fellows) which differs vastly from the much simplified ones that Horowitz played later in his career, including the legendary TV concerts in Carnegie Hall (1968) and the White House (1978). The 1947 version, like so many other Horowitz recordings, has to be heard in order to be believed. Towards the end, it must be admitted, Volodya gets a little carried away with the astonishing dexterity of his fingers, but otherwise he never allows lack of musicality or a mere banging to creep into his playing.

All in all, an excellent collection of Horowitz's recording from his RCA years which might have been a perfect representation of his artistry. Now it is not, but there still is much more to enjoy than to skip. Horowitz buffs would love to have the disc because it contains many of his finest recordings and it has a pleasant diversity; this includes a poignant remembrance from time to time that Horowitz, though a genius, was a fallible human being too. Horowitz newcomers certainly could do worse with an introductory collection. It is a fair guess that if you don't find Horowitz captivating here, warts and all, you wouldn't anywhere else either.

One last piece of advice to those who want to explore in some depth the phenomenon whom Arthur Schnabel called ''half-man, half-piano''. Keep in mind that there are at least two other, rather different Horowitzes: one for Columbia/SONY (1962-72), in whom musicianship and virtuosity were perhaps best reconciled, and one for DG/SONY (1985-89), in whom tranquillity and elegance completely transcended fire and brimstone.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - Symphonic Works - Ashkenazy - 1980-84, 3 CDs, DECCA

Stupendous bargain!

Rachmaninoff seems to suffer from the Liszt Syndrome these days: his piano works are universally admired and are among the most often performed and recorded in the standard repertoire; yet his symphonic works (without piano!) seems to suffer an ill-deserved neglect.

How monstrously ill-deserved this neglect really is can be determined by listening to this three discs box-set which is now old enough to be offered at the price of one! Since this (shame on me!) is my real introduction to this part of Rachmaninoff's oeuvre, there will be no comparative analyses here. I only want to emphasize the fact that for the price of one disc you get three, containing nearly four hours of music (total timings: 76:15, 76:09, and 78:15), including three ''ordinary'' symphonies (Nos.1-3) and three additional works not an iota less powerful and moving: the haunting tone poem The Isle of the Dead, the strange and beautiful Symphonic Dances in three parts, and the choral symphony The Bells for soprano, tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra in four parts. None of these works is without merit, even the youthful First Symphony which Rachmaninoff composed but 22 years old and which was such a massive fiasco at its premiere that the future great composer lapsed into a three-year depression. As a matter of fact, a great deal of this music is either beautiful beyond words or original beyond criticism, with brooding melodic lines and masterful orchestration which are entirely Rachmaninovian.

It cannot be denied that Rachmaninoff matured more slowly as an orchestral composer than as a piano composer – the First Symphony is hardly as memorable as the Five Piano Pieces Op. 3 composed even earlier – but this does not in the least mean that later in his life he did not create orchestral masterpieces worthy of more frequent performance and recording than they are given nowadays. One may search – and may even find – in these vast and mysterious works hints of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner or Mahler, but the music remains unmistakably and utterly Rachmaninovian all the same.

As for the sound quality, I don't understand the complaints of some people. We have here a great orchestra (Concertgebouw), a fine conductor (Vladimir Ashkenazy), one of the leading labels as far as orchestral sound is concerned (DECCA) and digital recordings of all pieces (DDD, 1980-84). It is true, of course, that many early digital recordings do suffer from glossy surface in combination with painful lack of depth and sonority, but if there is something like that here, I don't hear it.

The box set comes with an interesting booklet too, signed only with ''DECCA 1998'' unfortunately. There is some dull technical stuff and some of the biographical background might have been less neglected, but the one essay printed here (in English, German and French) also has a number of fascinating points which will surely make this not-so-easy-to-understand music much more accessible. For example, there is one compelling comment that the famous plainchant ''Dies Irae'' pervades not only Rachmaninoff's First Symphony but every major work of his; later several examples are pointed out, such as an appearance of the plainchant in the finale of the Third Symphony. Another perfectly spellbinding detail is the first part of Symphonic Dances which employs a solo saxophone and, more remarkably, in its end the ''motto theme'' of the First Symphony is quoted. Such titbits are to my mind priceless for they give a unique glance into Rachmaninoff's mind and how it was expressed in his symphonic works.

Of course the booklet also includes all sung texts in The Bells. These are verses by Edgar Allan Poe in Russian translations/adaptations by the poet Konstantin Balmont. Unfortunately, but expectedly, the Russian text is given only in hideous transliteration which is doubtless easier for people from Western Europe or the States, who generally have a great aversion to Cyrillic texts, but for those who don't such Latinized spelling is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, it is still possible to follow the singing quite easily. The English original as well as French and German translations are given too.

If you love Rachmaninoff's piano works – and who doesn't, save Alfred Brendel? – but are new to his symphonic output, this is the perfect box-set for you. Whatever faults it may or may not have in terms of sonics or interpretation, they are fully compensated by a ridiculously cheap price and a wonderful comprehensiveness. You can always get an alternative collection later. Just about the only negative thing about this one is that it doesn't include the famous Vocalise – then again, there is not enough space on any of the CDs for it. The only annoying thing about the presentation is a glaring error in Rachmaninoff's years of birth and death: 1875-1945. So, by way of conclusion, the correct years plus the ones in which these works were composed; all but one of them are from Rachmaninoff's maturity, and it shows:

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Symphony No. 1 (1895)
Symphony No. 2 (1907)
The Isle of the Dead (1909)
The Bells (1912-13)
Symphony No. 3 (1935-36)
Symphonic Dances (1940)

Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Complete Preludes - Weissenberg - 1968-69, RCA

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(1873 – 1943)

Prelude, Op. 3 No. 2
10 Preludes, Op. 23
13 Preludes, Op. 32

Alexis Weissenberg, piano

Recorded in 1968-69

No, Alexis, this will not do!

Alexis Weissenberg has always been a very controversial artist. Whatever he played – Chopin, Liszt, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy – he never played it in an ordinary way. I was introduced to his artistry by his concerto recordings with Karajan, which include Rachmaninoff's Second, Tchaikovsky's First, and Beethoven's five, and which are somewhat less idiosyncratic than usual with him. Later I heard quite a few of his solo piano recordings, but the truth is that I have never come to grips with Weissenberg. I almost always find his playing fascinating but I almost never really like it. In fact, the relationship is a typical love-hate one, both components being present on almost every single disc, sometimes even in the same work.

This is pretty much the case with Weissenberg's complete recording of Rachmaninoff's preludes, alas. I heard it for the first time many years ago and was completely appalled by what seemed to me mad rushing and gross insensitivity. Since then I have come back to the CD but a few times, always trying to free myself from my old prejudice, yet I always ended running away horrified. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why the last of my efforts is most probably – well, the last.

The greatest problem with Alexis' interpretations is the most obvious one: his tempi are highly unorthodox, usually much faster than anybody else's. What takes Ashkenazy more than 80 minutes, Alexis tosses off in less than 73 minutes, namely full 10% faster – which is a lot. Therefore it is all the more surprising to find here one of the slowest (about 5 min) renditions of the C sharp minor prelude (Op. 3/2). It works remarkably fine indeed, as Weissenberg combines drama and lyricism in a most spectacular manner. His highly uncompromising, not to say savage, approach to the keyboard yields rather fascinating results in some of the most vigorous preludes, most notably in Op. 23/7, Op. 32/6, Op. 32/8 and, above all, in Op. 32/4 whose sweeping climax is brilliantly done. Also impressive is Op. 23/3 which taken at such breakneck tempo acquires a curious streak of mockery and burlesque, reminding us that the generally dour and brooding Rachmaninoff actually had a fine sense of humour. However, even in those cases Alexis' performance is often marred by sloppiness, as in the cases of Op. 23/2 and Op. 23/5 where charming and exciting moments go hand in hand with perfunctory and indifferent ones. He is surprisingly convincing in the mighty Op. 32/10 but he manages to ruin almost completely the equally majestic Op. 32/13 by rushing and banging through it without any regard for the music.

In the lyrical preludes Alexis is the same very mixed bag. For instance, Op. 32/5 clearly shows that when he wants to he can play with tenderness and sensitivity, being original not at the expense of the music and standing comparison with Horowitz and Rachmaninoff themselves outstandingly well. There is also much refreshing charm in Op. 23/4 or Op. 32/7, although their ethereal quality is largely, if not entirely, lost. Pretty much the same is true of Op. 23/1 and Op. 23/10, another pair of preludes that are among Rachmaninoff's most delicate and intimate pieces. While listening to these pieces I often have the disconcerting sensation that this music was composed for the heavens but Alexis has knocked it down to earth.

The sound is decent and quite listenable for recordings made in 1968-69, but it is in no way exceptional, even for its time. It is often brittle and harsh, RCA's trademarks actually, and the piano seldom has anything like fine sonority. Interestingly, the rough nature of the sound closely resembles the playing.

All in all, I can't think of a single prelude that I would prefer in Weissenberg's interpretation over any other, including his fine C sharp minor one. I can listen to almost all of them with interest, and to some even with pleasure, but on the whole the set is absolutely no match for
Ashkenazy's equally impressive technique but much, much more sensitive musicianship; the same goes for Lugansky in the first 11 preludes. As for individual preludes played by artists of much greater individuality, such as Horowitz or Rachmaninoff for instance, everything Alexis has to offer falls rather short, if not originality-wise, musically at all events. I am not even sure that Weissenberg's recording is a good introduction to this music, for it often takes liberties that verge on the grotesque. I can't say that I find his wild eccentricity more convincing than Marietta Petkova's rather ordinary but much more musical approach. She is full ten minutes slower, in toto, and Alexis would have been wise to slow down too.

Complete recordings of Rachmaninoff's preludes being a rarity, this one is certainly worth having as a kind of curiosity. It might reward an occasional listening. Or it might not.

Review: Rachmaninoff - 24 Preludes - Ashkenazy - rec. 1975, DECCA Originals

Sergei Rachmaninoff
(1873 - 1943)

Prelude Op. 3 No. 2
10 Preludes, Op. 23 
13 Preludes, Op. 32

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

Recorded in 1974-75

Perhaps I am being sentimental...

But I still find Ashkenazy's recording of Rachmaninoff's complete preludes one of the finest. Admittedly, my only other experience with a complete recording of these lovely pieces is Weissenberg's crude and insensitive one on RCA. Of course there is the amazing Nikolai Lugansky, whose Preludes Op. 23 for Erato are stupendous, but even his incandescent pianism does not erase memories of Ashkenazy more lyrical but equally moving approach. Besides, Lugansky's collection is pretty incomplete. (Did he ever record the Preludes Op. 32? If he did, I have never heard them). At any rate, despite a little over-caution here and there, Ashkenazy remains, for me, an excellent choice for a complete recording of these marvellously original and monstrously under-recorded works. And there are many individual highlights as well.

To be sure, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not the most imaginative or most daring pianist in the world. But he is certainly one of the most sensitive. The more lyrical preludes are his forte, and Op. 23 Nos. 1, 4 and 10 as well as the famous Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12 are well worth hearing for the subtlety with which Ashkenazy reveals Rachmaninoff's melodic and harmonic richness. This is not to say that in the more extroverted preludes he is technically handicapped or anything like that. The only slight disappointment is the ubiquitous G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) where he gets the tempo right but lacks completely the crispness and precision of Lugansky or the emotional explosion of Horowitz. But in the ebullient Op. 23 No. 2 or the menacing Op. 23 No. 6 Ashkenazy displays an excellent balance between stunning virtuosity, crashing left hand, and an exquisite handling of the melodic line. He does only slightly less well in the apocalyptic middle section of Op. 32 No. 4 or the majestic Op. 32 No. 10, reportedly Rachmaninoff's favourite piece from the cycle. The last prelude, Op. 32 No. 13, is one of the finest examples of something typical for Ashkenazy: achieving massive sound without resorting to ugly banging.

The sound quality is excellent, especially for a DECCA recording of solo piano made in 1974-75; I have heard a great deal worse sound in most of Jorge Bolet's recordings for the same label a decade or so later. I am curious what kind of piano Ashkenazy used in these sessions. Surely it is no Steinway, the lighter but more luminous sound suggests Bechstein and this may have something to do with a sound which is not found on record as often as it should be. At any rate, the piano sounds perfectly natural and the sonority has a wonderful depth; only very occasionally slight harshness in the high register or certain flatness in the lower one mars the otherwise impeccable sonics, but neither is a big deal.

I appreciate Mr Grabowski's informed opinion, and I will give Richter a try if he insists, but I venture to differ with him as to the merits of Ashkenazy's preludes. There is more than completeness to recommend this set. Except for the slightly disappointing G minor, Ashkenazy easily stands comparison with the more technically accomplished Lugansky and he is way superior to Weissenberg's incoherent playing. With the same exception in mind, he is not so inferior to any of the preludes recorded by Rachmaninoff himself or Horowitz, though he of course doesn't have the originality of either. Nevertheless, as far as sheer musicianship is concerned, Vladimir Ashkenazy remains one of the finest combinations of poetry and power in Rachmaninoff’s I can think of. As a bonus, you get the preludes complete and in one very well-filled disc (80 full minutes).