(Apr 1, 1873 - Mar 28, 1943)
He was one of the greatest composer-pianists in history and certainly the greatest in the 20th century. His piano teachers included Nikolai Zverov (1832-93) and Alexander Siloti(1863-1945), the latter being Rachmaninoff's cousin and a Liszt pupil. Before the 1917 Revolution, he spent most of his energy composing and a majority of his masterpieces (e.g. the first three piano concertos, 24 Preludes, 17 Etudes-tableaux, Symphony No.2, etc.) were composed during this period. After the Revolution he left Russia and went to the United States, where he began to concentrate on his piano and conducting careers (Don't miss his amazing orchestral recordings of his own 3rd symphony and Isle of the Dead). He made his earliest commercial recordings in 1919 and continued to record until nearly the end of his life. Rachmaninoff's complete recordings are available as a 10-CD RCA Gold Seal boxed set.
Rachmaninoff was a master of purity, not only in terms of hitting all notes accurately, but also in terms of his style. If you compare his recordings with his contemporaries', such as Ignacy Paderewski, Vladimir de Pachmann, Arthur de Greef, Ignaz Friedman, Josef Hofmann, etc., you will notice that his style is surprisingly modern. I think he believed in moderateness - nothing is in excess. He played with a beautiful singing tone. Listen to his Schubert/Liszt transcriptions! Before I listened to them, I always thought these Lieder sounded much better when sung by a human, but I changed my mind after hearing him! To parody Karajan's compliment about Toscanini, "There aren't really any bad Liszt transcriptions; there are only bad pianists!" However, he never purposely enriched or thickened the tone as much as Hofmann or Horowitz did. He used a flowing tempo that was never too fast, with rare exceptions like the super fast octaves in the Chopin Scherzo 3. He did not try to impress the listeners with exaggerated dynamics and emotional display, or with fast tempi or extreme volumes. His playing had feeling but was never sentimental. He conquered his audience by his subtlety, sublimity, naturalness and perfect technical control.
Rachmaninoff played with an analytical mind. He always looked for the deepest meaning of a piece. This makes a sharp contrast with the superficiality often associated with Hofmann's playing in his early recordings. It is well exemplified by Rachmaninoff's recording of Chopin's Ballade No.3. Every note is highly polished. One can hear how carefully he organized the piece, and listening to his performance makes one feel like being led through some sort of an adventure. He seems to be always striving to make his point clear. Oh, don't confuse this analytical approach with many super-intellectuals' calculated, "profound", pedantic playing! Rachmaninoff was definitely on a higher level!
The most important recordings he made are those of his own works, including the 4 concertos, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 3 Etudes-tableaux, 8 Preludes, and numerous miniature pieces for the solo piano. Since these are his own works, he played them with the highest authority. Notwithstanding the sentimental interpretations his works usually receive nowadays, he played them in a much more unpassioned, aristocratic or sometimes even solemn way. The one I like the most is his second recording of Piano Concerto No.2. The tempi are all perfect, and the slow passages never sound boring. Today many pianists make those slow passages sound really dull. In particular, most pianists play the big climax in the third movement way too slow. An interesting thing about the recording is that in the opening chords, he played the bass note of each chord first and then the other notes separately. Pianists who do that do so only out of necessity, since their hands are not big enough to play them as single chords. Rachmaninoff, however, possessed the largest hands among pianists (he could easily make a 13th, and could squeeze a 14th), and so I find it a little strange. His recording of the Third Concerto is less satisfactory. His performance is good, with emphasis on musical depth rather than on technical display, but I like several other pianists more, especially Vladimir Horowitz (1978 with Ormandy), Van Cliburn and Byron Janis. Nevertheless, his rendition of the cadenza in the first movement is one of the most exciting on record. Among other things, I like the exciting tone of the several chords just before the climax, the part where there are big skips in both hands. I have 109 versions of this concerto, and Tzimon Barto is probably the only one besides Rachmaninoff who also generates such a tone in those chords.
Arthur Schnabel, the Beethoven specialist, once heard Rachmaninoff play a Beethoven sonata and exclaimed that it was the best Beethoven performance he had ever heard. It is unfortunate that Rachmaninoff never recorded a single Beethoven piano sonata. Indeed, he recorded few large-scale compositions. Besides his own concertos, for solo works he only recorded Chopin's Second sonata and Schumann'sCarnaval, both of which are among the most important recordings ever made of these pieces, although I personally prefer a more "Romantic" interpretation. For chamber music, he recorded Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano No.8, as well as Schubert's D.574 and Grieg's Op.45, all with the great violinist Fritz Kreisler. These recordings reveal Rachmaninoff as a fine accompanist. Despite the great collaboration, I think Kreisler, the great master in miniature pieces, made the music sound a little fragmented.
Lastly, I want to bring up a problematic recording of his: Mozart's Rondo alla turca from Sonata K.331. It sounds absolutely all right, until it gets to the coda. It is a 2/4 piece, with 4 quarter notes every measure. But what he did in the coda was that he played only the first 3 quarter notes in several measures, purposely leaving out the last quarter note. As a result, each of those measures has only one and a half beats. Very puzzling.
(Jan 20, 1876 - Feb 16, 1957)
He was a phenomenal child prodigy. He began giving public concerts at age six. At ten, he was concertizing so heavily that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had to intervene. His teachers included Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) and, starting from age 16, Anton Rubinstein (1830-1894), one of the most revered pianists of the 19th century. He was history's first recorded musician, making a number of recordings for Thomas Edison as early as March 1888. Legend has it that the 12-year-old Hofmann made these recordings while sitting on Edison's lap, but according to an article in the IPQ magazine, recent research has shown that this wasn't true. Though started off earlier than anyone else, he made only a small number of commercial recordings, although there are quite a few broadcast ones. Most of his recordings have been issued by VAI Audio and Marston in their "Complete Hofmann" Edition, with Volumes 1 to 4 on VAI and 5 and 6 on Marston
Vol.7 will be issued shortly. Hofmann, in addition to his musical talents, also had a lot of scientific creativity and contributed much to the early development of the phonograph. He also patented the wind shield wiper. So, next time it rains and you see the wiper in action, remember Josef Hofmann.
In the introduction to this page, I said that in order to understand a pianist's art as thoroughly as possible, we must at least analyze all of his/her recordings. It is particularly true in the case of Hofmann, as I am about to explain. He made a relatively small number of commercial recordings between 1903 and 1923, which are found on Volumes 3 and 4 (a total of three CDs) of VAI's Complete Hofmann Edition. In Philips' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" set, they only selected from these sources. That is a pity, not only because of the poor sound quality of these acoustical recordings, but also because they are far from a complete representation of the great pianist's art. While we can hear the most hair-raising pianism in these performances (in my opinion, Hofmann had better technique than all other nine pianists on this list), musically speaking, the playing is almost always automaton-like. It is monotonous, dead strict in tempos, and lacking in personal touches and passion. Just listen to the middle section of Chopin'sFantasie-impromptu, which is absolutely lifeless! There are only a few exceptions. For instance, he managed to play Scarlatti-Tausig's Pastorale and Capriccio with grace and beautiful shading (I think he could have been a great Scarlatti player, but unfortunately this is the only Scarlatti he recorded), and he could bring about sudden flashes of deep passion in Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso, Op.14. I can actually feel changes in my blood pressure and heart beats when I hear those moments of deep passion!
Notwithstanding their shortcomings, these early recordings are still important, because the technique Hofmann displays is truly astonishing. His fingers were simply dauntless. He never had to compromise, even in the most difficult passages. I am stunned by the ease and rapidity with which he played Liszt's Waldesrauschen and Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, and Chopin's Waltz in E minor Op. Posthumous, to name just a few examples. When I listen to him play fast single-note scales (for instance, in his Liszt La Campanella), the notes sound as if they were leaping out at me. It sounds as if he could have played even faster, twice as fast, three times as fast. The ultra-fast yet ultra-clear repeated notes in Liszt's Tarantella are absolutely hair-raising. I wish he had recorded more Liszt! I have been told that there are recordings of him playing Liszt's Ballade No.2, Hungarian Rhapsody No.12, and the Wagner/Liszt Tannhauser Overture, but none of them has been transferred to CD. According to his student Shura Cherkassky, Hofmann's playing in the latter was unbelievable!. Besides his amazing mechanisms, Hofmann's great tone is also something that must not be missed. It is so rich and singing, although I sometimes find this tone somewhat too effusive.
For the best recording from this period, I would pick Moszkowski's Caprice Espagnole. It is not only technically astounding, but Hofmann could also amaze with his musicality. Here, one can hear a wide array of rhythmic effects, colors, legati and staccati, all combined perfectly to generate the highest excitement.
Most of these studio recordings give one the impression that the primary thing Hofmann cared about was the technical side of a piece, not its musical content. However, when we listen to acoustical recordings, there is one thing that we must keep in mind. The recording industry was in its infancy. Not only that pianists often had to rush through a piece so that it could fit on one side of a 78-rpm disc, but they also had to pay constant attention to other technical issues. As Leopold Godowsky, another technical wizard in the early 20th century, put it: "The left hand had to be louder than the right hand; the pedal sparingly or not at all when the hands were close to each other. The fear of doing a trifling wrong augmented while playing; the better one succeeded in playing the foregoing, the greater the fear became while playing. It was a dreadful ordeal, increasingly so the more sensitive the artist....How can one think of emotion!" (from the Godowsky Great Pianists set on Philips)
Although Hofmann quit making commercial recordings in the early 1920s, many of his performances in the 30s and 40s were preserved on broadcast and test recordings that he made for several record companies. These later recordings are by far better than his earlier studio ones. Of course part of the reason was that he was playing without the constraints in a studio recording session, and that the much better quality of electrical recordings captured his great sound with higher fidelity. But I think Hofmann probably became more mature as a musician as well. Both his 1937 Golden Jubilee concert and 1938 Casimir Hall recital are unmissable. Notice the abandon, virtuosity, spontaneity, passion, freedom in tempo changes, vitality, unexpected inner voices, boldness (or even willfulness), and the uncountably many sudden accents in his playing. Indeed, his playing had become very passionate, and I think this is the biggest difference from his earlier studio recordings. His playing is often incredibly touching. The feeling in his playing is so natural that he seems to have done it subconsciously. What a contrast that makes with the calculated feeling in the playing of many of today's pianists! To me, the high points of these two concerts are the Rubinstein 4th Concerto with Reiner, Chopin's Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Op.22, and Moszkowski's Caprice Espagnole (more exciting than his studio effort, and has more surprises, but also a little messier) in the Golden Jubilee, and Chopin's 4th Ballade and "Minute" Waltz in double notes (Hofmann's own arrangement) in the Casimir Hall. In some other pieces, however, he could often be inappropriately explosive, for example in the Chopin Ballade No.1, Beethoven Waldstein, and Schumann Kreisleriana. One thing I should point out is, he added his own improvisations at the beginning of each piece in both concerts. This may seem odd today, but back then, it was a rather common practice. These extra chords could help prepare the audience's mood for the next piece. In fact, Vladimir Horowitz did that for at least one piece in his 1986 Moscow recital.
The 5th volume of the Complete Hofmann Edition and a 2-CD set entitled "Josef Hofmann in Concert" on the Eklipse label have some of his other miscellaneous broadcast and test recordings made between the late 1930s to late 40s. Vol.5 gives me much delight, and I think many of his best recordings are found on it. One pleasant surprise on this set is the first two tracks, which are two versions of Hofmann's own composition, Berceuse Op.20 No.5, one for solo piano and the other for piano and violin (with Efrem Zimbalist). I think it is a wonderful piece, and both he and Zimbalist played with deep feeling. Most of the other pieces on the set he had recorded before, either in the studio or in the two legendary recitals, and some of these (Chopin's Waltz Op.42, Nocturnes Op.15 No.2 and Op.27 No.2) are even heard in three or more different takes on this set. There are also several pieces that are "new", including the first movement of Chopin's 3rd sonata, Weber's Perpetual Motion, Gluck-Sgambati's Melodie, Debussy'sClair de lune, etc. Each recording on this volume is spellbinding. I am marveled by how natural his playing is. It sounds as though he had been playing at home, alone, during his leisure time, enjoying the music he was making, not worrying about anything else. A comment made by Kemal Gekic immediately comes to my mind: "We are all amateurs....We play because we love the piano and nothing else." Hofmann's playing overflows with enthusiasm and intimacy, and is both relaxing and captivating. At first I did not want to get this set for its prohibitive price. I am glad I changed my mind!
The Eklipse set has broadcasts (1941 to 1945) of several concertos: Beethoven's Concertos #4 and #5, Rubinstein's Concerto #4, the Schumann Concerto's first (severely cut, which is something I happen to like because I find this concerto too repetitive) and third movements, the third movement of the Chopin 1 and the second movement of the Chopin 2. With the exception of the Beethoven 4, these recordings have not yet been released in the "Complete Hofmann" edition on Marston, but they will be in the 7th and 8th volumes, and I bet the sound will be better. This rendition of the Rubinstein 4 is as great as the one from the Golden Jubilee. It is indeed puzzling that such a great work is no longer played nowadays. Perhaps it actually is not a great composition, but in Hofmann's hands, it becomes a masterpiece, as expected, since he was one of history's greatest pianists and he was Rubinstein's student. (Incidentally, I have been told that a Hofmann recording of Rubinstein's 3rd concerto also exists.) This set also shows that by this time his technique had become kind of inconsistent, partly because of aging but the main reason is that he became a heavy drinker in the 1940s. In the Beethoven 4, his finger work was unusually lousy, although the virtuosity is still very exciting. He played with so much abandon (and consequently many wrong notes) in the Beethoven 5. But in the Rubinstein, which I believe is technically more difficult than both of the Beethoven concertos (I have never played this concerto myself and so I am not sure about this, but it does sound tough), there are five minor clinkers at most, and his playing is ultra virtuosic. Then, in the Schumann, his technique got sloppier again. In the slow movements of each of these concertos, he reached emotional depths that he had never reached in his early commercial recordings. The listener is taken to a fascinating emotional trip in these movements. It is this volume and the Vol.5 that have convinced me that Josef Hofmann was one of history's greatest pianists. Perhaps not just one of the 20th century's top 10, but top 3.
(Nov 26, 1877 - June 15, 1962)
He studied in Paris with Emile Descombes, a Chopin pupil, and later with Louis Diemer (1843-1919). In 1905, Cortot, the violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) and the cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) formed one of the most famous trios in history, the "Million Dollar Trio". Cortot was also an accomplished conductor and gave the Paris premiere of Wagner'sGotterdammerung and Parsifal. He made his first recording in 1903 with the soprano Felia Litvinne, and began solo recordings in 1919.
His fascinating Chopin recordings alone justify including him on this Top 10 list. I like the poetic, intimate nature of his playing, which is often tinged with melancholy. He was one of history's most communicative musicians, and he never fails to draw the listener deep into his musical world. He was at his best in lyrical passages, where his playing often exhibits a high (but not excessive) level of freedom in tempo. (Horowitz, on the other hand, played with the highest level of freedom in colors. These two pianists represent the best examples of the free, Romantic style of the "Golden Age" of the piano.) Such characteristics have made his performances of the Berceuse, Sonata No.3, the six nocturnes he recorded (Opp.9 No.2, 15 No.1, 15 No.2, 27 No.1, 55 No.1 and 55 No.2), the four ballades, and some of the 24 Preludes unforgettable. All of these wonderful recordings are found in the 6-CD set on EMI. In the ballades, Cortot was at the height of his art, and these are no doubt my favorite recordings of these pieces. They are imbued with his characteristic melancholy, and are the most moving and contagious Chopin performances I have heard. One day, I compared his recording of the No.3 (which I consider to be Chopin's greatest work) with those by Horowitz, Rubinstein, Perahia, and Harasiewicz. Cortot won a landslide victory. Rubinstein and Perahia are somewhat boring and cautious, Harasiewicz is a little harsh, and Horowitz's treatment of the climax is a fiasco. Another impressive recording is the third movement (the "Funeral March") of Sonata No.2. In the recapitulation, he purposely transposed the chords in the bass an octave lower, and this is coupled with a fabulously executed gradual increase in volume. The result is that the music sounds more funereal than ever. In fact, he was not the only pianist who did this. Kempff (London/Decca, recorded in 1958) did the same. Paderewski (RCA, 1928) did it a little differently: He only lowered the first chord of each measure, with the other three remaining unaltered. Kempff sounds funereal albeit a little weak, whereas Paderewski sounds grisly and menacing. Pianists doing similar things today would be accused of sacrilege. The 24 Etudes are among Cortot's important recordings. His playing is clearly very different from everyone else's. Other pianists (with the exception of Arrau and perhaps Perahia) play them as showpieces, but when you listen to Cortot, you hear just music. He displays a high degree of bravery as he rushes through these formidable pieces at tempos quite a bit faster than what his technique can comfortably handle. Some critics go so far as to declare these as Cortot's greatest recordings. However, while I find them interesting (especially the numerous inner voices that he brought out thoughtfully), musical and individualistic, one important element is missing: his lyrical style. The nature of the etudes is such that there are few chances for this greatest style of Cortot's to show through. The recording of Polonaise No.6 is mediocre at best, while those of the 14 waltzes are played too freely and with too many gimmicks. There are rumors that he recorded the complete Mazurkas, but because he played them so poorly that none of them have been released.
Many people will disagree with me on this, but after hearing Cortot’s Chopin, I find all his other recordings to be “anticlimactic”. Some people swear by his Liszt recordings, which include the Sonata, Hungarian Rhapsody #11, and Rigoletto among a few other things. They like the dash and recklessness, but to my ears, his playing is vulgar and at times can even sound "random". His interpretation contains too many strange ideas that I find hard to digest. His technique is also too sloppy for Liszt, and this is made all the more obvious by the fast tempi that he chose. And I don't think playing so fast is necessarily the result of an attempt to conserve disc space. For instance, he finished the 11th Hungarian Rhapsody in 4 min 5 sec. But one side of a 78rpm disc can hold up to 5 minutes of music (the "official" time limit was 4 and a half minutes per side, but that could easiliy be extended to around 5 minutes by cutting back the area taken up by the label sticker at the center of the disc). He could have relaxed the tempo quite a bit; there was plenty of room left. Therefore, I believe that was actually the tempo he liked, and he most likely would have played the piece at a similar tempo on the concert stage. Sometimes an unconcern with technique and note-to-note accuracy can be forgivable or even admirable, but in this case I think he has gone too far.
Cortot was also famous for his Schumann, and the Biddulph label has his recordings of the Concerto, Papillons, Davidsbundlertanze, Kreisleriana, Des Abends from Fantasiestucke, Kinderscenen,Symphonic Etudes (including the posthumous variations, uncommon in the early days of the gramophone), and Carnaval. I have all these recordings. Like his Chopin, he was best at playing soft and lyrical passages. For instance, the famous Traumerei from Kinderszenen and Des Abends from PhantasiestuckeOp.12 (he did not record the whole set) are both filled with incredibly touching lyricism. But in general, I think Cortot's Schumann is not as satisfying as his Chopin. It is a delightful and charming Schumann. However, I prefer the more serious and darker renditions by Richter, Arrau and Michelangeli (even though he did odd things once in a while). In addition, sometimes his tempo can also get way too fast, and since his technique was not very good, you can easily imagine what disasters that would result in. An obvious example is Variation VI of the Symphonic Etudes, where the big jumps in the left hand are all messed up!
I will only briefly mention his recordings of other composers, which I never listened to closely. I will add to this paragraph when I have done more homework. He recorded four compositions by Cesar Franck, all of which are on a Biddulph CD. Two are solo works (Prelude, Choral et Fugue and Prelude, Aria et Final), one is the Symphonic Variations with an orchestra, and one is the Violin Sonata with violinist Jacques Thibaud. All of them are pretty good. Also on Biddulph are pieces by Albeniz, Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Faure, Handel, Liszt, Purcell, Ravel, Saint-Saens, Schubert, Scriabin and Weber, on three CDs. I recently bought one of these CDs, and one of the pieces on this densely packed disc is Saint-Saens' Caprice en forme de valse, which Cortot played with such a transcendental level of technique that left even Horowitz awestruck and envious. Some of the recordings he made with Casals and Thibaud are found on 3 EMI discs, and the several tracks I have heard sound quite good. Finally, I have his Weber 2nd sonata. I think his performance is adequate, but not particularly impressive.
Let me conclude this article by reiterating that Cortot was at his best in lyrical pieces by Chopin. I urge everyone to get the above-mentioned 6-CD, all-Chopin set on EMI. I never realized how great the ballades were until I heard his recording in that set.
(Apr 17, 1882 - Oct 16, 1951)
His teacher was Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), probably the most famous piano teacher of the late 19th century. Schnabel was also a composer, writing three symphonies and several chamber works, which are, surprisingly, mostly atonal. His students included big names like Clifford Curzon, Rudolf Firkusny, and Lili Kraus. His first electronic recording was made in 1932. He made history's first complete recordings of Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas and 5 Piano Concertos and the sonata recordings became the basis of much of his fame. These recordings have been re-issued on at least 8 different labels, and most reports I have seen claim that the transfer on EMI is the worst, so get a different one, e.g. the one on Dante.
His recorded legacy consists mainly of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, plus two Bach Toccatas and the Brahms concertos, and I will discuss his “less important”, non-Beethoven recordings first. I have heard several of his Mozart concertos and sonatas. He is fabulous in the slow movements, where his delicate touch is incomparable. For instance, in the middle movement of my favorite Mozart concerto, #23 (recorded in 1946 with Rodzinsky), he was successful in filling it with a touching, melancholy atmosphere. After years of listening to this concerto and having played it myself, I have become very familiar with the music and sometimes think it has long lost its flavor. However, Schnabel's playing is still able to move me to the depth of my heart. In the outer movements, however, his performance is okay at best, because he does not capture ANY of the humor of the music. He sounds too serious. Claudio Arrau once commented that music should not have any humor in it, and I suspect Schnabel had a similar philosophy. Beethoven suits Schnabel better, as discussed below. One can notice a lot of courageous acts in his Mozart, which would probably have been unimaginable today. Ironically, in his days, Schnabel was considered a literalist
He played Schubert in a straightforward manner. He just wanted to let the music speak for itself, and did not add extra amounts of delicacy and sweetness to the music to woo the listeners. This way, the appeal of his performance relies heavily on the appeal of the music itself. However, I often find Schubert's piano music rather uninteresting, and as a result I also find Schnabel's Schubert insipid. In my opinion, to make Schubert's piano music sound convincing, the pianist must inject more shadings, colors and other decorative elements into the playing. Richter and Horowitz did exactly that and so I like their Schubert a lot more. However, Schnabel’s delectable performance of Allegretto in C minor is a special case, where his playing became much more decorated than usual.
As I pointed out, his most important recordings are his Beethoven. He recorded most of the Piano Concerti twice. The first time was from 1932 to 1935, recording all 5 concerti with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. He recorded Nos. 4 and 5 with Frederick Stock/Chicago Sym in 1942, and Nos.2 to 5 with Issay Dobrowen/Philharmonia Orchestra in 1946 to 1947. I have heard all of these but analyzed only the Dobrowen recordings and the No.1 with Sargent. It is obvious that his technique was much more intact in the 1932 No.1 than it would become more than a decade later. His technique apparently declined a great deal in his late years. According to Horowitz’s theory, Schnabel played only Beethoven in his late years, and that caused him to lose all of his technique. (From Harold Schonberg's Horowitz: His Life and Music). The 1946/7 performances are just average. Although there are occasional moments of beautiful expressive passages, many other pianists can do that just as well. There are many disagreeable passage works. Examples include the mp he used to play the supposedly turbulent portion of the cadenza (the section just before the trills at the end) in the first movement of the Concerto No.3, and the uncomfortable accents at the opening of the Emperor Concerto. I am left with the impression that his declining technique had prevented him from doing everything he wanted. In the 1932 Concerto No.1, he obviously had a much better command of his fingers, playing with more concentration and with more drive. However, even that is not a very impressive performance. His truly authoritative performances are found in the 32 Sonatas, and this refers mainly to the slow and espressivo movements. In the outer movements, his tempi are nearly always too fast. Though always highly spirited, they sound too rushed. Making the situation worse, he actually speeds up while playing fast passages (especially those with scales), adding to the hastiness. However, I have to admit that I am impressed by the dexterity with which he played all these fast notes. In the early 1930s, his technique was certainly quite decent. Otherwise, the fast scales and arpeggios could not have been played with such clarity. Many of his contemporaries ridiculed his poor technique, pointing out myriads of botched and sloppy passage works in his playing. I think those accusations were unjustified. Well, it is true that his Hammerklavier and the Finale of Appasionata sound ultra sloppy, but don't forget that his tempi are extremely fast and I am sure few pianists could pull off all right at such high velocities. But no matter what, none of his fast movements are very good because they are too rushed. It is in the slow movements that we hear Schnabel the great Beethoven interpreter. In the slow movements, he was no longer in a hurry. Quite often, he actually played more slowly than most others (of course, with the inevitable exception of the super-slow Claudio Arrau). These slow movements are the most beautiful Beethoven sound on record. His tone is sweet, and he projected his feelings in a charming way. These movements sound interesting from start to end, no matter how long they are. Schnabel could transform a movement I previously disliked into an appealing movement, e.g. the second movement of the Second Sonata. He is the greatest in the last five sonatas, Nos.28 to 32. The fast movements are still too fast, but the slow and lyrical movements are merely sound from Heaven. I don't think he has ever been surpassed in these movements. Other than these espressivo movements, Schnabel could also make the various Menuettos, Scherzos and Trios in the early sonatas sound delightful. The monumental performances of these movements have established the supreme status of Schnabel as one of the greatest pianists in the 20th century.
(Jan 28, 1886 - Dec 20, 1982)
His career was one of the longest in the history of musical performance. He studied with Karl Heinrich Barth (1847 - 1923), who was a Tausig student. He was the pianist most associated with women, until the day he died. He was not considered a great pianist until after almost half of his life had passed. An important thing to know is that this Rubinstein had nothing to do with the Anton Rubinstein of the 19th century. He made his first recording in around 1910 in Poland. His complete commercial recordings have been re-issued in a gigantic 94-CD set on RCA, although there are a number of non-commercial recordings available on other labels such as Archipel, Aura, BBC Legends, Palexa, Rockport, etc.
Though Rubinstein has often been equated with Chopin, he actually played and recorded nearly everything other than baroque and contemporary music, producing a huge discography.
In the classical repertoire, he recorded all 5 Beethoven concertos three times, some of the sonatas, and with Henryk Szeryng some of the violin sonatas; several Mozart concerti and Rondo in A minor, K.511; and Haydn's Variations in F minor, which I haven’t heard yet. His Mozart Concerto No.20 is overly sentimental and at times sounds affected; I prefer a more simplistic approach. His Beethoven Concerto No.4 recorded in 1964 with Leinsdorf is warm, gentle and smooth. He used Busoni's edition of the cadenzas, which sounds a little different from the composer's version. The Emperor Concerto is also extraordinarily beautiful, and is different from many other pianists' (e.g. Serkin’s) banging. All of his Beethoven sonatas are quite good, but I have a special fondness for the Appassionata from a 15 Jan 1975 concert in Pasadena California. He was nearly 89, and technical deficiencies are uncountable. It is a wild performance with a lot of abandon, but it lacks pianissimo. The entire sonata is poorly organized. However, the thousands of wrong notes are marvelous, and I enjoy the touching up he made toward the end of the third movement. And he played the chords at the beginning of the coda loud, which I think is a good idea.
He played nearly all the important works by the Romantic composers, and the most important of all, works by Chopin. His Chopin is among his greatest recordings. His style is unusually masculine. The tempi and rubati are natural, the sound is friendly and spontaneous, and the genuine feeling continuously triggers emotional responses from the listener. Actually, his Chopin is, though great, in my opinion, not that great. However, when one listens to other pianists, the difference is obvious: many of them are stumbled by the composer's difficult-to-interpret music. They fail due to one or more of the followings: they do not have the rhythm, the music sounds disconnected, the accents are uncomfortable, the rubati are contrived, sometimes there is too much fire, the feelings are exaggerated, or it just sounds "wrong". So, relatively speaking, Rubinstein's Chopin is really superb. Though for a few isolated pieces you may find one or two other better versions, you can never find another pianist who can play the majority of Chopin's works as well as Rubinstein. Particularly, he is peerless in the Mazurkas (He recorded all of them three times. I have heard the first and third cycles and prefer the latter.), the first five Polonaises, and Polonaise-Fantaisie. The Mazurkas, which he played with so much verve, are a big stumbling block for most others (except Moriz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman and Horowitz's Op.30 No.4. No, I am not very fond of Kapell's metronomic rendition.). Rubinstein played Polonaise No.1 in such a way that makes this poorly written piece (in my opinion) sound like a masterpiece. And few pianists can avoid making Polonaise-Fantaisie sound diffusive. Polonaise No.6, however, he played too slowly and too carefully (in his 1964 recording). I also listened to his performance of this piece in the Jan 15, 1975 concert I mentioned above. The style is similar to the 1964 one, but with much more blurring due to over-pedaling. I also like his performances of Sonatas Nos.2 and 3, the 4 Ballades, the 4 Scherzi, the 4 Impromptus, the 14 Waltzes, and miscellaneous pieces such as the Barcarolle, the Berceuse, and the Fantaisie, although, in these works, he met a stronger competition, and there are others who could play better than he. Out of the top of my head, I can think of Cortot's Ballades and Berceuse, Lipatti's waltzes, Gilels' 2nd sonata, and Horowitz's Scherzo No.3. Rubinstein played the Waltzes in much the same way he played the Mazurkas, but I think the Waltzes should sound a little lighter. Nevertheless, he played with style and has made the hackneyed Waltzes sound interesting. However, his Nocturnes recordings, despite their fame, I have found too masculine and heavy. His tone is too thick and lacks variations, and many fine details of the music are overlooked. Same for Concerto No.2, which should also be played in a more feminine manner, although he already used more tenderness than in the Nocturnes. Unfortunately, I haven't heard his Concerto No.1, which I suspect might fit his virile style better. His worst Chopin recordings are the 24 Preludes, which are amazingly lifeless (e.g. Nos 2 and 6), and the fast pieces just sound like studies (e.g. Nos. 8 and 14). This is rather unusual in Rubinstein's usually exuberant playing. For the etudes, the Trois Nouvelles Etudes are the only ones he recorded in the studio, because he thought that others could play many of the 24 etudes better than he. The Op.10 No.4 and Op.25 No.5 from the 15 Jan 1975 recital were recorded, however. The Op.25 No.5 was played exceedingly carefully and thus sounds a little boring. Op.10 No.4 he played with surprisingly few wrong notes. To me this piece is harder than Appassionata, but he played many more wrong notes in the latter in that concert. A CD on Russian Revelation also has two other etudes that he played in a Moscow recital, Op.10 No.5 and Op.25 No.1.
His recordings of other Romantic composers are usually only so-so. For example, his Liszt is disappointing. Funerailles is played too plainly, though lyrically. There is not enough excitement in loud passages, and the quiet passages are usually boring. His Mephisto Waltz No.1 is just as bad. Even his favorite Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 has lost much of its flavor. The Sonata in B minor (recorded in 1965) is wanting in energy, and the supposedly colorful lyrical passages sound drab. It is interesting to notice that in the furious octaves at 1:49 to 2:30, he played many of the left-hand octaves as single notes, omitting the bass note. The Concerto No.1 with Wallenstein recorded in 1956 is a failure. The orchestra and the soloist did not cooperate at all. Tutti are often much faster than the solo passages. The overall performance sounds rushed, although it is actually not that fast. There is not a single moment of rest.
His style does not always suit Schumann and Schubert either. He playing is excessively heavy-handed, and the masculine, fat sound is often inappropriate for these two composers. The Schumann concerto, the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and Sonata D.960 are all unsatisfactory for this reason. The Schumann Symphonic Etudes from a 1961 Carnegie recital have moments of beauty, with a natural and straightforward style, but is far less convincing than Richter's performance. His heavy chords are inappropriate, and his lack of concern about details is a pity. Etude IV sounds horrible because he connects all staccato chords with the pedal, but in the Etude V that immediately follows, he purposely makes the second note in each triplet very short, which is interesting (Weissenberg is the exact opposite: He played all three notes with almost equal values). His gentle, flowing, subdued tone is captivating in the Arabesque. His Fantasiestucke, Op.12 also benefits from his rich, smooth tone and is thus more engaging than hisSymphonic Etudes. The rhythm and sinewy chords in "Grillen" reminds me of his Chopin Polonaises. However, the homogeneity of his playing leads to a limited amount of contrasts and surprises, making it impossible to generate the thrilling effects in Richter's Schumann. I like the joyfulness in Carnaval. The Impromptu D.899 No.3 is perhaps his most satisfactory Schubert recording. The Maestro's smooth playing is suitable for this piece, although one still cannot escape from his omnipresent masculine sound.
For the best recording from his non-Chopin Romantic repertoire, I would vote for his Brahms Concerto No.1, Op.15 with Fritz Reiner, recorded in 1954. It is a straightforward playing that is energetic and spirited. It has more harshness than the ultra smooth recordings mentioned above, and such harshness brings vigor and life to the music. The rather strict tempo makes the music sound flowing and continuous. The 1966 recording with Leinsdorf has considerably less energy and excitement, and the decline of his technique is apparent. The solo pieces he recorded (Ballades Op.10, several Intermezzi, Rhapsodies Op.79) are unsatisfactory. He was successful in capturing the beauty of these pieces, but when power is desired, his playing does not give enough of it, especially in the Rhapsodies. Everything sounds too smooth and calm. I wish he had played them a little more aggressively. One can easily be nauseated after listening to just a few of his Brahms solo pieces. I suspect that he deliberately avoided playing powerfully. In the program notes he wrote, he said these pieces were all intimate pieces, and I guess he purposely avoided playing with too much strength to make the intimacy more conspicuous.
He gave fine readings of the two most famous Russian concerti: Tchaikovsky's No.1 and Rachmaninoff's No.2. I enjoy his Tchaikovsky with Leinsdorf tremendously. It is a strong, sinewy, robust performance, with an assured style. There are many surprises and effective "tricks". The solo theme at 0:55 to 1:18 was played with an interesting subdued volume. The dramatic organization at 11:05 to 12:06 is also impressive. The tension keeps building up at first, until it gets to the climax, where the furious drum brings an abrupt end to the rising tension, and it is followed by a tragic atmosphere. The performers seem to be trying to tell a story. In the last half minute or so of the first movement, one can hear Rubinstein’s most thunderous sound. The virile beauty of his playing fits the second movement. The strength in the third movement is also captivating. The piano subito at 5:49 is unique and impressive. His approach to the Rach 2 is very similar, and his version with Reiner is one of my favorites. The masculinity and power fit the louder passages in the first and third movements nicely. His characteristic homogeneity helps unify all the fragments and makes the music sound connected. The concerto sounds disconnected in many other versions. However, I wish there were more delicacy in the tranquil passages and in the slow movement. Rachmaninoff's and Tchaikovsky's concerti are different from works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, et al., in that a couple of creative tricks can easily turn an otherwise mediocre performance into an memorable one, whereas success in playing the latter relies on the overall impression of the entire work.
He made a number of recordings of French music. The Saint-Saens Concerto No.2 recorded in 1970 with Ormandy is beautiful and fresh in the first movement. The amount of power, which was inadequate in his Liszt, is enough for this movement to make it sound appealing. There is adequate feeling too. The supposedly light second movement was played too forcefully and heavily, however, which is incongruous with the lightness of the orchestra. The third movement is good, but it would be even better if there was more fire. The solo pieces by Ravel, Poulenc, Faure and Chabrier sound good to me, but I won’t say any more than that since I am unfamiliar with them.
Rubinstein was indeed a very successful Chopin player. As I said, he was probably the only one who could play a majority of Chopin's works satisfactorily. Even Cortot was not as consistent. Arthur Rubinstein certainly deserves to be one of the top ten pianists of the twentieth century.
(Feb 6, 1903 - June 9, 1991)
He was a child prodigy who was already playing Liszt's Gnomen-Reigen at age seven. He studied with Martin Krause (1853-1918), a Liszt pupil, from 1913 to 1918. His repertoire was perhaps the largest in history. He made his first piano rolls in 1922 and electronic recordings in 1928, and he continued to record prolifically till the end of his life. It is interesting that Arrau played Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto frequently between the two world wars. That is interesting because, to me, Arrau and Rachmaninoff are the biggest mismatch in the history of piano playing. During that time period, he was often forced to play pieces he did not like because otherwise he would have to starve to death. Today, his easiest-to-obtain recordings are those he recorded for Philips from the 1960s to the 90s. Many of his earlier recordings, which have been re-issued on CD by Arlecchino, Dante, EMI, Pearl, RCA etc., are considerably harder to find. An Arrau discography was found in the first edition of Joseph Horowitz's book "Conversations with Arrau", but unfortunately it was omitted when the book was re-issued in 1999 as "Arrau on Music and Performance"
Being the owner of around 50 Arrau CD's, I am familiar with his styles. His playing is among the most unique in the pianistic history. The followings are some of the pianist's most salient characteristics. These characteristics can be found in virtually any of his Philips recordings, and basically there is no need to cite any specific examples, except for a few important ones. (Arrau's style was in constant evolution throughout his long career. This article will focus on his style since he started recording for Philips, i.e. from around 1960 till his death. When time allows, I will study his earlier recordings more closely and discuss them here.)
1) His tempo is probably the slowest in history. Occasionally, others are even slower, but in most cases Arrau is slower than anybody else. Such slow tempi can be irritating sometimes. And this problem got worse and worse as he got older. The first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata is a striking example (though he insisted that everyone besides himself was three times too fast!). Many of the Mozart sonatas are also uncomfortably slow. In fact, quite often when you think he has already reached the bottom of the tempo scale, he can slow it down even further, as in the case of Debussy's Clair de lunerecorded in Jan 1991, one of his last recordings. And I nearly can't stand his Chopin nocturnes, where he slows down at the end of almost every phrase.
2) His playing most often comprises of only volume and tempo changes, and changes in tone colors are rare. Also, his unchanging tone is often rather crude and is seldom a singing, delicate one. This is true even in his Debussy recordings, despite the fact that Debussy's works always demand a large variety of colors.
3) He always played ornaments on the beat, while everybody else plays them just before the beat. What’s more, he usually hit the ornaments themselves harder than the main notes. This has led to some really eccentric performances. A good example is the acciaccaturas in his recording (made in 1979) of Chopin's Waltz No.1, between 2:50 and 3:04. Another striking example is the coda to Mozart's Rondo alla turca(the 1986 recording). Listen to the left hand, which sounds hilarious. In fact, this is supposed to be the correct way to play them (Rachmaninoff also played them this way, incidentally), but it sounds funny because I am just not used to it.
4) His performances are often filled with the most weird rhythms and rubati. In many cases it is due to his characteristic on-the-beat ornaments, as discussed above. There are also thousands of other cases that have nothing to do with ornaments. Listen to, once again, his Chopin Waltzes. The three-beat rhythm characteristic of waltzes sounds so bizarre in his performances. His Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 is another good example. All of the triplets between 4:47 and 5:21 have nearly become doublets! Yet another example is Mozart's Rondo alla turca (again!). In the first four measures, he played the first two notes of each group of sixteenth notes as short appoggiaturas, and he did the same for all subsequent equivalent places. He didn't invent it; I have seen at least one edition that uses appoggiaturas in those spots. But when he is the only pianist who follows that edition, he makes himself sound odd. Together with the above-mentioned hilarious coda, his Rondo alla turca is one of the most bizarre recordings in my CD collection (But of course it is still no match for most of David Helfgott's recordings).
5) Quite often he played chords that stretch larger than an octave as broken chords. This is something really strange, because he could easily make an eleventh span, from C to F. What was this guy thinking?
6) He often played with a seemingly deficient technique. Very often, he is caught slowing down in difficult passages. Also, one can often hear unclean chords, i.e. the notes in a single chord are not played in unison. Furthermore, sixteenth notes are often uneven.
7) His volume never gets too loud, never too brilliant, never too bright. At the other end of the volume spectrum, when he is playing quiet passages, I often feel that he is not quiet enough. There is no such thing as a ppp in his playing. His volume range is relatively small.
8) Every note/chord is hit very carefully, resulting in performances that often lack spontaneity. Arrau was truly a super intellectual. And the more intellectual he gets, the slower the tempo, because he wanted to play slow enough so that he could have more control over everything. The result is that slow passages often sound endless.
9) He seldom played staccato the way most pianists do it. When he played notes with tiny dots above them, he often played them as long, detached notes. The last movement of Beethoven"s Sonata No.6 is a good example. Almost 80 percent of that particular movement is supposed to be staccato, but he played all of them simply as disconnected notes/chords.
Based on the observations above, one would most likely conclude that Arrau was an inferior pianist, one who does not deserve much respect. Then, why should he be one of the top ten pianists of the 20th century? The reason is simple: these qualities, while causing his Chopin, Mozart, Debussy and Tchaikovsky to sound ugly, not only do no harm but actually are beneficial to works by Beethoven and Brahms. He was in fact, in my opinion, the greatest interpreter of Beethoven's music and one of the greatest of Brahms'. But before I talk more about his recordings of these two composers' works, I want to go back to the sixth point listed above, regarding his "seemingly deficient technique." Arrau is famous (or notorious?) for his faithfulness to the score. Pianists like to cheat; when a particular part of a piece becomes too difficult, they would redistribute the notes, playing notes originally for the left hand with the right hand or vice versa, or even omit a couple of "unnecessary" notes, to make life easier. The best example is Vladimir Horowitz, who probably cheated more than anyone else. Arrau, however, never did that. Another thing is that Arrau often used clumsy fingerings to achieve certain effects he wanted. Such fingerings made the music even more difficult to play. As a result of these, the same Schumann Fantasy in C would be easier for other pianists than for Arrau, since he chose the harder "edition". I think this would partially account for the reason why he often appears to be deficient in his technique. (Please read Joseph Horowitz's book, Arrau on Music and Performance for more information.)
To some extent, his success in playing Beethoven's and Brahms' music is due to "luck". Arrau's playing seldom had a beautiful tone or any color changes, but it is absolutely possible to play Beethoven and Brahms well without these. So, he just happened to find the right matches. His crude tone suits their music very well. He still played ornaments in his unnatural way, but in Beethoven and Brahms, they surprisingly do not do any harm at all. Moreover, his rubato, which often sounds weird in Chopin and Mozart, somehow works well in Beethoven and Brahms. In the two Brahms concerti with Haitink, he used rubato lavishly, but effectively (However, if you still think he played with too much mannerism in this Brahms 1, you may want to try his early EMI recording with Guilini). His dynamic range is just as small in Beethoven and Brahms as in other composers, but he was able to use all kinds of subtle variations within a relatively limited volume range to create an incomparable amount of tension and drive (For a good example of his tension, listen to the marvelously nervous chords at the beginning of the coda of the third movement of Appassionata in his Philps recording from the 1960s.). This way, he could generate a lot of dynamics within his limited dynamic range. Sounds strange, but that is the best way to put it. He is the same old careful Arrau, lacking spontaneity, but somehow this leads to an atmosphere that actually adds to the tension. His slow tempi also add to the power of the music. When other pianists play too fast, oftentimes they make the music sound frivolous. However, occasionally he does get unacceptably slow, like the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein and a couple of variations in Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Paganini. There is a Beethoven recording that is worth discussing, namely his performance of the formidable Hammerklavier Sonata. It is a great performance, filled with strength and insight. The usually slow Arrau actually played this work faster than most other pianists (except for the Adagio sostenuto movement). In fact, he is already much slower than what the composer demanded, but most pianists play even slower than Arrau simply because they cannot handle the extreme difficulty of this piece and therefore have to succumb to it. This provides a strong piece of evidence that Arrau actually had a big technique, but he often sounds otherwise because of his over-faithfulness to the text and weird fingerings. Other than Hammerklavier, his performances of the last three concerti of Beethoven's also deserve the highest praises. The slightly gloomy mood he used in Concerto No.3 is perfect. Many other pianists (e.g. Rubinstein/Toscanini) sound too playful, which is not suitable for this piece. The slow tempo he used in the Fourth Concerto is also perfect. Only such a tempo can bring out the beauty of the piece effectively. The Emperor Concerto is also a superb performance. He did not need any fire, big contrasts or sonority to make the concerto sound powerful. His tension has done the job, perhaps even more effectively. My favorite spot of the recording (the 1984 one, with Sir Colin Davis) is at around 18:28 to 18:44, where everyone other pianist plays staccato, but he played them as long detached notes, which sound wonderful.
Other than Beethoven and Brahms, he has made a few other good recordings. His Liszt recordings are generally mediocre or even inferior in some cases, because Arrau could not (perhaps I should say "did not") adapt to Liszt's music by working more on the colors and by playing more forcefully to generate more excitement. However, his Etudes d'execution transcendante is a surprising exception. Though lacking variegated colors, his performance is extraordinarily energetic, exciting and sometimes even demonic. It has so much drive, so much impulse. Listen to his Wilde Jagd. He played it so fast! He is much faster than Sviatoslav Richter, Jorge Bolet, Dimitris Sgouros, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jeno Jando, Louis Kentner, Jeramiah Rose, Kemal Gekic, and Georges Cziffra, all of them either super technicians or famed Liszt players, or both. Once again, we see that Arrau was equipped with a big technique, and the recording was made in his 70s! And you must not miss his Mazeppa. Who else can make the middle section more turbulent and moving? His Dante is also quite good, with power and understanding, and his Les jeux d’eau a la villa and Vallee d’Obermann are charged with intense Romanticism. His Schumann is also admirable. In Schumann, his tone often sounds extraordinarily beautiful and sweet, and a good example is the opening piece in Kinderszenen. In Carnaval, the lack of spontaneity is no more, and he actually sounds playful and cheerful, although his treatment of "Chopin" is disappointing (it's too loud!). An important thing to point out is that Arrau played with much more abandon in live recitals. For instance, I have an Ermitage disc of a pirated live recording of him playing the Schumann Fantasy. He played the coda of the second movement so much faster than in his Phililps studio recording. In fact it is faster than most other versions, and yet he hit only a few clinkers. In his interview with Joseph Horowitz, Arrau boasted that these terrible skips were so easy to him that he could play them blindfolded. Based on this live performance, it seems that he was not exaggerating!
Some people have criticizaed Arrau for limiting himself to only several composers. Well, it is true that he recorded mostly works by the several big-time composers (Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, etc.) for Philips. But in fact, his repertoire was one of the most comprehensive in history. I have a disc of his pretty good live performance of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. There are also recordings of Strauss' Burleske, Weber's Koncertstucke and sonatas, and back in the 1920s to 40s, he recorded Balakirev's Islamey (which is a highly virtuosic performance and it is now available in the Great Pianists series on Philips), works by Busoni, Stravinsky, Albeniz and Granados. And he was familiar with works by many other contemporary composers, though he seldom played them in public.
If each of Arrau's recording was to receive a grade, say "A", "B", "C", etc., then his "grade point average" would probably be rather low, lower than those of the other nine pianists on this top 10 list and much lower than pianists like Perahia, Pollini, and other "reliable" pianists. This is because although he made some great recordings of Beethoven and Brahms or even Schumann, his inferior Chopin and Mozart would dramatically bring down the average. That is why many critics (particulalr American critics) have little respect for him. But if you look at his good side only, he should definitely be one of the 20th century's greatest pianists.
(Oct 1, 1903 - Nov 5, 1989)
He was probably the most famous pianist of the 20th century. His teachers included Sergei Tarnowsky (1882-1976) and Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931). He left Russia and went to the United States in 1925, and never returned to Russia until 1986, when he gave two sensational recitals there. The most unusual thing about his career is that there were four withdrawals from the concert stage: 1936-38, 1953-65, 1969-74, and 1983-1985. He began making piano roll recordings in 1926 and electrical ones in 1928. His complete commercial recordings (excluding piano rolls) have been released by EMI (3 CD's), APR (1 CD), RCA (23 CD's), SONY (16 CD's), and Deutsche Grammophon (6 CD's). Some private (NOT "pirate") recordings he made between 1945 and 1950 have been released as two RCA Red Seal CD's. I often find myself bragging about owning all these 49 CDs. Pirated broadcast recordings have been released by a number of labels like APR, AS Disc, Iron Needle, Music & Arts, Naxos, Palexa, Stradivarius, and The Radio Years.
Horowitz was, for me, the greatest pianist in the 20th century. He had a technique that could nearly equal Hofmann's (but in fact it's hard to compare them since each had his own strengths). His playing is always filled with variegated colors and all sorts of rhythmic and dynamic effects. His mind was more imaginative than anyone else's, and his performances always have uncountably many strokes of creativity. More importantly, he did not use these tools arbitrarily or superficially just to impress people. He had an intelligent mind and played with much insight, and his technical capabilities were simply means with which he achieved his musical goals. He was sometimes accused of being bombastic, but he "banged" the piano very differently from the way others bang. He created a sonority which no one else can create. Bolet, Wild, Bachauer, Argerich, Hamelin.....all of them can generate thunderous sounds, but none of them can make the kind of sound Horowitz made, because they didn't/don’t know as much about the instrument as Horowitz did. When he played with loud volumes, he did it much more thoughtfully than other virtuosos. He was not a musical "air head" at all. He blended pyrotechnic with intelligence. The integration of all the above results in performances that are always electrifying yet with the highest level of wisdom. These qualities have made him the most venerated pianist of the 20th century. His recordings are the most studied pianistic recordings in history, and I want to briefly discuss my favorite Horowitz recordings below.
Liszt-Busoni: Etude No.2 after Paganini (recorded Mar 4, 1930) This is what I consider the best recording made by the young Horowitz. This a-little-over-three-minute recording is thrilling from start to end. The single-note scales and chromatic scales played in interlocking octaves from the beginning to 1:25 are simply stunning. The evenness, clarity and rapidity are matchless. From 1:25 through 2:00, one can hear some breathtaking octaves. And the octaves seem to be getting faster and faster. He dropped many notes there, but that does not do any harm. From 2:00 till the end, again one can hear the fabulous scales. Besides this recording, Horowitz recorded only one other Liszt etude, namely Paganini Etude No.5 La chasse, which was actually just a "rejected take" and it was recently issued for the first time by Naxos (Instead of the more common and easier 1851 version, he played the harder 1838 version, although he simplied it quite a bit.). In his youth, he played several others as well, including La Campanella, Feux follets and Mazeppa. It is unfortunate that he did not record any of those.
Liszt: Funerailles (recorded Dec 19, 1950) There is a section (6:58 through 8:21) that is worth listening to ten thousand times. The octaves played with the left hand are hair-raising. Such excitement cannot be found in any recordings by any other pianists but can only be found in several other recordings of his own. I played the disc for my cousin, and after listening to it, his face almost turned white and he exclaimed, "He's crazy!"
Sousa-Horowitz: The Stars and Stripes Forever (recorded April 23, 1951) This is probably the noisiest piano recording in history, barely matched only by some of Arturo Toscanini's orchestral recordings (Toscanini was probably history’s noisiest conductor). Both hands are flying around the keyboard like crazy, and there are many big leaps throughout the 4-minute piece, but Horowitz's fingers were never daunted.
Liszt-Horowitz: Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (recorded Feb 25, 1953) He rewrote the "Friska" section (i.e. the second half of the piece) completely, while making only slight changes in the first half of the piece. It is a really ingenious arrangement. This, along with Josef Lhevinne's Schulz-Evler On the Beautiful Blue Danube, I would call the most dazzling music I have ever heard. The "Lassen" half may sound a little bombastic at certain places, but most people care only about the "Friska" half anyway. In "Friska", he played two themes, or even three themes toward the end, simultaneously, making it sound as if four hands were playing together. The complexity drives me crazy, because I cannot decide which voice to follow! Only Horowitz's playing can have such neurotic effects. I still can't believe how he could play that 8-measure section where the right hand plays some chromatic scale with fingers 1 and 2, while finger 5 plays the theme. He made the chromatic scale sound so legato and the staccato theme so clear, as if the scale and the theme were played by two hands. Volodos is the only other pianist who has recorded this transcription, and he is tens of notches below Horowitz, as far as technique and excitement are concerned.
Chopin: Scherzo No.3, Op.39 (recorded Jan 15, 1957) This is the best recording of this piece. When compared to this recording, Martha Argerich's famous 1961 version pales. The coda (5:53 through the end) is among the most electrifying performances in history. Notice his little use of the pedal in the coda. While other pianists rely heavily on the pedal, Horowitz's supreme technique allowed him to produce dazzling effects with fingers alone.
Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in E flat minor, Op.39 No.5 (recorded Apr/ May, 1962) His playing of any Rachmaninoff music is incomparable. When listening to it for the first time, I was so impressed by his dynamic playing that I immediately took out the Ashkenazy recording I already had for comparison. I just listened to the first measure and already concluded that Horowitz's playing was at least ten times better than Ashkenazy's. Horowitz's playing is so turbulent and has so much drive. Rachmaninoff himself did not record this piece, but I am sure even if he had, he still could not beat Horowitz in terms excitement. I generally prefer Horowitz's dramatic playing to Rachmaninoff's composed style.
Scriabin: Etude in D sharp minor, Op.8 No.12 (recorded either Nov or Dec, 1962) This is yet another insanely electrifying performance. He recorded this signature piece of his five times, and this particular one is the best. I have listened to it at least three hundred times since I bought the CD in Oct 1990. The inflection at around 0:37 is typical of Horowitz's performances and it defies description. The various sudden changes in volume and sudden pauses throughout the piece are all done so effectively. The heavy chords starting from 1:19 till the end are breathtaking. After listening to this performance, those by Berman, Richter and Barere immediately became garbage. Too bad this piece lasts only a little more than two minutes.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.8, Op.13 "Pathetique" (recorded Nov 4, 1963) This recording I would consider one of the biggest surprises in the history of the gramophone. Horowitz could play Beethoven so well! This performance is so good that it even equals Claudio Arrau's supreme recording made two months before Horowitz's. In the introduction of the first movement, Horowitz played with excess frivolity and I prefer Arrau's much heavier and deeper atmosphere. But then comes the main theme, where Horowitz's playing has as much drive and impulse as Arrau's (listen to both pianists' left hand!), and such characteristics are absent in the recordings of Schnabel, Backhaus, Kempff, Serkin and Brendel, who are all Beethoven specialists. The second movement is beautifully played, with a beautiful though occasionally too loud singing tone. My favorite spot of this movement is measures 27 through 29. He played the B flat in measure 27 loud enough and held it long enough so that the C note in measure 29 sounds like a continuation of the melodic line. That is incredible! The third movement is fantastic. He played with a melancholy tone, which I think is the proper way of playing this last movement. Most pianists play it too cheerfully. Arrau also played it with a melancholic atmosphere, perhaps even more so than did Horowitz. But Horowitz played with more subtlety and with a more beautiful tone. On the whole, both are equally good performances. Horowitz has proven to us that he could beat any Beethoven specialist. And he played a lot more Beethoven in private, including a Hammerklavier that totally blew Rudolf Serkin away.
Scarlatti: 2 Sonatas, K.466 (L.118) and K.481 (L.187) (recorded 1964) These are both tranquil pieces. Horowitz often scared people by his sonority, but he could impress people equally well in quiet pieces like these two. Here, one can hear how well he could control the strength of each note. When playing at such low volumes, it is extremely difficult to make the notes sound even, but he did just that, easily. A technique of such a transcendental level is incredible. The melodic lines sound so smooth, flowing and relaxing. He made many Scarlatti recordings throughout his entire career, from 1928 through 1986, but these two have impressed me the most. Those recordings made in his early years lack the sweetness and personality that can be heard here, while those he made at old age are often marred by too much mannerism and too much smearing due to pedaling.
Mozart: Sonata in A, K.331 (recorded April 17, 1966) I like this recording simply because it sounds fresh. I have been bored by the conventional playing of others. Here, Horowitz has introduced much Romanticism into his playing. The third movement, Rondo alla turca, is excellent. His slower than usual tempo is an effective one.
Liszt: Vallee d'Obermann (recorded Nov 1966) If someone wanted to purchase just one recording of Horowitz's, I would definitely recommend this one. Not that it is the best, but because all styles and characteristics of Horowitz's can be heard here. His magic touch, variegated tone, lyrical tranquillity, creativity, unique rubati, sonority, thunderous chords, hyper tension, exhilarating excitement, super fast octaves, all of them are there. One can even hear his ingenious changes of the notes at various spots, some of which he actually borrowed from an earlier edition by Liszt. By the way, I consider this one of Liszt's greatest pieces.
Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in D, Op.39 No.9 (recorded Nov 26, 1967) I do not have much to say about this one. It is just another showpiece tailored to Horowitz's electrifying style. Notice how many wrong notes he hit, but they do not matter at all. And, as usual, the audience went wild after the performance (it is a live recording).
Rachmaninoff: Polka V.R.. (recorded June 24, 1977) This recording is truly enjoyable. It is a highly exaggerated way of playing, but such exaggeration is appropriate for this particular piece. He is so musical, and he has brought out many inner voices that cannot be heard in the composer's own recording. Once again, Horowitz has beat the composer. At around 3:48, we can hear noises resembling laughter from the audience. I wonder what Horowitz did there. Making a funny face? Sticking out his tongue? Scratching his butt?
Rachmaninoff: Concerto No.3, Op.30 (recorded Jan 8, 1978) He made three (four, if you count the video recording with Mehta) commercial recordings of this piece, the other two times being done in 1930 and 1951. Most people like the 1930 and 1951 ones more and criticize this one for its mannerism and harsh tone. There is also a broadcast recording made in 1941 with Barbirolli, which is many people's favorite Rach 3 but I find it too showy and absurdly fast. But I love the 1978 performance the most because it is saturated with a melancholic and nostalgic feeling. Nearly all other pianists play this work as a showpiece, but in this recording Horowitz focused on its sentimentality, bringing tears to the listener's eyes. No one else plays with more emotional involvement. Actually, I also like his mannerisms and harsh tones, which have made the performance a very intriguing one. The wrong notes in the cadenza of the first movement are simply fantastic. When other pianists play wrong notes, they make the music sound like crap, but when Horowitz did the same, the music actually sounds better. This is a hallmark of a great musician. In fact, he admitted that he often played wrong notes purposely for musical reasons. And the various rhythmic effects and tempo variations have generated a hyper-neurotic effect. It is somewhat hard to imagine how the 74-year old Horowitz could play such a physically taxing work. One thing I want to point out is that the abnormally harsh sound heard here is the result of the technician's over-filing the hammers of the piano at the pianist's demand.
Liszt: Consolation No.3 (recorded April 22, 1979) This recording is marvelous. Once again, we can hear his exquisite magic touch. It has many strokes of creativity and is filled with the deepest passion. However, the audience coughed too much.
Rachmaninoff: Sonata No.2, Op.36 (recorded April 13, May 2,4,11, 1980) It is a miracle. He was already 76 years old when he gave this recital, but he was still able to give such a potent and energetic performance of this demanding piece. He had recorded this piece earlier in 1968, when he was twelve years younger, but the older Horowitz could, surprisingly, play with much more energy. His playing is very mannered, but the mannerism seems to be absolutely acceptable in this work. The third movement is incredible. Horowitz used a really ingenious trick at around 0:03 and 0:04 in this movement. There is an extra note of G flat that sounds like a clinker but actually he did it on purpose. It is so effective and exciting. Only he could make such a "mistake". In the steaming coda, one can hear the highest level of excitement. Once again, the crowd went crazy.
Chopin: Scherzo No.1, Op.20 (recorded April 21, 28, 30, 1985) This mad performance is superb. He used an abnormally slow tempo, which sounds much better than the fast tempi used by other pianists and by Horowitz himself in previous recordings. Many details just cannot be heard at fast tempi. He played with the utmost eccentricity, with a lot of wonderfully used accents in the left hand. There are also some unexpected pauses and inner voices. The several wrong notes, which probably were hit deliberately, at around 7:59 to 8:02 not only do not affect the performance adversely but actually added to the excitement. On the whole, it is a very demonic playing.
Schubert: Sonata in B flat major, D.960 (recorded Feb 10, 12, 14, 18, 28, Mar 4, 1986) This sonata is itself a rather redundant and lengthy piece, as are many other works by Schubert (his "Great" Symphony in particular). But the poetic pianist, using his variegated palette of colors and dynamics, has successfully converted it into a highly intriguing piece. Even the originally redundant-sounding 5-minute repeat at the beginning of the first movement now sounds indispensable. It is one of the most listened-to Schubert CDs in my collection.
Chopin: Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.30 No.4 (recorded April 20, 1986) This is on the “Horowitz in Moscow” CD, and I consider this the best Mazurka recording Horowitz ever made. His highly exaggerated playing has some sort of mysteriousness in it. The gradual crescendo starting at around 1:35 that leads to the climax at 1:45 is wonderfully done. This performance is certainly superior to Artur Rubinstein's "authoritative" recording, which sounds uninteresting and too plain. However, on the whole, Rubinstein was better at playing Chopin's Mazurkas than Horowitz.
Scriabin: Etude in C sharp minor, Op.2 No.1 (recorded April 20, 1986) Also on the “Horowitz in Moscow” CD, this is probably the most quiet piano recording in history. Many notes are just barely audible. He played with a lot of sentimentality. It is not easy to find playing with such emotional effectiveness.
Wagner-Liszt: Isolde's Liebestod (recorded October 25, 27, Nov 1, 1989) It took the legendary pianist three separate days to record this piece. He died four days after completing the recording. One can rarely hear music of such beauty. It is filled with deep passion. There are, just like many other recordings he had made previously, a lot of different colors and tempi. But listening to this recording makes one feel that finally the maestro has completely mastered and understood the secrets of when to and how to use such color and tempo changes. He had been using them very well for decades, but he had never been able to reach perfection. Sometimes there was too much indulgence, and at other times there was unnecessary exaggeration. After almost eight decades of continual experimentation and improvement, however, he finally reached perfection, and this I would consider to be Vladimir Horowitz’s very best recording.
(Mar 20, 1915 - Aug 1, 1997)
He started his career unusually late. He made his debut at age 19, and entered the Moscow Conservatory at age 27. His teacher was Heinrich Neuhaus (1888 - 1964). Another thing unusual about Richter is that he seldom used Steinway pianos, but preferred Yamaha instead. He died when the first draft of this article was being written. His earliest recording was made in 1948. A critic once jokingly said that collectors of Richter’s recordings must be the “richest people in the world”, which may indeed be true because there are so many of them, on so many labels! Of course, only a small portion of these are commercial recordings, and the rest are all pirated recordings of his live performances.
His huge discography includes large chunks of Bach: The Well-tempered Klavier, English Suites, French Suites, Italian Concerto, Piano concerti, etc. The Bach style I like is one which is relaxing (like Tureck's or Perahia’s) or has an articulate tone (like Gould's). Richter's playing, however, somehow stresses me out and therefore is not my favorite Bach playing.
He recorded about half of Beethoven's 32 sonatas. The two I really like are his 1959 (on a Melodiya CD) and 1960 (RCA) recordings of the Appassionata Sonata. They are essentially the same in concept: both are filled with the utmost tension and effective volume and tempo contrasts, though they demonstrate an obvious lack of passion. The 1960 studio recording was the first one I listened to and I thought it had already reached the highest level of excitement that could possibly be achieved by humans. The first movement is energetic, and the third movement is incredibly fast, especially in the coda. But don't make any judgment until you have listened to the live recording made a year earlier on Melodiya. In the heat of battle on stage, he played even more wildly, and the third movement is even faster (by about 10 seconds) and more steaming. Even though he was playing so fast, there were few wrong notes in this unedited recording, indicating a superb technique. Such a breathtaking playing is extremely rare on records. However, the 1959 recording is mono, with a lot of hiss and a poor clarity. He recorded the same sonata again in 1992 (Philips), also live from a concert, and the tempo became much slower and there was much less intensity. Also, it is apparent that his technique had declined much, with many sloppy passage works. Passion was still lacking, and the lifeless slow movement sounds never-ending. The other sonatas he recorded are mostly characterized by an uncomfortable style. Maybe there is nothing wrong with him, but I just have been accustomed to the styles of Arrau, Backhaus and Gilels.
He was fond of Schubert's works, and he played them nicely. His recordings of the sonatas are exquisitely charming. He had a tendency to use slow tempi. For instance, in a 1964 live recording on AS Disc of the B flat sonata (D960), he took the first movement at 25 minutes and a half, and the first movement of Sonata D894 on Philps lasts over 26 minutes!!! Even Arrau finished it in 18 minutes in his "final sessions". (Only a Pogorelich would dare play it any slower than that!). Even so, none of his Schubert recordings are boring. Rather, his playing is revelatory and is always communicative and spellbinding. For example, the first movement of the D894 has many chords that last for a few seconds, and the slow tempo he used allows the listener to hear how these chords fade. It is an interesting effect that you cannot hear in other pianists' versions, because they play too fast. The live recording of Sonata D.664 on Melodiya is probably the best. It is so graceful, sweet and lyrical, with a lot of subtle feeling. He had an excellent control of the volume of every note, and fortissimo chords were played in a way suitable for Schubert's style. There is no mannerism, which is omnipresent in Horowitz's playing. I have often found Schubert's piano sonatas boring, but Richter has made all of them sound interesting. His EMI recording of the Wanderer's Fantasy is also a classic.
His true genius, however, is found in his Schumann. In fact, when I first heard Richter, it was his Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven that I listened to, which are all mediocre or sometimes even below-average performances. I wondered why he had so many fans. Only after I had heard his Schumann could I understand why he could have become such a renowned pianist. He is simply magnetizing. It is even better than his Schubert, probably due to the nature of Schumann's works themselves: the wider array of styles and emotional elements provide more room and opportunities for Richter to fully demonstrate his creativity and ingenuity. Listening to his Schumann makes one feel that Schumann's works are the greatest compositions ever composed for the piano. His live recording made in 1994 of the Fantasy in C is to me his greatest Schumann recording (Philips). It is stunningly attractive and thrilling all along. There is not a single moment of boredom. There is plenty of subtle and true feeling (which makes a sharp contrast with his soulless performance of Appassionata). There are quite a few wrong notes in the difficult coda of the second movement, but keep in mind that it is an unedited live recording and he was already 79. His EMI studio recording of this piece made in the 60s is good though not as good. His Humoreske, Op.20 on Melodiya is enchanting, dynamic, and full of creative ideas. A supreme technique is manifest. When he became sonorous, he could reach Horowitz's level. TheSymphonic Etudes from his 1971 Salzburg recital is also fascinating. It has so much drive and vitality, and he projected his emotions so effectively. It is impossible to cite several particularly impressive passages, because he played so well throughout each work, and because he was a pianist most concerned with the big picture of a work, unlike detail-oriented pianists like Horowitz and Cziffra. I strongly encourage everyone to listen to Richter's Schumann recordings while looking at the score. And you must listen with utmost attention, so that you can pick up all of the magical subtlety in his fascinating playing. I have never heard a better Schumann interpreter. I also have his not-so-easy-to-find 1958 live recording of the Toccata in C (AS Disc) and am awestruck by it. The fastest performance on record of this fiendishly difficult piece is Simon Barere's legendary 1937 recording, in which he finished it in 4 minutes and 17 seconds (without the repeat). Richter took the repeat, but hadn't he done that, he would have been a mere 10 seconds slower than Barere. But Richter clearly had a better control of his fingers, and he played with far fewer wrong notes (notice that both recordings are unedited and so the comparison is fair). Also, Barere would speed up during the easier sections, enabling him to finish the piece sooner, but Richer did not cheat like that. In conclusion, I believe Richter was the better technician.
His excellent 1960 RCA recording of Brahms' Piano Concerto No.2 with Erich Leinsdorf and Chicago Symphony Orchestra is breathtaking indeed. Here, the fine accompaniment by Leinsdorf and the orchestra made significant contribution to the success of the performance. In the Paganini Variations on Philips, we can hear that the 79-year-old Richter was still more than competent to tackle the formidable work. It is a powerful performance with some effectively used "banging". There are many wrong notes. Some of them are merely careless mistakes which could easily be avoided even by gifted amateurs, but he just did not care too much about wrong notes.
His Chopin is in general just average. His live recording (1988, Philips) of some of the etudes (he never played all of them because he did not like them all) sounds interesting. The apparent struggle with which he played Op.10 No.1 is intriguing, and he played Op.10 No.4 with a tempo so fast that even he could not comfortably handle and that makes it sound even more exciting. However, Op.10 No.11 was played too fast and too loud. In fact, nearly every pianist has that problem. Arrau's slow and mp playing of this etude has always been the model performance in my mind. The 1977 studio recording of the four Scherzos on Olympia are reasonably played with a beautiful sound and impeccable technique, though they are not passionate enough.
His Liszt is overrated. In the Liszt set from the "Authorised Edition" on Philips, the recording of the Sonata in B minor has excitement, but the kind of magical spell found in his Schubert and Schumann is absent. He just sounds aimless, failing to put all the fragments in this work tightly together. His tempi also often sound "wrong". For instance, he did not slow down at the appropriate places to let the music breathe, and as a result the listener is left breathless too. His 1966 live recording of the same work on a Historical Performers CD is not much better. His Hungarian Rhapsody No.17, Polonaise No.2, etc., also disappoint, especially if one has heard his Schumann. It sounds like a mismatch of styles. On the whole, his Liszt seems to be musically problematic. However, I concede that it is fun to listen to his 1988 live recording (from the same CD set) of Etudes d'execution transcendante (he played only 8 of them because, once again, he did not like all twelve). It is not a good interpretation, but his unique (and WILD!!!!) style and all those myriads of wrong notes (No.2 and No.8 in particular) have made it special. Even the opening octave in No.7 is unclean. To him, playing wrong notes did not matter that much. If a piece should be played fast, he would play it fast even though it means he would have to sacrifice accuracy. He never compromised. This is something I really appreciate. I have also listened to his 1954 live recording of Concerto No.1 (Music & Arts), with Karel Ancerl conducting. The tempi are weird, and fireworks are used inappropriately, though one can hear a phenomenal technique in this highly virtuosic performance. However, I am conquered by his Liszt Concerti on Philips, which are truly impressive performances. Technically fabulous, and musically more "normal".
His idiosyncratic style often does not work well in Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky either. His 1960 Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto with Wislocki on DG, while being many people's favorite version, is in my opinion one of his not-so-good recordings. It has a lot of power, but I find his stuffiness and weird tempi irritating. Just listen to the first theme in the first movement. It's so slow! This concerto was much better played by Rubinstein (very masculine) and Cliburn (very lyrical). His recordings of some of the Etudes-Tableaux and the preludes are in general better. There is an unusual kind of authority and determination in his playing. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No.1 with Mravinsky (Music & Arts) is also quite good. It is full of virtuosity, and the tempi are different from all others'. He often used a strict tempo when all others would use ritardando, or he would use rubati that cannot be found in any other performances. One can already hear a lot of differences in the opening 3 and a half minutes. Such differences, unlike those in the Rach 2, seem to work pretty well. However, the recording with Karajan on DG is bad, even worse than the Rach 2. This results in part from Karajan's lackluster accompaniment.
No one should miss the recording of his recital in Sofia, Bulgaria. It has the mightiest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. This performance tells us many things about his art. He used strict tempo most of the time, making the occasional ritardando or pauses more effective, whether you like them or not. In this piece there are many chances for emotional display, but Richter seems to eschew all sentimentality deliberately. "Castello" couldn't be more unpassioned. "Bydlo" was played with overwhelming strength. He ended "Market-place" with an almost impossible high speed! He was uncompromising and blazing in "Baba-Yaga". He started "Gate of Kiev" with a subdued volume (around the mp level), showing once again how unique his interpretation was. Rather than letting his power break loose at the start, he conjured up his mighty force gradually. He was equally great in the two Schubert impromptus (Op.90 Nos.2 and 4). In these pieces we hear Richter the fine miniaturist. He sings in the middle sections of both pieces. The slight pause at 3 min 39 sec in the Op.90 No.2 is truly ingenious (Lipatti also did that, if my memory serves me right). The natural feeling and light touch in the No.4 are fascinating. He was able to capture the sadness of the piece. However, he was way too fast in Liszt's Feux follets (I am sure Leslie Howard would have made a similar complaint), and doesn't sound "right" in the Harmonies du soire. As I said, he wasn't that good at Liszt.
He played some of the best Prokofiev in history. His playing was forceful yet not percussive, and he had the rhythm. I like his Prokofiev more than Horowitz's exaggerated, often brittle sound. The "Richter 1" set from the Philips Great Pianists series, containing the above-mentioned Sofia recital and three Prokofiev sonatas (6, 7, and 8), is one of the most worthy to get sets in the series.
Finally, the Parnassus label has released some of Richter's earliest live recordings (1952 to 1958) in three 2-CD volumes. The sound qualities of these recordings range from decent to awful, but for those who want to seriously study the great pianist's art, these CDs are indispensable. Volume 1 has some interesting Prokofiev "Cinderella" transcriptions, an excellent Tchaikovsky Sonata in G which he played with such aplomb, and a bunch of Rachmaninoff preludes that are as good as those he recorded later for Olympia although he took more chances in these live performances. Volume 2 has another recording of thePictures at an Exhibition, which is smaller in scope than the Sofia performance, and the various "Promenades" sound rushed, but the playing is more precise. It also has a few more of his incomparable Schumann (Variations on A-B-E-G-G, 3 Fantasiestucke, and Humoreske), a few Scriabin pieces that are not sensuous enough, and a so-so Tchaikovsky Concerto #1. Volume 3 should be the most interesting for Richter fans, for it contains quite a few pieces new to Richter's discography. The Pelerinage pieces (four of them are new) are emotionally detached, whereas Venezia e Napoli (also new) is, as expected, very virtuosic. Also in the set are a fine Beethoven Pathetique (Richter's only live performance of the sonata), an admirable Weber Sonata #3, and some rather boring playing in 5 Ravel pieces, including his only performance of Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit.
(Oct 19, 1916 - Oct 14, 1985)
Yet another Russian on this list! Gilels studied with Berthe Ringold and Heinrich Neuhaus. He made his first recording in 1934. He beat the 4-year-younger Michelangeli at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 1938, where he took first prize and Michelangeli came seventh. He first appeared in the United States in October 1955, which was the first time a Russian musician was allowed to appear in the United States since Prokofiev's American tour in 1921. The Americans went crazy over him, but the very modest pianist said, "Wait until you hear Richter."
His Beethoven sonatas on DG never fail to amaze me. I am so carried away by his aristocratic style, thorough understanding of the architecture, immaculate technique, wide variety of tone and dynamics, and overall gorgeous symphonic sound. It is a pity that he died before all 32 sonatas had been recorded. If he had finished the cycle, this probably would have become the best cycle, even better than Schnabel's, Backhaus' and Arrau's. His magnificent accounts of the Brahms concertos (1972 with Jochum on DG) are also justly famous. The ravishingly polished tone is rarely heard on record. Everything is logically planned. Loud and quiet sections are carefully balanced. His tempi tend to be on the slow side, but rather than sounding sluggish, they give a sense of grandeur and dignity. He is meditative and profound in the slow movements. Although I like Rudolf Serkin's and Artur Rubinstein's adrenaline-pumping renditions of the 1st Concerto a little more, in the 2nd Concerto Gilels is pretty much matchless. He also recorded the 2nd Concerto with Reiner in 1958, which is much faster (44 min 50 sec versus 51 min 40 sec) and much more exciting (both Gilels and the Chicago Sym Orch are very violent!!!). I love this performance too, but it would be even better if it had more depth. He was equally great in the Liszt Sonata, which is without doubt one of the best versions. It is strong, intelligent, well-balanced and technically perfect, and introspective in the quiet sections. Also unmissable is his majestic, dynamic and fascinating Schubert Sonata D 850. Both of them are on an RCA Living Stereo CD. Yet another widely praised disc of his contains 20 of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, on DG. His extraordinary tonal control is, as usual, very impressive, although in my opinion he is emotionally somewhat removed.
However, he seems to be not always successful in the Russian repertoire. I have a disappointing Bianco e Nero set of him playing solo piano pieces by Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Medtner and Stravinsky. In these live performances dating from 1950 to 1968, he sounds too classical and square in the Scriabin (Sonatas #3 and 4, Etude Op.2 No.1 and Preludes Op.74), plain and not Romantic enough in the Rachmaninoff (Daisies, Vocalise, 6 Preludes and Moment Musical Op.16 No.5) and Medtner (Sonata Reminicenza and Sonata #3), and the Stravinsky Petrushka Suite lacks drama. The same goes for his objective, emotionally restrained reading of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto (1955) on Testament (But please do give it a try if you don't already have this version. Many critics like it and you may too. Another reason to get this CD is that it also has a well-done Saint-Saens Second Concerto recorded in 1954.). Therefore, just because he was Russian doesn't mean he would excel in Russian music.
His Tchaikovsky First Concerto, however, **is** good. He recorded it over ten times, and the Oct 1955 recording with Reiner on RCA Living Stereo is generally considered to be the best. The most appealing aspect of his playing is his sturdy and muscular sound. It is interesting to note that the tricky measure that appears four times in the middle of the second movement, at 3:43, 3:46, 4:38 and 4:41 on the CD (it is the measure right after the ascending chromatic scales), he messed up ALL FOUR of them. Even more interesting, the same is also true for his 1945/46 version with Golovanoff (on Dante), his March 1971 live recording with Mravinsky (on both Leningrad Masters and Russian Disc) and another live recording from the 1980s with Zubin Mehta on Sony Essential (although in the last case, you have to listen more carefully because the echoic acoustics of the recording has made the mistakes less noticeable)! Gilels, like his compatriot Richter, was never a note-perfect pianist. Besides the Tchaikovsky 1st, his 2nd Concerto with Kondrashin on Dante (slightly better than the later one with Maazel) is also good, and so are his Prokofiev recordings, which used to be hard to find but are now available on Philips.
For those who think that Gilels was always controlled and careful will be very surprised by his mad-dog live performance of Beethoven's Appassionata recorded in 1954 on Multisonic. He played with such hair-raising velocity in the third movement (4 min 13 sec without the repeat)! Much much faster than Richter's Melodiya and RCA recordings and Gieseking's. This whirlwind third movement is probably the fastest ever recorded, yet every note is clear. The other recordings (all of them live) on the same CD are equally noteworthy. His Haydn Sonata Hob XVI/20 (1962) is exquisite and intimate. The Chopin Second Sonata (1954) is excellent, especially the first movement, which has the most moving second subject in the exposition and recapitulation I have ever heard. And he finished the fourth movement in just 1 min 3 sec! (For your info, the crazy guy Lazar Berman finished it in 50 seconds, while Wilhelm Kempff took it at 1 min 45 sec.) And he was quite imaginative and "impressionistic" in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales (1958). I strongly urge everyone to get this great CD. The catalog number is 310091-2. Another wonderful Chopin performance by Gilels is the 1st Concerto with Ormandy on Sony. The treatment of the section in the first movement that starts at 5 min 9 sec is absolutely wonderful, where he slowed down the tempo and used a calm, suppressed sound. Finally, I recommend his Busoni/Liszt Fantasy on Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, which is an incredibly virtuosic performance from the 1930s.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
(Jan 5, 1920 - June 12, 1995)
Critics often called him "the Italian Liszt." He studied with Giovanni Maria Anfossi at the Milan Conservatory from age ten to thirteen. He never studied with any other teachers after that. His father did not want him to study music, and Michelangeli was forced to study medicine for several years. Of course, he later returned to music. He was famous for his eccentric personality and frequent cancellations of concerts. He made his first recording in 1939. His repertoire was unusually small, but because there are so many (often more than 5) recorded versions of each piece, his discography is actually quite bfor another collector's Michelangeli discography page.
Michelangeli was a super virtuoso. His flawless technique allowed him to have total control of the volume and tone of each and every note. He never struck any key arbitrarily. Each note must have a perfect sound. In fact, the sound of his performance has fewer blemishes than any other pianists I have heard so far. His unedited live recordings often sound more perfect than the edited studio recordings of others'. However, he paid most of his attention to the microscopic elements and less to the macroscopic picture of a piece. As a result, the music he played, though filled with beautiful details, could often be seriously disorganized and distorted. But when he was in shape, he was incomparable.
Among his great recordings, the most impressive one is his Brahms Variations on a Theme by Paganini. His studio recording (on an EMI CD) and a 1955 live recording (on a Melodram CD) are both incomparable, ultra demonic performances. Though it is an extremely difficult work, his playing is absolutely effortless. He treated it as a sheer etude. One rarely hears such stunning virtuosity. Horowitz never recorded this piece, but he used to play it in his thirties. I doubt he had ever achieved Michelangeli's transcendental level. Many pianists play these variations in orders of their own choice, but Michelangeli's sequence is the most unusual: theme of Book I through variation 12, Book II variations 1 and 2, 5 through 8, 10 through 13, 3 and 4, and then back to Book I variation 13 and concluding with the Presto ma non troppo after variation 14 of Book I. In other words, he skipped three variations, which are definitely not the more difficult ones.
His Debussy is also fantastic. I have listened to Preludes 1er Livre, Images I and II, and Children's Corner, on DG and a few other labels. To play Debussy well, the pianist must be able to apply an ever-changing variety of colors, much like a kaleidoscope. This is exactly what Michelangeli could do best. He was a superb colorist. His incomparable technique allowed him to precisely control the volume and color of the music. There is also a lot of feeling, all of which is the kind appropriate for Debussy's music (as discussed below, very often his "feeling" can sound bizarre). However, I still have to admit that Walter Gieseking was even more creative and his playing sounds more natural. Michelangeli's hyper-restraint sacrifices some spontaneity. On the other hand, his perfect technique allowed him to produce an immaculate sound which is much more beautiful than that of Gieseking's. I would consider it a standoff between the two great pianists.
The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.4 he recorded in 1957 with Ettore Gracis conducting Philharmonia Orchestra is another great performance. It is a rather poorly written piece, and I had never imagined that it could be played so well until I heard Michelangeli. One hears the highest degree of excitement and virtuosity. Climaxes are overwhelming. Espressivo passages are played with a gorgeous lyrical tone. The orchestra also played with a wide range of dynamics. I was looking at the music while listening to the recording, and realized that he was very faithful to the text. On the same CD can be found his Ravel Concerto in G major, recorded in the same year and with the same conductor and orchestra. It is much the same as his Rachmaninoff: highly charged with virtuosity and excitement. However, there is a little something that annoys me a bit. In the slow movement, he played most of the notes in the right hand a few milliseconds after the left hand. It is good if that was done only occasionally, but it is rather irritating when he did it throughout the entire movement.
He has left several good Beethoven discs too. I like his Concerti Nos.1, 3 and 5, as well as Piano Sonata No.3. The concerti are played with the most beautiful and polished sound possible, particularly in the slow movements. His expression of feeling communicate much more effectively with the listener than do those in his Mozart or Chopin, which will be discussed below. There are many of the unique traits of his playing, such as unexpected piano subito and unexpected ending of phrases, but they are all acceptable here. His technique is, as usual, matchless: trills could not have been played more evenly, and arpeggios could not have been played more smoothly. Please pay attention to the cadenza in the 1st mvt of Beethoven's 3rd Concerto. It's the best performance I have heard. No one can sing out the melodies shortly before the stormy triplets portion better than he. And his ability to control different voices is unmatched. In the same place, he plays the trills underneath the melodic line as staccato, and the effect is awesome! The orchestra, Wiener Symphoniker under Carlo Maria Giulini, is equally superb. Sonata No.3 is a virtuosic work written during the composer's early years. Michelangeli loved this sonata and several of his recordings exist. Michelangeli used a rather straightforward approach, with much understanding and a breathtaking virtuosity. I have seen reviews giving positive comments about his recording of Sonata No.4, but unfortunately I have not listened to it closely yet. His Sonata No.32, the second movement of which he played too freely, is less satisfactory, although the virtuosic first movement is astounding.
Bach-Busoni's Chaconne was Michelangeli's favorite and he played it with a grand, powerful style. The balance between the quiet and loud passages was done perfectly. He also made an impressive recording of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. When I listened to his recording, it was the first time I had ever listened to this piece and so I had no others to compare it to. Nevertheless, I was again stunned by his virtuosity and perfect control of the dynamics. (These few lines were written in around April 1997, and since then I have listened to several other versions. I will compare them in the future)
There is an interesting 2-CD set on Testament that has a 32-minute recording of a sound check before a recital, where he tried out fragments from several Debussy and Schumann pieces. In my opinion, this contains Michelangeli's most awe-inspiring performances. The virtuosity, the sweep, the precision, the perfect volume control, and the sensitivity, all of them are of the highest order. The same set also has the recording of the actual recital. I listened to the sound check first, and when I listened to the recital afterwards, I was a little disappointed. Many of Michelangeli's close friends said that he played the best when he was playing for a few people in private or when he was practicing. This Testament recording is a good testament indeed!
The above are the great recordings he made. He made quite a few inferior recordings as well. His technique is always perfect; it is his problematic interpretation that has made them poor performances. His Chopin Mazurkas and Waltzes could not have been worse. The expression is contrived, sounds dreadfully uncomfortable, and is nauseating to this listener, though the Maestro apparently enjoyed it very much (listen to his heavy breathing). The dance elements are lost. The music sounds disjointed. Not only he purposely played the right hand slightly later than the left hand in an obnoxious manner, he also used very slow tempi, and his playing has no life at all. His Ballade No.1 on DG is equally bad. He often held back all of a sudden for no good reason. He also emphasized certain rhythms in an annoying fashion. The only thing in this performance that I like is the coda: the solid grasp with which he played the tricky right-hand notes and the scales which leap out at the listener are awesome. (However, I have a pirate recording of him playing this ballade, on Ermitage, that is totally different. It's the greatest performance of the piece, at least much better than Horowitz’s, with breathtaking virtuosity and the coda is faster than in his DG recording. There is a part in the middle of the piece where his uses some incredibly marvelous phrasing in the left-hand octaves.) His Schumann Carnaval on EMI likewise has numerous problems. He is not playful enough in many pieces, and his treatment is sometimes too grandiose and brilliant. There is a serious lack of spontaneity. The mood is often "wrong". For instance, "Chiarina" is supposed to be a slightly mournful piece, but his playing sounds heroic and victorious. The Schumann concerto (with Witold Rowicki) is also bad. His Mozart Concerto No.20, recorded on Dec 15 1951 with Giulini, is a disaster. The myriads of tempo fluctuations, volume changes and accents are all whimsical and are of the poorest taste. The slow, lovely movement now sounds 100% dry, and the middle section now sounds like a Czerny study. I have his DG recordings of 4 Mozart concertos. I haven't listened to them yet, but I have seen a review saying that these were the worst Mozart in years.
I have noticed a sharp contrast between Michelangeli and his student, Martha Argerich. Both have inhuman techniques, but Michelangeli never displayed his technique by playing loud or fast. He was never a showy technician, but his technique was so great that there is no way he could cover it up. His virtuosity is one of the most phenomenal in the century. Argerich, on the other hand, always makes sure people hear her technical talent by playing as loud and as fast as she can (please listen to the beginning of her Rach3 third movement, where her speed goes off scale and she plays p as fff). I think she plays better when she plays more like a "normal" person. I like Argerich more when she is NOT trying to break the world record. Michelangeli and Argerich are two very different virtuosos.
What about a comparison with Horowitz? I believe technique-wise he is better than Horowitz. Some people will think otherwise, but in my humble opinion we are often "duped" by Horowitz's showy style. Horowitz's goal was to wow the listeners, but Michelangeli's major concern was a beautiful sound rather than scaring people with his technique.