Philips’ ‘Great Pianists’ Series Is a Piano Junkie’s Dream

Except for the Norwegians in Carnegie Hall the other night, I doubt whether there were more than a dozen people in the audience who had ever said the name Leif Ove Andsnes out loud. And yet there we were, several thousand strong, drawn to the Carnegie debut of a highly touted but little-heard Norwegian pianist with the same helplessness that brings out a certain breed of female for the unveiling of a buzzy young designer’s new frocks, farther south on Seventh Avenue. We were pianist victims.

Mr. Andsnes turned out to be a young, entirely unassuming fellow, who showed strength and daring in a program that went right to the source of our addiction: three pieces by the greatest of composing pianists, Franz Liszt, and a fiercely individualistic masterwork, the First Sonata, by Robert Schumann. In between, Mr. Andsnes asserted his Scandinavian roots with a neo-Baroque pastiche, “Chaconne,” by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. At the end, if the general verdict seemed to be “impressively promising” rather than “wow,” everyone went home satisfied to have witnessed a milestone in a career that might one day attain the stature of Alfred Brendel’s.

What is it about classical pianists that arouses so much fervor on the part of people who seem to belong to the more buttoned-up segments of the world’s population? Partly it’s nostalgia for lost youth. Many of us first experienced the miracle of a melody’s emerging from little black dots on a page at our living room pianos, and our earliest Walter Mitty fantasy lay in imagining our hands and hair flying, stunning thousands with Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Then, there’s the music itself. We are still in thrall to the masterpieces that came out of Europe in the 200-odd years between Bach and Stravinsky.

But the cult of pianism has maintained its grip most powerfully through the brilliant performers, from Liszt on, who have found in the piano’s immense alternative reality the most challenging opportunity for musical interpretation. Although it’s fashionable to declare that we are in a time when the composer has regained prominence over the interpreter, recent events remind me that we’re still in the Age of Liszt, that Elvis of the 19th century who established the solo piano recital as an occasion for delirium.

One reminder was the sold-out series at the Walter Reade Theater featuring great 20th-century pianists on film, from Ignaz Jan Paderewski to Oscar Peterson. The highlight of the event was Richter: The Enigma , Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary about the colossal postwar Russian pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, which has just been commercially released (NVC Arts/Atlantic 23029-3). This beautifully assembled fresco of rare concert footage and interviews, including those with the famously elusive pianist shortly before he died in 1997, left the audience shattered by its portrait of a man whose quixotic commitment to his art in the face of Dostoyevskean obstacles was both triumphant and, in the end, tragic in its failure to erase what he called “unbearable memories.” After seeing Richter, bleak and wizened at 80, it was shocking to be greeted, a few programs later, by the epicurean visage of Artur Rubinstein in his 90′s, reminiscing about his century of fine wine, fine women, fine cigars and fine music-making.

Such tales of parallel pursuits leading to starkly different ends haunt an event that marks the highest achievement of the CD revolution. Ever since last fall, when Philips Classics began sending out review copies of its monumental “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series, I have been in that state of adolescent giddiness known only to the true piano junkie. Chosen by executive producer Tom Deacon and a panel of management and marketing people in the Polygram labels of Philips, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, the series (100 releases in all) draws not only on their archives but on those of EMI Classics, Sony Classics, Teldec and other, more obscure sources of recorded gems.

In saluting 72 pianists, the series reaches back to figures, like Paderewski, who were born before the death of Liszt in 1886 and extends to Evgeny Kissin, who was born in 1971. It includes the most obvious names-Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter, Emil Gilels, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff and Brendel, each of whom is pantheonized by three albums devoted to their artistry. And it resurrects a handful of lesser-known and forgotten pianists: Ivan Moravec, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Nelson Freire, Nikita Magaloff and Maria Yudina. (The Yudina set arrived shrink-wrapped with the wonderful selling line: “Stalin’s favorite pianist.” But inevitably the selection is puzzlingly incomplete.

Connoisseurs of Olympian stylists will deplore the absence of Ferruccio Busoni’s greatest pupil, Egon Petri. Lovers of refined romanticism will wonder, Whatever happened to Harold Bauer and Mieczyslaw Horszowski? Admirers of womanly individualism will miss Wanda Landowska, Annie Fischer and Maria Tipo. My fellow Americans have good reason to feel slighted by the Eurocentric omission of such native-born, middle-aged masters as Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, Emmanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson. And why was one of the century’s greatest composers, as well as one of its most original pianists-Bela Bartok-left out in the cold?

When I put these questions to Mr. Deacon, he emphasized that the series is not called ” The Great Pianists.” Two questions were asked of the candidates: Did they have an international career and would their recordings “sell in Taipei”? The choice of repertory, he said, was, for the most part, his own.

Although the series abounds in marvelous obscurities-for example, Glenn Gould’s de-mothballing of Bizet’s “Variations chromatiques” and Jorge Bolet’s romp through Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture-the repertory is unsurprising: gobs of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven and Schumann; solid helpings of Bach and Mozart; spottier samplings of Haydn and Schubert; the splashy Russians (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky), the glittering French (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc), and precious little from the archmodernists (a smattering of Webern, Bartok and Berg) or the Americans (decent Gershwin, one Copland, two Rorems, no Ives, Carter, Cage, Feldman or Perle).

But I’m not really complaining. The wealth of overlapping material encourages a CD buff’s favorite sport: comparative listening. Hearing four versions of Chopin’s beautiful Barcarolle in F sharp, by pianists whose years of birth range from 1890 (Benno Moiseiwitsch) to 1911 (Shura Cherkassky) to 1930 (Moravec) to 1937 (Vladimir Ashkenazy) is to be fascinated by the subtle differences in their approaches to this masterpiece of tone-painting. In Moiseiwitsch’s nonchalant hands the eight minutes fly by like a ghost glimpsed at the window. Cherkassky makes you aware of all the inner colorings brought out by the play of light on the waves. With Mr. Moravec, who has the most exacting sense of pianissimo in the business, you bask in eternal twilight. Mr. Ashkenazy relaxes you with the sheer “rightness” of his Chopin.

You can absorb the history of how pianistic taste has changed merely by comparing Paderewski’s indulgent 1926 account of Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat, D935, No. 2, all rolling chords and wistfulness, with the rigorously contained romanticism of Clifford Curzon’s 1952 reading of the same piece. It’s a matchup that makes you think about the Pyrrhic victory of seriousness in the second half of the century. The sense of virtuoso playing as sheer fun vanishes as we approach the Age of Kissin.

The series offers a field day for reassessments. I had found the icy perfection of the Bulgarian technician Alexis Weissenberg faintly repellent, but I was blown away by the magisterial delicacy of his polymathic program, which ranges from Scarlatti to Stravinsky. An especially magical resurrection is Rosalyn Tureck’s legendary set of Bach’s Partitas from EMI in the 1950′s. The album devoted to the most influential Bach pianist of our time, Glenn Gould, contains no Bach at all, astutely revealing his quirky musicianship in an odd assortment that includes antique miniatures by William Byrd and a deeply felt Fantasia (Prelude) and Fugue in C by the composer whom Gould professed to despise: Mozart. The tragedy of two brilliant careers cut short by physical impairments-those of Byron Janis and Leon Fleisher-becomes all the more poignant when you hear the gusto with which these two young American powerhouses took on the Europeans in the 50′s.

Ultimately, one is tempted to play the game of naming the Five or 10 Greatest Pianists. Here’s my menu:

Let’s begin with the father of modern pianism, Sergei Rachmaninoff, whom Stravinsky called “a 6-foot scowl,” playing his own pianistically enhanced version of Bach’s joyous Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue, from the Violin Partita No. 3. It’s an irresistible awakening to the piano’s capacities for dance, distribution of light and shade, and playfulness. To reinforce the theme of historical connections, and at the same time open up the piano’s palette of colors, bring on Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in his sumptuously cool playing of Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau.” Next, the most beloved of Romantic concertos-Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor-performed with matchless virility and elegance by the most Keatsian of pianists, Dinu Lipatti, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

After an intermission, step up to Beethoven with Artur Schnabel’s incomparable reading of the “Waldstein” Sonata-first windswept, then stilled to a life-changing “Adagio molto,” and finally released by a “Prestissimo” that arrives as a breathtaking benediction. Follow this with the Beethoven-like figure of Richter playing Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata with a torrential force that subsides to a heart-stopping sense of desolation before going out with a fireworks display of Russian jazz. For the culminating work, put on one of the series’ great surprises: the all-but-forgotten American pianist Julius Katchen, who died at 43 in 1969, in what must be the most exultant performance on disk of Brahms’ Piano Sonata in F minor-a triumphant depiction of how, in Clara Schumann’s words, the “eagle has spread his wings.”

Encores? Chopin must be heard-which calls for the century’s compleat Chopinist, Alfred Cortot, in the Étude No. 7, in C sharp minor, from Opus 25, featuring the French master’s operatic sonorities in all their crafty opulence. Next, a real stunner: Weissenberg’s transformation of a tour-de-force miniature-Scriabin’s Nocturne in D flat “for the left hand”-into a profound epic of legato narrative and contrasting dynamics that must be heard to be believed. To go from mystical Scriabin to insouciant Gershwin isn’t as jarring as you might think if the Gershwin is André Previn’s beguiling, lighter-than-air improvisation of “S’Wonderful,” with David Finck on bass.

Finally, the sweetest of goodnights: Schumann’s “Schlummerlied” played by Walter Gieseking. The elevated simplicity of this Olympian tonemeister will take you straight back to those days when you imagined yourself as the next Rubinstein.