There used to be "schools" of piano playing.
Members of the American School were, as recently as a dozen years ago, widely considered to be technicians--more concerned with clarity, with the mechanics of the music than with its "essence" or with tone and color. Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, quintessential American pianists of the '60s, come most readily to mind.
The Slavic School, by contrast, had as its members practitioners of some vaguely defined Romantic "grand style" that involved, at the very least, richly colored playing, with a wide range of dynamics and rhythmic freedom.
Whatever the nationalities, the matter really boiled down essential interpretive conflict of the last half-century: that between literalists and subjectivists, the scholars and the poets, although the lines of demarcation have never been simplistically clear, particularly in the interpretation of Chopin.
A pair of recent recordings of the Chopin Waltzes exhibit the talents of two rising pianists, both in their mid-30s, both nominally of the Slavic School: the Soviet Dimitri Alexeev (Angel Eminence AE-34488, LP only) and the Hungarian Zoltan Kocsis (Philips 412 890, LP or CD). Their playing could not be more dissimilar.
Alexeev's attractive interpretations are intimate, subdued, delicately colored, yet not lacking in thrust. It isn't that difficult to conjure up the image of the composer playing for a close circle of friends in just such a manner.
Kocsis is a more highly strung artist, given to extremes of temperament--and of volume. His opening "Grand Valse Brillante" is banged out in high-voltage, high-speed fashion. And while there's plenty of soft--even wispy--playing thereafter, Kocsis never really relaxes. It's a showy, hectoring performance, intended for a large auditorium and a large audience which would, undoubtedly, cheer like mad at its conclusion.
Kocsis's countryman, contemporary and frequent four-hand partner, Dezso Ranki, would seem by contrast to be an artist of imposing thoughtfulness--or was in 1975, when this just-released recording of Schubert's mighty Sonata in B-flat and a pair of Impromptus was taped (Denon 32C37-7488, CD only). One wonders why the long delay, since this is obviously the work of a major talent.
With Ranki's dynamically suppressed, very slow pacing of the Sonata's opening measures, one might be in the presence of one of those dark, intensely probing Sviatoslav Richter interpretations. But as things turn out, Ranki is building to a series of carefully prepared climaxes. Not that this is contrived playing. Those opening measures dispensed with, Ranki's work has a lovely flow and shapeliness. One looks forward to his local debut next season at Ambassador Auditorium.
While some of his seniors were banging away at the keys to create a tough American style in the 1950s and '60s, young Andre Watts was already molding his own modern-Romantic stylistic amalgam. Watts was at the beginning of his career and remains in certain respects an old-fashioned virtuoso. But one not given to the extravagant rubatos of an Arrau or the dynamic and rhythmic willfulness of a Horowitz. Watts thunders cleanly and knows when to distend a phrase in the pursuit of an expressive end, as we are constantly reminded in a pair of superb Angel releases devoted to the music of Franz Liszt.
One program contains the massive B-minor Sonata; two salon charmers, "Sospiro" and the first "Valse Oubliee," as well as a few of the composer's more recondite, forward-looking pianistic essays (DS-37355, LP, or CDC-747381, CD). The accompanying volume has as its centerpieces the flashy Paganini Etudes and the Hungarian Rhapsody in A minor (DS-37354, LP, or CDC-747380, CD).
Among latter-day Romantic pianists, none could possibly suffer more than Claudio Arrau does in his 1978 traversal of the Chopin Nocturnes, which has just been magnificently remastered in compact disc format (Philips 416 440).
For the venerated, veteran artist, every piece is a separate, dark, intensely agitated, even threatening little emotional world in which the concept of a basic tempo does not-- dare not--exist, where the "artistic" distortion of rhythm is pursued so relentlessly that one might think the music was being created on the spot. And where the obsessive use of the sustaining pedal begins to resemble a Debussy caricature (e.g., in Opus 27, No. 1). Appealing examples of self-expression, no doubt, to some listeners. To others, wearisome, morbid navel-gazing.
After the hothouse humidity of Arrau, the cool, direct, classically proportioned playing of Ruth Laredo comes as a decided relief. Laredo is one of those unsung American artists who is constantly seeking out new or neglected repertory and investing it with clean-lined playing and a mature, intelligent point of view.
Laredo's vehicle on this occasion is Tchaikovsky's rarely encountered and inaptly named "The Seasons" (there are 12 "seasons," titled "January" through "December"). These are exceedingly pretty, characterful pieces, whose tunes would sound not at all out of place in "Swan Lake." Laredo, a master of subtle pedal effects, handles these gentle lyric inspirations with winning variety of tone and firm rhythmicality (Nonesuch 79119, LP only).