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ON THE RECORD

Tasteful Works By Two Accomplished Pianists

March 01, 1987|HERBERT GLASS

Alicia de Larrocha and Jorge Bolet are among the most respected of present-day pianists. They are not, however, superstars--artists who can record whatever they desire and with the most glamorous conductors and orchestras. Neither has been prominently recorded in standard repertory. London Records corrects this oversight with Larrocha's performances of the five Beethoven Concertos and "Choral" Fantasy (414 391, three discs, LP or CD) and a pairing by Bolet of the concertos by Schumann and Grieg (417 112, LP or CD). In both instances, Riccardo Chailly conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony.

Not the most glamorous names. Not the glitziest kinds of performance. Rather--and more important--tasteful, communicative work by a pair of the most dependable old pros in the business.

Larrocha's Beethoven abjures heroism (it's neither within her grasp nor to her taste) without miniaturizing the music. The first three concertos combine brisk tempos, a neatly gauged dynamic scheme and rhythmic elan. The Fourth Concerto is wonderfully relaxed in its opening movement and thrillingly dark in a slow movement even more than usually restrained, while the pianist's fleet, buoyant approach to the Fifth Concerto, the "Emperor," downplays the swagger, concentrating instead on illuminating structural and melodic detail.

An unusually satisfying set, its success due in no small part to the sensitive, sympathetic collaboration of Chailly--who really listens to his soloist--and his Berliners, and a CD recording of exceptional clarity and warmth.

Bolet's interpretations of the Schumann and Grieg Concertos are attractively forthright: familiar music played with physical strength and emotional directness.

Deutsche Grammophon presents something more like star power in the first installment--the First and Second Concertos (415 682, LP or CD)--of yet another integral set of the Beethoven piano concertos, with pianist Martha Argerich, conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London: a supposed collaboration in which the artists contradict rather than complement each other.

Argerich plays with her customary high-strung vigor, as Sinopoli tries to rein her in to suit a monumental conception which bears little relationship to the music at hand.

Moss Music Group has introduced a new packaging format--a cardboard folder, or "wallet," in place of the usual plastic box--intended to bring down the heady cost of compact discs by a couple of dollars. But, alas, what Moss has stuffed into these wallets is hardly desirable currency: elderly, oft-recycled goods including Alfred Brendel's first recorded go at Beethoven's First, Fourth and Fifth Concertos (MMG-Vox Prima 7106, 7107, 7108, the coupling in each case being a Beethoven sonata).

Brendel's playing was hardly less refined and brainy a quarter-century ago than it is today, but the accompaniments by the Stuttgart Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony, the latter under a callow Zubin Mehta, are sloppy.

The 10th version of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor Piano Concerto to be issued in CD format (RCA 5708) is intended to document the victory of its protagonist, the young Ulsterman Barry Douglas, in the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Of course Douglas is strong and accurate, but such grimly determined, unfanciful playing as his (on this recording, at any rate) is unlikely to return our attention to this overly familiar work. The orchestral framework is provided by the London Symphony under Leonard Slatkin's workmanlike direction (RCA 5708, LP or CD).

Hungarian-born Andras Schiff has graduated from a Larrocha-Bolet sort of relative esotericism to star status in London Records' view, or so one is led to believe by his teaming with compatriot Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony for yet another Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Concerto (417 294, LP or CD). This, however, is not merely CD version No. 11 but a distinguished and distinctive interpretation.

Schiff brings to the Tchaikovsky Concerto the same qualities of light-toned imagination that he brings to the Bach-Mozart-Schubert repertory in which he specializes. His playing--splendidly seconded by Solti and the Chicagoans--stresses detail and graciousness. The gut-thumping is there, but not as an end-all. And if these attributes weren't enough to thoroughly outclass RCA's effort, Schiff/Solti/London offer a substantial bonus: Dohnanyi's "Variations on a Nursery Tune" in a reading that sparkles with intelligence and humor.

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