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PERFORMING ARTS | ON THE RECORD

Two Most Rare Mixes of Hands, Head and Heart

June 02, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

The recording catalogs are littered with the names of pianists who can move with the greatest of ease between Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Ligeti. All-purpose musical mechanics, interchangeable and faceless. (Their proliferation is perhaps the principal reason for the ascent of string players as audience darlings in recent years, where pianists once reigned.)

A batch of recent releases from pianists who have something to say, rather than merely yakking at the keyboard, artists who combine heart, head and hands, includes another installment in a distinguished series of Schubert performances by Stephen Kovacevich.

Kovacevich's major vehicle this time is the gloriously lyrical A-major Sonata, D. 959, from the composer's last year (EMI 55219). What makes this artist's interpretation distinctive is the manner in which it naturally fuses "singing," which is to say lieder-like flow, with dramatic thunder, while other pianists (even those as well attuned to the idiom as Richard Goode or Jeno Jando) tend to compartmentalize the music, allowing one or the other quality to dominate. Then, too, Kovacevich has an especially keen ear for Schubert's harmonic daring.

The companion piece is the much-abused "Moments Musicaux," delivered here with a freshness and energy that makes its familiar strains welcome--all the more so for being delivered with the combination of rotund tone and rhythmic bite that Kovacevich accords them.

Evgeny Kissin, 24, emerges on RCA this month with what he plays best--young man's music. He delivers Schumann's grandly effusive Fantasy in C with infectious abandon in a reading of tremendous digital strength, yet with dreaminess in plentiful supply as well. After only a few hearings, and perhaps prematurely, I'm tempted to place Kissin's interpretation beside Sviatoslav Richter's justly celebrated 1961 version (now available at mid-price on EMI). Fantasy in C is coupled with the five of Liszt's dozen "Transcendental Etudes" worth listening to, and Kissin plays them with all the technical dazzle they demand, as well as a degree of lyric grace we are accustomed to from, again, Richter.

*

Speaking of the legendary--and legendarily reclusive--Richter, there were so many oversized tributes (sets of a dozen CDs and more) to the Russian pianist when he reached his 80th birthday recently that the average listener, on an average budget, might well have felt shut out of the party. To compensate, Deutsche Grammophon has now released a single, inexpensive disc (447 440) offering all the evidence anyone needs of Richter's greatness as a Schumann interpreter: performances, recorded in the late 1950s in Warsaw and Prague, of the Piano Concerto, the Introduction and Allegro appassionato and three solo works.

Among the latter, Richter's way with the purling midsection of the Novelette in F is heartbreaking in its tenderness; the Toccata in C is, in this pianist's hands, as much a progenitor of Prokofiev's motoric style as it is a Romantic showpiece. And in that most poetic of Schumann solo works, "Waldszenen," Richter's delicate touch, his exquisite legato and masterful pedal effects add up to purest enchantment.

Hungarian pianist Geza Anda (1921-1976) has been characterized as aloof, more concerned with structural clarity than with what we call "heart" in 19th century repertory, while his Mozart tended to be precious. Paradoxically, in playing the music of Bartok, a composer often accused of excessive cerebration, Anda could reveal the submerged lyric underpinnings of some of his countryman's toughest-sounding scores. And, even more surprising, he could project with skill and grace Bartok's gentlest music, the 79 miniatures collected as "For Children," ostensibly teaching pieces, but vastly enjoyable independently of any didactic purpose, based on Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes.

Anda's long unavailable 1955 recording of "For Children" returns to circulation, superbly remastered, on a Testament CD (1065) running to nearly 80 minutes' playing time. The realizations are, if anything, even more colorful and warmly satisfying than I recalled.

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