Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: The Art of Piano (DVD)

Fascinating documentary that should have been done a lot better

There is a great deal here that every piano buff will relish. For my part, Horowitz's stupendous performance of his ''Carmen Variations'' from his legendary TV concert in 1968 is well worth the price of the whole DVD. So far as I know this performance was watched, studied and very lamely copied by a number of modern virtuosi, but it has never been released officially otherwise.

There is a lot of other rare footage also. Some personal favourites include Rubinstein's playing a lovely cadenza to the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, or Cziffra's ridiculously fast but irresistibly virtuoso performance of Liszt's ''Grand Galop Chromatique'', which I cannot stand listening to but watching it always leaves me with my jaw hopelessly dropped. Also unforgettable are Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No. 12 from the same TV concert of Horowitz, or the old Cortot, looking like he has just stepped out of a horror movie, explaining to his students the mysteries of ''Der Dichter spricht'', the last piece of Schumann's Kinderszenen, or the equally ancient Wilhelm Backhaus interpreting Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, his favourite, in terms of the myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. Even the buffoonish posturing of Glenn Gould is an amusing thing to watch for a minute or so, to say nothing of his humming which is sometimes louder than his playing. And what of that G minor prelude played by the young Gilels for the Soviet military aviators by way of propaganda during the Second World War, or Benno Moiseiwitsch's mighty rendition of Rachmaninoff's B minor prelude, etc., etc., etc.

The documentary is full of such tremendously fascinating stuff. Yet I simply cannot give it more than three stars. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to explain why.

Obviously there are two ways to make such a documentary: including many artists and spending little time on each one of them, or including a few great names but spending considerable time on each. This documentary uses the former approach, and it does a fine job encompassing a galaxy of keyboard geniuses from Paderewski and Hoffmann to Michelangelli and Arrau: nearly half a century of video performances, mostly in black-and-white and in subpar sound even for their time, but this is to be expected. Of course everybody cries that some of his favourite pianists are missing, and I may join the lines with the names of Kempff and Bolet, but this is inevitable. The problem here, though the approach is generally commendable, is that too many names are crammed into too short a time. Either the number of the former should have been reduced or the latter should have been extended.

The consequences of this incongruity between the number of the pianists presented and the total duration of the documentary is that many of the musical performances are badly cut. You may rest assured that you are not going to here more than a minute or two from the Polonaise Op. 53 with Rubinstein or the first movement of Appassionata with Myra Hess, let alone anything more from Tchaikovsky's First Concerto than the first movement's cadenza with Gilels or the notorious octaves from the finale with the absurdly young Richter. Even short pieces are often abridged, like Cziffra's ''Galop'' or Horowitz's Etude mentioned in the beginning. (At least Horowitz's ''Carmen'' is complete.) To put it mildly, such cutting is very annoying. Otherwise, the selections are admirably done and there is only one great pianist (Rachmaninoff, alas) for whom there is no footage available, apparently none has survived or ever been done (but the archive shots of Rachmaninoff are nonetheless precious for he is caught doing something very unusual for him: smiling). Hoffman's indifferent rendition of the C sharp minor prelude might well make one wondering what all the fuss about this fellow was, but it is rightly made clear that this is the only video recording of him; it was made in the 1940s when Hoffman was long past his prime.

Except elongation of the total duration of the movie, another fine opportunity to save more time for rare video performances would have been severe cutting of the commentary. There is a narrator who, well, narrates the main text, usually over some terrific photos of the incredibly dashing in their youth Backhaus, Rubinstein or Horowitz, and this is really fine. Also, there are some intriguing interviews with several fellows from the ''cast'', such as Rubinstein, Arrau and Moiseiwitsch, and these are rightly retained. However, in addition to all that, there is a great deal of commentary by contemporary pianists, and the fact that many of these are quite famous (Barenboim, Kissin, Vasary, Kovachevich, the first two speaking with appalling accents) cannot obscure the bitter truth that 99% of this commentary is pure junk of no importance. All that wasted time would have been much better used for showing more of those rare historical performances complete.

On the top of all that, sometimes the commentary is rife with stupid old prejudices which the documentary thus propagates, deliberately or not. The most explicit example concerns the most controversial of these great pianists: Vladimir Horowitz. Apart from some interesting details about his legendary return in Carnegie Hall in 1965, all Schuyler Chapin has to say about Horowitz is that he was a ''phenomenon'', ''extremely shrewd'' and a great ''showman''. Well, Horowitz certainly was a very shrewd showman, but this has nothing to do with his status as phenomenon – unless one superficially equals this with popularity, which is obviously what Mr Chapin does.

The gentle Horowitz-bashing continues with Tamas Vasary's preposterous claim that for him technique was more important than music! This is a very old story, indeed, and it may be taken seriously only by people who have either absolutely no idea of Horowitz's artistry or some personal animosity towards him. Vasary continues with other startlingly brilliant notions such as ''there is something about perfection and artistry which is contradictory''. It is not surprising that he makes a very poor case trying to put into words what that ''something'' might be. When a pianist has a natural technique which comes from the inside, rather than being imposed from the outside, and allows him to achieve technical perfection with ease, there is absolutely no contradiction with artistry. Needless to say, this is exactly the case with Horowitz, as with many other – though by no means all! – great technicians. Such ''gems'' of prejudice and stupidity should have been cut without ceremony.

All in all, a nice documentary full of rare video performances by great pianists that every piano buff will certainly appreciate. The DVD is accompanied by a fine booklet with extensive information about all performances and commentaries, including most years of recording which are not given during the movie. All the same, the documentary is too short, too sketchy and too fragmented, with too many too badly cut performances and quite a bit of useless rambling by contemporary fellows in between. There is a lot to enjoy here, certainly, but there is not a little to regret as well.

Review: Lugansky at La Roque d'Anthéron - 2002, DVD

La Roque d'Anthéron:

Les Pianos de la Nuit 

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
6 Klavierstücke, Op. 118
[1] Intermezzo in A minor [2’14]
[2] Intermezzo in A major [5’07]
[3] Ballade in G minor [3’07]
[4] Intermezzo in F minor [2’28]
[5] Romance in F major [3’44]
[6] Intermezzo in E flat minor [5’35]

Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
Götterdämmerung (arr. Nikolai Lugansky)
[7] Duo Siegfried/Brünnhilde (Prologue) [6’19]
[8] Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [4’23]
[9] Funeral March [7’02]
[10] Conflagration of Walhalla [6’34]

Sergej Rachmaninov (1873–1943) 
[11] Prelude in C minor, Op. 23 No. 7
[12] Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5
[13] Moment musical in E minor, Op. 16 No. 4

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded live: August 6, 2002, La Roque d'Anthéron.

Directed by Dominique Pernoo.

Ideale Audience International, 2003. 58’10. Colour. Picture format 16:9. LPCM Stereo 2.0. PAL. Liner notes by Réne Martin, Paul Onoratini, Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Thierry Beauvert.


Much like his 2008 Verbier recital, Lugansky’s 2002 performance at La Roque d'Anthéron is quite a nice DVD to watch once or twice, but after that it is more likely not to bear another watching for years.

To begin with the obvious negatives, the program is too short (less than an hour, encores and all) and the visual side is pretty questionable. Now, when a DVD is offered at full price, the least that companies could do is to fill it up nicely: 58 minutes do sound like a lame joke. Very much unlike the garish presentation of the front cover, the concert itself is filmed in almost complete darkness. Lighting is used but occasionally to show the half-asleep audience or Lugansky himself. Apart from that, the direction is rather ordinary, quite unlike some other DVDs in the series (with the cheesy name “Les Pianos de la Nuit”) such as Berezovsky’s beautifully shot mutilation of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. Seldom is there some imagination on the director’s side; quite often the camera is too much focused on Lugansky’s face and his mannered swaying at the keyboard. The picture and sound quality are excellent.

The music and the performance earn this DVD four stars. Brahms’ late “Klavierstücke” Op. 116 are beautifully done as befits the generally tranquil and lyrical nature of the music. In the few more robust moments, such as the Ballade and the middle section of No. 6, Lugansky acquits himself with distinction. The only other piece on the program is the pianist’s own transcription of excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. These are, naturally, the most famous moments: the ecstatic duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde from the Prologue, Siegfried’s jaunty Rhine Journey that follows and his mighty Funeral March, and the fire consuming Valhalla in the very end. Well, two main complaints about Lugansky’s contribution: his transcription (save cuts) is a bit too straightforward and attempts no full exploration of the instrument’s sonority; and in some of the more dramatic moments (particularly in the Prologue) he is more loud and fast than dramatic. In contrast, the lyrical sections are beautifully played. 

The best on the DVD, as in the Verbier case, are the encores. These are all Rachmaninoff pieces – Op. 23 Nos. 5 and 7, Moment musical Op. 16 No. 4 – and they capture Lugansky is in his element. The G minor prelude is as dazzling as ever, and his demonic left hand in the Moment musical has to be heard – and seen – to be believed.

There are no bonuses save a few short excerpts from other DVDs in the same series. Among these one can hear, nay see, how a fine musician like Zoltan Kocsis wastes his time with a noise-parading-as-music by Gyorgy Kurtag. 

Well worth having at half price. 

Review: Lugansky at the Verbier Festival - 2008, DVD

Nikolai Lugansky

Live at the Verbier Festival

Leoš Janáček (1854–1928)
Sonata “1.X.1905”
I. The Presentiment [5:11]
II. The Death [6:37]

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Romeo and Juliet: Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 75
No. 5: Masks [2:05]
No. 6: The Montagues and the Capulets [3:39]
No. 7: Friar Laurence [2:00]
No. 8: Mercutio [2:00]
No. 9: Dance of the Girls with Lilies [1:55]
No. 10: Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell [6:53]

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Années de Pèlerinage: Italie, S. 161
No. 1 Sposalizio [7:41]
No. 6 Sonetto 123 del Petrarca [6:01]
Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S. 139
No. 12: Chasse-neige [5:13]
No. 5: Feux follets [3:29]
No. 11: Harmonies du soir [7:35]
No. 10: in F minor [4:35]

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Prelude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5 [2:45]

Frederic Chopin (1810–1849)
Etude in F major, Op. 10 No. 8 [2:02]

Sergei Rachmaninov
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 [3:37]
Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 [2:17]

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded live: 28 July 2008, Église de Verbier, Switzerland.

Medici Arts International, 2009. 79 min. NTSC 16:9. Colour. PCM Stereo.


This is a rather fascinating DVD which captures Nikolai Lugansky at the 15th edition of the Verbier festival. He is at his absolute technical best, of course. But he is in the wrong repertoire. 

The program here, to begin with, is neither especially long (less than 80 minutes, encores and all), nor especially varied. It consists of one historical curiosity (Janáček), a few piano transcriptions from a famous ballet (Prokofiev), both twentieth century works, and a bunch of Romantic masterpieces, mostly Liszt plus some Chopin and Rachmaninoff as a bonus. Sadly, Lugansky’s playing is much more varied than the program.

This was my introduction to the music of Janáček whom I had hitherto known only as a name. It didn’t leave the impression that I had missed something special. The Sonata with the enigmatic title “1.X.1905” is an interesting, curious work. It is very short, 11 or 12 minutes, and it has but two movements, both of which have significant titles: “The Premonition” and “The Death”. The music is rather modern, with more dissonance than melody, but it is appealing enough for a starter. I particularly liked the more tender second movement.

Prokofiev has never been my cup of tea but his ballet Romeo and Juliet is one of the exceptions. Unfortunately, Lugansky has chosen only six of the ten excerpts transcribed for solo piano from the orchestral original that comprise Prokofiev’s Op. 75. This is for sure the highlight of the recital, such as it is. Lugansky excels in all pieces, but he is especially memorable in the most lyrical ones such as the closing “Farewell”. My only mild complaint concerns the most famous of these piano transcriptions – “The Montagues and the Capulets” – where Lugansky plays the “trombones” very quietly: it doesn’t work especially well. I have the strange feeling that, much like Arcadi Volodos, Lugansky has a colossal technique and often plays extremely demanding works with great ease, but he is really at his best in the most lyrical moments. The wistful middle section of “The Montagues and the Capulets” is fabulous.

Lugansky’s Liszt is what downgrades this recital. The beginning was rather promising, if not exactly memorable. The two pieces from the “Italian Year” of Années de Pèlerinage, “Sposalizio” and “Sonetto del Petrarca 123”, are among Liszt’s most tender and poetic works, and Lugansky plays both of them with commendable degree of tenderness and poetry. He slows down rather dangerously in “Sposalizio”, but he avoids Lazar Berman’s perverse dullness. As for the “sonetto”, it is a nice touch to play it instead of the much more popular, not to say hackneyed, No. 104. 

However, the four Transcendental Studies are all disappointing mixed bags. They combine sensitive playing in the more lyrical passages with ugly rushing and banging in the climaxes. “Chasse-neige” and No. 10 (titleless) are probably the finest of the bunch, since Lugansky’s playing is only occasionally marred by really unnecessary exaggeration. “Feux follets” has some charming moments but many passages sound like a technical exercise, having nothing to do with the whimsical quality that this study evokes in the right hands; the climax is ridiculously perfunctory and sloppy. Alas, the same is quite true about “Harmonies du soir”. Lugansky starts nicely enough, but then his technical prowess gets the better (or the worse) of him: the climax is pure travesty, abominably fast and totally ruined. It must have been a shock for Lugansky too, for he didn’t recover until the end of the piece.

I used to be baffled that the crispness and clarity, to say nothing of musicality, of Lugansky’s Chopin and Rachmaninoff seem to vanish into thin air when he turns to Liszt. Then I read an interview with him from which it was clear that he holds Liszt in low esteem, apparently being victim of old hokum like “Mephistopheles and Abbé”, “Charlatan and Prophet” and so and so forth. Small wonder that such an attitude would result in poor performances. If he could look at Liszt with as little prejudice as at Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Lugansky would surely turn into a Lisztian of the first order. Right now, thanks to these four Transcendental Studies, he is little more than a crass banger. The decent “Italian” pieces are by no means good enough to rectify this. I don’t know if it is just a coincidence, but during the Transcendental Studies Lugansky’s mild physical mannerisms seem to get aggravated.

There are four encores and they are surely the best things on this DVD. Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 8 and Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 No. 5 are charmingly different than Lugansky’s studio recordings but tremendously effective nonetheless. In the Chopin, Lugansky forces you to notice the melodic richness in the left hand which is usually lost in the glittering figurations of the right when this etude is played by fabulous technicians but inferior musicians. 

As for the G minor prelude, it is safe to say that Lugansky plays this extremely popular piece better, both technically and musically, than any other living pianist. He generates tremendous excitement from the march-like sections, played with astonishing clarity, and his middle section is almost unbearably beautiful. Indeed, it’s saying a great deal that Lugansky’s interpretation can hardly be mistaken for that of anybody else – quite an achievement in a piece of such fame. 

The other two encores are Rachmaninoff’s preludes Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12, neither of which, so far as I know, Lugansky has never recorded in the studio. I hope one day he will. Both prove yet again, if any further proof is needed, that Rachmaninoff is certainly Lugansky’s forte, as are more introverted and poetic works in general.

The sound is an ordinary stereo but quite good enough to enjoy the music. The picture quality is also very fine, the camera work rather less so. The concert was shot is a very dark place that looks more like a cave than a concert hall. The direction is not top-notch either. There are many shots too distant to appreciate Lugansky’s devilishly precise hands, and many of the close-ups are taken from awkward angles. All in all, visually the production is rather mediocre. Perhaps one is not unjust to expect more from what is considered one of the most prestigious musical festivals in Europe.

There are no additional materials except a few stingily short trailers from other DVDs from the festival. Among the things worth seeing, if not hearing, are Yuja Wang’s stupendously fast and unbelievably ugly performance of Cziffra’s transcription of “The Flight of the Bumblebee” and Kissin’s butchering the finale of Horowitz’s “Carmen Variations”. Both could certainly use less speed and more music. Why so many pianists take showpieces for technical exercises is a mystery to me. The former, in addition to being technically demanding, quite often have a good deal of intrinsic value as light entertainment, while the latter does not necessarily possess anything of the kind. Listening to Wang and Kissin, banging furiously the keyboard, one would never guess that “Carmen Variations” have a lot of mischievous charm, still less that “Bumblebee” is a marvellously evocative tone poem. 

In short, entertaining and enjoyable DVD, but not very memorable; after a few visits, it becomes dispensable. Except for the encores and, to some extent, the Prokofiev and the first two Liszt pieces, the rest is hardly Lugansky at his best, musically at all events. I wish next time he would record an all-Rachmaninoff recital, for this is sure to turn out a lot better. If not, he might think of making his program longer and more varied; inclusion of more Chopin and Rachmaninoff, for instance, would be welcome. It would also help if he changed the director and the venue.

Review: Rachmaninoff - Sonata No. 2, Corelli Variations - Lugansky - 1993, Challenge Classics

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 [1931 version]
[1] I. Allegro agitato [8’33]
[2] II. Non allegro [6’30]
[3] III. Allegro molto [5’14]

[4] Moment musical, Op. 16 No. 2 [3’10]
[5] Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 [2’49]
[6] Polichinelle, Op. 3 No. 4 [3’37]
[7] Lullaby (Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff) [5’15]
[8] Scherzo (Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff) [3’45]

Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [20’15]
[9]-[31] Theme – Variations 1-13 – Intermezzo – Variations 14-20 – Coda

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded: 26/28 January 1993, Doopsgezinde Kerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Piano Classics, 2011. 59’15*. Liner notes by Ronald Vermeulen.

*Wrongly given on the back cover: 71’35.


Warning: the young Lugansky is dangerous for your speakers!

This is a re-issue of what was originally released by Challenge Classics. Two things are immediately fascinating: 1) Lugansky was but 20 years old at the time; and 2) a decade or so later, he re-recorded for Erato/Warner two of these pieces (the Musical Moment and the Corelli Variations).

Let me first warn you to be careful with the volume control. The sound is quite amazing. Seldom have I heard such crashing bass, yet never too loud to obscure the treble. The sonority has beautiful depth and presence, but the tone is warm and natural. Considering all that, a few bits of displaced furniture is a small price to pay. But the real reason to get that disc is Nikolai Lugansky himself.

That a youth of 20 could play Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata with such combination of musicality and bravura all but defies belief. It is only too easy, especially for an eager youngster with colossal technique, to make a hash out of such daunting work, turning it into a cheap show-off. Not Lugansky. If anything, he clearly shows that the tons of negative criticism as regards the musical value of the sonata are hokum. This is a magisterial work that requires a great deal more than stupendous technique, namely superior artistry, and Lugansky delivers the goods splendidly. He doesn’t have the intensity of Horowitz, certainly, but he neither rushes the music, as Weissenberg often does, nor stumbles badly here and there as it happens with Ashkenazy. My top prize for the most sensitive interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata still goes to Vesselin Stanev, but Lugansky is a sure runner-up; and sonically, as a matter of fact, he is way more impressive than Stanev. The Corelli Variations are equally mind-blowing, technically and musically, though here Ashkenazy, not to mention Lugansky himself 11 years later, puts a stiff competition.

The five bonus pieces consist of two original compositions and three highly imaginative transcriptions. Coincidentally or not, all five were recorded by Rachmaninoff himself. Formidable competition indeed!

The Musical Moment (Op. 16 No. 2) shows off Lugansky’s devastating left hand, but it must be said that wailing melody is right one is better handled in his later recording. The mischievous outer parts of Polichinelle (Op. 3 No. 4) are a trifle rushed and lack the character of Rachmaninoff’s own fabulous recording, but the lyrical middle section is miraculous. The two song transcriptions (Rachmaninoff’s own “Lilacs” and Tchaikovsky’s melting “Lullaby”) are played with all the grace, charm and delicacy required to make them sound as the masterpieces they are. As for the notoriously difficult transcription of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, well, this is a blistering account that has to be heard to be believed. Lugansky takes the piece pretty fast, but his control is extraordinary and by no means unmusical. In terms of crisp articulation, though not necessarily in purely musical terms, this is one of those rare cases when even Rachmaninoff’s own recording pales in comparison.

The original edition is completely out of print, of course, and all fans of Lugansky and Rachmaninoff should be grateful to Piano Classics for re-issuing this stupendous recording which ought to be on the shelves of every pianophile. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - Preludes, Musical Moments - Lugansky - 2000, Erato

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

[1] Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [4’37]

10 Preludes, Op. 23
[2] No. 1 in F sharp minor [3’26]
[3] No. 2 in B flat major [3’26]
[4] No. 3 in D minor [3’34]
[5] No. 4 in D major [4’36]
[6] No. 5 in G minor [3’12]
[7] No. 6 in E flat major [2’24]
[8] No. 7 in C minor [3’12]
[9] No. 8 in A flat major [3’34]
[10] No. 9 in E flat minor [1’45]
[11] No. 10 in G flat major [4’26]

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16
[12] No. 1 in B flat minor [7’23]
[13] No. 2 in E flat minor [2’59]
[14] No. 3 in B minor [4’41]
[15] No. 4 in E minor [2’52]
[16] No. 5 in D flat major [4’01]
[17] No. 6 in C major [5’01]

Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Recorded: 18-22 September 2000, Teldec Studio, Berlin.

Erato, 2001. 65’28. Liner notes by Catherine Steinegger.


I find it hard to believe that this recording, now some seventeen years old, has been so little reviewed on the Web. There are currently but eight reviews on – an old version of this one included. When the latter was originally written in 2011, when this recording was already a decade old, there was only one review. That’s a shame. It deserves so much more than that. If it is not already a classic, it will certainly become one. At least it should.

Nikolai Lugansky (b. 1972) is that rare type of pianist whose technique is prodigious but never stands in the way of mature musicianship. The latter is quite amazing considering that he was but 28 years old at the time of this recording. The sheer drive and crispness of the G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) blow completely away Ashkenazy’s cautious recording on DECCA; he is also more dashing than his illustrious predecessor in other more explicitly virtuoso preludes such as Op. 23 Nos. 2 and 7, though his interpretation of the famous C sharp minor prelude (Op. 3 No. 2) is not quite as majestic. The amazing thing about Lugansky is that he is impeccable at all fronts. He never rushes or rapes the music, his tempi are perfect, and his sense for the delicate nuance seems unerring. The most lyrical among the preludes here – Nos. 1, 4 and 10 – come off every bit as tender and poetic, full of wistful melancholia, as they do under Ashkenazy’s fingers. 

In short, this is a truly stupendous recording. Technical and musical tour de force with very little competition in the recording catalogues.

Too bad that Lugansky didn’t record the 13 Preludes Op. 32 for this might have become a perfect alternative to Ashkenazy’s complete set on DECCA. Still, there is a nice compensation. Rachmaninoff’s six Musical Moments Op. 16 are fairly early compositions (they date from 1896 when the composer was but 23) and they are certainly uneven. But there are at least three masterpieces among them. Nos. 2 and 4 are broadly very similar, short and wild. Both require left hand of inhuman independence and the ability to sing some haunting themes with the right one. No. 3 is a slow piece of indescribable sadness, one of the most shattering pieces Rachmaninoff ever composed. Lugansky delivers the goods with gusto. His performances, I guarantee, will knock your socks off in Nos. 2 and 4 and make you cry in No. 3.

Fortunately, the sound is every bit as terrific as the playing – a rare occasion indeed. Great dynamic range and fantastic clarity are good enough, but they are much better combined with impeccable balance and remarkable depth. It might well be a coincidence but Arcadi Volodos’ recent Liszt recording was made in the same studios, too. May more pianists record at this place then. It seems to help producing a marvellous imitation of a live sound.

Unfortunately, it seems that the career of Nikolai Lugansky has not progressed as fabulously since 2000 as this album strongly suggested it would. He has recorded a great deal of Rachmaninoff, including a set of the four concertos not nearly as fine as the solo piano works, and quite a bit of rather fascinating Chopin, including the complete etudes on Erato in the same glorious sound, but also some rather controversial recordings of other pieces; his Beethoven is indifferent, his Liszt even more so. 

Rachmaninoff’s solo piano music, it seems, is Lugansky’s forte, yet he has recorded very little of it during the last decade. Pity. However, his early recording (1992) of the complete etudes, though difficult to find, is well worth searching, for it is quite an achievement for a lad of 20. The original edition (by same obscure fellows Challenge Classics) is a bit too expensive, but Brilliant have reissued the recording at a very reasonable price (though coupled with Marietta Petkova's timid preludes). Lugansky’s equally stunning early recording of the Second Sonata – and equally fine for so tender an age – has also been released at budget price by Piano Classics. It makes for a revealing comparison with his recent recording of the same piece (but this time in its original version); as a special bonus, you get a terrific rendition of Rachmaninoff’s vastly under-recorded First Sonata.

Anyway, whatever the vicissitudes of Lugansky’s career and the vagaries of his artistic temperament, this particular recording remains an outstanding achievement that easily ranks among the finest renditions on record of Rachmaninoff’s first 11 preludes and all of his Musical Moments. Such technical prowess coupled with so fine a musicianship, and splendidly recorded at that, is not something the piano lover often finds on record, even in the era of digital wonders today. The only thing Lugansky can, occasionally and slightly, be accused of is imitation of Ashkenazy in terms of interpretation. Well, he might have chosen a much worse example. If individuality means messing up Rachmaninoff’s preludes as Weissenberg does on RCA, I will pass. 

Review: Mozart - Horowitz - 1985-89, DG Masters

One and only one desert-island disc? This one!

If I am forced to spend eternity on a desert island and I am allowed to take but one CD with me (plus 5.1 audio system on solar batteries of course), I may well choose this one. It is very well filled with some of the most perfect keyboard music ever composed. What's more, this amazing music is played in a completely unique manner. It may not be "Mozartean" enough for the purists, but for me it is just about the finest Mozart I have ever heard.

The beautiful thing about this DG MASTERS release is that it combines in one place almost all of Horowitz's late recordings of Mozart. The Rondo in A minor is missing, but there is no space for it anyway. (You can find it on 
The Magic of Horowitz, see Hank's great review.) Otherwise these three sonatas, one Adagio and one Rondo are all studio recordings of Mozart's music for solo piano made by Horowitz in the last five years of his life (1985-89). Some of the sonatas have alternative live takes from Moscow (1986), Vienna (1987) or Hamburg (1987), and there is the 23rd Concerto with Guilini in studio (1987), but these are important only for Horowitz completists. For those who want to get introduced to the late Horowitz, this disc remains the perfect introduction.

No other composer benefited from Horowitz's miraculous Indian summer more than Mozart did. In earlier years Volodya played very little
of his music, a few sonatas and no concerti, and they didn't always bring out the best in him. But in the mid-late 1980s there was a new serenity in Horowitz's playing and it did suit the genius from Salzburg to perfection. To get a very clear idea how extraordinary this change really was, all you need to do is to compare the 1951 live recording of K. 333 (in the The Complete Original Jacket Collection, see Hank's great review) with the 1987 studio recording included here. The difference is, to put it mildly, enormous. The live recording is fine in its own way, yet it sounds harsh and brittle and cold in comparison to the poise, elegance, playfulness and charm of the much later studio reading.

If you want to appreciate how unique as a Mozart interpreter Horowitz is, all you need to do is to compare this disc with Maria Joao Pires' complete recording of the sonatas, incidentally made for the same label, at the same time, and in the same perfectly clean but rather dry sound. Maria is among the better contemporary Mozarteans; she is not terribly imaginative or daring, but she is certainly sensitive to Mozart's deceptively simple music. And yet! Listening to the same sonata with Horowitz is a complete revelation. The music takes on a new life, a much more varied and passionate one. Anyway, which performance one prefers is of course a matter of personal taste. What is not a personal matter but can be verified more or less objectively is that both performances are completely different – and that Maria's way is far more common among Mozarteans, especially modern ones.

We may truly regret that Horowitz didn't record more Mozart during those remarkably productive last years. But I think we had better be grateful for what he did record. The selection here demonstrates the whole range of Mozart's genius. K. 281 is among the finest of his earliest sonatas, especially the uniquely titled (Andante amoroso) and stunningly beautiful second movement. Likewise, KK. 330 and 333 are among the best solo piano works Mozart composed before his moving to Vienna in 1781; K. 333 is especially amazing as it is the only one among his sonatas to contain original cadenza, much like a piano concerto. Last but not least, the other works present Mozart in his late years, either in gloomy (Adagio) or in cheerful (Rondo) mood. None of these pieces contains even a single note too much. And in none of them does Horowitz play a single note which is not intensely expressive.

Finally, the liner notes of this edition – compilation of the original notes on the three CDs from the 1980s – are marvellous. A great deal of them comes from Horowitz himself, and he has some uncommonly interesting things to say. For example, he argues that separations like Classicism and Romanticism, except for didactic purposes, are pointless. All music is Romantic, he says, and Mozart should be played with as much rubato as Chopin – and with as much colour. If anything, such reflections give the lie to those foolishly uninformed claims that still circulate through the Web, namely that Horowitz was a kind of musical moron who didn't have the least idea what he played and whose only strength was his stupendous technique. Nonsense, of course, as the Mozart case amply testifies. Horowitz studied very seriously the music he played. He knew a great deal of Mozart's letters by heart; and it's probably safe to assume he was familiar with a very large part of Mozart's total output, not just keyboard compositions but also symphonic works, chamber pieces and opera.

In conclusion, this is a simply magnificent CD. It suits everybody. Horowitz completists and those who enjoy his late style would love to have it because it collects conveniently material otherwise dispersed on three discs. No need to worry that nearly 80 minutes of Mozart only would be boring. Not here, not with artistry of that calibre. Horowitz neophytes can hardly find a better introduction to Horowitz's late years. Keep in mind, however, that this was an extremely different Horowitz than the one for RCA in the 1970s and early 1980s, Columbia in the 1960s, or again RCA in the 1940s/50s.

Review: Horowitz - The Indispensable - RCA, 2 CDs

Except for few serious blemishes, 
an excellent introduction to the art of Vladimir Horowitz

If my personal experience is anything to go by, this double CD is certainly a terrific introduction to Vladimir Horowitz. It was my first serious exposure to his playing, and I got hooked for life. But let us get straight to the point.

On these two discs there are 29 (mostly short) pieces, all of them recorded by RCA, live or in studio, in a period of no fewer than 35 years (1947-82). Naturally, the sound quality varies greatly but - with few notable exceptions that are discussed below – it is excellent for its age. The selection is also fine (with the same exceptions in mind) and it rightly concentrates on the core of Horowitz's repertoire (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Liszt), but it does also include three sonatas of his beloved Scarlatti and several encore pieces by Moszkowski which he loved no less; in addition, there are three stunning examples of Horowitz's transcriptions/paraphrases/arrangements (no, these are not the same thing). It is also notable that the pieces are carefully selected as to illustrate not only the extreme dynamic range of Horowitz's playing, but also its even more impressive versatility: from tender and lyrical passages all the way to demonic and maniacal ones; there is everything.

Normally, I would give this collection five stars without hesitation. Unfortunately, I cannot do so in this case. The reason is simple and – let me stress this – has more to do with RCA than with Horowitz, although the latter is by no means guiltless. There are three pieces on these two discs that really should not have been here; oddly enough, these are the three longest pieces: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (live, 1979), and Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie (live, 1982). Altogether they make up for some 35 minutes, nearly one fourth of the total timing. It is safe to say that any of these three cases represents Horowitz at his worst. They are perfectly dispensable and, considering what other choices RCA did have, their inclusion is unforgivable. Even I, who would rather listen to Horowitz at his worst than to a good many pianists at their best, seldom play these recordings and certainly would never include them in a collection that is supposed to be representative of his artistry.

''Mannerisms'' is usually used as a dirty word, but I think they are an essential part of the interpretation. The problem with Horowitz was that in the late 1970s and early 1980s his mannerisms reached, not only the absolute peak during his career, but a degree which is all but incompatible with musicianship. This was especially pronounced in Liszt's music and created some, to put it mildly, extremely controversial interpretations, such as this bizarre Liszt-Busoni-Horowitz version of Mephisto Waltz No. 1; incidentally, Horowitz played it for one season only. In contrast, he played Chopin's First Ballade and Polonaise-Fantasie all his life and recorded them several times. The performances here were recorded during his historical (first for more than 30 years) concert in London in 1982. Sadly, this was only one year before Horowitz's disastrous tour of Japan and his last retirement from the stage. The London concert was recorded on video and, though it is hard to find, if you happen to see it anyway, it cannot but strike you how terrible Horowitz looks: tired and apathetic, completely worn-out and rather inadequate. As a matter of fact, at this time Horowitz had fallen into the greatest of many depressions during his life, and he was indeed taking medications which had the most terrible side effect: he played badly. Considering his pathetic condition, it is amazing that he could play this London concert at all (and the program included Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata, too!), so it is hardly surprising that these Chopin masterpieces receive here a truly dismal treatment. For once, Virgil Thomson's notorious description of Horowitz as "master of distortion and exaggeration" rings true. It is only fair to say that Horowitz is not helped by RCA's staggeringly horrible sound. Leaving aside that screeching door at one place during the quiet introduction of the Ballade, this is some of most metallic, clangy, misbalanced and crude piano sound ever recorded. How such a mess was made and approved for release as late as 1982 is beyond me.

I understand this collection was issued when such terrific box-sets like the 
Original Jacket Collection (see Hank's great review) were not possible, so we could not have here Horowitz's finest recordings of Chopin's First Ballade (1965 and 1968, both live) made for Columbia/SONY. But as early as 1947 Horowitz did record the work for RCA as well. It is a raw and fiery performance that may be unacceptable to many people, but for my part it has an irresistible power and grandeur. As for the Polonaise-Fantasie, there is an amazing live recording from a Carnegie Hall recital in 1951. Both of these recordings are in excellent mono sound and musically infinitely superior to the London versions of 1982. Both were recorded for RCA and should have been included in this collection. As for Liszt, Horowitz's justly legendary recording of Funerailles (1950, RCA, studio) has a combination of lyricism and demonism that has never been equalled, let alone surpassed, and would most certainly have been a way better choice than the Mephisto Waltz. This is how the stupidity of recording companies leads to releases that might have been much better than they are.

Having said all that, there is a great deal on these two discs that is indeed indispensable. Few highlights cannot be passed without a word.

There are only four short pieces by Rachmaninoff here but they are among Horowitz's finest recordings. (It is a great loss to posterity that Horowitz actually recorded so little Rachmaninoff, but that's another story). One of his very few studio recordings from the second half of the 1970s (Prelude Op. 32 No. 5) clearly demonstrates that he, like all true virtuosi (which for me means pianists for whom virtuosity comes from the inside, not from the outside), could play very softly and with exquisite tenderness, too. The Barcarolle and Humoresque (Op. 10 Nos. 3 & 5, respectively) are fine live recordings from 1979. The Humoresque is an especially apocalyptic performance that makes Rachmaninoff's own, and very fine, recording sounds lacklustre by comparison.

But the real gem among Rachmaninoff's pieces here is the G minor prelude, recorded live in November 1981 as an encore after Horowitz's recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. This stunning performance has spoiled all other ''G minors'' for me. It is absolutely unbelievable that Horowitz had just turned 78 (!) when he played this. Sure he doesn't have the crispness and technical precision of a Lugansky, but there are here tremendously exciting climaxes of such an awesome power, that I don't in the least wonder why the audience goes wild immediately after the end. The beautiful inner voices of the middle part are wistfully brought to life with the same degree of uniqueness. The sound is a fine digital one and, like many other pieces, it is an improvement over the old remasters from the RCA Gold series. This piece alone is worth the price of both discs. And the most amazing thing is that the only other recording of the G minor prelude with Horowitz that exists is a dismal studio one from 1931 – dismal not just sonically but artistically as well. Apparently, during his whole career Horowitz seldom played the piece in public.

The Scriabin works here are only four etudes but they too demonstrate Horowitz at his absolute best and contain at least one performance that has spoiled all others for me. This is the famous Etude Op. 8 No. 12 recorded live, incidentally, during the ill-fated London concert in 1982. This is a fabulous performance, much closer to Horowitz's later interpretations of the piece (such as the one from his Moscow Concert in 1986), than to his earlier ones (the 1968 TV concert, for instance). Actually this is one of the most fascinating opportunities for comparison of Horowitz's evolution through the years. Both versions are very different and the later is certainly the better one: the tempo is slower, the dynamic range is expanded, from passages that are hardly audible Horowitz builds a majestic climax of epic proportions. Like Rachmaninoff's G minor prelude, this particular performance of this etude by Scriabin must be heard to be believed. Other Scriabin-highlights include the dreamy and melancholic Op. 2 No. 1 (1950) and the ''murderous'' (Harold Schonberg) Op. 42 No. 5 (live, 1953), both of them played as only Horowitz could.

Even though the Chopin selections are badly marred, there is a lot to enjoy here – if you enjoy Horowitz's interpretations that is. Like pretty much everything he played, his Chopin was larger than life, a Chopin of massive climaxes and stark contrasts, which was unacceptable, indeed unendurable, for many people. The rest of the Chopin fare here consists of three nocturnes, two etudes, two scherzi, one polonaise and the Barcarolle, most of them studio recordings from the 1950s in quite fine mono sound, none of them played in forgettable manner. Horowitz's incandescent (and only) recording of the Second Scherzo (1957) certainly has nothing to do with Rubinstein's aristocratic elegance; though I prefer the clarity of the latter, I wouldn't want to be without the demonism of the former. Chopin's First Scherzo was one of Horowitz's greatest favourites: he played it all his life and recorded in three times in studio (1951, 1963 and 1985). The first one is included here and it is positively explosive, though it might have been better to have the live version from 1953. Horowitz's blistering 1945 recording of the Polonaise Op. 53 is a most interesting alternative of his late recordings of the same piece for DG. Like Scriabin's Op. 8 No. 12, Horowitz's conception of this lovely polonaise changed out of recognition, with the later version losing technical brilliance but gaining musical insight. The nocturnes are among my greatest favourites, although some people dislike Horowitz's grand manner. But I, personally, love those heavy chords in the end of Op. 27 No. 2 played powerfully – and rather differently than all other pianists who play them as if it were three o'clock in the morning. If his four recordings (two studio and two live ones) are any indication, Op. 72 No. 1 was perhaps Horowitz's favourite Chopin nocturne. It is incomparably played and makes me wonder, yet again, what a mighty genius the man who composed such music at 17 must have been.

The Liszt selection, too, contains more than the unfortunate Mephisto Waltz. In fact, there are only two more pieces by Liszt here, but both of them are among Horowitz's most jaw-dropping recordings. His arrangement (not transcription) of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, with some marvellously creative touches in the friska section, is legendary today; his mind-blowing live recording from 1953, even more so. The famous Rakoczy March, on the other hand, can only be described as a paraphrase. Horowitz changed Liszt's original quite a bit and created a technical tour de force that sometimes verges on virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. I will leave to the puritans to be outraged at that, while I relish that thunderous left hand. By the way, gorgeously sonorous sound for mono from 1950.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is the only real transcription here. Horowitz did it as a token of gratitude to the US, the country that was his home for most of his life, and he created an excellent example of the ''Liszt-effect''. I have never much liked Sousa's brash original for a loud brass band, but after listening to Horowitz's mind-blowing performance (in great sound for 1950, too), I can't even stand Sousa's original anymore. In addition to Horowitz's frightening left hand, here is one of the most extraordinary illusions for four hands in any of his recordings.

Finally, there are the Carmen Variations, which are neither transcription nor arrangement; it isn't even a paraphrase. It is Horowitz's own composition, maybe not the most profound one in world, but certainly one of the most effective. The version here is the studio one from 1947 (in fantastic sound, RCA are really unpredictable fellows) which differs vastly from the much simplified ones that Horowitz played later in his career, including the legendary TV concerts in Carnegie Hall (1968) and the White House (1978). The 1947 version, like so many other Horowitz recordings, has to be heard in order to be believed. Towards the end, it must be admitted, Volodya gets a little carried away with the astonishing dexterity of his fingers, but otherwise he never allows lack of musicality or a mere banging to creep into his playing.

All in all, an excellent collection of Horowitz's recording from his RCA years which might have been a perfect representation of his artistry. Now it is not, but there still is much more to enjoy than to skip. Horowitz buffs would love to have the disc because it contains many of his finest recordings and it has a pleasant diversity; this includes a poignant remembrance from time to time that Horowitz, though a genius, was a fallible human being too. Horowitz newcomers certainly could do worse with an introductory collection. It is a fair guess that if you don't find Horowitz captivating here, warts and all, you wouldn't anywhere else either.

One last piece of advice to those who want to explore in some depth the phenomenon whom Arthur Schnabel called ''half-man, half-piano''. Keep in mind that there are at least two other, rather different Horowitzes: one for Columbia/SONY (1962-72), in whom musicianship and virtuosity were perhaps best reconciled, and one for DG/SONY (1985-89), in whom tranquillity and elegance completely transcended fire and brimstone.