WORKS: Piano music by various composers
PERFORMER: Wilhelm Backhaus, Clara Haskil, Wilhelm Kempff, Julius Katchen, Artur Rubinstein, Josef Lhévinne
CATALOGUE NO: (2 disc sets issued separately Ð see text for catalogue numbers)
For pianophiles this new mega-series really is the greatest single project in the history of recording. Naturally, the discs of most immediate interest here are the reissues of recordings which have long been unobtainable: the legendary Lhévinne recordings from the Thirties, for instance; Katchen’s from the late Forties, and Haskil, Kempff and Backhaus in the early to mid-Fifties. In the case of Backhaus (456 718-2), I personally would have gone back very much further.
Many of his earliest recordings do far more than these ‘live’ performances to justify his labelling as a great pianist. There are flashes here which reveal the true musician he was, but much of it (Beethoven’s Op. 111, for instance) seems to me perfunctory in the extreme – narrow in tonal and dynamic range, rhythmically pedestrian, prosaic in phrasing.
Far more consistent with her near-holy reputation are Haskil’s Mozart performances (456 826-2). Always an exceptionally subtle and self-effacing interpreter, she sometimes took purity to its outer limits, but her unforced eloquence in Mozart often attained the status of true poetry – all the truer for being Mozart’s.
The poetry in Kempff’s playing (456 862-2) could be more elusive, but just when you’re thinking that this really is a bit stodgy, pedantic or mannered, he’ll unfurl a phrase or an extended paragraph, or a whole movement of such beauty, insight and polyphonic wisdom that it nourishes you for life. Both experiences are afforded here. Katchen (456 856-2) is now remembered mainly for his Brahms, which was great even in 1949, when he was 23, as evidenced in the F minor Sonata.
But he’s hardly less impressive in the rest of the repertoire here. An altogether exceptional compilation. The Rubinstein (456 955-2) of the RCA days (represented here) was a more careful and reputation-conscious artist than the earlier Rubinstein of the EMI (78rpm) years, often at some cost to his recorded performances. Unlike Backhaus (on present evidence, anyway), he was at his greatest in front of an audience. But this is a goldmine, nevertheless. And Lhévinne (456 889-2)? You have to hear it to believe it.