Various: Piano music by various composers

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Philips
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Great Pianists of the 20th Century
WORKS: Piano music by various composers
PERFORMER: András Schiff, György Cziffra, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Samson François, Leopold Godowsky, John Ogdon, Edwin Fischer, Ignaz Friedman & Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: see text for numbers of recommended CDs
In a bumper crop, with few disappointments (Cziffra, Francois) and many jewels (Fischer, Kovacevich, Rubinstein, Schiff), three of these latest releases demand special attention, since their subjects are relatively or entirely unknown to the average music-lover: Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir Sofronitzky – and the ultimate ‘pianist’s pianist’, Leopold Godowsxky (1870-1938).

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‘The master of us all,’ Harold Bauer called him – and Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Lhevinne, Leschetizky, Paderewski and Horowitz agreed. Yet his recordings were relatively few, and were never best-sellers. He was that curious phenomenon, a great virtuoso who was not a great performer. Colleagues affirmed that Godowsky in the concert hall or the recording studio was rarely more than a pale reflection of Godowsky at home among friends. Maybe so, but the playing here is quite good enough to be getting on with. The subtlety and control of his technique defied belief. His polyphonic control was unequalled, the luminosity and variety of his tone barely rivalled. If he occasionally sounds a little perfunctory here, the pianistic dividends are more than sufficient compensation.

Perfunctory is something Friedman never sounds. For many connoisseurs, his recordings of Mendelssohn’s F sharp minor ‘Song Without Words’ and Chopin’s late E flat Nocturne have been unequalled in the six or so decades since they were made, and the same goes for many of the other performances included here. His phenomenal control of long-spanned melody, the suppleness of his note-to-note melodic inflections, and the astounding variety and originality of his rhythmic vocabulary are nowhere more evident than in Chopin’s notoriously elusive mazurkas, and his polyphonic control is simply jaw-dropping.

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Still largely unfamiliar in the West, Sofronitzky was a pianist like no other. His playing may strike many listeners as excessively mannered, but his best performances were of unassailable integrity and immediacy, combining romantic abandon, with a broad rhetorical sweep, and an intimacy of expression that could be almost painful. In its emotional power and interpretative daring, as in its sometimes capricious spontaneity, his playing can be disturbing as well as elating. There’s a restless, probing intensity that lingers on in the mind, repeatedly prompting a reappraisal of hitherto comfortable assumptions. It’s no bad legacy.