Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Perspective on a Masterpiece

Before moving on with the subject chosen, please allow me to state most clearly that this is a true perspective on the subject involved, not in any way an opinion:
Some time back, I offered a perspective on the playing of Bach by two great pianists, Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt, dealing with their particular views on the same music. In this contribution, I will discuss the views of four great pianists dealing with the first movement of the third concerto by Rachmaninoff.
I placed, back -to-back, on a disc, four recordings of this movement by Evgeny Kissin, Leif Ove Andsnes, Vladimir Horowitz, and the composer himself.
Kissin recorded this music in 1993, with the Boston Symphony and Ozawa.
Andsnes recorded in 1995, with the Oslo Philharmonic and Berglund.
Horowitz recorded in 1951 with the RCA Symphony and Reiner.
Rachmaninoff recorded in 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy.
To me, it was most revealing to realize that the spatial positioning of the first two utterances pretty much set the tone and substance, both technically and, more important, the musical message of this movement.
Of the four performances involved, Kissin sets the slowest pace, and by quite a difference from the other three. The result is that his performance is set in a regal and lofty manner which seems to enhance the impact of the succulent harmonic structure that Rachmaninoff imparts to the best, arguably, of his four concerti. The wonder of that harmonic process is the driving force behind the exquisite color in Kissin's pianism, so familiar to the serious listener.
Andsnes plays at a quicker pace, a pace closer to that which one usually associates with this movement. This great musician has the ability to give us a kind of warmth and loftiness, fused in a way I have not heard in any pianist I am familiar with - it seems as if Andsnes has found found a way of fusing great warmth and a minimum of sentiment in his playing of the Romantics; something I find rather uncanny.
Horowitz was the "terror in his twenties" who so thoroughly captivated Rachmaninoff in his reading of the concerto that the composer and legendary pianist vowed that he would no longer perform this concerto in public again. Fortunately, he changed his mind just a few years before his death when he decided to record all four concerti with Ormandy. And, as can be expected, Horowitz gives us a gripping and overpoweringly personal view of this music. It is almost as if this piece were written for Horowitz, as it fits his unique pianistic structure like a glove.
Interestingly, Rachmaninoff, in his late sixties in his recording, plays his music at the fastest rate of all four pianists involved in this perspective. The unparalleled fluidity in his playing was, perhaps, the reason for his choice of tempo. He was a supreme miniaturist during his career as pianist; that is, in his choice of many small masterpieces which we find in his recordings. It seems that this illimitable plasticity and glossy texture endemic to his playing works as well in large forms, such as this concerto, even though the dimensional structure is so very monumental. To me, it is truly a unique experience to hear how he builds the power into this movement at such a speed, and still averts the danger of making this piece the greatest "miniature" ever written.
To encapsulate: these four readings of the same work are indeed fingerprints, each being totally different for so many reasons; however, none, in my view, can be considered 'wrong,' as each pianist is indeed a great musician; each with a different view of the language waiting to be projected to posterity.

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