Friday, May 15, 2015

One Composer Challenges Another, and Live At Different Times...

Maurice Ravel stated more than once that one of the prime forces propelling him to write his magnificent "Gaspard de le Nuit" was his being compelled  to write something more difficult than that gargoyle challenging pianists, titled "Islamey" by the Russian nationalist composer Mily  Balakirev.
"Islamey" appeared in 1869 and has been the center of conversation among pianists ever since; to specify, there seems to be pianists in each succeeding generation who consider it the most daunting piece written for the instrument. Obviously, this is an issue of controversy and argumentation. For instance, I  like to think of Samuil Feinberg's  piano transcription of the 3rd movement of Tchaikowsy's "Pathetique" symphony as tiring as any piece I know of for the piano - and the arguments will go on and on.
Balakirev, who was considered  a virtuoso performer, remarked that there were sections in "Islamey" that he could "not handle."
There are three recordings of this composition that I have a rather assiduous interest in:
Vladimir Horowitz learned and performed it for only one concert season (1950,51}. I do not believe he ever performed it publicly after that period. Fortunately, he  had it recorded 'live,' probably at Carnegie Hall during that one year. That miraculous controlled  neurotic 'edge' to every Horowitz performance is the prime ingredient that propels the legendary pianist to staggering levels that will be experienced by the listener only a small number of times in the available recordings of this fabled player of the piano.
Claudio Arrau recorded "Islamey" at the Camden studios in 1928.  For me, the prime issue  dealing with his performance is the opportunity for the  great Chilean to project poesy into a piece of music that does not bear the weight of greatness, in my view - after all, Balakirev is not included among the great composers.
The genius of the writing is based upon the reality that with all of the stupendous difficulties endemic to "Islamey," the writing for the piano is indeed "pianistic." I was surprised when I came across this recording years ago, as I did not expect  Arrau to be connected with this kind of endeavor; however, he was in his twenties in 1928, and it DOES give us a view of another form of world-class technique which Arrau certainly possessed.
Mikhail Pletnev recorded "Islamey" at Carnegie Hall in 2000, and proves in his performance that he can elicit from his audience a Horowitzian response. His superb stylistics and  mammoth technique (ever hear his transcription of the "Nutcracker?"} make for a truly memorable event. It is great fun to hear this Russian  virtuoso tackle this Brobdingnagian  form of athleticism for piano. 
Listen to these three recordings - it IS great fun.

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