GHCD 2367 – Great Pianists – Vol. 2, Brailowsky, Cherkassky, Serkin
Alexander Brailowsky (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitsky
Fanfare November/December 2011
What are we to make of this potpourri? The second installment in Guild’s continuing Great Pianists series (see Fanfare 34:1 for James A. Altena’s review of Volume I), it brings together the work of three quite different pianists. Yes, if you’re willing to grasp at straws, it’s possible to draw tenuous connections: Mozart provided the source material for Liszt’s paraphrase; both Brailowsky and Cherkassky were born in cities currently part of Ukraine; both Serkin and especially Brailowsky are heard in music outside the repertoire for which they’re most famous. But there’s really no coherence to the disc as a whole. No coherence-but a fair amount of interest nonetheless.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the dynamic reading of the Mozart concerto. To the extent that he’s remembered, Brailowsky is best known for his recordings of the Romantic repertoire, especially Chopin, and I was expecting either a slightly thick and “expressive” performance or else one that traded in Mozart’s punch for a kind of prettified finesse. Except for a few lush moments in the second movement, though, we get nothing of the sort. In part, no doubt, because Koussevitzky was a fairly vital Mozartian, this collaboration-taped with a reduced orchestra at the opening concert of a much scaled-back wartime Tanglewood season-zips along with clarity and rhythmic spit. Brailowsky’s tone is a bit brittle in spots, and the finale could fairly be accused of breathlessness.
But it’s a fascinating document nonetheless.
Strauss’s Burleske may not be the first work you immediately associate with Rudolf Serkin, but he made an often-reissued commercial recording with Ormandy in 1966, and he performed it with some regularity. In fact, he and Mitropoulos played it with the New York Philharmonic in three different seasons during the 1950s. This particular reading, taken at a fairly quick tempo, has an engagingly rough-and-tumble personality with plenty of raw energy-but especially in comparison with Marc-André Hamelin’s graciously witty account (see Dave Saemann’s review in 35:1), it may seem more than a bit scrambly.
And the two Cherkassky items? Rémiuiscences de Don Juan was a Cherkassky specialty; and as you’d expected, both performances here are full of delights (note, as but two typically Cherkasskyesque examples, the grace of the quasi glissandos and the marvelous rubato leading into “Fin ch’han dal vino”). But why two performances, especially two German radio performances taped less than a year apart? Annotator Robert Matthew-Walker offers a curious explanation: Cherkassky’s interpretation, he says, has “barely changed,” and the similarity between the two readings “giv[es] the lie to those stories” commonly circulating about Cherkassky’s mercurial spirit. In a sense, he’s right: The performances are similar in overall approach, and many of the interpretive decisions that delight you on one show up on the other as well. Still, there are also audible differences in detail, especially in the “Là ci darem” section, where he plays with the music in a remarkably improvisatory manner. While neither performance is quite as dapper as his 1974 Aldeburgh account, both are very much worth knowing. Both, by the way, take the cut before the final measures.
So, a mixed bag-but worth exploration. If only the production were better. Guild gives the wrong date for the Mozart performance, which leaves the rest of the information under a cloud, and while Matthew-Walker is usually a reliable commentator, his notes here are surprisingly haphazard. As for the sound: All the performances are taken from “second-generation transcriptions,” and it shows. The Cherkassky items survive fairly well, but the Brailowsky and Serkin are distinctly mediocre. But given that only one of these performances seems to be in current circulation (the later Cherkassky is on Orfeo), that’s probably no bar for anyone tempted by the material.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Audiophile Audition February 06, 2011
Guild assembles four performances–with three pianists of distinct temperaments–recorded live between 1945 (Brailowsky) and 1958 (Serkin), each devoted to mainstream repertory. The appearance Alexander Brailowsky (1896-1976) in Boston with Serge Koussevitzky in the Mozart Concerto No. 23 (26 June 1945) comes as a major addition to both artists’ discographies and displays both performers’ mutual love of Mozart, a composer Koussevitzky recorded relatively prolifically. Brailowsky himself has endured with mixed appreciation for his musical gifts, which included a pearly tone and smooth surface patina, not always inclined to intellectual profundity. The spirited momentum of the sunny A Major Concerto Koussevitzky establishes immediately, and Brailowsky engages us with warm crisp runs and pointed phrasing. The truncated first movement cadenza proves quite romantic in affect, a display of runs and trills in tandem that that hurriedly moves to the orchestral tutti. The crux of the concerto, its F-sharp Minor Andante, offers Koussevitzky to apply his own lush magic and BSO string tone, on which he prided himself. The delicacy of color exchange becomes enticing and lyrical at once, the perfect vehicle for Brailowsky’s effervescent touch. The rather breathless Presto still manages a playful songfulness and debonair Mozart style that appeals to our love of liquid sound and undeniable virtuosity on the part of all participants.
The often-paired Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) and Dimitri Mitropoulos–both in Minneapolis and in New York–often led to electric and startlingly exciting music-making of a high order. The 1886 D Minor Burleske of Strauss (9 February 1958)–which Serkin recorded commercially with Ormandy in Philadelphia–provides a kind of demonic excursion in one movement set off by tympanic beats and a pulsation indebted to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Alternately convulsive and wistful in the manner of a Brahms waltz, the music twists and turns with volcanic fury, courtesy of the Serkin-Mitropoulos alchemy. The work’s natural percussive histrionics appeal to Serkin’s strong suits of a steely tone and blazing intensity. Serkin in an Atlanta interview recalled to me that he and Mitropoulos, having just performed Reger’s F Minor Concerto, had to repeat the last movement as an encore. And Mitropoulos always retained great sympathy for the music of Richard Strauss, including having programmed Death and Transfiguration with the NY Philharmonic in memoriam of Guido Cantelli.
Shura Cherkassky (1909-1995) remains a kind of Cheshire Cat in music, a curiously naïve artist who commanded an extraordinary repertory and range of digital colors. His great ability lay in making familiar music assume new contours and interior tones, often with startling depth. He offers two different renditions of Liszt’s punishing Don Juan Fantasy (7 February 1952 and 5 March 1953) that differ in timing by just over 20 seconds. The stentorian opening section–the Commandatore’s D Minor invocations to Don Giovanni’s perdition–soon yield to the extended La ci darem la mano variations in which Cherkassky finds rhythmic and dynamic wiggle room in both interpretations. Cherkassky’s interior work, the play of contrapuntal motives in legato and broken figurations, quite testifies to an imposing technical arsenal. The passionate transition to the Champagne Cherkassky takes marcato e staccato, unleashing finally a torrent of drunken frenzy, the Don’s blasphemous sensuality. This is a Liszt rhapsody after all, not “just” Mozart, and the combination by Cherkassky blisters and massages in a combustible miracle of sound.