Maurizio Pollini

Pollini recorded the Chopin Etudes for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970s, a very famous recording. I had it on cassette tape, and it had easily the best sound of anything I owned on that long dead medium. I played it many times.

It’s an extraordinary recording. The sound is sonorous, the notes are bright and (like Wenceslas’s snow) crisp and even, the tempo is unflagging, the virtuosity awesome, clean and controlled in the most difficult passages. What could you change? The word perfect offers itself as an appropriate label.

I don’t know if the recording reflected or if it actually started the obsession with accuracy, velocity and clarity that seemed to characterise recorded piano playing in the 1980s. It certainly got me expecting and listening for flawlessness in piano playing rather than anything more interesting. Kissin scored highly here. Perahia could do it with added prettiness. In fact everyone was required to hit the notes with supreme accuracy and control, and lots of people could, it seemed, perhaps with a bit of editing thrown in. Everything was edited, even ‘live’ recordings.

I think we are a bit less bothered by errors today, and no longer looking for what Glenn Gould mocked as the ideal of a museum quality performance: one you could select and buy and put on the shelf, satisfied that you own the definitive Etudes or Waldstein or Great A Major. When you’ve got that, it turns out that you can still be excited by the performance that is different, and the performer who takes risks. This is what we now look for, well, I do. 

It turns out that Pollini made an earlier recording of the Etudes in 1960, which he did not allow to be released. Testament brought it out in 2012.

This is fresher, lighter, less rigidly controlled and, I think, more interesting. The DG version is, at times, wearying in its relentless progress. A bit of humanity, meaning a sense of the limited but responding, interpreting artist, is, it turns out, most welcome, necessary, perhaps.

There are, after all, many, many recordings of the Etudes, and most of them have merits. Perahia is superb, Lortie is great, Cortot is himself, and Lugansky is wonderful, to name a few. 

An interesting question to ask is why Rubinstein, that fine, fine Chopinist, never recorded them. They are, I suppose, Chopin’s most motoric, mechanistic pieces, and maybe something in Rubinstein was repelled by them. And maybe something in Pollini was turned on by them. And not the best part of him. I think a lot of his playing is so  controlled that it’s dull, like much of the 1980s. That early recording is something else. But the DG one also stands as a monument to how far you can go in one particular direction: cool, firm, implacable, beautiful, superhuman, awesome and grand. I no longer have the cassette, but I wouldn’t be without the recording.

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Mikhail Pletnev


‘Why does Pletnev look so unhappy?’ wondered Richter in his journal, ‘You’d think that playing was a torment for him.’

I thought Richter looked serious on stage, but Pletnev’s face is unmoving. There is a stillness about his body and an economy of movement in his hands that looks like weariness or boredom. But the music is not like that at all.

Pletnev was born in 1957. When he was 21 he won the Tchaikovsky competition and became a national treasure. As Russia transitioned to democracy he founded the Russian National Orchestra in competition to the Russian State Orchestra. He has long pursued careers as a conductor and composer as well as a pianist. What is he like?

As a man he is highly enigmatic. As a pianist he is an intense interpreter. There is always something going on. There is a double CD recording of Scarlatti from 1995. He works so hard in them, bringing colour and atmosphere to the pieces, making the repeats different, shaping the episodic music into a developing whole. He is technically superb and brings brilliance and energy to the pieces – such a contrast with his demeanour.

But check out this Chopin.

That is so weird, such an unusual sound for Chopin, awkward, slow, lumpy and without the sweep and surge that you might expect. Certainly original, though. Pletnev says he plays without any plan, just sits down and sees how it goes. Sometimes, perhaps it’s not so good.

I once tuned in the car radio to a performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and heard the most outrageous delay of a note for dramatic effect. It made me grin at the complete cheek of it. It was Pletnev, and he often does this, working at the rhythm, not destabilising it, but holding up or hurrying on for interpretative effect. It’s a declamatory style and gives the impression of a powerful personality – but when you see him as well as hearing him, that vanishes.

Here he is in the finest form in the Tchaikovsky concerto. His double octaves in the first movement at about 11.45 are very well filmed, and the playing’s not too shabby, either.

Once again, please click on the YouTube button at the bottom right of the window and listen to it direct from YouTube – then the pictures and sound will synchronise.


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Shura Cherkassky

The first Odessa born pianist to feature on this blog (there will be a surprising number of others) Shura (Alexander) was born in 1909. His mother, who once played for Tchaikovsky, was his first teacher. Rachmaninoff would only take him on if he gave up concerts for two years and completely changed the position of his hands at the keyboard; for some reason Cherkassky didn’t fancy that. Josef Hofman did take him on, as did David Saperton.

Cherkassky-Shura-01[Clive-Barda]Cherkassky had an enormously long career and is spoken of with great affection, though also as someone who could occasionally be perverse or silly. He was a charmer of audiences, mischievous, humorous and affectionate.

He had great control of his sound and style, which enabled him to find unexpected angles on pieces of music. A brilliant virtuoso technique, but with amazing colour and expressiveness as well.

He lived a simple life. After America he lived in London in a small hotel, a simple and rigid life, swimming, four hours of practice, sleeping long, never drinking.

He never taught and said he simply couldn’t. His playing was instinctive and unreflective, and perhaps all the more direct for that.

He expressed great admiration for Martha Argerich, apparently awed by her virtuosity.

I recently bought a BBC issue of his last Wigmore Hall recital. It’s a great disc. There’s a hugely enjoyable account of Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, which enjoys the fun if not daft side of the piece, and some Rameau that simply hangs in the air as if by wizardry. Most surprising to me, though, is Hindemith’s 3rd Piano Sonata, which actually sounds enjoyable, even beautiful.

I also have a set of Nimbus CDs of him playing a variety of pieces with Chopin to the fore. They’re not regarded as good recordings – he was a pianist who needed an audience. Nonetheless I remember a number of times when I’ve had them playing in the background while doing something else, and a bar was so unexpected or delightful that it won my attention back.

There is plenty of Cherkassky on YouTube. I’ve chosen this link to an amateur, and possibly illegal recording, because it’s the same piece as Grimaud plays in the post below.


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Hélène Grimaud

Another pianist of Sephardic Jewish ancestry is Hélène Grimaud. Born in Aix-en-Provence in 1969, Grimaud is an exceptionally beautiful woman, which unfairly put me off her at first. I thought she might be being marketed because of her face.


I suppose it helps, but there is more to her than beauty. There are wolves, for a start. Grimaud co-founded a wolf sanctuary in the States and apparently remains very committed to it.

600_oestAn interesting choice, wolves.

She has a fairly wide repertoire, covering Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Pärt and Corigliano. A generous set of recordings issued very cheaply by Brilliant Classics includes some that date from her mid teens; she was playing all sorts when she was still very young.

She plays with great sweep and freedom and has a distinctive sound. A hyper-clarity has been in vogue for some time. Perhaps it started with Pollini’s astonishing Chopin Etudes, but you can hear it everywhere now, in Kissin’s brittle, crystalline fingerwork or Hamelin’s pianistic anatomy lessons.

Grimaud uses lots of pedal, though. She allows the inner lines of harmony to become desynchronised causing a slightly clattering and thick texture. She plays the middle and lower registers of the keyboard with weight producing a voluptuous sound. She accents boldly and uses rubato liberally.

These are characteristics that most recent pianists seem to regard as faults. Clean and crisp chords, a minimal interference with rhythm and accents designed not to draw attention to themselves are the order of the day. Grimaud breaks all these rules, yet the sound she makes is gorgeous. She is an exceptionally beautiful pianist. And for all her freedom with rhythm, her performances have great impetus and exhilarating life. Not the Argerich push, but a natural topple like a waterfall.

I think her performance of the Brahms 3rd Piano Sonata is the best I know. It’s a piece that seems badly written, misjudged, in many versions, pompous and heavy, but Grimaud’s way with its many flourishes works better than anyone I know (apart, perhaps, from an LP I have of an Edwin Fischer version, that probably doesn’t count because it’s from a piano roll).

helene-grimaud-540x304Her album of Chopin’s and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd sonatas makes me wish the word ravishing hadn’t been so mishandled. Give it a good listening and I think you might find words intrusive. There is, though, an extraordinary essay by Grimaud on death included in the liner notes.

And today I listened to a recording of Dichterliebe by Grimaud and the cellist Jan Vogler. By the half way mark I stopped missing the words and the human voice and looked forwards to hearing how different each song sounded as an instrumental.

Always interesting, always original, old fashioned in a very good way (I think she reminds me of Moiseiwitsch more than anyone else) and with that freedom that inspires because it is infectious. Even in the stuffy world of classical music it appears that it is possible to be yourself.


[ On my browser, if you click on the ‘watch it on YouTube’ button on the bottom right, you will be able to watch without the horrible video quality.]


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Murray Perahia

When I first started exploring piano music, buying LPs and getting to know more and more pieces, following my likes from one composer, one piece, to another, Murray Perahia was one of the first pianists I became aware of.

parahia1In particular, I had his recording of the Schumann Fantasy. I loved it. I bought the score, sat at the piano and played slowly through the outer movements (the second is incredibly hard). I listened to Perahia playing the same notes. This was a marvel to me. The same notes, no more accurately played than when I had played them, no faster, probably slower, but completely different and wonderful. This man could stop time! He did things with a phrase, or should I say he did things with a string of notes that turned them into a phrase, into a communication, a sigh, a gesture drawing you in, a declaration, a reaching out and touching.

So I became a Perahia fan. Not so much his Mozart, and I’m not a hundred percent sure about his Chopin, but in Schumann he remains for me one of the very best.

I have his recording of Schumann’s Sonata Opus 11. In the last movement there is a passage marked fortissimo and presto which has four-note chords in each hand, all marked sforzando. Perahia plays these more crisply, cleanly and brightly than any other performance I’ve heard. He accelerates into them and chops them out. It’s a thrilling moment, and a great high point for his performance of the work.

So he does slow, moody and poetic, but also brilliant and bravura. Perhaps that’s why he’s so good in Schumann – Eusebius and Florestan are both there.

leedsperahiaPerahia is a New Yorker, of Sephardic Jewish ancestry. His father took him to the opera when he was only four years old, beginning his love of music. He won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1972. In the 1980s he studied with Horowitz and is supposed to have told him he wanted to be more than just a virtuoso. Horowitz replied that to be more than a virtuoso you first have to be a virtuoso. (Though I think I’ve heard this story with other people in it!)

He can’t be very tall, because in this black and white photograph he is only a little taller than Fanny Waterman, the founder and leader of the Leeds, and she is very short.

I heard Perahia give the first piano recital in the newly opened Bridgwater Hall in Manchester. He began with a Scarlatti Sonata. It was one of his magical moments holding back time, a call to attention, then the steady flow of a simple tune, poised and stately. I could see the Spanish court in their embroidered slippers making a stately entrance. It’s a reasonably easy sonata, but in Perahia’s fingers anything but ordinary.

He has had a couple of breaks from performance due to a problem with his thumb. It started as a simple paper cut, but developed into an infection and the growth of a bony spur for which he eventually risked surgery. I believe that full movement has never been restored, and he has had to cancel concerts from time to time. But when he’s not playing he studies and widens his repertoire.

His playing might be judged a little too refined. He has been criticised for always ‘tapering phrases’, that is, easing into them, growing louder and perhaps faster, and then playing more quietly and slowing as they end. It sounds good, but perhaps can be overdone. He gives the impression of being a polite and quiet man, and his moments of power, as in the Schumann Sonata or the opening of the Bach 3rd English Suite which was part of the Bridgwater Hall concert, are highly refined moments of power. There is never any rudeness in his playing. You seldom feel he is pressing his limits or hear his co-ordination grow rough. I think he was a truly great pianist for those days in the 1970s and 80s when everyone wanted the most perfect performance in the most perfect recording possible. Today we like things more vivid and original, and to some Perahia may seem slightly tame. The excitement is there, the sense of danger isn’t. But he’s still developing as an artist, and I for one, will always be grateful to him for opening my ears to the secret worlds inside quiet bars of Schumann.

Murray Perahia, born 1947, lived for many years in Ealing, though I think I read that he has recently moved.

Highlights: Bach Goldberg Variations. Mozart K448 with Radu Lupu. Schumann sonatas, Fantasy. Bach/Busoni. Scarlatti sonatas and Handel Chaconne and Variations.

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