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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 1

100 Definitive Recordings

by Norman Lebrecht / September 22, 2005


Here are the most recent installments of Norman Lebrecht's 100 Definitive Recordings

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CD 47: Chopin: Waltzes
Dinu Lipatti
EMI: Radio Geneva studios, July 1950

The Romanian pianist, just 33 when he died, made his precious few recordings while suffering from leukemia, but there is nothing of the sickbed about his blistering performances. Lipatti's crisp, witty articulation dispels the image of Chopin as a morbid melancholic, though neither man remained long in this world. There is a devilment to the playing, an almost improvisatory approach that derives from Lipatti's private passion for hot jazz.

A powerfully-built man of wealthy parentage, he spent the late 1930s in Paris with Alfred Cortot and Nadia Boulanger but wound up starving in Switzerland in 1943. The Geneva Conservatoire gave him a job and EMI a record deal, but he was already deathly pale. The arrival of the drug Cortisone in the summer of 1950 gave him a burst of energy and optimism that made even the moody Chopin waltzes in minor keys sparkle with high spirits. Sadly the remission was shortlived and he was gone by Christmas. Unique among star pianists, Lipatti always let the music speak for itself.


CD 48: Horowitz
DG: NY, April 1985

Vladimir Horowitz had more comebacks than Lucifer. Every decade or so, the demons would take over and he would be medicated or hospitalized out of circulation. Manic depressive and awkwardly gay, he was the epitome of the wacko pianist, living on a diet of boiled fish and playing only at 4:30 in the afternoon. He was also the most natural of artists, blessed with a touch that defied gravity and extended notes beyond the remit of pedal power: once heard, never forgotten.

His final comeback, in his 82nd year, was captured on film by the Maysles brothers and on disc by his lifelong RCA producer John Pfeiffer, on hire to DG. The session in his Upper East Side apartment took six afternoons and evenings, but Horowitz sounded as fresh throughout as he had when he first burst onto the scene in 1920, springing from Russia with his lifelong pal, violinist Nathan Milstein, by order of Lenin's culture commissar.

No pianist has ever taken the Busoni transcription of a Bach chorale so slowly, revealing the giant edifice behind it, nor has anyone, the composer included, filled Rachmaninov's G# minor prelude with such foreboding. Mozart and Chopin are treated as if they were Horowitz's contemporaries, tormented romantics in a bewildering world. This is the last great record of a virtuoso recital, and its location, in the pianist's living room, provides an almost unbearable intimacy.

CD 49: Beethoven violin concerto
Fritz Kreisler
HMV: Berlin, September 1926

The sweet-toned Fritz Kreisler is revered by violinists as diverse as Nigel Kennedy and Maxim Vengerov. In a recent study called Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (University of California Press), author Mark Katz credits him with changing the way violinists play in the recording studio, keeping up a long vibrato throughout the work. His cadenza for the Beethoven concerto the part where soloists are expected to let their hair down was adopted as standard by less fertile violinists; so much so that Hitler was unable to ban it and merely had Kreisler's name expunged from programmes.

Viennese by birth and temperament, Kreisler had a sunny disposition, twinkling through happy passages and dancing at the very edge of schmaltziness in sentimental pieces. In Beethoven, however, he was austere, aware of the immensity of the concerto and his own contribution to its legend. With Leo Blech and the Berlin opera orchestra, his approach is measured, unflustered and entirely unostentatious. Personal quirks are imperceptible and every note is set firmly in its place, as if he intended this to be a record for all time.

As for the cadenzas, they do exactly what the composer expected reflect back on what has just been played and extrapolate putative alternatives. Kreisler's is the benchmark account of this concerto and, though he rerecorded it with better sound in London ten years later, the original is unsurpassably concentrated.

CD 50: Brahms: 1st piano concerto (D minor)
Artur Rubinstein/Chicago SO/Reiner
RCA: Chicago, April 17, 1954

Beaten by CBS to launching the LP, RCA got in first with stereo. After experimental sessions in New York with the audio-conscious Leopold Stokowski, the engineers went to Boston to capture a Berlioz Damnation of Faust with Charles Munch. The results were spacious but ill-defined beside a good mono recording. On they went to Chicago, where the orchestra had a tough new music director in Fritz Reiner, and the label's top-selling pianist, Artur Rubinstein, to play the first Brahms concerto.

Conductor and soloist did not see eye to eye they rowed over Reiner's imputation that Chopin had been gay but, aware of the new technology, they produced a performance in which orchestral colours sparkled and glowed, and the piano was set realistically, centre-left, instead of far ahead of the band, as Rubinstein preferred. The technical team taped the performance on three microphones, each wired to a separate channel, overcoming the boxiness of previous attempts. This was the recording where stereo came of age. It took another four years before the format was released; the record industry was forced to wait for domestic hi-fis to catch up.


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