Scale of the century

 

THE only surprise, you could say, about the grand enterprise that is Philips' Great Pianists of the 20th Century edition, is that nobody has done it before. The piano, is in many senses, the central instrument of western music. It's the instrument that composers confer with most frequently, and in the days before recorded music, it was an essential presence in the home - anything from the greatest symphonies and operas downwards could be had in a multitude of piano versions. For much of this century, possession of a piano was an important mark of social distinction. And, even today, the image of the towering keyboard virtuoso lives on - witness the atmosphere surrounding the finals of the Guardian Dublin International Piano Competition - and the legacy of the piano's versatility and self-sufficiency continues to spread through the developing range of electronic keyboards.

Philips's new venture is the largest record project ever undertaken, they say. Over the next year, they'll be issuing 100, twodisc sets, covering the work of 74 performers. In all, the 200 discs will include 250 hours of piano playing, over a quarter of which has never appeared on CD before, and around 90 minutes of which has never been available on disc at all.

The initiator of the project, Tom Deacon, who is Philips's director of catalogue exploitation, sees the distinctively-packaged sets as presenting music lovers with a guarantee of quality in a marketplace where choice has become so great that it's more confusing than liberating. With the classical CD catalogue now twice the size of the Dublin area telephone directory (and in smaller print), his fundamental argument was cogent enough to bring on board over 25 other record companies in a co-operative spirit that guaranteed access to the widest possible range of commercially recorded repertoire. Pianists represented will range from Paderewski, born in 1860, to Evgeny Kissin, born in 1971. Living performers have had an input into the selection of their own recordings, and Alfred Brendel helped with the choices for Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Kempff, three pianists he particularly admires.

Aptly enough, the first batch of 20 releases is crowned by the inimitable playing of Rachmaninov, representing an era when stylistic purism held little sway and, as a performer, the great man felt free to make everything he played as much his own as if he had composed it. Schumann's Carnaval and Chopin's Funeral March sonata fall as readily under his thrall as his own compositions and, idiosyncratic as aspects of his playing undoubtedly are, he steers clear of the eccentricities that often coloured the later work of Horowitz, a pianist he knew and admired. Less well known than either Rachmaninov or Horowitz was Josef Lhevinne (1874-1944), whose musicianship and pianism are out of all proportion to the meagreness of his activity in the recording studio - there's just enough to fill a single CD, and his set is completed by recordings of his wife, Rosina.

The liquidity he achieves in Chopin's study in thirds impresses as much as his elimination of struggle from Schumann's exhausting (for the pianist) Toccata. And in Schulz-Evler's Arabesques on The Blue Danube he offers about as insouciant a display of fancy piano playing as you're ever likely to hear.

The early loss of Dinu Lipatti (33 when he died in 1950), deprived the world of a major talent, a pupil of Enesco and Cortot whose perfectionism was legendary. Whatever he approached, he delivered with an equipoise that can make the interpretative centredness of his playing seem almost unquestionable. His was truly an art that concealed art.

OTHER departed figures include the firm, even austere, Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), whose take-it-or-leave-it style was captured live as he modulated from key to key to ease the transition between works; the simple certainty of Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), delivering Brahms as an interior monologue; the enigma of Clara Haskil (1885-1960), at the same time among the plainest and richest of Mozart interpreters; the enriching generosity of Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) in Chopin; and the far-sighted rigour of Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) in Prokofiev's three wartime sonatas plus the famous Sofia recital, a major early carrier of his fame to the west (listen out for the incomparable ripple of the double notes in Liszt's Feux follets); and the gentle but sometimes giant touch of Emil Gilels (1916-1985).

Among the living are two firebrands, Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, very different in approach and repertoire; two experts in polished modern circumspection, Perahia and Pollini, one warm, one cool; the ever thoughtful Alfred Brendel; and a superb colourist, Mikhail Pletnev, whose keyboard-as-orchestra arrangement of movements from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has already earned classic status.

The generously-annotated new series, priced at two for the price of one, may be shy in a number of areas - the earliest years of the century; players who excelled in contemporary music; chamber music in general; and details of the instruments used. But its riches are cornucopian, and as it progresses it's sure to stimulate a fresh audience and a fresh debate about pianists and piano-playing in general.