Wednesday, 31 December 2008


Decca 478 0474 (50 CDs)

Piano Masterworks is the modest title for this 50-CD box-set from Decca, possibly the largest single collection of piano music on CD since Philips’ Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century collection from the turn of the century. It draws from the rich back catalogues of Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon (the Polygram-Universal labels) and showcases performances from the late greats like Wilhelm Backhaus and Clara Haskil to relative youngsters like Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Evgeny Kissin.

Is this the ultimate piano box-set ever assembled? Almost, but not quite. This collection is aimed at the casual listener and beginner rather than connoisseur, the choice of recordings going for the popular, tried and tested rather than the historically informed. The works are also presented alphabetically by composer, not historically or chronologically. Thus, CD 1 is an all-Bach recital (from Andras Schiff) while CD 50 includes Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. (coupled with Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Tune, also with Schiff). All the other composers fall conveniently in between.

Because of its general nature and easy-listening slant, 20th century piano music is given short shrift. There is nothing more modern than Prokofiev and Gershwin here. No Scriabin (left), Bartok, Janacek or Szymanowski, just to name some early important 20th century composers who wrote for the piano. There is a concise but elegant essay about the history of the piano by Jeremy Siepmann in the booklet, but no biographical information on the composers or the pianists.

Sets like these will invariably draw lists of grouses, about who and what should have been included. There is also a niggling feeling that less thought has been put into compiling this list than should have been expected. For example, the entire first disc of Roberto Szidon’s collection of Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies was reproduced wholesale. The listener gets to hear to only the first 10 rhapsodies, when a more selective compilation (which should have included Nos. 11, 12, 13, 15 and 19) would have been preferable. André Previn’s all-Gershwin disc includes An American in Paris, which certainly does not qualify as a “piano masterwork”.

Personally, I could have done without Jean-Marc Luisada’s 2 discs worth of Chopin Mazurkas, and gone for the Études instead, with one CD to spare. Probably the single worst disc is Olli Mustonen’s perverse readings of the Chopin (No.1) and Grieg concertos. Almost anybody else in either concerto would have been preferable.

These caveats should not hide the fact that most if not all of the performances included are very good ones, and can stand tall in any respectable collection. Here are my personal favourites:

Martha Argerich (left) in Chopin Préludes (Op.28) – blistering stuff, especially her devil-may-care reading of the B flat minor Prélude – and a selection of short pieces. This is Argerich’s only contribution to the set, a pity.

Radu Lupu in two Schubert Sonatas (D.845 and 894). Magisterial and wonderfully idiomatic. Has anybody played these better?

Jean-Yves Thibaudet in two CDs of concertos with Charles Dutoit conducting – both Ravel and Liszt concertos with Totentanz, Hungarian Fantasy, and Concertinos by Arthur Honegger and Jean Francaix. These are terrific recordings of familiar repertoire, and also introduces the listener to less often-heard works.

Zoltan Kocsis (left) in all four Rachmaninov concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. These were vilified when they first appeared in the 1980s, but have stood the test of time because of their enormous energy and vitality. Kocsis’ own transcription of Vocalise (Op.34 No.14) is a delicious encore.

Alexander Toradze in Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos No.1,3 and 4 (for left hand) was an unusual choice, but these are impassioned and solid performances backed by no less than Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra.

Pascal Rogé in generous recitals of Debussy, Ravel (including one of the better Gaspards) and Satie.

Andras Schiff (left) in practically everything he does. Here we have his Bach (including piano concertos), Mozart sonatas (K.331-333), Mendelssohn concertos, Tchaikovsky and Dohnanyi. His Goldberg Variations should have been included instead of a much less refined one by Andrei Gavrilov.

What should have been included, and this is a personal wish-list:
Chopin Études (Ashkenazy, Pollini or Vasary), Grieg Lyric Pieces (Gilels), Brahms Variations and late pieces (Katchen), Scriabin Sonatas (Ashkenazy), Bartok piano works (Kocsis), Prokofiev Sonatas (Richter/Pollini for No.7) and Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petruskha (Pollini).

There was no room for some of the greatest pianists of the Universal stable such as Ashkenazy, Bolet, Brendel, Cherkassky, Horowitz, Pollini, Uchida and Zimerman. However one gets Arrau, Barenboim, Berman, Curzon, Gulda, Kempff, Kissin, Richter and Serkin – not too shabby at all. At SGD$159.95 or just over SGD$3 a disc, this is still a reasonable bargain, and will make a very pleasant Christmas or New Year surprise.

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