Sunday, October 25, 2009


I am falling down the corridors of cyber-information with delight. Several months ago I "discovered" the number of classical performances on You-tube, last night all sorts of sources for music ranging from Fado to Sean-nos. This almost makes up for a huge record collection jettisoned during a divorce. The You-tube phenomena is interesting for the great music available, as well as the sometimes imbecilic commentary which accompanies it. Thanks to a site called Tru-crypt I have been able to acquaint myself with Soviet-period pianists of the Russian school about whom I had only heard before. Pianists have their geneology--what Lincoln Kirstein used to call in ballet the "apostolic succession". Some of these studied with Tchaikovsky's friend, the great Anton Rubinstein. And one, Vladimir Sofrinitsky, was the son in law of Scriabin. Scriabin wanted his later works to be accompanied by light shows and the burning of incense-- psychedelia avant la lettre--and hoped that he could hang bells from the sky. Such were the aspirations of the pre-Bolshevic theosophists. His perverse, beautiful sonatas, with their air of opium-smoking in the orchid pavilion, have had many distinguished advocates, including Horowitz, Richter, John Ogdon, Askenazi, but the Scriabinisti accord
special status to Sofrinitsky, and in hearing them, I can hear why. He manages to give a human amplitude to what can sometimes seem pathological, special case, like a madhouse made of venetian glass. But it was Sofrinitsky's recording of a very great piece of music, the Chopin op. 60 Barcarolle, which really floored me. This is a work to which Friedrich Nietzchte ascribed transcendent powers. Sofrinitsky's is among the best I have heard. Here,however, is where the fly is found in the ointment, in the comments made. Someone says that the Sofrinitsky blows away Dinu Lipatti's classic account , and someone else says that of the performance of Alfred
Cortot. I listened to both again, and to a performance of Artur Rubinstein's from 1958, and each seemed definitive as I listened, as did an admirable account by Krystian Zimmerman. And each, of course, was subtly different, the Sofrinitsky performance being almost two minutes longer than Dinu Lipatti's account, a minute longer than Rubinsteins, and three quarters of a minute longer than Cortot, as I dazzedly recall. The sound world of each pianist was also quite different--for tonal beauty it would be difficult to match Cortot, the earliest recording, but this impression soon evaporated at different times which each of the others. Completely unnecessary and ungenerous to demote any of these superb performances at the expense of the others, as the Chopin Barcarolle itself is the raison d'etre. In heaven there are many mansions. Which brings me to the imbecilic aspect of comparison here: if a great work has been played for over a century and a half by an array of pianists of the first rank there is room. Time has made room and we can choose different interpretations in different seasons. There is no need to beat excellence down. I have given up on "definitive" performances myself, though like anyone else I have my druthers. Strange but enlightening to hear a Beethoven sonata on a forte-piano. Years ago I would only listen to Bach or Handel if played on a harpsichord. To continue with this dogma, useful in its way, would have deprived me of the Bach and Handel of Andras Schiff, Richter, and Glenn Gould. Each has given me joy, and joy is always in short quantity. Apropos which, one You-tuber said of Gould's Bach that it exploded Sviatslav Richter's. By wicked coincidence, I had just listened to an interview with Glenn Gould in which he described Richter as the greatest musical communicator he had ever heard.

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