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Celebrated pianists, late in the day

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“Vladimir Horowitz Rediscovered: Carnegie Hall Recital, Nov. 16, 1975”

Vladimir Horowitz, piano (RCA Victor Red Seal)

**

“The Incomparable Rudolf Serkin”

Rudolf Serkin, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

**

Rudolf Serkin and Vladimir Horowitz were close contemporaries. By the time the Austrian Serkin (born in 1903) and the Russian Horowitz (a year younger) immigrated to America in the late 1930s, they were already two of the most celebrated pianists of their day, and their reputations continued to grow throughout their long American careers. They became friends. But they had next to nothing in common as artists. Horowitz had the flashy superhuman technique that made him the envy of pianists everywhere. And boy, could he bang! Serkin was a serious, poetic intellect, but you always felt him struggle with the keyboard. Hearing Horowitz would inspire him to practice day and night; still, he never made playing sound easy. But his performances were warm and memorably insightful guides into the depths of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms.

These two sets catch the pianists late in their careers -- unfortunately, too late. The two-disc Horowitz set will be of interest to his fans simply because it captures a complete concert, unedited and never before released on record. The pianist was in his early 70s and had only recently returned to the concert stage after one of his long absences. His fingers worked fine -- he is loud, fast and electric in a quirky program that includes Schumann’s “Blumenstuck” and Third Sonata, along with small pieces by Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Chopin. But to my taste, it all sounds pretty confused -- jerky phrasings and showoffy plunges into virtuosic finger work that seem to exist for no better reason than dramatizing the pianist’s ego. On the first listen, I felt seasick but thought the wooziness might go away on a second hearing. It didn’t. Not for the pianistically squeamish, this.

The Serkin collection, also a two-CD set, begins with live performances of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas taken from a concert in Vienna that Serkin gave in 1987, three years before his death. The second disc contains Brahms’ First Cello Sonata, which Serkin recorded with Mstislav Rostropovich in 1983, and a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, performed with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado in 1988. Certainly the formal rigor and eloquence of Serkin’s playing are everywhere evident, but the pianist’s age shows. He is still Serkin in the Brahms (keeping the flamboyant Rostropovich grounded) and lovable in the Mozart. And there are moments in the Beethoven sonatas that rise to the sublime -- most notably in the variations movement of Opus 111 -- but too many passages were beyond him by this point. Even though Serkin was never comfortable in the recording studio, his earlier studio Beethoven recordings on Sony are the ones to search out.

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-- Mark Swed

A splendid pair of Dvorak Serenades

Dvorak: String and Wind Serenades

Vienna Philharmonic; Myung-Whun Chung, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)

***

Although neither of Dvorak’s tuneful serenades is programmed often in local concert halls, there are plenty of recordings available. Indeed, this is the second time through this repertory for Chung on CD -- the first is available on the ASV label -- and on this occasion he is driving the luxury-class vehicle of the Vienna Philharmonic. With the lusciously dark cellos resounding throughout Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal -- probably the world’s finest concert hall -- in the String Serenade, no wonder that Chung takes his time gliding through the waltz movement and savoring the broad swells of the scherzo’s second theme. The Wind Serenade, which has a stronger Czech flavor than its string cousin, is splendidly played by 10 plush-toned Vienna wind soloists, supported by a cello and a bass.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Tempos seem to stretch time

Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Dallas Symphony; Andrew Litton, conductor; Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano (Delos)

**

The only virtue of this recording is hearing Mahler’s extensive contrapuntal lines played so clearly and cleanly. But the cost is enormous. Litton enforces slow tempos -- at nearly an hour, the performance is actually not that much longer than others; it just seems so -- with little emotional insight. You won’t find much sweetness or schmaltz here, and there is virtually no inwardness whatsoever. Even the glorious climax of the slow movement, in which the gates of paradise are thrown open in preparation for the last movement, falls flat. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, the soloist in the last movement, sounds bleaty in midrange, but her voice blossoms at the top. No text or translation is provided in the liner notes.

-- Chris Pasles

Latvian history poured out

Vasks: Symphony No. 2, Violin Concerto “Distant Light”

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgards, violin, conductor; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra; Juha Kangas, conductor (Ondine)

** 1/2

Latvian composer Peteris Vasks has taken the burden of his small country’s mostly subjugated history upon his shoulders, and lately, he has been pouring his emotions into large, intermittently inspired, single-movement structures. Written for a huge orchestra, the Symphony No. 2 (1998-99) opens with a Brucknerian mountain of sound, and passages of contemplation alternate with loud, anguished sonic blocks in the manner of Kancheli, though not as abruptly. Yet once Vasks comes to the downcast conclusion after 39 minutes, you feel that he has thrown in several climaxes too many. The Violin Concerto (1996-97), previously recorded by Gidon Kremer, is mostly a series of lengthy, meditative adagios, with a brief folk-like scherzo episode near its center. Storgards conducts the symphony and plays the violin, with Kangas conducting, in the concerto; his tone here sounds like an overly abrasive exaggeration of Kremer’s own.

-- R.S.G.

Engaging even without visuals

“Thirteen Ways”

eighth blackbird (Cedille)

***

What you won’t get from eighth blackbird’s mostly satisfying debut CD is a sense of the acclaimed new-music ensemble’s unusual performance habits: playing from memory and moving around the stage choreographically. Somehow, though, the instincts behind those practices -- a will to engage the audience and to approach music with both an illuminating seriousness and a sense of fun -- come through on this carefully varied set of works.

The gifted sextet’s repertory is contemporary yet appealing to the senses. It includes Joan Tower’s 1980 vibrant miniature, “Petroushskates,” the fragmentary gleam of George Perle’s “Critical Moments 2” and the seductive post-tonal wanderings in David Schober’s “Variations.” Composer Thomas Albert, father of eighth blackbird violinist-violist Matt Albert, penned one of the group’s signature pieces, “Thirteen Ways,” in 1997. Closing this recording, its Steve Reichian flittering of parts and brooding loveliness are interrupted by distracting narrated snippets of the source material, Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The spoken word, unfortunately, yanks us out of a reverie inspired by the ensemble’s luster, a sound worth tracking as it evolves.

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-- Josef Woodard

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