A master Russian pianist rediscovered

Many years ago, I interviewed Mstislav Rostropovich and had the temerity to ask him about some of the lesser-known Russian musicians he would perhaps have known in his (relative) youth, lesser-known to us Brits that is, players such as the pianists Maria Yudina, Heinrich Neuhaus and Vladimir Sofronitsky, the violinists Elizabeth Gilels, Boris Goldstein and Julian Sitkovetsky, the cellists Daniil Shafran and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky and various others. Why did their reputations obstinately remain within Russian borders (the Iron Curtain had recently fallen)? His answer went something like (and this is not verbatim), ‘with the presence [on disc] of David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and their like, I suppose these others, good as they are (or were), are less important.’ Interesting, eh? Here was a man, the equivalent of a freedom-loving escapee, who, with good reason, was embraced by the West and seemed uncomfortable about discussing those eminently talented compatriots, either dead or alive, who he had left behind. I suppose I can understand his reasoning. Better join hands with others who along with himself were being celebrated, even lauded to the skies by the Big Publicity Machine in the West. Still, quality playing should never be forgotten, and those lesser known guys have a good deal to teach us. 

Another name I might have mentioned, although I hardly even knew it at the time, is the Russian pianist and teacher Anatoly Vedernikov (1920-1993), a pupil of Neuhaus, who has been previously celebrated on the Denon label with a series of some 26 cds. Scribendum’s 17-cd The Art of Anatoly Vedernikov, SC821, c£56.25 although far from comprehensive will give you some idea of Vedernikov’s highly original style of playing. Typically for this label there are no notes, but there’s plenty of information about the pianist available online, for example at  https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Vedernikov-Anatoly.htm

This selection has been out for some little while but nonetheless warrants comment. Vedernikov, a friend of Sviatoslav Richter (whose playing rather resembles his own), is above all a probing interpreter and their joint recording of Bartók’s darkly dramatic Sonata for two pianos and percussion, fortunately featured here, is striking in its forceful rhythms, slow tempi and gripping sense of atmosphere. You can also hear the same artists in Bach’s Concerto, BWV 1061, with Rudolf Barshai conducting (the finale is best). Vedernikov was a sort of Celibidache of the piano in his frequent preferences for broad speeds, the coolly sophisticated ‘Forlane’ from Ravel’s La tombeau to Couperin being rather funereal whereas ‘Hommage à Romeau’ from the first book of Debussy’s Images is stately almost to a fault. 

The first three CDs are devoted to Bach, one of the highlights there being a transcription of In dulci jubilo that in Vedernikov’s hands sounds like the distant chiming of bells, every strand gentle yet perfectly clear. Another memorable Bach reading is in the Sixth English Suite (all six are included), in particular the deeply pondered, near-on static ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Double’. Debussy is also accorded three discs, the Préludes especially full of novel tone colouring. There’s plenty of Prokofiev too, including pointed and sometimes acerbic accounts of various miniatures and a 1960 recording of the Fourth (Left Hand) Piano Concerto under Leo Ginzburg, forcefully played and perhaps Vedernikov’s best-known recording in the West. As for Hindemith, Vedernikov performs alongside the exceptional Russian cellist Natalia Gutman in the affecting Second Cello Sonata and is equally memorable in the endlessly varying Four Temperaments for piano and orchestra where the silky-smooth Leningrad Chamber Orchestra sounds as if made up of first-desk players from the Leningrad Philharmonic, so exceptional is the quality of their contribution. The conductor is Lazar Gozman. 

I was fascinated to note that for Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka Vedernikov plays his own novel arrangement, which in the third movement, ‘The Shrovetide Fair’, reaches far beyond the usual ending (as in the so-called Petrushka Suite) and stretches instead to the mysterious, ghostly close of the original ballet (offering us 12:40 worth of music rather than the usual eight or so minutes). So if you’ve learned this music from Pollini (on DG) you’re in for a shock. Scriabin is represented by the Chopinesque Op. 11 Preludes (try No. 10, the C sharp minor, a sort of melodramatic ‘Prelude Pathétique’) and the last two sonatas, the Tenth, with its orgasmic trills and enigmatic ending, coming off especially well.

Schumann’s quota includes that Fantasy in C, the high point there being a dignified closing movement whereas Brahms’s Third Sonata benefits from fastidious interpretative judgement and easeful virtuosity, especially in the scherzo and finale. Haydn’s E minor Sonata HOB.XVI:34 enjoys an approach where even within the first couple of minutes Vedernikov runs the gamut from a dramatic staccato to a beguiling lightening of tone and various sparkling grades of dynamic in between, whereas on a Beethoven disc the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is both sustained and slow, as marked. And there’s a gorgeous Partita Seconda in B flat by Johann Ludwig Krebs, a student of Bach who held his pupil in high esteem. Add music by Chopin, Franck, Galynin, Handel, Mozart, Liszt, Ustvolskaya and Weber and you have the generous basis of a highly stimulating collection, not uniformly perfect perhaps, but refreshing, even invigorating, if savoured patiently rather than gulped down like fast food. The sound, in both mono and stereo, is good, though no sources are given.

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