Saturday, July 10, 2004

Bach, pianos and a 'marauding Tartar'

ACD in Sounds and fury has an inspiring post at the moment about Wanda Landowska's playing of Bach. Nice to come across this while I'm in the process of checking out three different versions of the English Suite No.3 on behalf of a pianist friend who is performing it next week and is curious about who does what with it.

My three versions are Glenn Gould (1974), Rosalyn Tureck (1948) and Andras Schiff (1988). Each of them treats Bach with absolute respect. None of them allows their own personality to be subsumed in that respect. Instead, each individual, with all his or her quirks and idiosyncracies, joins forces with Bach to produce a unified vision of this intensely powerful and beautiful work. My personal top choice - after much chewing of cud - is narrowly the Tureck, which is available on a VAI disc called Rosalyn Tureck: The Young Visionary. She once famously said to Landowska: 'You play Bach your way. I'll play it HIS way.'

The following may be sacrilege to some, but I don't like the Gould recording. If madness and genius are as close as people say, I do feel Gould tips the balance in the wrong direction. Schiff sings and dances his way through the work in a truly uplifting spirit, achieving a little more weightiness with slightly slower tempi. I'd choose Tureck because she brings an extra awe-struck inwardness to the Sarabande, and the lightness of her articulation is staggeringly impressive, especially in the Gigue.

What I will be most curious about now is what my mate Rustem Hayroudinoff makes of it when he performs it at the Petworth Festival on 26 July. For any pianist, young or otherwise, approaching Bach is a daunting task. You have to ride on the crest of a wave that consists not only of all the arguments pro and contra playing Bach on the piano at all, but also the outstanding interpretations that have gone before you.

I should introduce Rustem to you. I first came across him ten years ago, when he was relatively new to London, fresh out of the Moscow Conservatory. He's proud to be a Tartar, from Kazan, and he happily marauds his way through life with a few assets: superlative playing, a quick brain and sharp eye and a sense of humour that spares nothing and nobody. He has so many hair-raising stories of life in Russia, people who take shameful advantage of naive youngsters from foreign parts and, not least, corruption in piano competitions, that I often tease him by saying he'd make his fortune fastest if he wrote his memoirs.

For reasons too complex to go into here, he has had some bad luck from time to time which means that he has not yet become the household name that maybe he ought to be. However, when he found a volume of Shostakovich Theatre Music arranged for piano and realised that most of it had never been recorded, it was his sheer creativity and persistence that resulted in this becoming his first solo disc for Chandos a few years ago. The disc bowled over not only me but several other critics as well with its wit and vitality and Chandos sensibly signed him up for more. Earlier this year his CD of the complete Rachmaninov Preludes came out to universal acclaim (have a look at the reviews on his website), and a delicious CD of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata with cellist Alexander Ivashkin was hot on its heels. At last many critics are realising that Rustem has more to say - and a more beautiful way of saying it - than many far more famous note-bashers of his generation.

You can hear him, if you're in London, on the afternoon of 25 July at the Chopin Society; and at the Petworth Festival in West Sussex the next day. The programme includes a substantial Chopin selection and, of course, the Bach English Suite No.3. All his discs are available from Amazon and I can't recommend them highly enough.