Magazine article Gramophone

Gary Graffman: Jeremy Nicholas Listens to the Collected RCA and Columbia Recordings of a Much-Loved American Pianist and Teacher

Magazine article Gramophone

Gary Graffman: Jeremy Nicholas Listens to the Collected RCA and Columbia Recordings of a Much-Loved American Pianist and Teacher

Article excerpt

Gary Graffman is one of that quintet of great American pianists born in the 1920s whose glittering careers came to an abrupt end. William Kapell died in a plane crash aged 31, Julius Katchen was taken by cancer aged 42, while Leon Fleischer, Byron Janis and Graffman all suffered incapacitating problems with their hands. Graffman lost the use of his right hand in 1979, since when he has devoted himself to works for the left and become a distinguished teacher. His best-known pupils are Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, whose tribute to Graffman prefaces the booklet accompanying this set.

It comprises all the discs Graffman made for RCA between 1956 and 1961 (nine LPs/CDs) and for Columbia between 1962 and 1979 (15 discs). It is thrice welcome. First, many have never appeared on CD before; second, after Graffman's long absence from the concert stage and recording studio, it provides pianophiles and those too young to have heard him with a forceful reminder of just how good he was; third, the beautifully presented and carefully annotated collection is a worthy accolade for Graffman's 85th birthday (14 October). Each disc is a miniature reproduction of the original LP housed in the original sleeve, so don't expect standard CD length. Disc 6, for example (Beethoven's Third Concerto with Hendl) lasts 34'04", the classic Tchaikovsky First with Szell just 33'50".

I turned first to the recordings through which I first became acquainted with Graffman: 'The Virtuoso Liszt' (1960) and Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 (1965). In the Liszt, Graffman is closely recorded in a small acoustic--not untypical for RCA at the time--usually the ingredients for an unsympathetic, lifeless piano tone. Not here. In these intimate surroundings Graffman makes the piano sing. The popular items (Liebestraum No. 3, Un sospiro, etc) are freshly minted, while the complete sextet of Paganini Etudes boasts the deliciously nonchalant kind of bravura that makes most pianists weep with envy (try No. 4, 'Arpeggio'). And while on the subject of bravura technique, don't miss Graffman's jaw-dropping Islamey from 1962 (disc 10), one of the fastest and most coherent ever recorded.

The Tchaikovsky concertos are red-blooded and high-octane performances, both containing particular moments that made my spine tingle on first hearing and which continue to do so today, passages to which I drew attention on their first CD release (with Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, Mussorgsky's Pictures and Islamey) in 2005 (1/06): the two-handed trill at 15'57" under the orchestra's tutti statement of the main theme; and, in the Third Concerto, the addition of percussion at 11 '06", a touch that has made every subsequent performance without it an anticlimax. …

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