The Art of Gregor Piatigorsky: Rob Cowan's Monthly Survey of Historic Reissues and Archive Recordings

By Cowan, Rob | Gramophone, April 2019 | Go to article overview

The Art of Gregor Piatigorsky: Rob Cowan's Monthly Survey of Historic Reissues and Archive Recordings


Cowan, Rob, Gramophone


A fairly large proportion of RCA's Gregor Piatigorsky: The Art of the Cello has already been reissued on CD more than once, in 'The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts', 'Jascha Heifetz: The Complete Album Collection' (and its brown-cased predecessors) and 'Jascha Heifetz: The Complete Stereo Collection', and as various single releases. Not that I'm complaining. So many of these performances set standards: Mozart's G minor String Quintet, Mendelssohn's Octet, Brahms's String Sextet in G as well as various recordings that were not part of the original Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts sequence, such as the complete string trios of Beethoven (stereo and mono), where the instrumental interplay between Heifetz, Piatigorsky and viola player William Primrose is both expressive and animated. The KoganBarshai-Rostropovich trio comes close, but not that close. Years ago when I conducted a public interview with the great producer Jack Pfeiffer, Jack brought along significant and often amusing snippets of rehearsal of these trios, and it's a pity that they couldn't have been included in this new set.

Even if you'd want alternative recordings to place beside them, these remarkable performances promote a standard of string playing that is unique on disc--even performances such as that of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, which despite being headstrong and occasionally rough-edged is extraordinarily passionate.

And the rest? Well, there are numerous duplicate performances that shed significant light on Piatigorsky's development over a span of 30-odd years. Generally speaking, as with Heifetz, Piatigorsky's later playing (from the 1960s--his best) relates new-found levels of expressive subtlety. Take the two versions of the Dvorak Cello Concerto: the first, with the excellent Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, from 1946; the second, with Charles Munch and the Boston SO, from 1960. The later recording scores on numerous counts, not least added flexibility, an expanded range of tonal colouring and greater expressive refinement. The earlier version is brilliant, of course, but without the same degree of meaningful introspection, especially in the slower music. Under Munch you get the best of both worlds.

In the case of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, a work that earned Piatigorsky praise from the composer himself, the issue of choosing is complicated by the fact that the earlier version (from 1941) features the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under a noted Straussian, Fritz Reiner, and while Munch's Boston recording (1953) is on a lower rung in that respect, Piatigorsky's playing there is just as eloquent, maybe marginally more so in 'Don Quixote's Death'.

As to Brahms's Double Concerto, the first version is with Nathan Milstein, with Reiner conducting the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia (1951), and the later one is with Heifetz and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra under Alfred Wallenstein (1960). Reiner's extra urgency is obvious from the start, but on the later version the richness of Piatigorsky's tone as recorded in stereo is an added bonus; and regarding violinist partners: Milstein (a friend and playing colleague of the cellist from way back) is virtually Heifetz's equal. …

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