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Sometimes history results in pianists being recorded too late in life for the results to accurately convey their importance. Grete Sultan (1906-2005) was a German Jewish pianist who escaped the Nazis and resettled in New York, where she embraced modernist composers from John Cage and Alan Hovhaness to Stefan Wolpe and Christian Wolff. As a still-performing nonagenarian Sultan attracted new attention, but a series of 2-CD sets of live recordings, first issued by Concord and reprinted by Labor Records, attracted mixed reviews. Some listeners admired Sultan’s intellect and commitment in readings of Schoenberg, Debussy, Copland and Bach, while others slated her renditions as ‘dull, thunky’ and ‘heavy-handed’. A new biography by a pediatrician from outside Hamburg who befriended Sultan late in life redresses the balance, ably explaining how Sultan, a student of Richard Buhlig, Leonid Kreutzer and Edwin Fischer, was indeed highly cultivated, yet open-minded. When few pianists were drawn to works by Cage, Sultan was fascinated. Gratefully, Cage dedicated two pieces to Sultan, Music for Piano, and the vast cycle Etudes Australes. Sultan’s first-ever recording of the latter, still available from Wergo, conveys the impetuous impulsiveness and freshness of a new work, although some Cageians today may prefer the more polished subsequent recordings by Claudio Crismani (Real Sound); Steffen Schleiermacher (MDG-Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm); and Sabine Liebner (Wergo).

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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