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The February 1958 issue of The Gramophone (as it was then called), priced at one shilling and sixpence, contained new-issue piano reviews of Gieseking in Beethoven, Peter Katin and newcomer Byron Janis in Chopin, Rosalyn Tureck in the Goldberg Variations, Dohnányi playing his own music and,€“ seven years after the event, the final recordings of Dinu Lipatti. Quite enough for the 1958 reader, at a price averaging £2 per disc,€“ a third of a week's wage for many people.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the 23-year-old Philippe Entremont,€“ whose early concerts in France had earned him the space-age nickname 'pianiste atomique' was making his recording debut for American Columbia (later marketed in the UK under the CBS label) with fresh and exhilarating performances of the Grieg Concerto and Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This launched a relationship that lasted until 1981, and in honour of Entremont'€™s 80th birthday earlier this year, Sony Classical has now reissued all his concerto records.

There is no Beethoven, Brahms or Chopin, nor, perhaps surprisingly, given his penchant and flair for the energetic and colourful,€“ any Prokofiev. But, in Entremont's own words, this Sony box is just '€˜the tip of the iceberg'€™. He recorded a prodigious amount of other work,€“ including, for instance, all six (yes, six) Beethoven Concertos, the '€˜Emperor'€™ three times. This Columbia/Sony collection is still huge: 24 full-length concertos (Saint-Saëns 2 and 4 twice), 10 concertante works (there'€™s also the Liszt Hungarian Fantasia S123 and Saint-Saëns' Rhapsodie d'Auvergne, Wedding Cake and Africa), plus five fill-ups including a piano quintet version of Milhaud's La création du monde.

Performances of the standard concertos sparkle and reveal a joyously free spirit at work. Partnered at the outset by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Entremont also worked with two soon-to-be favourite conductors,€“ Boulez, in the Ravel Left-Hand Concerto, and Bernstein, in his own 'Age of Anxiety' Symphony, with inspiring support in Rachmaninov 2, Tchaikovsky 1 and Bartók 3 and 2. The last-named is Entremont'€™s own favourite recording of the whole box.

Later conductors included Ozawa, Plasson and Dutoit, and some composers. These include Jolivet and Milhaud (Concerto No 1), recordings previously unissued in the UK to my knowledge, and rare works anywhere. The Milhaud is aimable/pastoral rather than polytonal, while the Jolivet,€“ a piece with which Entremont made his New York debut, is frenetic, raucous and (quite unlike the composer himself) distinctly short on charm. Their documentary value is priceless, even allowing for the composers'€™ limitations as conductors. In Stravinsky's case, these were considerable. Composer and pianist never saw eye to eye, and Stravinsky was an indifferent conductor even when not ill (as in the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments). He refused to conduct his Capriccio at all, Robert Craft taking over instead.

Far happier was the partnership with Ozawa, in Khachaturian. I am delighted to report that Entremont took this much-maligned concerto seriously,€“ and the slow-movement flexatone is present and in tune. A superb performance (even though some orchestral misprints remained uncorrected) and spaciously recorded. Seasoned collectors will recognise elsewhere the typical Columbia/CBS recorded sound: bright, uniformly close-miked and largely dry. This was originally welcomed for its clarity; cumulatively, however, the sound can feel relentless and cramped, with a lack of true pianissimo.

Not content with a workload that would put most pianists in traction after a week, Entremont has pursued a dual career as a conductor. His first recordings in this capacity are included here,€“ he directs from the keyboard in Mozart'€™s K415 (with strings only) and K453. Recorded in Paris, the sound is still typically 'CBS close-up', with the strings sounding under strength and the wind right in your lap. Performances are stylish, nevertheless, and less flamboyant than the big-band K482 with Ormandy elsewhere in the box.

For the record, both Liszt concertos are here, both Ravels and all five Saint-Saëns; there'€™s the Gershwin Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue; Rachmaninov is complete, save for No 3. Jed Distler's CD booklet is all about Entremont: notes on the music are confined to individual sleeves, miniaturised versions of the original vinyls. You may need a magnifying glass to read them, but this is a tiny price to pay for such a superb value collection. The whole 19-CD box costs little more than, say, five Naxos releases or, taking inflation into account, less than any one of the original LPs.

MICHAEL ROUND Read the full review on Agora Classica


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