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This is a huge, laudable project, in which pianist Steven Spooner plays recitals of repertoire associated with pianistic deities, culminating in a filmed recital. The discs are arranged so that Horowitz is accorded three discs, Richter eight, Gilels one and Van Cliburn one. There follow two discs of ‘Memories’ and the DVD recital.

Spooner starts with Horowitz. The dark colours of Bach/Busoni open his vast journey into the world of pianism, followed by a clutch of Scarlatti Sonatas performed on Horowitz’ own piano, where the sound suddenly brightens. It is important to note that Spooner is not imitating Horowitz’s playing. These are Spooner’s own interpretations, crisp and stylish: Horowitz’s beloved Scriabin comes in a melancholy guise; Mozart’s K330, however, is rather shallow. In general, this set really shines in the less obvious areas of the repertoire. Arensky’s rarely heard Elegie is gloriously shaded, while Spooner’s own input comes in the form of his Concert Etude for Vladimir Horowitz (on music by Queen). A whole disc of Chopin Mazurkas finds Spooner nicely attuned to the idiom, if some way from a recommendation. Far more special is the disc of Schubert/Liszt Lieder (tenderly done) and Liszt’s Legend No 2, a performance of terrific power.

Intriguingly, the Richter marathon opens with Schubert’s Winterreise (with baritone Chris Thompson). A considered reading, it does rather pale in comparison with Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau and of course Richter/ Schreier. Another aspect of Richter’s artistry was his commitment to chamber music, and here we have the Brahms Piano Quintet with the Borromeo Quartet in a tender and affectionate performance (Richter left a legendary account with the Borodin Quartet). Richter had a soft spot for Haydn, and Spooner presents five sonatas: the slow movements are the highlight here, beautifully introspective.

Volume 4 of Richter is Spooner’s tribute to his teacher, Nodar Gabunia (Five Pieces); an excellent Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings (Kremlin CO/Rachlevsky); and a piece dedicated to Spooner by the young American composer Mohammed Fairouz, perhaps reflecting Richter’s interest in contemporary music. The next volume contains two of the performances of Debussy Préludes I, one on an 1886 Bechstein that offers great clarity of tone; Spooner’s ‘Cathédrale engloutie’ is magnificent in both. He adopts the same comparative approach in two powerful performances of the Liszt Sonata. Richter’s solo Schubert was monumental, and Spooner’s homage is the D960 sonata (a less than involving performance). The rather bitty Volume 8 fares better, including a superb rendition of Schumann’s Papillons.

Gilels is honoured by one volume comprising characteristic repertoire such as late Brahms (Op 116) and a selection of Grieg Lyric Pieces, the former delivered with understanding, the latter with sweetness. Van Cliburn has a whole album of shorter pieces (inspired by Cliburn’s own LPs), the highlight of which is the innocence of MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose.

The final two CDs are ‘Memories & Inspirations’, alternating between Spooner’s recollections and other short pieces. A clutch of hymn transcriptions refers to his youth. The DVD pulls everything together beautifully: Debussy in the first half then a selection of virtuoso pieces paying homage to Bolet’s Liszt (Ständchen) plus his own concert etudes for Argerich, Jarrett and Horowitz.

Spooner has set himself quite a task, as he will doubtless be judged against the greats to whom he pays homage, and inevitably found wanting. Yet, on its own terms, this is a fascinating collection with an intriguing spread of repertoire.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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