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András Schiff in Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich? Such offerings from the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition may seem hard to square with a pianist who has enthralled the music world with his Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Yet if truth can be stranger than fiction I should say that Schiff shows himself, at the start of his career, as a virtuoso in the only sense that matters: everything possesses ‘the breath of life’(Liszt), is brilliantly lit and the reverse of note-spinning. What apparent relish in Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op 33, No 7; what a wholly individual slant on Liszt’s ‘La leggierezza’. Schiff is dazzling in the crazy-paving fugue from Shostakovich’s D-flat Prelude and Fugue; and his way with Brahms’ Handel Variations is suffi ciently witty and engaging at so many levels as to cause raised eyebrows in Moscow. Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations (one of his few successful solo piano works) is given with an infectious brio and charm, and he storms through Prokofiev’s Sonata No 3 in a fearless tempestoso.

Then there is the concerto round with finely articulate accounts of the first concertos of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, where poetry and verve unite in a striking balance; this despite a lacklustre partnership from the Moscow Radio Orchestra under Dmitri Kitaenko.

This first issue on CD is a startling reminder that it is easy to stereotype great artists. Clearly, Schiff could have played the virtuoso card for the rest of his life, but later, despising competitions (‘the world would be a better place without contests’) and Liszt in particular, he has journeyed through a different, more profound and inward territory. This is an absorbing issue and should be heard by those in particular who think they know the full range of Schiff’s art.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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