Jascha Spivakovsky: Bach to Bloch, Vol. IV = Works for Solo Piano by BACH; BEETHOVEN; CHOPIN; SCHUMANN – Jascha Spivakovsky, piano – Pristine Audio 

The fourth installment of the Spivakovky Edition revels in the Romantic ethos of composer and performer. 

Jascha Spivakovsky: Bach to Bloch, Vol. IV = BACH: Fantasia in c minor, BWV 906; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; CHOPIN: Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Etude in c minor, Op. 10, No. 12 “Revolutionary”; Etude in f minor, Op. 25, No. 2; Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9 “Butterfly”; Bolero in C Major/a minor, Op. 19; SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9 – Jascha Spivakovsky, piano – Pristine Audio PAKM073, 71:30 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****: 

The latest installment of the Jascha Spivakovksy (1896-1970) legacy derives from a series of recordings that span approximately eighteen years, 1948-1966, derived from radio appearances and home recitals. Many of us who audition these rare and recently-revived performances marvel at the musical acuity and innate, Romantic sensibility of this magnificent artist, who never enjoyed the prestige of a commercial recording contract. Each interpretation bears Spivakovsky’s idiosyncratic temper and musical line, his astute rhythmic pulse and sense of the dramatic space between notes. Nothing that we hear bears the sense of routine or mediocrity of thought. We seem to become eaves-droppers on a highly private musical world, where the individual soul communes directly with the spirits of the composers he champions.

Spivakovsky opens with a 1948 reading of Bach’s Fantasia in c minor, composed around 1738 in Leipzig. In binary form, the piece reveals an ornamental, broad structure based on arpeggiated figures and chromatic imitation, and it seems Bach meant to attach to it a complex fugue, of which some 47 bars exist. The Fantasia begins on a c minor descending arpeggio which will proceed into the dominant key.  From a painstakingly restored shellac source, we can still glean the sonorous propulsion and secure clarity of Spivakovsky’s attacks, his fluid transitions.

The Beethoven 1821 A-flat Sonata, from a 1952 radio broadcast, delivers the poised maturity we know from the esteemed Myra Hess recording for EMI.  Beethoven asks of the performer of the opening Moderato cantabile molto espessivo to play con amabilita, with loving tenderness. Spivakovsky realizes the music’s gentle spirit, moving as it does pulsating chords, transparent trills, and limpid harmonies, seductive in its bass tones. Suddenly, our emotions suffer affective displacement in the fierce Allegro molto Scherzo, an antiphonal whose jarring accents imparts a nervous instability derived from two raunchy German folk tunes. The Trio section, rife with cross-hands figuration, embraces much of the keyboard in eighth notes, leaping wildly.  Spivakovsky’s breathless approach exhibits a manic drive that belies the tenderness in the preceding movement and the learned spirituality of the succeeding movement.

Whether the opening Adagio ma non troppo constitutes a separate movement seems a moot point: following Bach, Beethoven provides us a huge prelude and fugue.  Declamation, arioso, and recitative elements cooperate in extraordinary balance. The fugal subject emanates from the first movement’s figures, establishing a subtle but palpable unity to the whole. Spivakovsky’s motion for both fugues – the second’s occurring after repeated and crescendo Gs and inverting the subject – has evenness and dramatic weight.  The Gs themselves bear the dynamic of Russian bells that lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven, the mystery of the One and the Many having been resolved.

The Chopin triptych derives from three separate venues, arranged in a reconstruction of a Spivakovsky recital: Impromptu in A-flat (1955), three etudes (1963), and Bolero (1966).  The middle section of the A-flat Impromptu provides an object lesson in Spivakovsky’s rubato, which turns the piece into a nocturne. The outer sections, fleet and happily energized, could be from Horowitz. The Etude in f minor studies contrary metrics, polyrhythm, in each hand, eighths against quarter-notes. The “Butterfly” tests Spivakovsky’s talent for detached chords, which he executes with the same panache we know from Hofmann. But the first of the set, the “Revolutionary,” will grip your heart: meant to celebrate the 1831 uprising of Polish mutineers against Russia, the piece achieves the same “ocean” effect under Spivakovsky as Op. 25, No. 12. Prior to this Spivakovsky Bolero (1834), I would proffer Horszowski as my favorite; now, I am not so sure. The music exhibits a lightly refined Spanish character, but soon transforms into a kind of barcarolle. The quicksilver runs and depth of bass tones characterize a fluid, dashing reading of this score, a thoroughly idiomatic a Bolero as we have heard from Artur Rubinstein.

The “big” work—as Mark Ainley aptly calls it the “pinnacle”—comes from a 1954 broadcst of Schumann’s Carnaval suite, his cast of literary and historical character derived from “little scenes on four notes.” We well know that Schumann embraced the two sides of his own nature in his piano pieces. The whole Schumann ethos encapsulates this 22-section divertissement, and Spivakovky includes the ever-elusive Sphinxes, as had Rachmaninov in his recording. The most spectacular aspect of Spivakovsky’s briskly fluent rendering lie in his diversity of touches, from bold, solid landings and progressions to detached, dragon-fly colors from the surface of the keyboard. The resultant panoply of (polar) colors defies verbal approximation, for this is truly a musician’s Carnaval.  Pregnant pauses, bold strokes and high-flying gestures, capture the personages and their various waltzes, pirouettes, and marches, and maerchen, their fairy-tale enchantment. By the end of the suite, both Schumann and Spivakovsky have dismissed the philistines from the hall and from our moral/aesthetic purpose.

—Gary Lemco

“This review is dedicated to Maestro Carmine Arena, my teacher and mentor of over 50 years.”

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