Alexander Brailowsky = MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; BORODIN: Scherzo in A-flat Major; DEBUSSY: Reflets dans l’eau from Images, Book I; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 35 “Funeral March” – Alexander Brailowsky, p. – MeloClassic MC 1008, 60:07 [www.meloclassic.com] ****:
Critic Virgil Thomson once referred to Russian pianist Alexander Brailowsky (1896-1976) as “an honest virtuoso.” Alexander Brailowsky, at the age of eight, became a student in the Conservatory of Kiev. Later, in 1911, he went to Vienna to study with the famous teacher, Leschetizky but the beginning of World War I caused him to reside in Switzerland. After the war, Mr. Brailowsky made his Paris debut in 1924, playing a complete cycle of the works of Chopin. This series included two sonatas, eleven polonaises, four scherzo, three impromptus, nineteen nocturnes, twenty-five preludes, twenty-seven etudes, and fifty-one mazurkas. This performance was repeated three times in Brussels, Zurich, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and other principal cities. A successful tour of all the principal cities of the world was then made.
On November 19, 1924, he made his American debut in Aeolian Hall in New York City. Mr. Brailowsky received an excellent review by the noted Olin Downes, music critic of the New York Times. On October 31, 1938, he was soloist with the Pasdeloup Orchestra of Paris where he played the Chopin Concerto in E Minor and the Mendelssohn Concerto in G Minor, and he received a stupendous applause for his interpretation of the two concertos.
Appearances as soloist were made with major symphony orchestras and his interpretations of the works of Chopin brought him world-wide acclaim. Mr. Brailowsky was noted for his large repertory and he recorded for Victor the works of Chopin, Beethoven, Mendlessohn, Scarlatti, Schumann, and others. His recordings for Victor were numerous and used by students as examples of performances of the Chopin works. During a series of nineteen recitals in Buenos Aires, he never repeated a single work.
The present recital (16 October 1949) for French Radio-Television Studios, offers the many virtues and some deficiencies in the Brailowsky arsenal, among the latter of which must be counted a brittle, often precious piano tone that does not convey the girth of the Mussorgsky piece. Some of the defect must be laid at the distant microphone placement. What Brailowsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – provided in one continuous track without pauses – do convey include a poetic sense of characterization, buttressed by non-stinging percussion, likely the result of his Leschetizky training, which he always over-emphasized, having been a pupil of Florence Trumbull, the Master’s able assistant. The suite becomes more introspective with Mussorgsky’s visit to the Roman catacombs, there to muse on death and the fate of friend Viktor Hartmann’s art. While Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev exhibit energy and blistering runs, the interpretation, like much of Brailowsky’s legacy, remains mostly a surface accuracy, a glossy but glib effect.
Brailowsky then turns to the lively Scherzo in A-flat Major (1885) by Alexander Borodin. This piece, Vivace (in 12/8), hustles in symphonic terms, with skittering runs and big, choppy block chords. The middle section hardly slows down its persistent beat, and Brailowsky continues to make the piece sparkly in a manner of a Russian Mendelssohn. The 1905 Reflets dans l’eau marks the first Debussy I have heard Brailowsky play, and he places some silvery light upon the surface of the water. Canny pedaling increases the sheer and fluid effect, and Brailowsky makes us marvel at Debussy’s colors, with their striking of E-flat in the midst of luscious harmonization.
Brailowsky concludes his hour-long recital with his perennial trump card, Chopin. The 1839 Funeral March Sonata moves briskly at first, well controlled, with a good sense of inner pulsation and solid landings. Brailowsky does not take the repeat, and the resultant effect becomes hectic, in the manner of Schumann’s snide epithet, “an unruly child.” Still, Brailowsky demonstrates an often shattering power in the stormy figures, and that certainly justifies his vision. The Scherzo seems even more inflamed and breathless. With the trio of the second movement, Brailowsky allows us some nostalgic repose, his touch quite gossamer in the diminuendos. The B-flat Funeral March benefits from a sturdy rhythm and breathed sonority, nobly arched. The D-flat Major middle section possesses the poised delicacy of a lullaby, a total contrast to the raging Presto Finale, a kind of totentanz in torrential figures.
I do wish this recital had more “present” sound.