APR 5665, 74:50 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
Along with Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, Yakov Flier (1912-1977) dominated both the precincts of the Moscow Conservatory (1947-1977) and the various Soviet concert halls he frequented. Noted for the sheer volume of his repertory, Flier sported a sudden and extreme dynamic range, capable of fortissimos too shattering for the microphones of his Soviet recording engineers. The middle section of Chopin’s eponymous Funeral March (rec. 1956) reveals an equally poignant pianissimo from Flier, given the rather tinny quality of his instrument [or perhaps those recording engineers’ lack of skill…Ed.]. When the march resumes, we are only a few chords away from Moussorgsky’s Bydlo section from Pictures at an Exhibition. Winter winds blow over unhallowed graves in the final Presto, the turbulent figurations recalling Schumann’s Kreisleriana at several points.
The two Rachmaninov Preludes date from 1952. Some flutter intrudes in the C-sharp Minor inscription, but the absolutely manic tempo of the conception remains undaunted, frenetic and insane as it is. We may as well be hearing the piece performed by Edgar Allan Poe, for it is rife with the tolling bells of death. The G Minor proves less severe, but equally driven, the huge spans taken in a single, unbroken gulp. The central song rises out of a gulf of sound, a shimmering effect traceable to Josef Hofmann’s style. The tensile strength in Flier’s playing must have been intimidating in person.
Flier concludes this recital with yet more preludes, here the entire set, Op. 38, by Dmitri Kabalevsky–which follows Chopin’s example, using the circle of fifths–recorded 1955. Flier’s only contender whom I know in this repertory is Nadia Reisenberg. Typical of Russian Melodiya LP sources, the sound on these transfers is noisy, scratchy, and improperly pitched. Still, Flier’s astonishing technique astounds, as in the G Major Scherzando. Clean articulation marks the E Major Prelude. Occasionally, the music itself captures our fancy, as in the asymmetrical measures of the martially aggressive D Major or the Poulenc-sounding D-flat Major. The spirit of Bach haunts the B Minor, E-flat Minor, and A Major Preludes, the last a canon that evolves into a Russian folksong. The F-sharp Minor sounds like the Russian form of Satie. Moussorgsky’s Gnomus shakes hands with the C-sharp Minor prelude; the F Minor salutes the Great Gate at Kiev. The melody of the G-sharp Minor reminds me of the mezzo-soprano lament from Alexander Nevsky. The next, the F-sharp Major, rings with reminiscences of Stravinsky’s The Firebird; likely since Rimsky-Korsakov’s folksong collection is a common denominator. A plaintive Russian folksong in C Minor, accompanied by chimes and gloomy staccati. The G Minor approximates Chopin and Prokofiev for a staccato etude. The F Major has Debussy’s sense of plainchant, a harmonized recitative. Finally, the D Minor, longest and most oriental in its toccata filigree. They say Flier was incomparable in Rachmaninov’s D Minor Concerto, and this prelude does nothing to dissuade us of this claim.
— Gary Lemco