Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, John Browning, Robert Casadesus, Van Cliburn, Philippe Entremont, Lorin Hollander, Jose Iturbi, Byron Janis, Grand Johannesen; Bell Telephone Orch/Donald Vorhees, cond.
VAI DVD 4216 (mono) TT: 129 min.

Isaac Stern, Zino Francescatti, Michael Rabin, Mischa Elman, Erica Morini, Yehudi Menuhin, David and Igor Oistrakh, Ruggiero Ricci; Bell Telephone Orch/Donald Vorhees, cond. (mono) TT: 90 min

Major releases here, indeed, giving us the opportunity to watch many of the leading performers of the last half of the Twentieth Century. The Great Pianists compilation begins with Claudio Arrau recorded in 1962 performing in his usual magisterial fashion the finale of Beethoven's Emperor concerto, followed by a fascinating performance of historic significance: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Jorge Bolet as soloist, from a broadcast Feb. 3, 1961, with Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) conducting. Whiteman had premiered this music in 1924, recorded itmusic in 1927 with the composer as soloist, again in 1945 with Earl Wild. John Browning's performance of the finale of the Brahms first concerto, from a broadcast Feb. 4, 1963, gets off to a shaky start but all is well afterwards. Robert Casadesus is heard in three selections, from a broadcast Feb. 25, 1964, we see the finale of Beethoven's Appassionata and the third movement of Bach's D minor concerto BWV 1063 in which he is joined by his wife, Gaby, and son Jean who eight years later was killed in an accident). The elder Casadesus also plays the finale of Chopin's Sonata No. 3 from Feb. 12, 1967, an impassioned but hardly note-perfect performance.

Van Cliburn, back in happier more assured days, plays Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's Widmung and the second movement of Brahms' Concerto No. 2 both from a telecast of Sept. 30, 1960. In a setting designed to look Parisienne we see Philippe Entremont in a dashing performance of the final movement of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4. From a broadcast of Nov. 6, 1959 we see Lorin Hollander at the start of his career playing Chopin's Waltz in C# minor, Op. 64 No. 2, and the finale of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 prefaced by an announcement by Burgess Meredith in which he reverses the two parts of the name Saint-Saëns. José Iturbi, always the showman, plays Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, from a telecast April 1, 1960, raising his hands at least twelve inches above the keyboard before each of the 19 (or is it 20?) final dissonant chords of the piece. A specialist in Liszt, he plays an abbreviated version of the Hungarian Fantasy, from a performance of April 9, 1959. Byron Janis, also from happier days, plays a truncated version of the finale of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 from a broadcast Sept. 24, 1962. It's odd that Janis plays a simplified version of the final descending cadenza (he did not in his 1957 recording with Munch and the Boston Symphony). Janis also plays the finale (complete) of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 from a telecast of Oct. 22, 1963 (he had made his Philips recording with Kondrashin in June 1962). Grant Johannesen is heard in the finale of Gershwin's Concerto from a telecast of Feb. 10, 1959, and the complete first movement of Grieg's Concerto dating from Mar. 16, 1962.

The Great Violinists DVD offers similar treasures. With the exception of Mischa Elman (1891-1967), all of the soloists are in their prime. Elman, who made many acoustic Victor recordings pre-1919, is heard in a telecast of April 27, 1962 playing the Romance from Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2 and Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin. In both, his intonation and technical prowess are unreliable, but at least we do have the opportunity to see the legendary violinist in performance. Isaac Stern is brilliant in Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso telecast Mar. 4, 1959, and Zino Francescatti, in addition to playing Debussy's La fille aux cheveux de lin, plays a work usually not associated with him: Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, from a performance Oct. 9, 1959. American-born Michael Rabin started his career in spectacular fashion amazing the musical world with his incredible technique. He made many recordings, primarily for Capitol: concertos and concerted works by Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Glazunov and two different versions of the Paganini Concerto No. 1, as well as many shorter pieces. It is said that he suffered a drug problem which made his performances unreliable cutting short his career around 1960. Rabin died in 1972 when only thirty-six. Thus these DVD performances are of particular interest, the Tchaikovsky concerto finale dating from a telecast of Nov. 25, 1960, Kreisler's Caprice viennois, Op. 2 and Tambourin chinois, Op. 3 from Feb. 1962. These surely show that at this time he had lost none of his incredible technique and beauty of tone. The Tchaikovsky was taken from a TV program showing the relationship between the composer and Nadia von Meck, and several times during the performance one sees Helen Hayes' wistful face as she listens to the music.

Erica Morini is magnificent in the finale from Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 telecast Mar. 13, 1963. It's fascinating that she plays the entire movement with her eyes closed! No cues from the conductor for her! A telecast of Nov. 5, 1963 featured Yehudi Menuhin in the final two movements of Paganini's Concerto No. 1 displaying technical expertise that was soon to disappear. From Mar. 10, 1963 we have the final two movements of Bach's Double Concerto BWV 1043 with David and Igor Oistrakh. Ruggiero Ricci is seen in a performance of the finale from Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto from a telecast June 16, 1964. He, too, was at the height of his powers. As a bonus, we have cellist Gregor Piatigorsky from a broadcast April 1, 1960 playing Fauré's Elegie and Saint-Saëns' Allegro appassionata.

Sound on these DVDs is very acceptable mono (with the exception of the Casadesus Chopin which is quite distorted), camera work is very basic, perhaps not very imaginative, but very acceptable. Donald Vorhees is an excellent accompanist and the smallish pick-up orchestra plays well. For music lovers these fascinating DVDs are essential. Let us hope there are more to come.

R.E.B. (February 2004)