Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's CD Releases

ANY INFORMED assessment of the year's classical CDs will place piano music at its centre, with Philips's multi-disc "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series as the inevitable highlight. Many releases have featured virtuosos whose reputations still stand intact, but two recall significant lesser-known talents who were cut off in their prime: the American William Kapell and the Australian Noel Mewton-Wood. Both were born in 1922 and both died in 1953, Kapell in an air-crash and Mewton- Wood by his own hand. Neither pianist has enjoyed much representation on CD, but in the case of Kapell, BMG has made ample amends with its nine- CD "William Kapell Edition".

Mewton-Wood's star has been rather slower to ascend, though Pearl recently made a start with a Weber sonata disc and now the French company Dante has re-issued flamboyant, occasionally idiosyncratic and frequently brilliant accounts of Chopin's two piano concertos. In the Second Concerto's dreamy Larghetto you encounter playing that stretches and indulges the musical line with audacious freedom. How has such charismatic playing languished in the vaults for so long? Perhaps we might now expect Mewton-Wood's equally striking accounts of the Tchaikovsky concertos.

Kapell's "Edition" chronicles a less wilful talent from auspicious youth to early maturity, and with useful annotation from Alan Evans and Annette Morreau. Dexterous readings of Prokofiev Three and the Khachaturian sometimes defy belief, but the musical core of Kapell's playing lies in his Chopin, including a heart-rendering sequence of 30-odd mazurkas. There are concertos by Beethoven and Rachmaninov, notable collaborations with Heifetz and Primrose, a previously-unissued live concert that includes Copland's Piano Sonata, and an interview. Rubinstein and Horowitz are obvious influences, but the farther you venture towards that fateful day in 1953, the more you realise that Kapell was discovering his own interpretative paths. Had he lived, he would likely have vied with his younger peers Julius Katchen and Leon Fleisher.

In the case of Russian-born Shura Cherkassky, comparisons are hardly relevant. Even in his eighties, Cherkassky was a provocative one-off, a perennial youngster. His mercurial playing never lost its sparkle, though collectors have long prized his fiercely individualistic mono set of Chopin Studies. Happily, these and some later Chopin recordings are about to re-appear as part of Philips's "Great Pianists" series. Unmissable, I'd say.

Chopin/Mewton-Wood: Dante HPC105 (full price)

William Kapell Editions: BMG 09026-68442-2 (9 discs, mid price)

Chopin/Cherkassky: Philips 456 742-2 (2 discs, mid price)

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