The Classical Collection

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The Independent Culture

There are a few exceptional musicians who, for reasons unrelated to their art, fall foul of the publicity machine and fail to win either the coverage or praise they deserve. One such "victim" is the Bavarian pianist Gerhard Oppitz, a name too rarely encountered nowadays, who just a decade or so ago was making some memorable records. My own favourite of Oppitz's various ventures for RCA is a set of Brahms's Complete Piano Music (82876-67887-2, five discs *****), which has just reappeared at budget price and includes some of the most persuasive Brahms piano recordings of the past 30 years. Oppitz's playing is much abetted by his choice of instrument, a brightly ringing Bösendorfer Imperial, which combines mellowness in the middle registers with a clear but never percussive treble. His style can be brilliant (in the Handel Variations), or big-boned (the three sonatas), or disarmingly intimate (the late pieces). I remember him telling me, years ago, how the recording conditions for this set - producer, environment, and generous session time - were well-nigh ideal. Like his teacher Wilhelm Kempff, Oppitz can only function in the studio when the right "spirit" pertains, which it certainly did in the summer of 1989. This not "showy", heart-on-sleeve Brahms, but strong, considered and personal, a set to which I've returned again and again.

Zoltan Kocsis is bigger on the circuit than Oppitz, though his celebrity is well deserved. Kocsis plays Bartók (Philips 475 6720, eight discs *****) is without question the benchmark edition of Bartók's piano music, as comprehensive a collection as anyone is likely to need, superbly engineered and magnificently played. Kocsis has, over the years, made a special study of Bartók's own recordings, and, although never imitative, his performances bear the stamp of the composer's influence, less in terms of specific gestures than in the little unspecified "freedoms" he allows himself. The rhythmic momentum achieved in parts of, say, the Piano Sonata, Out of Doors, the Dance Suite (piano solo version), Studies and, most famously, the Allegro barbaro never degenerates into flailing aggression. By contrast, Kocsis's control of tone and touch in the quieter music (various Bagatelles and the "Night Music" from Out of Doors) is spellbinding. The music itself never fails to deliver, whether reflective of earth or spirit, dance or abstract design, simple folk music or audacious invention. The best of it puts most other piano music of the last century in the shade, and at this new knockdown price, Kocsis's set has to be the preferred access point to a thrilling but rarefied musical world.

Choosing an edition of Beethoven's solo piano is rather less easy, though even readers with set preferences could benefit from journeying through Friedrich Gulda: Decca Beethoven recordings 1950-1958 (Decca 475 6835, 11 discs ****). Gulda's forays into jazz spilt over just a little into his classical playing, meaning that there is a certain unbridled assertiveness that, in the case of the three last sonatas (a highlight of this set), will bring you to the edge of your seat. The earlier performances tend to be crisp, sprightly and rather formal, polished playing that is also warmly conscientious, the work of a man who both loves and respects the music but who also senses its divine madness.