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Hyperion Records

APR5668 - Lev Oborin – Beethoven, Chopin & Liszt

Recording details: Various dates
Moscow, Russia
Release date: April 2009
Total duration: 78 minutes 30 seconds

Lev Oborin – Beethoven, Chopin & Liszt
6 Ecossaises WoO83  [2'09]  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)  recorded circa 1930
Allegro vivace  [6'54]  recorded 1957
Largo appassionato  [6'28]  recorded 1957
Scherzo: Allegretto  [3'18]  recorded 1957
Rondo: Grazioso  [6'14]  recorded 1957
No 2 in F minor: Presto  [1'18]  recorded circa 1943
No 3 in F major: Allegro  [1'35]  recorded circa 1943
No 5 in E minor: Vivace  [3'02]  recorded circa 1943
Allegro maestoso  [8'19]  recorded 1951
Scherzo: Molto vivace  [2'37]  recorded 1951
Largo  [8'26]  recorded 1951
Finale: Presto non tanto  [4'40]  recorded 1951
No 6 June, 'Barcarolle': Andante cantabile  [5'23]  recorded circa 1952
No 11 November, 'Troika': Allegro moderato  [3'18]  recorded circa 1952
No 12 December, 'Christmas': Tempo di valse  [4'14]  recorded circa 1952

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Lev Oborin was born in Moscow and entered that city’s Gnesin Music School in 1914 where he studied composition with Alexander Gretchaninov and piano with Yelena Gnesina. A pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, Gnesina was known for her ‘progressive’ methods, in particular her emphasis upon musicianship as opposed to repetitive exercises, which she pursued by insisting pupils should frequently perform concerts and recitals from memory. In 1921, the fourteen-year-old Oborin moved on to the Moscow Conservatoire, joining the piano class of the celebrated pedagogue Konstantin Igumnov and furthering his compositional studies with Georgi Catoire, Georgi Conus and Nikolai Myaskovsky. Oborin even flirted with conducting, working with Konstantin Saradzhev and seeking advice from Hermann Abendroth and Bruno Walter. However, there was no question that the piano lay at the very heart of Oborin’s musical being and, two years after his 1924 Leningrad debut, he graduated from the Conservatoire with distinction.

At Igumnov’s insistence, Oborin began pre­paring for the inaugural International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition, announ­ced to take place at Warsaw in January 1927, months before his graduation. The nineteen-year-old Oborin and his friend Grigory Ginzburg, three years his senior, ultimately made the journey to Poland along with fellow entrants Yuri Bryushkov and Dmitri Shostakovich. Oborin captured first prize – not surprisingly, given the quality of his Chopin recordings presented here – with the more mercurial Ginzburg placed fourth behind two Polish contestants. Overnight, Oborin became the foremost Soviet pianist of his generation. On his triumphant return to Moscow he became Igumnov’s assistant at the Conservatoire, simul­taneously teaching chamber music, a genre to which he was much drawn – as would become abundantly evident in his future part­ner­ships with the violinists Dmitri Tziganov and, from 1935, David Oistrakh. (In 1941 Oistrakh and Oborin formed an internationally respected trio with the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky which ceased only with the death of the latter in 1963.) When Igumnov died in 1948, Oborin was his natural successor having by then acquired a reputation as a sympathetic and illuminating teacher. One of his earliest protégés was Vladimir Ashkenazy; other prominent pupils include Alexander Bakhchiev, Boris Berman, Andrei Egorov, Tamara Gusyeva, Dmitri Sakharov and Mikhail Voskresensky, Oborin’s assistant for some fifteen years. Voskresensky has fond recollections of his mentor: his ‘stout figure, his comfortable posture at the piano, his famous manner of throwing up his hands, his easy movements’. We learn that Oborin ‘would not tolerate a vulgar, banal or sentimental approach in music. Everything was austere. Warm and tender but austere.’ Oborin was also a man of immense culture: ‘He knew practically every­thing that there was to know. He had a profound knowledge of painting and literature, particularly poetry.’

Surviving black-and-white film confirms Voskresensky’s recollections of a pianist totally at one with the piano, a bespectacled and undeniably rotund figure, his playing always the epitome of style and elegance. Dmitri Paperno, a keen observer of musical life in Moscow, considered Oborin’s pianistic style to resemble ‘the performances of his teacher Igumnov, except perhaps that it was more consistent. Besides, Oborin’s technical facility was immeasurably higher.’ Even this assess­ment is surely something of an understatement given Oborin’s towering technique, which was never employed for the sake of vanity and always to musical ends. Perhaps it was the composer in him that determined his con­viction that the score should always be paramount. Oborin, like Emil Gilels, somehow managed to remain apart from the lethal – even at times literally murderous – intrigues and machinations that were part of life at the Moscow Conservatoire during the post-war years. In short, he was a dedicated, fastidious and supremely accomplished musician who, also a thoroughly decent man, was doing much for his fellow musicians.

Besides bringing him early fame, Oborin’s Chopin Competition win transformed him into a musical ambassador for the USSR. As the first of that new breed, ‘the Soviet pianist’, he toured Poland and East Germany after his initial success and, once peace had been restored after the Second World War, travelled extensively across continents. However, he did not make his British debut until 1958, by which time he had suffered a heart attack, and when he made his only appearance in the USA during the 1963/4 season he was a mere shadow of his former self. Sadly, he was well aware that declining health was sapping his powers, though it was not until he suffered a second severe stroke in the late 1960s that he had no option but to withdraw from the concert platform. He continued to teach until his death in 1974, the same year as David Oistrakh, his illustrious chamber partner of almost forty years.

Oborin’s repertoire was all-encompassing. He was a generous promulgator of new Soviet music, giving first performances of music by Babadzhanyan, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shebalin, Shostakovich and, most famously perhaps, Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto (which, together with the later Piano Sonata, is dedicated to him). But Oborin was capable of much more than subtly refining Khachaturian’s gaudy colours into delicate hues; he was the consummate stylist equally at home in Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, Ravel and Debussy. His own compositions include suites of short pieces and an impres­sive sonata for his own instrument as well as a number of orchestral works. Although he appears not to have made any commercial recordings of his own music, Oborin’s Melodiya discography is comparatively comprehensive, even if it does merely hint at the true extent of his repertoire. As solo pianist there is an impres­sive list of 78-rpm recordings, mostly confined to Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. Given his standing, there is a surprisingly modest LP legacy. Concerto recordings include contem­po­rary works by Balanchivadze and Khachaturian, also the Second and Third Rachmaninov concertos (both included in The First Soviet Rachmaninov Recordings – APR 6005) as well as Mozart’s G major Concerto K453 and Beethoven’s 5th and Triple Concertos. The solo piano repertoire is confined to four Beethoven Sonatas and LP programmes devoted to Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. His chamber recordings with Oistrakh and Knushevitsky are more numerous and include the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas and an impressive array of Russian/Soviet piano trios. (Not to be forgotten are Oborin’s recordings made in the West, almost all as a member of the trio led by Oistrakh.)

This programme opens with what appears to be Oborin’s first commercial recording, Beethoven’s Ecossaises. Coupled with Ginzburg’s recording of Anton Rubinstein’s transcription of the Ruins of Athens March (included on Grigory Ginzburg: His early recordings Volume 1 – APR 5667) the disc served to promote their respective triumphs at the 1927 Chopin Competition. Despite the recording’s primitive sound, the hallmarks of Oborin’s playing are everywhere to be heard. He also positively revels in the delights of Beethoven’s Second Sonata Op 2 No 2, enchanting the listener with mercurial finger-work and wide dynamic contrasts, all within a beautifully structured and stylish framework. As with Beethoven, the sequence of Chopin recordings also spans several years; the earlier 78-rpm recordings of the Études and Mazurka are breath­taking in their combination of technical security and musical insights, although by the time he recorded the B minor Sonata (1951) there is a noticeably different approach. Here is a more mature musician, one who is aware he is essaying an ‘Everest’ of the sonata repertoire. However, serious and sober as it is, Oborin’s interpretation is never less than magisterial, the cumulative power of his interpretation proving overwhelming by the sonata’s conclusion. (A pity he had the additional challenge of an obviously worn and tired-sounding instrument – Ginzburg’s valiant efforts to get quality pianos into the Soviet Union during the mid 1950s had obviously paid dividends by the time Oborin recorded the Beethoven Sonata in 1957.) The shellac recor­ding of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody is yet another demonstration of supreme virtu­osity allied to natural musicianship, and the closing sequence of three movements from Tchaikovsky’s The Months, issued in 78-rpm LP format (the complete suite later appeared on LP) reveal the extent of Igumnov’s influence upon one of his pre-eminent pupils.

Bryan Crimp © 2009

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