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Hyperion Records

APR5671 - Viktor Merzhanov – Chopin, Liszt & Scriabin

Recording details: Various dates
Moscow, Russia
Release date: November 2009
Total duration: 74 minutes 24 seconds

Viktor Merzhanov – Chopin, Liszt & Scriabin
No 1 in C major: Agitato  [0'37]  recorded circa 1955
No 2 in A minor: Lento  [2'09]  recorded circa 1955
No 3 in G major: Vivace  [0'52]  recorded circa 1955
No 4 in E minor: Largo  [1'55]  recorded circa 1955
No 5 in D major: Allegro molto  [0'31]  recorded circa 1955
No 6 in B minor: Lento assai  [2'06]  recorded circa 1955
No 7 in A major: Andantino  [0'51]  recorded circa 1955
No 8 in F sharp minor: Molto agitato  [1'36]  recorded circa 1955
No 9 in E major: Largo  [1'19]  recorded circa 1955
No 10 in C sharp minor: Allegro molto  [0'33]  recorded circa 1955
No 11 in B major: Vivace  [0'37]  recorded circa 1955
No 12 in G sharp minor: Presto  [1'04]  recorded circa 1955
No 13 in F sharp major: Lento  [3'22]  recorded circa 1955
No 14 in E flat minor: Allegro  [0'25]  recorded circa 1955
No 15 in D flat major, 'Raindrop': Sostenuto  [5'34]  recorded circa 1955
No 16 in B flat minor: Presto con fuoco  [1'07]  recorded circa 1955
No 17 in A flat major: Allegretto  [3'37]  recorded circa 1955
No 18 in F minor: Allegro molto  [0'54]  recorded circa 1955
No 19 in E flat major: Vivace  [1'20]  recorded circa 1955
No 20 in C minor: Largo  [1'45]  recorded circa 1955
No 21 in B flat major: Cantabile  [1'52]  recorded circa 1955
No 22 in G minor: Molto agitato  [0'41]  recorded circa 1955
No 23 in F major: Moderato  [1'10]  recorded circa 1955
No 24 in D minor: Allegro appassionato  [2'21]  recorded circa 1955
Étude in G minor 'Tremolo'  [4'56]  recorded 1955
Étude in E flat major 'Octave'  [4'44]  recorded 1951
Étude in G sharp minor 'La campanella'  [4'48]  recorded 1955
Étude in E major 'Arpeggio'  [1'58]  recorded 1955
Étude in E major 'La chasse'  [2'37]  recorded 1955
Étude in A minor 'Theme and variations'  [5'33]  recorded 1951
Piano Sonata No 5 Op 53  [11'30]  Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)  recorded circa 1956

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
Viktor Merzhanov was born in Tambov, an established city of culture in the Central Chernozem region, some 300 miles south east of Moscow. He entered the Tambov College of Music (now the Tambov Rachmaninov State Academy of Music) at the age of seven and began his piano studies with Solomon Starikov, the College’s long-estab­lished director of music, and Alexander Poltoratsky. Merzhanov made his public debut as a participant in a 1933 regional competition of young musicians, which he won. Three years later he left Tambov for the Moscow Conservatoire where he studied organ with Alexander Goedicke and piano with Samuil Feinberg. Feinberg was a much-admired pupil of Alexander Goldenweiser, one of that great triumvirate of piano pedagogues in Moscow (the others being Heinrich Neuhaus and Konstantin Igumnov) who, in their differing ways, revolutionised piano playing in the Soviet Union during the first half of the twentieth century. Goldenweiser taught at the Conservatoire until his death in 1961, so it is more than likely that the young Merzhanov had direct contact with his celebrated ‘musical grandfather’. Just as Goldenweiser considered Feinberg to be exceptional, so, in turn, Feinberg considered Merzhanov to be outstanding, particu­larly admiring the originality and spontaneity of his interpretations. When Merzhanov graduated with honours in 1941, he immediately entered the army and served in a tank division. The war over, Merzhanov came to prominence when he shared with Sviatoslav Richter the first piano prize at the 1945 All-Union Competition in Moscow, an achievement all the more remarkable considering he had been absent from the piano for four years. His winning performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, which became his calling card for many years, made a deep impression on Feinberg who considered his pupil’s conception to be on a par with that of the composer. Merzhanov’s identification with Rachmaninov the man and the musician has proved to be deep-rooted and long-lived. The composer’s Ivanovka summer home was close to Tambov and staff members of the Tambov College still regaled their students with stories of the time when Rachmaninov inspected the institute back in 1909. Additionally, Starikov had been a good friend of the composer until Rachmaninov’s flight after the 1917 October Revolution. Merzhanov later gave generously to the Rachmaninov Museum established in Ivanovka in 1982, founded the International Rachmaninov Piano Competition and served as president of the Russian Rachmaninov Society.

Merzhanov’s 1945 All-Union win placed him in the forefront of musical life in Moscow. The potent combination of what appeared to be a nonchalant virtuosity and individual musical insights astonished Muscovites, especially in his interpretations of the Paganini-inspired works by Brahms and Liszt and also of Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata. When it became known that Merzhanov was to participate in the 1949 International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw there were high expectations – and heavy responsibilities. Competitors from the USSR had captured every first prize since the competition’s inauguration: Lev Oborin in 1927, Alexander Uninsky in 1932 and Yakov Zak in 1937. In 1949 Soviet domination continued to reign – thanks to the young Bella Davidovich who, after much internal wrangling in the jury room, shared the first prize with Halina Czerny-Stefanska. The rest of the Soviet team did well, with Georgi Muravlov positioned fourth, Yevgeny Malinin seventh and Tamara Gusyeva ninth – one place ahead of Viktor Merzhanov. It has subsequently been claimed that this ‘setback’ signalled the end of the meteoric ascent of Merzhanov’s career. Not true, of course: his competition position might have been both a personal and public dis­appoint­ment but Merzhanov nevertheless went on to enjoy a celebrated career, albeit one that was centred more towards the East than the West. During the 1950s, there were also stories that Merzhanov had begun to experience ‘concert nerves’. If so, they did not prevent him from travelling extensively throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe and, in later years, to such far-flung countries as Canada, Uruguay and China. Wherever he played, he invariably met appreciative audiences and attracted the most discerning reviews. In Hungary, for example, a Merzhanov recital prompted Zoltán Kodály to write: ‘During my entire life I have never before heard such wonderful accomplishments as were revealed by Merzhanov last night.’

As with most Soviet high-profile pianists, Merzhanov taught at the Moscow Conserva­toire, beginning as early as 1947 and eventually assuming the most senior position in 1985. He also taught at the Warsaw Conservatory between 1973 and 1983. His pupils during almost six decades of teaching are near countless: they include Vladimir Bunin, Yuri Didenko, Irina Khovanskya, Ruslan Sviridov and, among a number of British students, Allan Schiller. The veteran Merzhanov still leads an enviably active musical life. He is a prominent international judge serving on numerous juries, including the Moscow Tchaikovsky, Warsaw Chopin and Budapest Bartók-Liszt Competitions; he was recorded at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire as recently as 2007 and still gives masterclasses and lectures throughout the world. Much of Merzhanov’s comparatively modest Melodiya discography dates from the 1950s and features repertoire which he made very much his own at that time, notably Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto and solo recordings of the Romantic repertoire. Exceptions are bright-eyed perfor­mances of two Beethoven Sonatas (Nos 10 & 14) and the premiere recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, recognition of Merzhanov’s keen interest in contemporary Soviet repertoire. He returned to the studio in later years; a 1981 recording of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, for instance, finds him still discovering fresh insights in this familiar score.

Exactly what is it that makes Merzhanov such an individual pianist? A leonine tech­nique, which appears to be an innate gift rather than having been acquired by way of relentless practice, is the obvious foundation of his art. But there is also his very personal, yet always convincing, engagement with the music – what might be termed ‘creative interpretation’. The exceptional warmth and variety of his tone, together with his wide dynamic range, are apparent in his survey of the Chopin Preludes, an exceptional release from many angles. The first Melodiya survey of the complete Op 28 Preludes, the recording has more of a concert-hall perspective than the standard ‘studio balance’ and so captures the full range and beauty of Merzhanov’s sound. As an interpre­tation, it has a singular combination of radiant lyricism and unforced brilliance, totally dispelling the myth that the ‘Merzhanov phenomenon’ was little more than glittering fingers. Even the piano has a highly individual sound, especially in its middle register. (Might it have been a surviving aristocrat of pre-revolution years?) The rest of this programme comprises some of Merzhanov’s famed inter­pre­tations mentioned earlier, performances that helped fuel and substantiate the ‘phenomenon’ tag. Has there ever been such a relaxed, yet simultaneously coruscating, review of Liszt’s ‘Paganini’ Études? For all the crumbly sound and pitch fluctuations in Nos 2 & 6, which were recorded in 1951 and first released as 78-rpm discs, these performances remain a sensation. Equally so, Merzhanov’s daemonic interpretation of Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata which for many commentators remains unsurpassed – despite strong competition from some of his contemporaries!

Bryan Crimp © 2009

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