Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International
May 2015

Pianophiles should note immediately that this is a reissue of APR7029, first released around two decades ago, and that no new material has been added. If any unpublished takes exist, or if any unpublished recordings have survived, then that would deepen still further one’s appreciation of Kitain’s art. At the moment this seems unlikely—though far stranger things have cropped up in less promising circumstances, so we can but hope.

Kitain (1903-80) was an exact contemporary of Horowitz and was slightly younger than the incendiary Simon Barere. Bryan Crimp’s acknowledgement-preface in the booklet notes that standard reference books omit all mention of Kitain. I don’t know how much this has changed in the intervening 20 years but checking such staples as Harold C Schonberg, Kaiser, Lyle and even the Naxos A-Z of pianists boxed set fails to elicit a thing. So we are again reliant on Crimp’s own biographical outline in the handsome booklet for details of the rise and fall of this great pianist’s reputation.

Born in St Petersburg, he apparently so astonished Glazunov with his precocity that he won immediate entrance to the Conservatory. Soon he moved to Kiev, becoming a classmate of Horowitz, and studying with Felix Blumenfeld. The Kitain family fled Russia in 1923, Anatole winning a prize at the Liszt Piano Competition three years later—Annie Fischer won first place. He settled in France only for his life to be overtaken by upheaval yet again, moving to America when war broke out. Here there seem to have been a series of false starts, including performances under an alias, though he later gave admiringly reviewed recitals throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He made a series of LPs in the 1950s—one with his fiddle-playing brother, Robert. For MGM they recorded the sonatas by Brahms (Op.108) and Franck, and I’d certainly like to come across that disc.

What began with reluctance in 1936—the Paris Columbia branch wasn’t keen to record him, but made two tests that were actually published—ended in some triumph as Kitain soon moved to record in the Abbey Road studios in London. Kitain was a bit of a first-take man from a quick look at the released matrix numbers. The Schumann Toccata, not surprisingly, necessitated retakes and the third take was used. Something odd seems to have gone on when he set down the Hungarian Dances of Brahms, where one side necessitated a retake a month later and a fifth take was used. Almost everything else, recorded between 1936 and 1939, was a first take.

Aside from a sense that he was naturally unfettered by studio constraints what impresses throughout is the naturalness of his phrasing and the sublimated virtuosity of a technique that allows him such freedoms as he takes. He is, in fact, not ‘free’ in the sense that he takes metrical liberties and even when he can seem idiosyncratic—perhaps in Chopin’s Scherzo in B minor—one senses the musical justification. The central section here shows his beautiful legato and sense of phrasing as the Etudes reveal his rhythmic and colouristic virtues. Whilst he is commanding in the C major, Op 10 No 7 he’s invariably controlled and though virtuosic in Liszt never for a moment crude. There are few exaggerations. He was keen to record the Brahms Dances and they are vitalising performances. His Russian repertoire is very valuable, given his background. There is great warmth and sensitivity in his Scriabin and one wishes he could have recorded more Rachmaninoff. A pity he was never asked to record his old teacher Blumenfeld’s Etude for the left hand, which Kitain played in recitals. However, the élan of the Strauss-Godowsky Fledermaus is something to be heard.

A few of the rarer examples here have a higher-than-average amount of surface noise and a few thumps, but they pass quickly. This skilfully compiled set is priced ‘as for one’. If you missed it before, you should get it now.