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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of America's pre-eminent pianists, 17 Jun. 2014
Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Gary Graffman - The Complete Album Collection [Box Set] (Audio CD)
Sony has been making up for lost time with its brisk reissue program recently. Nowhere is this truer than with pianists: Just in the last year, we've had complete issues of Van Cliburn, Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis, and a new Horowitz box. Now we have the complete RCA and Columbia recordings of one of Horowitz's most notable pupils: Gary Graffman. As with the Janis and Fleisher issues, many of these recordings have never been issued on CD before.

The careers of Graffman and Janis have an interesting parallel: They both studied with Horowitz (although Graffman already had an established career when he started coaching with Horowitz, while Janis was an insecure and impressionable adolescent). Both of their substantial careers were sidelined by ailments (Graffman by Focal Dystonia, Janis by Arthritis that affected not only his hands, but his whole body). Both started their recording careers with RCA Victor, but were eclipsed by the publicity that accompanied Cliburn's competition win and subsequent career. Around the same time Janis left RCA for Mercury, Graffman went to Columbia Masterworks.

I believe Janis and Graffman - along with William Kapell, who died in 1953 - were the exemplars of an emerging American school of pianism which came to fruition from World War II onward, when many of Europe's best and brightest musicians came to America - some remaining here after the war. The American school was an amalgam of the Russian and German schools (the French school doesn't seem to have had much influence and, interestingly, the two principal exponents of the French school - Cortot and Gieseking - remained in Europe during the war).

Chronologically, Graffman's recorded repertoire runs from Beethoven to Leeds. No Bach, Mozart, or Haydn (his recordings of several Haydn Sonatas remain unpublished). There is some repetition of repertoire in this set, but it seems once Graffman settled on an interpretation, it was pretty much locked in. Differences between his duplications of Prokofiev's Second and Third Sonata, Third Concerto, and various Chopin works are marginal, so preference is usually a question of recorded sound.

One minor exception is Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy: Both the mono (from Graffman's debut recording) and stereo versions are thrillingly virtuosic, with sparing use of the sustaining pedal, but the later version has the correct D-natural in the left hand at the end of the second movement, a relatively recent textual discovery. The stark dynamic contrasts of the minuet and breathless finale of the D. 958 Sonata make it clear that Graffman's conception of the work is far removed from the old-school polite Viennese approach.

Graffman didn't record much Beethoven: the Third Concerto and four sonatas: Waldstein, Appassionata, and Opp. 110 & 111. Graffman spent time at Marlboro, and he must have crossed paths with Rudolf Serkin at Curtis - I wonder if that's why I detect a similarity in approach: sinewy, muscular playing that conveys the architecture and the passion of these works. Graffman also stays very close to the score, declining to double octaves where Beethoven's keyboard lacked the lower notes, and playing the octave glissandi in the Waldstein's finale as written. But there are differences between Graffman's Beethoven and Serkin's: Graffman is a bit more refined pianistically, there is no sense of struggle in the opening movement of Op. 111 or in the Appassionata's finale, Graffman's tone is a bit rounder, and there is no pedal stamping. Graffman's way with the Third Concerto is briskly dramatic, but far from dry. For example, Graffman plays the piano's three opening scales with a sense of upward direction, like an opera singer making a crescendo toward a high note - rather than as mere scales to be neatly executed. The Chicago Symphony under Hendl provides an able accompaniment.

When I first started the disc of Chopin's Ballades, I was reminded of Rubinstein. Graffman's direct approach is similar to the elder pianist's, although he treats the more extroverted parts in a more virtuosic manner, with less use of the sustaining pedal. The two renditions of the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise are particularly brilliant, although Graffman's tempo in the earlier recording for the Andante is a bit brisk for my taste. Graffman's performance of the E minor Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Munch contrasts a dramatic opening movement with a hushed slow movement and dancing finale. Unfortunately, enjoyment is marred by the disfiguring first movement cut that was somewhat common in those days - so I will stick with Zimerman's self-conducted version or Primakov.

Graffman's approach to Schumann is to present what's in the score in the most direct manner. The problem with this approach in Schumann is that there are hidden or coded meanings that don't make themselves apparent in a "straight" performance. His readings of the G minor Sonata, Romance in F-sharp, Carnaval, and two version of the Symphonic Etudes are responsibly phrased, and extremely well played, but don't linger in the memory the way Cortot's or Richter's recordings do.

Graffman's sole Liszt LP was titled "The Virtuoso Liszt", but the composer's poetic, brooding sides are also on display here. The ever popular Liebestraume No. 3, Un Sospiro, and Consolation No. 3 are played with plasticity of phrasing and evenness of tone, as is Il Penseroso. They make an effective contrast to the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11, delivered with a coolness that makes it even more exciting (although Kapell's version remains my favorite). The six Paganini Etudes are some of the best I've ever heard, and I can't think of another recording that so skillfully balances virtuosity with intelligence.

Paganini's infamous A minor Caprice is, of course, the subject of Brahms' two books of Op. 35 Variations. Graffman's performances of this and the Handel Variations balance virtuosic bonhomie with structural integrity. Graffman makes a solid contribution to the D minor Concerto, but the Boston Symphony under Munch is rather sloppy (particularly the horns in the introduction), so this recording is far from a top choice.

Graffman is most successful in Russian music. Each recording of Russian repertoire in this set belongs on every music lover's bookshelf. Graffman makes subtle alterations to Mussorgsky's score Pictures at an Exhibition, delivering a richly colored, one might even say picturesque performance, with a thrilling finale. Graffman lavishes care on the lyrical central section of Balakirev's Islamey, while giving the more extroverted pages the full virtuoso treatment. A similar sensibility infuses the Rachmaninoff solo works. Graffman resists the temptation to drown the music in a haze of pedal, rubato, or treacle - Rachmaninoff's works often come across more powerfully when not laden with sentimentality. Graffman and Bernstein are in perfect accord in the ever popular Second Concerto and Paganini Variations, with the pianist's incisive touch contrasting with the luxurious accompaniment - some of the best playing I've heard from the New York Philharmonic.

There are two recordings each of Prokofiev's Second and Third Sonatas and the Third Concerto. Both versions of the sonatas feature generally brisk tempos and bone dry pedaling. Graffman's rendition of the Third Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under Jorda is a bit more exuberant and breathless than the later version with Szell. The early stereo sound is a bit warmer in the earlier version as well, although the strings sound a bit stressed in the more rapid passages. The later version with the Cleveland Orchestra with Szell is more architectonic, with the relentless rhythms of the Third's finale imprinting themselves on the listener, rather than impressing by mere speed. The First Concerto is a bit freer with whimsical moments.

One would never guess that Szell didn't particularly like Tchaikovsky's First Concerto judging by the richly detailed accompaniment he and the Clevelanders provide, while Graffman's contribution nicely balances bravura with poetry. Graffman's recording of the Second and Third Concertos made quite a splash when they were released in 1965. There's a sort of nationalistic swing to Graffman's handling of the opening movement of the Second, while Ormandy's treatment of the finale sounds inspired by Tchaokivsky's ballet scores.

Capping off the set is Graffman's idiomatic performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue as used in Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Nearly all the recordings have been freshly remastered for this edition. The early concerto recordings made during RCA's Living Stereo era sound particularly fine. But the solo recordings (both RCA and Columbia) are rather dryish, while the Columbia concerto recordings continue to have a somewhat artificial quality that's doubtless the result of over-miking. Two of the early solo discs are monaural. (There are a number of editing errors on the Brahms Variations disc, and a blatant editing mistake in Chopin's Scherzo, Op. 31 [disc 21] - where eights bars of music are deleted!) The set features the original LP covers and programming, which means relatively short playing times for the discs. The illustrated booklet has a perceptive essay by Jed Distler and an affectionate blurb from Lang Lang.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 2013 has been a good year for American pianists, 11 Aug. 2013
This review is from: Gary Graffman - The Complete Album Collection [Box Set] (Audio CD)
The purpose of this review is to call attention to a valuable service that a major record company has provided to American pianists.
Before the year 2013 is over, Sony will have issued bargain-priced Complete Collections devoted to FIVE significant American pianists.
Sony is crypt-keeper for the recorded legacies of Columbia (Fleisher, Graffman) and RCA (Kapell, Cliburn, Janis, early Graffman).

1) William Kapell: Complete Recordings 1944 - 1953
2) Byron Janis: Byron Janis: The Complete RCA Collection
3) Van Cliburn: Van Cliburn - Complete Album Collection
4) Leon Fleisher: Leon Fleisher Complete Album Collection [Box Set, Limited Edition]
5) Gary Graffman: The box under consideration

24 CDs in the Original Jacket format with a nice booklet.
CDs 1 and 3 are mono recordings, 1955-56.
The rest are stereo, 1957-1979, though the jacket for CD 2 indicates it is mono.
Program notes from the original LPs are in fine print on the back of each jacket, except CDs 7 (Liszt) and 24 (Gershwin) are blank.

Graffman started at RCA, then moved to Columbia.
During his RCA period, 1956-1960, he recorded Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, Faure, Debussy and Prokofiev.
Unfortunately for him, this is the repertoire (minus Prokofiev) that RCA's big guns, Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn, excelled in.
RCA's third big gun, Vladimir Horowitz also excelled in Prokofiev, plus Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann (RCA was quite the label in those days).

There wasn't much future for Graffman at RCA, so he moved to Columbia in 1962, where he released 14 LPs.
Horowitz followed shortly thereafter (Columbia was quite the label in those days).

In addition to more of the old repertoire, Columbia steered Graffman toward Russian music (6 LPs).
Graffman's parents were Russian emigre musicians and he seems to have had a natural affinity.

My all-time favorite Graffman recording is Tchaikovsky Concertos 2 and 3 (CD 15).
A lot of the credit goes to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
This was the first uncut (almost) recording of the Second Concerto (movement 2 was still in the heavily cut Siloti edition), and created a sensation on its 1965 LP release.
To my mind, Graffman outdid Emil Gilels in these concertos, which was quite an accomplishment. But Gilels played pure Siloti, and he did not have the Philadelphia Orchestra backing him up.
Graffman's First Concerto with Szell is also exceptional, but not better than Gilels / Reiner.

In the 1970s, he lost the use of his right hand due to injury, and changed his focus to teaching.
He was Lang Lang's mentor at the Curtis Institute.

REMASTERINGS: 18 of the 24 CDs are new 24-bit remasterings specially prepared for this box.
CDs 10, 15, 16 and 19 (Mussorgsky, Balakirov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev) are 24-bit remasterings from 2005 and 2006.
CD 13 (Rachmaninov) is the 20-bit remastering prepared for the 1992 Bernstein Royal Edition.
CD 24 (Gershwin) is a (16 bit?) remastering from 1990 of the original soundtrack for Woody Allen's film "Manhattan"
Everything sounds fine to me. but I'm old and don't hear fine gradations of sound as well as I used to.

4 of the 5 new Sony boxes are in the Original Jacket format, with a booklet of biographical notes.
I go into greater detail in my June 4 review of Leon Fleisher Complete Album Collection [Box Set, Limited Edition] ("2013 has been a good year for American pianists.").

Inexplicaby, the William Kapell box is a bare-bones production with no program notes at all.
A frustrating decision.
You'd be better off buying its earlier 9-CD incarnation: William Kapell Edition if you can afford it.
plus two CDs of newly discovered material: Kapell reDiscovered

Despite screwing up the Kapell box, SONY is owed a vote of thanks from pianophiles, especially the impecunious.

P.S. The year is not over, and I have no inside information,
but is there still room for a Eugene Istomin box, an Andre Watts box (both Columbia artists), or a John Browning box (split between EMI and RCA) ?
Who knows?
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Super "Old School" performances(and that means great!), 6 Sept. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Gary Graffman - The Complete Album Collection [Box Set] (Audio CD)
Buy this while you can. A great set of original performances in the grand old school style. A great bargain. Thanks you Mr. Graffman

Scott Harrison
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