Viktor Merzhanov

Recital in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire

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With major changes taking place in the ways artists present the classical repertory to the public, it seems to be Russians who are most committed to doing it the old-fashioned way. Victor Merzhanov, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, is a pianist deeply rooted in the Russian school, and this 1994 recital from that institution's Great Hall could have been heard 50 years ago. There is the obligatory Beethoven and Schubert, neither played outstandingly; the super-poetic opening movement of the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27/2 ("Moonlight"), throws off the balance among the three movements, and the middle Allegretto is rather limp. The heart of the program, however, is Eastern European. The Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, is superb, with a brooding, commanding funeral march that, in the classic Russian fashion, seems obsessed with death itself (and a good candidate for the instant karma would be the listener who creaked around in one of the seats in the opening moments of this movement and in several other places throughout the rest of the program). The momentum spills over into the short, nihilistic finale, one of the trickiest moments in Chopin; in Merzhanov's hands the whole sonata seems like a single utterance. Even better are the Scriabin pieces; one senses that for Merzhanov, despite the length of the Chopin, they are the real heart of the program. He excels at the murky shades that are Scriabin's specialty, and the sound of the audience reaction at the end of the Etude in D sharp minor, Op. 8/12 -- well, that's the sound of a Russian audience being fed red meat. Sound quality is a problem, and it's surprising that a recording made in 1994 should have made the piano sound like it was in a big box. But if you can get past that, you will enjoy music-making with a kind of fire that isn't much heard anymore.

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