Pianist and composer Alexander Goldenweiser was one of the great founders of the "Russian Piano School," a tirelessly dedicated pedagogue who helped establish the very system of teaching piano in Russia that has led to a number of successful, even legendary, concert artists. Goldenweiser made only one piano roll, in 1910; otherwise, he did not record until 1946, after being named a People's Artist of the USSR. By then, Goldenweiser was 71; between that time and his death in 1961 at age 86, he would produce numerous records. While many of Goldenweiser's recordings are outstanding, they are uneven owing to his advanced age and the poor sound of many Soviet-era recordings. APR, an English label devoted to recordings of historic pianists, has put together a coherent package in The Russian Piano Tradition: Alexander Goldenweiser, something BMG/Melodiya did not do when they prepared the only other Goldenweiser CD offered on the Western market as part of their Russian Piano School series of 1995.
Rather than cherry picking from a motley assemblage of Goldenweiser recordings as BMG did, APR presents a 1952 recording of Tchaikovsky's Album for the Young along with Books 7 and 9 and part of Book 8 from Grieg's Lyric Pieces, recorded in 1953-1954. Concerning the Album for the Young, it is hard to imagine a more authoritative pianist to hear it from; Goldenweiser got his start taking private lessons with Vasily Prokhunin, a student of Tchaikovsky, and likely studied some of these very pieces with him. Generally, Goldenweiser doesn't take them for being more than what they are -- teaching pieces -- but there are moments where a sort of natural momentum picks up the music, such as in "Neapolitan Song" and "The Witch." It is the kind of casual, easygoing interpretation one might expect from a pianist who has been playing these pieces nearly 70 years and there is something magical about it.
The Grieg, however, is spectacular; these are big-boned, expressive readings in the Romantic style, brimming with character and confidence. "Wedding-day at Troldhaugen" enjoys a nearly manic excitement in the loud sections and has a real sense of occasion, whereas the soft middle section simply melts; his poetic handling of such passages is moving and deeply felt. Goldenweiser doesn't have absolute control over the most virtuosic passages in the piece, and mistakes are certainly present, but you don't care. Goldenweiser is from a time and tradition completely lost to us, and one is thankful just for the privilege to travel back in time with this artist.
The sound, alas, is the main drawback here. The BMG issue was rife with tape hiss, so much that it was hard to endure. This APR release is better in that there is no hiss, but there's little else left; the sound is cramped and at times distorted, and you get little sense of the actual sound of the piano he's playing, which might be a good thing because in Soviet recordings great artists seldom were given great instruments to make records with. What you do hear, though, is his expression, touch, and timing, and even though you might have to make an aural "squint" to see the picture, the content of the image and mastery of the brushstroke that rendered it eloquently speaks of the era from whence it came.