I remember Stephen Prutsman from a TV program I watched about the Tchaikovsky International Competition of 1990, where he was a medalist – only a medalist. Funny, how losers turn out to be winners! This CD showcases a rare talent, indeed – a talent you're not likely ever to forget. Prutsman captures the brilliance, the melancholy, the color, and the virtuosity of the Op. 39 pieces better than anyone I've heard in them before. His tone is subtle and rich, his dynamics wide ranging, his technique superb, his tempos well judged, and his interpretations, while not revelatory, are always intelligent and tasteful. He's rather a middle-of-the roader who convinces with his considerable arsenal of virtuosic weaponry and artistic commitment and good sense. In no piece is he less than utterly compelling and gripping. Try #5 and 6 to sample his impressive artistry: the tortured passion and melancholy in the former never sound calculated or overdone but are rendered with a gorgeous tone and yearning intensity; the latter piece is fraught with suspense and delicacy, drama and urgency, all in proper proportion. This is spectacular playing. Need I say more?
Ovchinikov (EMI) certainly offers formidable competition with a set high in drama and seething with passion and power. Idil Biret serves up dark readings that probe deeper than most other typical approaches here. Both Biret and Ovchinikov offer compelling performances of the Op. 33 Études, as well. More about Biret later on.
Prutsman, of course, gives us the Scriabin Third, too, one my favorite of this highly individual composer's works. Again, I'd have to rank his rendition as the best I've heard, better than Gould's, better than Ashkenazy's. Prutsman catches all the quirkiness in Scriabin's lyrical, tortured first movement, and he infuses such fire and drama in the following Allegretto (and in the finale, too) that I begin to question my depiction of him as a "middle-of-the-roader." (Actually, I meant that in the best possible sense of the phrase; i.e., that Prutsman is not extreme or impulsive in his temperament.) The Liadov Prélude that closes the disc is a delightful bonus. Excellent sound by Brioso and informative notes round out one of the most important releases by a new pianist in recent years.
To return to the Biret performances, I must say that if I've given the impression she's left in the dust by her young rival's Rachmaninoff, let me correct that now: her way with these pieces, as I suggested above, is intense and probing, nearly always interesting and is among the most individual you're apt to come across on disc or on the recital stage. True, she is perhaps a bit too grim for those accustomed to more traditional approaches in this repertory. But for most listeners, she comes across as an artist with ideas and the resources to execute them in grand style. In the budget realm her accounts probably have the field to themselves. Naxos offers good sound and notes. For Rachmaninoffians her disc, in a way, may be the preferred one here, since it offers both sets of Études, whereas Prutsman's is a repertorial mix. My recommendation would be to purchase both.
Copyright © 1998, Robert Cummings