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Maria Grinberg (piano)
The Art of
rec. 1946-76

Overshadowed by the likes of Richter, Gilels and, to some extent, Yudina, Maria Grinberg (1908-1978) was one of the finest pianists the Russian school produced in the early part of the 20th century. She was a pupil of Felix Blumenfeld, teacher of Horowitz, Yudina and Barere, and later Konstantin Igumnov at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1935 she took second prize in the Second All-Union Pianist Competition. Her life wasn't without tragedy. In 1937 her husband and father were arrested and executed as "enemies of the people", and in her late 40s she suffered a dramatic deterioration in her vision, the result of a brain tumour for which surgery was required. She soon grabbed the attention of her compatriots, and travelled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union giving concerts. It was only when Stalin died in 1953 that she was permitted to travel abroad. At 61 she took up a teaching post at the Gnessin Institute of Music.

Grinberg's repertoire was sizeable and wide-ranging, embracing composers from Bach to Shostakovich, and her substantial discography reflects this. It's over ten years now since I first encountered her. Being an avid collector of Beethoven Piano Sonata cycles, I purchased her mid-1960 traversal when it was issued by Melodiya in 2006. Such was the impression this 'unknown' pianist made, that I decided to explore further. Investigation revealed a plethora of recordings on such labels as Vista Vera, Denon, Melodiya and the now defunct Arlecchino label, many difficult to obtain and expensive. Scribendum has just released this 34 CD set, rounding up this remarkable legacy under one roof. For those aficionados of the pianist, or others wishing to explore for the first time, this set makes for a more financially viable proposition. The recordings, both live and studio, span a thirty year period from 1946 to 1976.

A substantial portion of the set is devoted to Beethoven. CDs 11-19 contain Grinberg's complete piano sonata cycle set down between 1964 and 1967. It was initially released in 1970 as a 13-LP album. It made history in being the first complete cycle by a Russian pianist. CDs 4-7 contain some earlier alternatives from the 1950s and early 60s, and two live concerts, each featuring three sonatas, dated 29 October 1968 and 30 January 1973. There's also a complete piano concerto cycle, made up of live and studio airings, dated 1947-1970.

In the mid-sixties complete cycle, the piano sound is very good and consistent throughout all nine discs. Grinberg's choice of tempi is comfortable and works extremely well. You get the impression that she’s lived with these works a long time and has them fully at her fingertips. Dynamic markings are punctiliously observed. The Moonlight, that most hackneyed and abused sonata, here sounds fresh and spontaneous. I also like the way the sonatas follow disc-by-disc in numerical order, giving the listener the opportunity to experience the composer's development. There are three performances of the Sonata No. 1 in F minor, two studio ones from 1950 and 1966 and a live airing from 1968. It was interesting comparing them. In the two later performances, tempi in the outer movements has more energy and vitality, whilst the inner movements remain interpretively similar. Grinberg scores high marks in the last three sonatas. There’s agreeable pacing, a sense of improvisation, with interpretations evolving on the wing. In Op. 109 the theme of the third movement is poised, with the variations well-characterized. In Op. 110 she evokes darkness and despair in the brooding Adagio. Op. 111 tells of struggle and conflict in the opening movement, and in the Arietta we are transported to a world of repose and resignation.

Beethoven's five piano concertos are a mixed bag. There's one performance of Nos. 1,2, 4 and 5, and two of No. 3. Concertos 4 and 5 are the best. Both are with the USSR Symphony Orchestra, with Alexander Gauk and Neeme Järvi respectively. They’re inspirational conductors, and elicit the very best from the soloist. No. 4 is in the finest sound, a stereo recording from 1968. No. 5 is live from 23 January 1957 with both soloist and orchestra favourably balanced. In the 1947 recording of No. 2, the piano sounds clangy and brittle, though Kondrashin directs a convincing account. To sum up, I would say that Grinberg's Beethoven is big-boned, bold and courageous.

Of the remaining five concerto performances, I would immediately rule out the Tchaikovsky Second Concerto from 1946 for two reasons. First of all the sound quality is distorted and crumbly, and secondly Grinberg plays the heavily vandalized Siloti version which decimates the composer's exquisite original slow movement. In the Bach F minor Concerto, she contours a touching line in the slow movement, reminiscent of Edwin Fisher, and the finale bubbles with effervescence. The live Schumann from 1958 with Karl Eliasberg is captured in very reasonable sound and there's a fluidity throughout which is quite bracing. The lyrical meshing of soloist and orchestra is captivating. There are also serviceable accounts of the Rachmaninov Third (1958), again with Eliasberg at the helm, and a compelling Shostakovich 1 with Rozhdestvensky from 1962, again sonically pleasing.

The six Scarlatti Sonatas chosen for a 1968 live recital are less familiar ones, which provides added interest. Grinberg brings freshness and spontaneity to her readings. There are four Mozart Sonatas, set down at various times between 1961 and 1973. Her Mozart has special appeal. Not only is her playing utterly assured, but it’s intensely thoughtful, meticulously prepared and informed by an all-embracing musicianship. She attains a delicate balance between refinement and soulfulness, opening up a world of wonders and delights. I'm particularly drawn to her performance of the D major Sonata, K576. The slow movement is ardently poetic, with the outer movements rhythmically buoyant. We have two versions of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A, D.664, both live from 1973 and 1974. The earlier one, however, is marred by harsh recording quality.

Grinberg's Chopin credentials are impressive indeed. Three of the four Ballades receive well-managed performances, rich in musical insights, with the coda of the fourth negotiated with unruffled ease. In the selection of ten Mazurkas, she fully encapsulates the character and spirit of these precious gems. As for Liszt, there's a high-powered Sonata, the excitement recalling Argerich’s early sixties recording on DG. The lyrical passages, however, display a degree of warmth and poetry. Busoni described Ricordanza as ‘faded love letters’, yet Grinberg is careful not to let it drift into sentimentality.

Temperamentally suited to the music of Schumann, CD21, devoted to the composer, is one of the highlights of the collection. The recordings date from 1951-1970, and sound quality isn’t an issue. Kinderszenen, has a disarming simplicity and enchants. I welcome the less popular Bunte Blätter cycle, which stands comparison with the Richter performances I've heard. Similarly, the rarely heard Fantasiestücke, Op. 111, penned in 1851 during the last phase of the composer's life, are three pieces which suffer unjust neglect. It was a period of declining mental health. Some commentators held the view that his music revealed signs of creative decay. I hear no such deterioration in these three outstandingly beautiful scores, whose bold harmonic gestures and expressive lyricism cannot fail to win over the listener. Sehr rasch, mit leidenschaftlichem Vortrag is eloquent, flowing and fervently zealous, Ziemlich langsam – wistful and reflective and shot through with emotional fragility. Kräftig und sehr markiert’s sprung rhythms and swagger occupy more positive terrain. Of the Brahms selection, the Ballades Op. 10, Nos. 3 and 4 reveal some imaginative phrasing. The three Intermezzi, Op. 117 are lacklustre. The first is glossed over, the second is rushed and the third sounds pedestrian.

CDs 29-34 are devoted to 20th Century repertoire. Technical prowess and fantasy inform the selection of Rachmaninoff Preludes. Op. 23, No. 2, my favorite solo piano work by the composer, has plenty of daring and climactic impact. In Op. 23 No 4 in D major, the sustained melody is eloquently shaped in a seamless line. Nikolai Medtner's one-movement Piano Sonata in G minor from 1910 is the most popular of his sonatas, championed by Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch and Gilels. Grinberg's approach is to allow the work to grow organically as it progresses, so there's maximum impact when it reaches the coda. Bartók's Out of Doors is rhythmically percussive, evoking a world of stark primitivism. Although Prokofiev's piano sonatas don't appeal to me personally, there are three in the set. Nos. 2 and 5 were recorded in 1961, and No 6 dates from 1973. They sound pretty good, with both the piano and acoustic on both occasions smiling favourably on the pianist.

Grinberg produces a refined and nuanced sound when it comes to Debussy. Changes in timbre and subtle shifts enable to the music to come alive. Although the recorded sound isn't the best, some of this warmth, intensity and radiance shines through. She's chosen seven preludes from Book 1, each subtly characterized. Sadly La Cathédrale engloutie isn't there, but La danse de Puck is fun-loving and high-spirited as is Minstrels, which is rhythmically vital. Of interest are the Six épigraphes antiques for two pianos. Her co-conspirator in this 1961 recording is Nika Zabavnikova. They also join forces in a live performance dated 20 May 1964 of Hindemith's Piano Sonata for Four Hands and the two piano version of Lutosławski's Variations on a theme of Paganini. Having just celebrated the centenary of his birth, I'm pleased Mieczysław Weinberg is represented. The pianist performs his brief two-movement Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 73, in a recording from 1964.

Chamber music is represented by Borodin's Piano Quintet in C minor from 1862. It combines opulence and lyricism and, despite the piano's metallic tone, all concerned savour the delights on offer in this attractive score.

Attractively packaged, the reverse of the CD cardboard sleeves contain tracklists and timings in addition to recording dates. Scribendum don't provide any notes. Having said that, for those prepared to explore further, there's no shortage of information regarding the pianist on the internet.

This has been one of the finest piano collections I've ever had the pleasure of reviewing.

Stephen Greenbank


Arensky, Anton
Fantasia on Russian folksongs, op.48

Bach, Johann Sebastian
Keyboard Concerto no.5 in F minor, BWV1056
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV543 (trans. Franz Liszt)
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV532 (arr. Busoni)
Sarabanda con partite, BWV990
Trio Sonata no.5 in C major, BWV529
» Largo (arr. Feinberg)

Bartok, Bela
Out of Doors, Sz81 BB89

Beethoven, Ludwig van
Ecossaises (6), WoO83
Minuet in E flat major, WoO82
Minuets (6), WoO10
» no.2 in G major
» no.3
» no.5
Piano Concertos nos 1-5 (complete)
Piano Sonatas nos 1-32 (complete)
Rondo a capriccio in G major, op.129 'Rage over a lost penny'
Rondo in G major, op.51 no.2
Variations (6) on 'Nel cor piu non mi sento', WoO70
Variations (32) on an original theme, WoO80

Bizet, Georges
Chants du Rhin

Borodin, Alexander
Piano Quintet in C minor

Brahms, Johannes
Ballades (4), op.10
» no.3 in B minor
» no.4 in B major
Hungarian Dances (21), WoO1 (selection)
Intermezzi (3), op.117
Klavierstucke (8), op.76
» no.2 Capriccio in B minor
Variations (11) on an Original Theme in D major, op.21 no.1
Variations on a theme by Schumann in F sharp minor, op.9
Waltzes (16), op.39 (extracts)

Chopin, Frederic
Ballades (4)
» no.1 in G minor, op.23
» no.3 in A flat major, op.47
» no.4 in F minor, op.52
Mazurkas (51)
» no.2 in C sharp minor, op.6 no.2
» no.3 in E major, op.6 no.3
» no.4 in E flat minor, op.6 no.4
» no.20 in D flat major, op.30 no.3
» no.22 in G sharp minor, op.33 no.1
» no.30 in G major, op.50 no.1
» no.40 in F minor, op.63 no.2
Tarantelle in A flat major, op.43
Variations brilliantes, op.12

Corelli, Arcangelo
Concerti grossi (12), op.6
» no.8 in G minor 'Christmas': VI Largo. Pastorale (arr. Godowsky)

Debussy, Claude
Epigraphes Antiques (6)
Estampes (3)
» no.2 La soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Granada)
Preludes (12), Book 1 (selection)
Preludes (12), Book 2
» no.12 Feux d'artifice

Franck, Cesar
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra

Glazunov, Alexander
Concert waltz no.1 in D major, op.47 (arr. Blumenfeld)

Glinka, Mikhail
Andalusian Dance 'Las Mollares'
Children's polka in B flat major
Farewell Waltz in G major
Mazurka in A flat major
Mazurka in C minor
Tarantella in A minor
Variations on Alyabyev's Song 'The Nightingale' in E minor
Waltz in E flat major

Graun, Carl Heinrich
Gigue in B flat minor

Grieg, Edvard
Holberg Suite, op.40
Poetic Tone-Pictures (6), op.3

Hindemith, Paul
Piano Sonata for 4 Hands

Kabalevsky, Dimitry
Piano Sonata no.3 in F major, op.46

Kreisler, Fritz
Liebesleid (arr. Rachmaninov)

Liadov, Anatol
Etude and Preludes for piano (4), op.40
» no.1 Etude in C sharp minor
Etude in A flat major, op.5
Etude in E major, op.12
Etude in F major for piano, op.37
Variations on a Polish folk theme, op.51

Liszt, Franz
Etudes d'execution transcendante (12), S139
» no.9 in A flat major 'Ricordanza'
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes, S123
Lieder (12) von Franz Schubert (aus Winterreise), S561
» no.5 Erstarrung
Lieder (12) von Franz Schubert, S558
» no.2 Auf dem Wasser zu singen
» no.11 Der Wanderer
Lieder von Robert Schumann (2), S567
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178
Rhapsodie Espagnole, S254
Schwanengesang, S560 (Schubert)
» no.5 Abschied
» no.10 Liebesbotschaft
» no.11 Der Atlas
» no.11 Die Stadt

Lokshin, Alexander
Variations for piano

Lutoslawski, Witold
Variations on a Theme by Paganini (arr. for 2 pianos)

Medtner, Nikolai
Fairy Tales (Skazki) (2), op.20
Forgotten Melodies (excerpts)
Piano Sonata in G minor, op.22

Mendelssohn, Felix
Fantasia in F sharp minor, op.28 'Sonate ecossaise'
Scherzo a capriccio in F sharp minor
Songs without Words (selection)

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Fantasia in C minor, K396 (completed Abbe Stadler)
Fantasia in C minor, K475
Piano Sonata no.12 in F major, K332
Piano Sonata no.14 in C minor, K457
Piano Sonata no.17 in B flat major, K570
Piano Sonata no.18 in D major, K576
Variations (12) in B flat major on an Allegretto, K500

Prokofiev, Sergei
Egyptian Nights, op.61
Piano Sonata no.2 in D minor, op.14
Piano Sonata no.5 in C major, op.38
Piano Sonata no.6 in A major, op.82
Pieces for Piano (10), op.12
» no.10 Scherzo

Rachmaninov, Sergei
Moments musicaux (6), op.16
» no.3 in B minor
Morceau de fantaisie in G minor
Piano Concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30
Preludes (10), op.23
» no.2 in B flat major
» no.4 in D major
» no.7 in C minor
» no.9 in E flat minor
Preludes (13), op.32
» no.1 in C major
» no.5 in G major
» no.8 in A minor
» no.10 in B minor
» no.11 in B major

Scarlatti, Domenico
Keyboard Sonata in A major, K113
Keyboard Sonata in C major, K159 'La caccia'
Keyboard Sonata in C minor, K11
Keyboard Sonata in C minor, K22
Keyboard Sonata in D minor, K9
Keyboard Sonata in F minor, K69

Schubert, Franz
Impromptus (4), op.90 D899
Piano Sonata no.13 in A major, D664

Schumann, Robert
Bunte Blatter, op.99
Etudes Symphoniques, op.13
Fantasiestucke (3), op.111
Kinderszenen, op.15
Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Piano Sonata no.1 in F sharp minor, op.11

Seixas, Carlos de
Minuet in F minor
Toccata in F minor

Shostakovich, Dmitri
Dances of the Dolls (7): Suite, op.91b
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor, op.35

Soler, Antonio
Keyboard Sonata in C sharp minor, R21
Keyboard Sonata in F sharp minor, R90
Keyboard Sonata in G minor

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich
Piano Concerto no.2 in G major, op.44

Telemann, Georg Philipp
Fantasias (36),TWV33
» no.3 in E major: II Largo

Weinberg, Mieczyslaw
Children's Notebook: Book 1, op.16
Piano Sonata no.6, op.73

Participating artists
Maria Grinberg (piano)
Nika Zabavnikova (piano)
Sergei Popov (trumpet)
USSR Bolshoi Theatre Quartet
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra
USSR State Symphony Orchestra
USSR Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra

Participating conductors
Dmitri Kitayenko
Roman Matsov
Kurt Sanderling
Elic Klass
Kirill Kondrashin
Alexander Gauk
Sergei Gorchakov
Karl Eliasberg
Neeme Jarvi
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky



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