Sometimes, the stars are in alignment. For classical music lovers, particularly pianophiles and radio programmers, this is one such time. Five of our finest pianists each have superb new albums out, each worth savoring in their entirety, as we shall this week on NEPR's Big Classical Show. What better reward for having endured pledge week?
Up first, on Monday, is one of the great personalities of the piano, a legend of chamber music, the only pianist in the more than fifty-year history of the Beaux Arts Trio, and a distinguished member of the music faculty of Indiana University for nearly 60 years. To say that as he nears his 90th birthday this December, Menahem Pressler is still going strong would be an understatement. But though his bio credits him with over 30 solo recordings, the new one featured on Monday would have to be regarded as a career milestone. Recorded in England in February and March, 2012, Mr. Pressler, on a Steinway D grand piano, offers exquisite, finely nuanced renditions of Sonatas by Beethoven (No. 31, Op. 111, coming up during the 10:00 hour Monday) and Schubert (B-flat major, D. 960, airing at 1:00), along with a Chopin Nocturne as lagniappe.
The same heavenly Schubert Sonata, the composer's last, also appears on the latest album by an Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. Better known in Europe than in North America, Buchbinder counts as one of our finest masters of the "great" piano works, by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. After hearing Pressler's version of the Schubert B-flat Sonata on Monday, Buchbinder's on Tuesday will be recognizable as the same piece — but ah, how different the music will be! The Sonata comes up Tuesday at 1:00, with the first set of Schubert Impromptus coming up Tuesday morning.
Area music lovers have had the pleasure of encountering pianist Mitsuko Uchida many times recently at the Marlboro Festival, where she and pianist Richard Goode have served as co-Artistic Directors. For that, we should count ourselves fortunate, for Dame Mitsuko (as she now may be called) picks her spots, especially as a solo artist. Like Buchbinder, Uchida devotes her recordings to the "great" composers, with occasional forays into such 20th century fare as Debussy and Schoenberg. One composer who especially benefits from her pensive and probing style is Robert Schumann, three of whose slightly lesser-known works and collections take on special emotional resonance in the album we'll spread through Wednesday's program.
Beethoven's "Diabelli" Varations are not only his last major keyboard work, they are a veritable summation of his keyboard art and multi-faceted personality. As great a test of musicianship and imagination as any piano work, the Diabellis require a pianist with as much wit as technical wizardry — a pianist like András Schiff, for instance. Schiff is one of an increasing number of "mainstream" musicians to explore the old instruments and "authentic" styles of the early music, as he does not once, but twice with the Diabellis on his latest album. We'll save the version on on a Beethoven-era Hammerflügel for some other time, and enjoy Schiff's performance on a 1921 Bechstein piano on Thursday at 1:00.
At that same time on Friday, we'll wrap up Piano Week with the greatest set of keyboard variations before Beethoven, in the new performance by one of this year's roster of MacArthur Fellows, Jeremy Denk. As eloquent in words as he is in music, Denk partnered with NPR recently to explore J.S. Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, before releasing his own recording of this most central work in the keyboard literature. You'll get your chance to hear it this Friday at one. But if you can't wait til then, help yourself!