GREGOR PIATIGORSKY (1903 - 1976)
Gregor Piatigorsky was one of the most important US-based cellists of the mid-twentieth century and the most prominent Russian exponent of the cello before Rostropovich. As a stylist he was recognisably modern: even his earliest records use portamento quite sparingly and there is a clarity and precision in his tone that integrates well with a relatively narrow vibrato. His playing is characterised overall by an appealing, immaculate quality, with an especially vibrant A-string tone, an ‘easy’ delivery and a very flexible bow wrist. Arguably, this kind of precision may have taken precedence over risk-taking and he was perhaps not the most insightful of interpreters—Casals’s playing, for example, evoking a profounder musicianship—but his approach has an almost inevitable technical security to it, inviting comparison with Heifetz, his near contemporary.
His first lessons (as with so many other pre-war European players) were with his father, a violist, who started him on piano and violin. Hearing Viktor Kubatsky (for whom Shostakovich wrote his Cello Sonata) with the Imperial Orchestra in 1910, however, left Piatigorsky yearning for a cello and it is said that he would play for hours with two sticks representing the instrument and bow. Eventually he was given a cello and subsequently won a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory to study with Alfred von Glehn, a pupil of Davidov. Whilst still in training he was gaining experience playing beside his father for cinemas and clubs, and in the rank-and-file of the Zimin Opera Orchestra. Having been refused permission to travel outside Russia, Piatigorsky made his way covertly to Poland in 1921 and thence to Berlin where he took some (unsuccessful) lessons from Becker before meeting Schnabel for the first time (Schnabel described him as ‘absolutely unknown […] living in an unheated attic in the cold winter […] undernourished’) and performing with him in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to great acclaim. Thus his international career began and by the end of the 1920s he had made prestigious appearances in Germany with the Dvořák and Haydn concertos and Brahms’s Double Concerto with Flesch.
Highlights of Piatigorsky’s glittering career include a performance of Strauss’s Don Quixote under the composer’s baton, the first performance of Walton’s Cello Concerto, the US première of Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto with Koussevitzky, and chamber-music collaborations with Heifetz, Rubinstein and William Primrose.
In his discography Piatigorsky mainly favoured the standard Romantic repertory, although he made fewer concerto recordings than some of his contemporaries. His own arrangement of a Haydn baryton trio (recorded 1940) is performed neatly if perhaps a little heavily, with a spurious understanding of eighteenth-century phrase shapes but a purity and clarity that reveals Haydn’s elegant melodic lines admirably. Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 (1934)—probably the only recorded example of celebrated Beethovenian Schnabel’s chamber collaborations with Piatigorsky—is played cleanly, the opening adagio being thoughtful and carefully sculptured, underpinned by Schnabel’s insightful pianism; whilst the final rondo is given with a pleasing lightness that sounds much more modern than its recording date suggests. The 1950 Tchaikovsky Piano Trio recording selected here is testament to the ‘Million-Dollar Trio’: these three musicians, each at the pinnacle of their prowess, interact with each other with an ease rarely achieved, Piatigorsky being heard to flourish in some unexpectedly flamboyant gestures.
In concerto repertoire a tidy Saint-Saëns conducted by Reiner (1950) is complemented by a fine Brahms Double with Milstein (1951). Although the outer movements of the Brahms are moderate in tempo, they avoid the unrelenting heaviness that can too frequently mar this densely argued work. In the opening movement the soloists are well-matched, Milstein’s uncluttered approach fitting well with Piatigorsky’s equally pure tone, carefully marked phrasing and few (quite light) portamenti. In Schumann’s music Piatigorsky excelled equally; his Schumann Concerto with Barbirolli was his first complete concerto recording (1934), unfolding with a precise sound and some delicacy before expanding into a thrilling finale. The three Fantasiestücke are performed beautifully with Ivor Newton in 1940, this being one of the most idiomatic and characterful recordings of the selection.
Piatigorsky acquired some skill in composition and arranging through his early experiences as a cinema musician; he later assisted Stravinsky in preparing the Suite Italienne (based on Pulcinella) and made numerous transcriptions for the cello, significantly increasing its repertoire. Two miniatures for solo cello, Preludio and Stroll (or Promenade), recorded in 1947, demonstrate an adventurous and dramatic side to Piatigorsky’s personality—something perhaps reflected further in his reputation for telling ‘tall’ stories!
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)