You know what? There are some pretty marvelous pianists out there that few have heard of. And this guy, Jura Margulis, is one. He's a young Russian, brought up in Germany, who studied first with his father, Vitaly Margulis, and then with Leon Fleisher at Peabody and who is now professor of piano at the University of Arkansas. I'd never heard of him but I love the program on this disc so I got it.
It starts with one of the most poetic readings of Alban Berg's one-movement Op. 1 Piano Sonata I've ever heard. It is slow, about four minutes longer than Stephen Hough's version on Hyperion, for instance. It is also predominantly lyrical and softer than one often hears. This is not to say that he fudges the climaxes, but when they arise out of a fairly soft base they have all the more impact. I love this reading.
Then follows one of the more often played of Brahms's piano masterpieces, his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35 -- yes, it's THAT theme, the one from the 24th Caprice that just about every composer has written variations on -- and Margulis's reading is perhaps not quite in the same league as Michelangeli's incandescent reading, or Earl Wild's, but it's pretty darn close to them. It helps that he is playing a beautifully tuned and regulated Bachstein piano (and what I read on the Internet suggests that Margulis has been a Steinway artist, but I may be mistaken about that). At any rate the sound of this piano is both rich and brilliant.
Then comes Beethoven's 12 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor, WoO 80, a nine-minute treasure. It's a shame that this one is so rarely played in concert. It is fairly early Beethoven (1806) and reminds us what a master of the variation form Beethoven was. (Think of the Eroica Variations, say, and remember that Beethoven wrote about twenty-five sets of piano variations. He clearly knew what he was doing!) Margulis's playing is more classical, more balanced, less 'romantic' than in the Brahms, as if appropriate.
Finally, we get Bach's English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808. This, of course, has been recorded dozens of times. On piano I particularly like recordings by Perahia and Schiff, and among older version those by Gould and Tureck. Of these Margulis' playing reminds me most of Schiff's, slightly romantic, more legato than some and with expressive phrasing and real swing (the latter excepting the Sarabande which is played slowly and poetically).
I very much enjoyed this issue. Margulis is a pianist to watch.
Note: Both the Brahms and the Beethoven sets of variations are given only one track on the CD. The Third English Suite movements were tracked individually.