Even after all these years, Earl Wild is probably best remembered by record collectors as the pianist on the Boston Pops' stereo recordings of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Concerto in F - still arguably the best of the big-orchestra Gershwin collections - and a series of recordings, including a stunning set of the Rachmaninoff concertos, he made for RCA/Reader's Digest a short time later.
A few years ago Chesky Records began reissuing some of the Reader's Digest stuff, in generally high-tech remasterings, followed by a newly recorded CD of virtuoso Gershwin transcriptions. Now, in honor of the pianist's 75th birthday (which took place last November) comes the above-listed Chopin disc, a similarly virtuoso traversal of the Ballades and Scherzos.Let me say at the outset that this is some of the most realistic piano sound I have encountered. Very much a "hall" perspective, it preserves not only a natural spread but a sense of space around the instrument.
As for the performances themselves, they are a bit less natural, sometimes substituting pianistic brilliance for genuine interpretive power. But the brilliance is real, imparting an almost Lisztian strength and clarity to the A flat major and F minor Ballades. The last in particular really carries one along, albeit without the hazy, half-remembered quality so magically achieved by Rubinstein (RCA). Among more recent sets of the Ballades, I am also partial to Rose's, on Newport Classic - an unusually full-bodied rendition - but even he does not match Wild's faultless articulation.
In some ways that serves the Scherzos even better. Witness the Rachmaninoffian electricity Wild brings to the First, or the knife-edge acuity of No. 4 vs. Rubinstein's warmer but no less colorful account. And if the Second, in B flat minor, seems a mite brusque at the outset, that is more than made up for by the vigor and propulsion of this No. 3.
Rachmaninoff himself is likewise recalled in Wild's mid-'60s performances of the concertos, two more of which, plus the Paganini Rhapsody, re-emerge on Chesky CD-41. This is not the first time these have appeared on compact disc; there is also an imposing-sounding Chandos remastering on two CDs. But for all the latter's heft, to my ears it is the Chesky edition, with its 128-times oversampling, that most closely approximates the sound of the original Reader's Digest LPs. And that is saying something.
For with producer Charles Gerhardt and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson at the console, these were some of the finest orchestral recordings ever made; in fact, even Chesky does not squeeze out the last drop of what I still hear on the originals. Nor do Wild and Horenstein's realizations of these pieces take a back seat musically, especially in the First Concerto - an electrifying account - and the Paganini Rhapsody, which retains its diabolical glint from first note to last.
That leaves only the Cheskyization of the Third Concerto (for some reason their earlier CD of the Second coupled that piece with the "Isle of the Dead"), another performance very much in the Rachmaninoff/Horowitz tradition. Which is to say a sizzler, and, knowing the Cheskys, I expect that will be true of the remastering as well.