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COMPETITION WINNERS PLAY SHOSTAKOVICH, TCHAIKOVSKY, BRAHMS, DVORAK ON PIANO CDS

Winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Mikhail Pletnev is not yet as well-known in this country as he might be. Indeed, despite several earlier releases also on the Virgin label, these are the first recordings of his to reach my ears.

What they reveal is a pianist very much in the great Russian tradition - i.e., unearthly soft playing coupled with climaxes of remarkable beauty and power. Indeed here it is that soft playing that sometimes creates problems, causing him to nearly drop out of the picture at the beginning of something like the Third Concerto in this two-disc Tchaikovsky survey.Part of that may be due to the oddly pinched-sounding recording. Whatever the reason, this particular performance seldom takes hold the way those of Lowenthal (Arabesque) and, to a lesser extent, Donohoe (EMI) do. Elsewhere, however, Plentev's accounts of not only the lesser-known Second Concerto and Concert Fantasy but even the overplayed B flat minor Concerto emerge as unexpectedly strong contenders.

Thus this First Concerto, though maybe not in the same league as Cliburn's and Argerich's (DG, the first of her two recordings), is notable for not only its high-power virtuosity (e.g., the flashing runs and octaves) but its essentially lyric view of the piece. Again, the slow movement strikes me as overly intimate at times, but the pace of the Prestissimo and the finale as a whole take one's breath away. I also like the individuality of some of the accents.

Similarly, to my way of thinking, Donohoe and Barshai still reign supreme in the Second Concerto, but this one is close behind in its fire and romanticism. Here, too, Pletnev scales down a bit too much in places, but, apart from a cut toward the end, the slow movement (with its chamberlike violin-and-cello dialogue) is all one could wish and the sheer electricity of the playing is hard to resist, abetted by Fedoseyev's characteristically impassioned accompaniment. On the other hand Lowenthal, though less refined, is in his way no less exciting and offers, besides no cuts, a superior Third.

BRAHMS: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. DVORAK: Theme and Variations in A flat major, Op. 36; Four Pieces, Op. 52. David Buechner, piano. Connoisseur Society CD-4179 .

Following his successful Stravinsky/Busoni CD of last year, 1984 Gina Bachauer winner David Buechner here turns his attention to Brahms and Dvorak with results that are, to my ears, every bit as gratifying.

Here is the same warm, naturally balanced piano sound, at its most effective perhaps in the two sets of variations. Witness the nobility and thoughtful expanse of the Brahms and the more ruminative aspects of the Dvorak, if anything even more beautifully shaded than his teacher Rudolf Firkusny's.

Yet there is a strength about these readings as well, whether in the virile yet introspective Op. 79 Rhapsodies or in the dazzling runs and cascading octaves of the Dvorak. Nor is he insensitive to the music's idiom, catching the rhythms of both the Moravian scherzo that makes up the fourth variation and the flavorfully evocative Op. 52 Gigue.

SHOSTAKOVICH: 24 Preludes, Op. 34; Sonata No. 2 for Piano, Op. 61. Vladimir Viardo, piano. Elektra/Nonesuch 9-79243-2 .

After winning the Van Cliburn Competition in 1973, Soviet pianist Vladimir Viardo had a hard time making it back to these shores, largely due to the subsequent chill in East-West cultural relations. Now, with the recent thaw on both sides, he has begun to concertize and record in this country, the first fruits of the latter being the above-listed CD.

At first hearing this account of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes seems less angular and more fanciful than some, with an almost Prokofievian wistfulness at times. Nonetheless it still strikes sparks where they are needed, for example in the Fifth and Sixth Preludes and the kinetic No. 9. Nor is the inwardness always so fragrant, a case in point being the darkly melancholic No. 14.

By the same token Viardo offers a darker, more melancholic view of the Op. 61 Sonata than one sometimes hears, reflecting, I think, its wartime origins. (As the composer's son, Maxim, points out in his liner notes, it is the earliest of his father's works to incorporate the "D.S.C.H." motif, which would later assume such importance in the Eighth Quartet and the 10th Symphony.) Yet the strength is there, along with the recessed spareness of the Largo and the haunting "dance of death" one hears in the finale, here deeply cathartic.