When a jury comprising Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alexis Weissenberg, Nelson Freire and Joachim Kaiser announced Kazan- born, now Munich-based Anna Gourari the winner of the First International Clara Schumann Competition in 1994, apparently praising her “almost mystical playing”, she knew she had arrived. Nearly 20 years and nearly a dozen recordings later, it’s astonishing she isn’t better known internationally. Because she is that rare thing – not merely a pianist with a formidable technique; not merely a musician with a knack for clarifying the underlying musical structure as Michelangelo clarified the skeleton and musculature of the human body, but a true artist and poet.
If there is one work on this recording capable of revealing the full range of Gourari’s technical, interpretative and yes, artistic gifts, it’s Busoni’s magisterial piano arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor for solo violin. Quite simply, this is one of the finest interpretations of this work that I have ever heard – and my favourites include wonderful recordings by Arthur Rubinstein and Alicia de Laroccha. Despite Gourari’s having technique to burn, her playing is spacious, lyrical, profound, imbued with an almost Celibidache- like mysticism. Not that there is any lack of excitement in the faster passages; there is an unfailing sense of drama and architectonics as she moves the work forward through variation after miraculous variation. But when the major- key middle section is reached, its effect is so moving that one is immediately moved to tears. One gets a foretaste of this right from the first track on the recording with Busoni’s beautiful arrangement of the Bach organ chorale Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ. And an aftertaste, if one may so characterise it, in the Bach-Busoni Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland and the simple, sweet arrangement by the great Russian pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti of Bach’s E Minor Prelude from the Clavier-Büchlein von Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
Sofia Gubaidulina’s own Chaconne, with its crashing opening chords and uncomfortable emotional climate throughout, by contrast gives a foretaste of Gourari’s aforementioned sense of drama. If there’s a curio here, it’s the youthful Paul Hindemith’s “1922” – Suite for Piano, its appropriations of popular music and seeming disrespect of traditional classical pianism nevertheless embraced by Gourari and made to serve some higher purpose. As one of the great writers on the history of the piano Harold C. Schonberg says, Gourari “is free but never eccentric…free but controlled…She is outstanding.” ‘Nuff said.