Music

Keyboard perfection

A piano lover collects the best from top players

ELISSA POOL January 11 1999
Music

Keyboard perfection

A piano lover collects the best from top players

ELISSA POOL January 11 1999

Keyboard perfection

Music

A piano lover collects the best from top players

When Tom Deacon describes himself as a collector, he is not exaggerating.

But with 25,000 recordings on vinyl and another 10,000 on compact disc in the basement of his three-storey house in Amsterdam (there are 3000 bottles of wine there, too), this is much more than a hobby— it’s a passion, and a job. As director of catalogue exploitation for Philips Music Group, Deacon is responsible for designing market-friendly reissues of previously recorded material—collections, in other words. The Richter Edition, The Baroque Edition and The Art of Alfred Brendel are all recent Deacon projects. And now, with Great Pianists of the 20th Century, he and Philips have launched their most ambitious undertaking.

The 200 CD series, of which 40 volumes have been released since August, is sponsored by Steinway & Sons, and starting this week will be the centrepiece of a CBC Radio series hosted by Eric Friesen. It is also the first multi-label collaboration of its kind, uniting contributions from the archives of approximately 25 different recording companies for a total of 250 hours of music.

And for a pianophile like Deacon it was a project made to order. Pink-cheeked and silver-haired, the 56-year-old native of Toronto started playing piano at 6 and was already collecting records in his teens. At university, he studied modern languages, not music, and eventually taught French in Winnipeg, where he first met Friesen. Friesen encouraged Deacon to move to Toronto and try his hand at freelance music journalism. He did, producing CBC’s Live from, Roy Thomson Hall from 1982 to 1984, and creating the popular DiscDrive program as well.

Deacon took a job with Philips, headquartered in Amsterdam, in 1992, breaking ground for the Great Pianists series a few years later. In 1995, he convened a group of producers and marketing executives from Philips, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca to draw up the list of pianists. “There were

hundreds of names to choose from,” says Deacon. “The rules of the game were: not much discussion, unanimous agreement and, if there was hesitation, go on to the next name. We went through the list three times, selecting the first 35 without too much trouble, and when we got to 74, we stopped.”

Chronologically, the edition ranges from Ignacy Paderewski, born in 1860, to Russian-born Evgeny Kissin, still in his 20s. Each volume comprises two CDs, tastefully packaged in cardboard slipcases (no plastic boxes here; these have the look and feel of miniature albums from the heyday of vinyl). Seventeen pianists receive two volumes, or four CDs each; a hallowed few—Sviatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel and Vladimir Horowitz, for example—get three.

The list is by no means uncontroversial. Even some of Deacon’s personal favourites

did not make the final cut. He did have cor trol over the repertoire, however, virtuall secluding himself at home until he had gon through hundreds of hours of recordings. ‘ take responsibility for every piece of musi in this edition,” he says with satisfaction. took me 6V2 months ... and 45 years. It wa the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

More than 25 per cent of the music has nr been released on CD before (only Mitsuk Uchida’s performance of Schoenberg’ Three Pieces, Op. ii was recon ed especially for the edition^ There is less repertoire duplic; tion than one might expect, an there are surprises. Those ii elude André Previn’s improv sations on George Gershwi songs, which Deacon consider “perhaps the greatest singl recording of piano music I’v heard in the last year,” and Fa: Wild playing ferociously diff cult piano transcriptions, whic Deacon insists only half a doze pianists today have the tecl nique to negotiate.

In tandem with Great Pianist Deacon will join his old fríen and former colleague Friese for 39 hour-long radio pre grams based on the series., co-production between CB Radio, Philips Classics an Minnesota Public Radio, th shows will air Thursdays at a.m. on CBC Radio Two begii ningon Jan. 7. (U.S. broadcast start on April 4.)

Chuckling, Deacon say there was some discussion c “just turning me on and lettin. me talk.” Certainly, his enq clopedic memory and loquacit make that a reasonable sugge; tion. “The man has a mind lik a steel trap,” agrees Frieser citing Deacon’s ability to reca details of performances, ane( dotes and a wealth of personal reminiscence about the artists without reference to notes.

Deacon also delights in making shrew observations about style, technique—an practising. “Rudolf Serkin never had a easy day at the keyboard,” he opines “Horowitz and Glenn Gould probably pra( tised more than they admitted.” As fo Martha Argerich, Deacon throws up hi hands in awe of the maverick Argentin pianist’s almost supernatural affinity fo the keyboard.

Conversation is, of course, only part c each show—70 per cent is music. And hen as in the CD series itself, Deacon’s greates contribution will be his ability to discrim nate between the good and the very gooc the excellent and the extraordinary.

ELISSA POOL