Pianobar pour Phèdre from Le Racine

Yvar Mikhashoff, piano

Back in the days of the larger than life virtuoso, usually a pianist, transcriptions and paraphrases of standard concert repertoire ranging from symphonies to opera scenes was a rather significant component of piano recitals. Chalk it up to excesses that eventually needed to be reigned in by the correctives of the period instrument movement and high modernist music played by specialists who were allowed precious little room for individual interpretation, but no one seems to do this sort of thing anymore. I’ve never heard someone do a Messiaen paraphrase or a suite from Sessions’s Montezuma as an encore! All the more reason why I was thrilled to discover Mode’s new 2-CD set devoted to similar fare by one of new music’s top pianists, the late Yvar Mikhashoff (1941-1993). But Mikhashoff claimed that the source for his interest in piano fantasias on operatic repertoire was not Leopold Godowsky or Feruccio Busoni, rather it was John Cage in whose operatic mash Europeras he had just performed.

While one disc offers fare that’s not that far removed from what 19th and early 20th-century pianists might have done to Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly, the other updates the practice with reinventions of Wozzeck and more recent operas by Kevin Volans and Sylvano Bussotti. The Bussotti opera is set in a piano bar, with the piano (performed onstage rather than in a pit), serving as the only instrumental accompaniment to the singers. From the original three-hour score, for which Mikhashoff served as the pianist at La Scala, Mikhashoff combined vocal and piano parts into this seven-movement suite.