The digitalization of recorded sound proceeds apace, and one of the best results is the refurbishment of old recordings. The Edison cylinders and 78’s of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ world are being processed into compact discs, saving space, time, and—best of all—preserving the music of worlds fast fading into oblivion.

Taking the advice of the fellow who told me to put my money in CDs, I have found that what was true with the old technology is true for the new. There’s so much indispensable musicmaking from two and three generations ago that we are often justified in ignoring contemporary hype about performance—and even sound. There are some things that just don’t get any better.

I have in mind various vocal and violin and orchestral performances from fifty and sixty years ago. And I think too of “the Golden Age of Pianism,” when Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, and Alfred Cortot graced the stages of this country and the world. I have not omitted the name of Ignaz Friedman, of course, but rather singled it out for a special citation.

The recent release of “Ignaz Friedman: The Complete Solo Recordings 1923-1936” on the Pearl label is a cause not only for rejoicing but for acquisition (Pearl IF 2000; 4 CD boxed set; imported from England by KOCH International). This gathering of nearly five hours of imperishable performances is a “must have,” an opportunity, a privilege, and a pleasure. This collection is a superb access to a vanished world and an evaporated culture. Ignaz Friedman was a remarkable individual, no doubt; yet through him we can hear the voice not only of his immediate background but of the 19th century.

That sound emanated in Friedman’s case from “a local habitation and a name.” Born in 1882 in Podgorze, a suburb of Krakow, Friedman was surrounded by the music of his family’s itinerant orchestra—his father played with Josef Hofmann’s father in a Krakow theater. And he was imbued too with the Polish culture and language, so that later he would say, when asked why he played the Chopin mazurkas so brilliantly, that he had danced mazurkas as a boy and that the Polish language held the rhythmic secrets he knew.

But Friedman was also a child prodigy who was lucky to have a teacher as wise as Flora Grzywinska, who developed his piano technique and knowledge of the whole of musical culture. By 1901 Friedman was ready for the greatest of piano teachers: he studied with Leschetizky in Vienna alongside Gabrilovitsch, Moisiewitch, Schnabel, and Horszowski—the last of whom still plays today. Friedman played the first concerti of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt for his Vienna debut in 1904; and Busoni, Godowsky, and Rosenthal were in the enthusiastic audience.

Ignaz Friedman toured the world and played some three thousand concerts in the next forty years. The Nazis pushed him out of Europe so that he spent the Second World War in Australia and New Zealand. His left hand betrayed him in 1943; his health declined and he died in Sydney in 1948—a long way from Krakow and the sound of his father’s Jewish band.

The sounds Friedman left behind are compelling; they are also reminders of what he didn’t leave behind. His enormous repertory died with him, particularly the big pieces and all of the chamber music with one large exception. But all thoughts of lost opportunities, rejected recordings, and discarded air-checks must be set aside when we are confronted by the wealth offered by the Pearl collection. What we have is considerable, and greatly magnified by its intensity.

The first thing to be said about the recordings of Friedman is that they seem to be the very definition of “beautiful tone.” The sound is well modulated, but it is not overrefined. It is a rich blend, a synthesis of colors, and sometimes an outrage of suggestions and overtones. Friedman is no “right-handed pianist,” and the left hand roars and whispers in a way that’s reminiscent of Rachmaninoff and Cortot. No one has ever floated a melody above its accompanying figure with more shrewdness, more resource, or a more ravishing legato than Ignaz Friedman. The recording perspective, “from the bottom up,” is an image of his sonority, not an engineer’s trick, and must make one wonder about the pretensions of today’s technology. The sound, far from antique or constricted, is rich and reminds me of Horowitz’s late work for Deutsche Grammophon; or perhaps I should say that one Romantic giant had much the same palette as another.

The slight swish or transcribed scratch in the background reminds us that we are listening to a series of 78’s, but there’s no annoyance to the experience. Because of Friedman’s mastery of his instrument, the sound is actually superior to many of today’s pallid products. And the performances themselves, after delighting, must appall by their revelation of what has been lost by an insistent puritanism and reductive abstraction. The ideology of modernism killed the spirit of music, which will be recovered by a return to the roots—and by a study of recordings such as these.

The best of Friedman’s legacy is two series of Romantic jewels, nine of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and twelve Chopin mazurkas, with duplications. His recordings of these pieces are unquestionably the best ever made: the Mendelssohn is fresh, spontaneous, sweet, and restrained. The mazurkas are exuberant, tender, and surprising, with a squeeze-box or taffypull rubato that makes these perhaps the most kinetic of all piano recordings, insinuating miracles of imagination and insight. And for these two series alone, the Pearl collection is mandatory.

But there is much more. Friedman’s uncanny recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat Op. 55 No. 2 has often been called the greatest recording of any of the Nocturnes. Vladimir Horowitz thought that his version of the Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 7 in C was unsurpassed. Friedman’s renditions of various Etudes deserve comparison with those of Cortot and Lhevinne. And besides these and others, there is a “Moonlight” sonata, an unsuccessful Grieg concerto, and a host of character pieces and minor items of great appeal. It’s no accident that Friedman can put over pieces on the piano made famous by charmers like Fritz Kreisler and Richard Tauber.

There is one Friedman recording not included in the Pearl set, and it’s a major one: his only piece of chamber music, his only collaboration with a peer. Bronislaw Huberman recorded the “Kreutzer” sonata with Friedman in 1934. Paired with Huberman’s 1930 recording of the Beethoven violin concerto conducted by George Szell, it’s available on silver disc (EMI CDH 7 63194 2). Such a weight of Beethoven will no doubt attract those music lovers who care about Friedman and Huberman, as well as those who want to have one of the greatest recordings of the greatest violin concertos.

Thus Ignaz Friedman’s pianism has been preserved in a new medium, one that should last “forever.” Though his 19th-century spirit clashes with the computer age, still it’s nice to know, while relishing his sometimes rollicking performances, that you don’t have to turn the 78 over every three minutes. In that sense, the compact disc returns us to a more relaxed approach to music and a less hurried sense of life itself. In such a state, we can marvel at Friedman’s powerful ability to project the lyric, the dramatic, and even the terpsichorean elements of music.