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Words and music

Performing musicians are generally amenable to chatting about who they are and what they do as artists, although - the top-flight performers especially - they rarely have the time to write down what they have to say, because of their celebrity and its demands. But journalists and broadcasters frequently can fill the gap through the format known as the interview, and three books full of such confabulations - all with pianists - have recently come to my attention.

The newest book of the three is Summit Books' Reflections from the Keyboard: Conversations With Great Pianists ($19.95), by David Dubal: pianist, piano historian, and program director of one of New York's finest classical radio stations, WNCN-FM. It offers an imposing menu of some 35 interviews with practically all the headliners of concert pianism today - Firkusny, Ashkenazy, Brendel, the late Glenn Gould, Weissenberg, Graffman, Fleischer.

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In 1982, Alfred A. Knopf issued former New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz's Conversations With Arrau ($8.95) - the opposite, in one sense, of Dubal's, being a whole book devoted solely to a look at the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau - which is now out in paperback from Limelight Editions.

And in 1980, Dodd, Mead published Great Pianists Speak for Themselves ($9.95) , an interview collection by Chicago pianist and teacher Elyse Mach, to which I paid little attention at the time, but for which I have since come to have a much higher regard.

Joseph Horowitz, in ''Conversations With Arrau,'' displays his writing skills , as the octogenarian pianist uses his keyboard mastery, to give a substantive tour d'horizon, with an adroit balance of taste and exactitude. As a reflection of its well-known subject, ''Conversations'' is remarkably successful, being, like Arrau himself, well-rounded and unabashed about digging to the depths of whatever is being discussed.

David Dubal's book of conversations, name-laden though it is, is, on the whole, unfortunately narrow and trite. Without the benefit of radio program sound, almost all the interviews are strictly second- or third-rate. For the most part, they are overshort; and, if not short, very superficial and reluctant to stray beyond the too-common personality-cult and finger-technique areas. Ignoring many obvious chances for idea-exploration, Dubal appears unconcerned about getting at what these pianists are like as people - even as complete artists.

Not so with Elyse Mach, whose book I overlooked when it came out - one could even say, casually tossed aside. There is glitter here, too. But it is lovingly mixed together with the human ingredient, in a consistently broader-horizoned framework, which I find winning, and, in the long run, infinitely more satisfying.

Each reader evolves his own method of reading such books of interviews, of dipping or lingering his way through. But, it seems, whichever way is adopted, one eventually closes in on the subjects that have the most convincing and compelling aesthetic to deliver.

The Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck interviews are the twin peaks of Elyse Mach's book, going the fullest distance within the deepest musical and extramusical topics - including, for one, the whole question of the survival of Western art music as we've known it up to now. Tureck's remarks, especially, expanding to consider the human race, close on a visionary note: ''The twentieth century itself has been a fabulous century, filled with what might be called 'miracles.' . . . But there are many aspects of this century also which are heartbreaking and full of agony. . . . The decadence is on the increase, which forebodes a very dark, black period lasting a long time, perhaps many centuries. Then, I believe, will come a rebirth as always happens on earth. The achievements that have occurred throughout the last 2,000 years will reemerge, but developed with new thoughts, new concepts, new extensions. . . .''

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