Friday, April 24, 2015

My Half-Hour With Scriabin...

A few months after my being appointed to the faculty of the Longy School of Music, a period of spreading interest in the life and music of the great mystic Alexander Scriabin developed among the music colleges of the universities in the Boston area; including, of course, the two two major conservatories.
 The Director of the Longy School, Nicholas Van Slyck, called me into his office one day and asked me if there was a way to portray, in a one half hour radio program, the unprecedented metamorphosis of Scriabin, from his Chopin Period to his final destination, the Mystic Period. I was a bit taken aback by his question, as I thought that a period of about 24 minutes of performance time would be much too short a slot of time  to efficiently portray the incredible transition the Russian genius underwent.
And so I asked Van Slyck if I could have a few days to think this issue over. I remember rather clearly how quickly the answer came to me - why not look over the Preludes, all of which are brief, to see if  a 24 minute program could be organized?
In just a few days, I had amassed a selection of about eight or nine of the preludes that would begin with a few of his early creations, then add a couple or so of the transitional representatives, and end with some of his quartal and quintal  masterpieces of the Mystic Period.
To learn, then play them in a radio recital gave to me  one of the most comprehensive ways I have ever experienced of  getting through the front door of  an  edifice built by one of the great creative minds of his time.
What if penicillin had been there in 1915, when a boil appeared on Scriabin's mouth and killed him in just a few days? What if he had lived on another generation? Would there have  been a Rachmaninoff, as we know him? Or an extended period of a language that was not to be, as it  turned out?
One can only speculate.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Pianists of the post-Liszt Era - What Does the Vorsetzer Tell Us?...

The miracle called Vorsetzer gives us the exact manner of presentation, as regards the piano luminaries from  the period directly after Liszt through the first two decades of the 20th century(do refer to my blog on the Vorsetzer, if you are not familiar with this defining invention). We hear not only the notes played, but dynamics, phrasing etc. - in other words, a true Time Capsule.
I must divulge to you a reaction that strikes me when I decide to listen to some of these recordings; and that is by way of a question - am I listening, at least in part, to a Dog and Pony Show?
 The piano playing is, for the most part, sensational. The enormous level of radiation emanating from the Lisztian Experience created a plethora of technical giants, which even in our day (and we know a century more about the technology of performance) continues to dazzle us with their levels of  technicality.
But through all of the aural luminescence created by these seemingly super-humans disguised as pianists, I find that the ultimate prize that must obviously be sought  after and assimilated; namely, the making of music - well, I am not often enough witness to it.
For example, in a Vorsetzer recording by Eugen d'Albert, one of only two Liszt students who recorded  by way of this process, I find a fatuous, overly wrought reading of the Liebestraume, aided by a rubato that, for me, is overdone and gives me an example of quasi-narcissism , which does not belong here.
The recording by d'Albert is dated 1913, and many of the Vorsetzer recordings occurred during the first decade of the century, which places these recordings, therefore, in the post -Liszt period.
Another example: Busoni plays a piano transcription from "Rigoletto." Again, the piano playing is positively stupendous in its technical level; however, Busoni's  musical sense is, essentially, naive. The fits and starts  that Busoni gives this listener adds to a kind of artificiality that makes me most uncomfortable.
A recording by Debussy of his "La Plus que Lente" is  so offhanded and  strangely diffident, that it never fails to surprise and disappoint me.
The legendary Paderewski gives me his vaunted piano playing, but very little more.
And on it goes, at least for me.
And so the Base Question, to me,  appears to be " is (was) this period  one of  a  need to prioritize the Playing of the Piano, rather than the Making of Music, because of the Power of Influence created by Franz Lizst?"
I hasten to point out that some truly great music making on Vorsetzer IS extant; for example, the playing of Lhevinne and Hoffmann should be noted.
And was it the likes of a Rachmaninoff;  then a Serkin, or an Arrau, or a Rubinstein or a Horowitz, who reminded the world of pianists that "it takes ten percent of the time to study the notes, and ninety percent of the time to decide what to do with the notes,"  rather than the other way around?
Believe me, I have thought long and hard about the post-Liszt Period, and continue to do so, from time to time...


Friday, April 10, 2015

Mozart and Gieseking - Two Forces Cross Paths...

Walter Gieseking, the great French-German pianist, possessed enormous powers outside of his world powers as a musician. Two aspects of his veritably boundless gifts were his abilities to memorize and sight-read. To  sight read, at tempo, works of Debussy; or, to read any of the works of Mozart seemingly effortlessly , among others such as Mendelssohn and Schumann, were pursuits this fabled musician was known for.
One of the truly singular memories I have of my younger years was a prized gift at one of my birthdays; namely  the complete solo works of Mozart, played by Gieseking. I remember that it took almost ten hours to listen to these works just once. My mouth must have constantly been agape at the dimension of the solo works of Amadeus, not only in the experience of hearing the reality of his creations, but also at the reality of this pianist being able to, at  any appointed moment during this period of Gieseking's life,  play any of these works from memory.
Later on, as my musical education wore on, I realized that there WAS an omission in this giant Mozart Lexicon; and that was the so-called London Sketches that Mozart wrote during his 8th and 9th years. I can only suppose that Gieseking did not think much of these little pieces the genius child had written during, I believe, a family trip to the British Isle.
For me, Gieseking has always been one of the truly miraculous pianists of his, or any times. His approach to Mozart has such a magnificent sense of direction and purity, let alone a sound the likes  of which can only be heard, and not described.
Even in the years before digital technology, the sounds that Gieseking was able to cajole from a percussion instrument, especially in the music of Debussy - well, listen to the analog recordings for yourself.
I saw him just once, as a youngster - and I am quite sure that not  since his time has there been a pianist with as deep a pool of sound production, other than, perhaps, Michelangeli.
Do judge for yourself!


Friday, April 3, 2015

Musical Genius; Some of its 'Mutterings'...

Part of the Human Condition deals with  reactive comments to such issues as competitiveness , probably in innate form, especially among geniuses - if not the issue of competition, then simply, perhaps, an observation by one genius of a particular incarnation by another; for instance:
Upon being part of an audience held spellbound by the performer; namely one Franz Liszt, the great Irish composer John Field turned to his companion and asked "does he bite?"
And what of that 'competitive' aspect?
Take, for example, a statement made by one of the great pianists of his time, Artur Rubinstein. Upon his hearing the emerging young lion from Mother Russia, Vladimir Horowitz,  for the first time(this occurred during a period in Europe before Horowitz came to America), Rubinstein remarked "he is a better pianist than I am; however, I am the better musician."
However,  his reaction to Horowitz may have "hounded" Rubinstein - take some recordings that Rubinstein made in the decade following his statement, which includes a reading of one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies (the 11th, I believe). It  IS recorded, and is positively riveting in its technical power. I would  challenge almost anyone who is familiar with Rubinstein  as  he is known in our time, to identify Rubinstein as the performer.
Was he making a statement in this recording defying his own appraisal of Horowitz?
One of the other coming giants during this period was the Chilean Claudio Arrau, who became one of the legends that brought the Golden Age of the piano into the 20th century along with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Serkin. During the time that both Arrau and Horowitz  were establishing their notoriety in Europe before coming to America, Arrau's mother went to a Horowitz recital. She went straight to her son and said "he plays better than you . You must work even harder."
The statement that one of the great pianists of his time, Serge Rachmaninoff,  uttered upon hearing the 24 year old Horowitz  play  his 3rd Piano Concerto? "He swallowed my Concerto whole."  And how revealing  it is that Rachmaninoff himself would not play this concerto again until  Eugene  Ormandy, many years later, asked him to record all four Concerti with the Philadelphia Symphony  Orchestra.  Rachmaninoff , after hearing Horowitz, simply had extracted it from his repertoire.
Who remembers Ignace Tiegerman today?
Tiegerman was about seven years older than Horowitz, and like Horowitz and Arrau, was busy establishing his reputation  in Europe. It is, perhaps, rather astonishing to listen to the statements made by Horowitz concerning his sense of placement concerning Tiegerman. Horowitz remarked that "Tiegerman is the only pianist I have  fear of. He may well eclipse me."  The word 'eclipse'  was Horowitz's own choice of description, believe it or not.
There are no commercial recordings. Only  recordings made in studios; or in  friends' apartments or homes, and a few radio broadcast recordings of rather poor quality, in Cairo.
He was born in Poland, ending up in Cairo - can you imagine a Polish Jew founding a conservatoire in Cairo? Having some of the royal family's children as students? Teaching there while Nasser assumes total power in Egypt?
Do read about this man - better yet, listen through the murkiness of the few existing recordings, and ask yourself where this frail little man really stands, in historical reality.