Friday, May 13, 2016

Occasional Greatness? I Sometimes Wonder - Three Pianists Remembered...

On one fine day during my young years, my piano teacher described one of the  most daunting pieces written in the 19th century for the piano by a Russian composer  I, up to that time, had never heard of. That description was so intriguing to me that I decided to purchase the music and learn it on my own.
When my first gaze at the jungle of notes had registered, I very sadly decided that I did not possess the weaponry to attempt it, and, with tail between legs, consigned  the piece to a pile of music in the piano bench.
During this period, I became acquainted with the name of a pianist who was gaining fame for his playing of Beethoven and Brahms, and so I began listening to some of the few recordings that he had made, one of which was the Brahms Opus 117 in "B"  flat  - I had recently learned this wonderful piece, and was seduced by the playing of this emerging young  pianist from New Jersey, named Julius Katchen. I got to see him once in concert, which included  the music that I had decided I was not ready for, described in the paragraph above. This piece is titled "Islamey" by Balakirev,  and remains one of the most challenging compositions to this day.  Katchen positively overwhelmed my teen-age consciousness with a crystal-clear exploitation of this jungle of notes which had intimidated me such a short time before this recital. Tragically, Katchen was cut down by cancer in his early  forties.
Another pianist who became a hero of this time period was known by one name;  Solomon,  and had been one of the few pianists of that period  who performed the complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas,  which mesmerized me during this impressionable time in my development. I remember well my constantly asking the question (to myself, of course), "how can one memorize so much music and still be human?" Solomon suffered a stroke in his fifties while recording the Beethoven Cycle for EMI records, and his career was destroyed.
The third pianist, Simon Barere, was, for me at this time,  one of the most impressive pianists I knew of, what with the likes of Horowitz, Rubinstein and Gieseking at their primes lurking about. His command, both technically and spiritually, moved me essentially as much as the other better- known pianists. One of his recordings which popped up before me was none other than that accursed piece "Islamey," which shed further light upon the increasing number of reasons that this is one piece I should continue to leave alone. In 1951, Barere collapsed on stage of a cerebral hemorrhage in a performance of the Grieg Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and died  backstage.
One final issue about "Islamey" - it is, of course, a great example of a secondary composer writing so very well for the instrument, but not numbered among the great composers we are so familiar with.
BUT! Do have some  fun by assembling the "Islamey" recordings of :
Julius Katchen, Vladimir Horowitz, Mikhail Pletnev, and Simon Barere. And in this order.
Horowitz and Pletnev are the better known performers, of course. And their legendary powers transport this jungle of notes  to a level expected.
But the transparency of Katchen and the dizzying tempo of Barere make for, in my view, some compelling moments - make your own determination!
To encapsulate:
The names Katchen, Solomon and Barere are pretty much forgotten in this new century, but I am attracted to a level of greatness in the late Brahms of Katchen; the impact of early Romanticism through Beethoven by Solomon: the level of text in Liszt and Beethoven by Barere.
Occasional Greatness?  I continue to ask this question, which was raised in my youth...

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