Impassioned Elegance

One of the mysteries of the musical world is how some performers make a huge name for themselves whereas others don’t. There are multiple factors which play into this, luck, attitude, sensitivity, and personality traits among them. The assumption that headlining pianists are necessarily better than others who are less known is indeed just an assumption: many lesser-known pianists have had musical and technical abilities that could rival their more famous colleagues.

Jakob Gimpel was an artist who had it all musically: a wonderful sound, a grounded musical approach, and a natural technique. He had some great opportunities. He appeared in some Hollywood productions, not the least of which is this delightful Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry cartoon, in which he plays his own wonderful arrangements of Strauss waltzes in a grand manner. (The piano lesson midway through the episode is a highlight, too.)

He also made some wonderful films that show his fantastic technique, one of the notable features of which was the absence of any unnecessary movement (something many a young pianist could learn). This does not make his playing cold: his tone sparkles, his timing is sensitive, and melodic subjects are beautifully highlighted.

But Gimpel never quite made the career that such opportunities might have afforded him. His son writes in detail about the challenges he faced in this linked article. Life can be complicated, and Gimpel’s was no exception, certainly given the era he lived in – life does not move in a straight line, and things most certainly do not always go as planned. And a pianist who is not known is not necessarily a pianist whose playing isn’t of an international standard.

Gimpel ended up teaching in the US and did play occasional concerts late in his life. Some of the playing that was captured while he was in his 70s is extraordinary. Among these performances is a Chopin ‘Funeral March’ Sonata from a 1978 recital that is among the finest that I have heard: the tension is built beautifully, his tone is wonderful, the phrasing expertly shaped, and the melodic line is never lost. The disarming simplicity in the Trio that gives a respite from the Funeral March will take many by surprise, but Gimpel was from an age where ‘romanticism’ did not mean that one swoons or injects fake emotion. Pay attention to how he shifts back into the Funeral March – masterful.

The lesson I have learned from cases such as Gimpel (Joseph Villa, written about on this blog, was the first big case I came across, and others will be featured on these pages): listen to pianists you’ve never heard of. You never know how someone will play – you might just discover a great artist.

You can order three different CD sets of Gimpel in concert from the Cambria Music label by clicking here.

  • Philip Amos

    Thanks so much for this. I read something of Gimpel’s story some years back, and I also seem to remember seeing in Gramophone a review of a recording of the Brahms D minor concerto in the early 60s. But I have a link to the Naxos Music Library, and I have just a minute ago found three two-disc issues of Gimpel in recital on the Cumbria, a label I obviously need to investigate more. This Chopin second sonata is glorious stuff. The Cumbria discs include the third sonata, Fminor Fantasy, complete preludes, first Ballade, Schumann Fantasie, Beethoven ‘Eroica’ Variations, and much more. As I suspect you know, the NML includes the issues of all the labels Naxos distributes, and it is on some of the more obscure labels that I most often come across musicians (not just pianists, of course) unknown to me and sometimes find I have discovered a treasure. Anyway, I heartily endorse your advice. Lovely blog, by the way.

  • Mark Ainley

    That Brahms D Minor of his is excellent. His recordings are well in need of reissue. Those live performances are definitely worth getting – I only have one of the sets and need to order the rest.

    Glad you’re enjoying the blog – thanks for writing!

  • alex segal

    I attended a Gimpel recital at UCLA around 1980 or so. I don’t remember the date, but I will always remember his beautiful playing of Schubert’s D.960 Sonata. By the way, he sometimes accompanied Mario Lanza.

    • Mark Ainley

      How fortunate you are to have heard him! I didn’t know about his accompanying Mario Lanza… again, working in such a high-profile milieu and yet still not quite making it. Well, he certainly had artistry to spare!