“The Greatest Pianist You’ve Never Heard Of”

One of the marvels of our technological age is the possibility of new discoveries in musical arenas. Old records are being reissued and made more available than at any other time in history and archival recordings from radio broadcasts that have never been previously released can now be streamed or purchased, an exciting proposition for music lovers interested in the performers of the past. ‘New’ names are becoming known to present-day listeners as artists whose recordings were once only available overseas or unissued for decades become available. But even in such a climate it is unusual to come across an artist who died as late as 1970 who had a brilliant career yet didn’t make a single commercial recording – and whose current discography is made up entirely of taped practice sessions from the twilight of his career.

Jascha in 1931Aficionados of historical classical recordings will be familiar with the name of the violinist Tossy Spivakovsky, but even the most ardent collectors would likely not know that his brother Jascha was a highly esteemed pianist who had a luminous international career. Jascha Spivakovsky studied with pupils of both Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, which in and of itself might not have guaranteed his skill as a performer; but with his highly honed technique and brilliant intellect, Spivakovsky had a degree of pianistic prowess limited to very few a generation and he gained international renown in a career that spanned six decades. Critics were adulatory in the extreme, Neville Cardus having written to the pianist personally to praise his Beethoven Op.111 while others regularly compared the performer to the most legendary pianists that came before him (the fiery Carreño was one frequently mentioned in his early years and at his Leipzig debut in 1910 he was declared to be ‘the heir to [Anton] Rubinstein’).

Jascha Spivakovsky toured the globe and played under major conductors equally effusive in their praise – Strauss, Furtwängler, Monteux, Goosens, Barbirolli, Boult – yet he never made a recording as piano soloist. The reasons are rather complex: he did go to the Parlophone studios to accompany Tossy and apparently made some test solo recordings for them, but these were likely acoustical recordings and he was unhappy 1952 Monteux Brahms programwith the sound. He moved to Australia in 1933 to escape the Nazis (Richard Strauss had warned him to leave as Jascha’s name was on a hit list – he jotted the musical notation to the William Tell Overture in a letter, a hint that he should get out ASAP) and put his career on hold until the end of World War 2 to help others escape Germany.

Although Spivakovsky toured until 1960 in locations where recordings were regularly made by other artists also not living in those centres – such as London and New York – he was not approached by any companies until 1959, when a flawless broadcast of his Emperor Concerto attracted some producers’ attention. Jascha had not himself sought out the opportunity to make recordings, in post-war years needing to re-establish his reputation on the concert platform and in any case preferring to perform live. But with a health scare in 1960 putting an end to his international touring, he ended up dying in 1970 without making a single solo recording.

Fortunately for posterity, Jascha’s son Michael recorded the pianist in practice sessions at their Melbourne home (sometimes without the pianist knowing), in a musical salon that had welcomed the greatest musicians visiting Australia – Moiseiwitsch, Schnabel, Kapell, Cherkassky, Rubinstein, Arrau, and even Victor Borge would all visit when Down Under (indeed, the ill-fated Kapell spent the last night of his life there, staying up all night as Jascha and Kapell played for each other, before boarding the plane whose crash ended his life at the age of 31… eerily, Kapell showed the young Michael the short lifeline on his hand, saying ‘I shouldn’t be here…’). Decades later, technology has finally enabled the poor-quality tapes to be remastered to a degree sufficient for allow their release.

The family was justly concerned that releasing private tapes made for the pianist’s personal use might be of limited appeal and not do him justice. Fortunately, Spivakovsky’s playing is of such incredibly refined and potent musicality that it is almost inconceivable to the listener that the performances are one-take practice readings. Indeed, I was recently playing the first movement of the Waldstein for a colleague who marvelled, as had I on my first listen (and on several hearings since), at the incredibly brisk tempo of the first movement in which the voicing is uncannily clear and consistent; he stated, ‘Not that this is the most important thing – but even with everything else he’s doing, he hasn’t dropped a single note.’ Even more remarkable: the performance was recorded when the pianist was 70. There is absolutely nothing in the playing that could lead one to surmise that the performer was anywhere near an age when faculties might decline. Listen for yourself:

Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical has done an exceptional job in remastering the recordings and has produced two CDs in a series that will include several more. The title ‘Bach to Bloch’ applies to the entire planned collection of discs, which will contain repertoire that spans a wide range of repertoire from Bach through classical and Romantic composers to more modern composers such as Debussy, Kabalevsky, and Bloch (a concert recording of whose Concerto Symphonique will close out the final volume). The first two 1948 Carnegie Hall programdiscs feature solo repertoire arranged in chronological order in a traditional recital format and reveal the pianist’s affinity to a wide array of styles. Yet while always playing idiomatically for each composer, there are qualities in Spivakovsky’s pianism that are consistently noticeable: an incredibly refined sonority (even when the piano is out of tune, as it regrettably is in one case); phrasing that is masterfully shaped by fusing dynamics, tonal colour, and timing; a rubato that breathes and defies bar lines but serves the architectural structure of the music without the rhythmic pulse ever being lost; voicing that is consistent to the highest degree (the only pianist I’ve heard able to voice with such exquisite and consistent clarity is Lipatti); unbelievably subtle and mastery of the pedal; and incredible digital dexterity (though he apparently had such thick fingers that he had to rely on unorthodox fingerings – as will be revealed when a filmed performance is eventually issued). He is, quite simply, one of the greatest pianists I have ever heard – quite rightly dubbed by Rose as ‘the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of.’

While this reading of the Chopin First Ballade is unfortunately slightly marred by some tuning issues in the upper register of the piano (we must remember that all of these recordings are practice sessions that were not meant to be permanent accounts of his playing), the recording features poised Romanticism at its best. Spivakovsky highlights often-ignored lines that were also featured in the playing of Josef Hofmann in his legendary Golden Jubilee performance, yet whereas Hofmann would often bring these voices to the foreground, Spivakovsky incorporates them into the entire fabric of the work, so that the musical tapestry is both seamlessly woven and richly textured:

Even a work as traditionally overplayed by amateur pianists such as Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu shines like the most elegant jewel – not that Spivakovsky holds back any emotion! Indeed, Jascha plays with unbridled and at times volcanic passion without any loss of precision or refinement – how gloriously arched and deep is his phrasing, how ebullient his rhythmic drive. A work that can easily come off as trite or quaint is given a reading of blazing intensity in its outer sections while the middle section is most lovingly phrased with a smooth lyrical legato and discrete pedalling:

Volume 3 is slated to include four Beethoven Sonatas, including Op.111, while we can also look forward to some glowing Schumann (Concerto without Orchestra and Carnaval) in later editions. There is a teaser of the former on the website, and here is a magnificent excerpt of the latter: the Chopin section of Carnaval, with truly remarkable breadth in the repeat:

Each work on the two issued discs receives a performance of extraordinary musical insight and power. The Bach is grand and noble, the Mozart clear yet profound, the Beethoven charming and inquisitive. Spivakovsky’s Chopin is expansive and impassioned (as has been heard above), his Brahms lush and rhythmically fluid, while his Debussy and Kabalevsky are both as idiomatic as you might hope (his Kabalevsky Third Sonata could displace Moiseiwitsch’s classic account).

1960 Jascha's handsBoth compilations are available as digital downloads (complete with your own CD cover to print and musical scores) or as CDs to be delivered by mail order. You can find info about both volumes here [click Volume 1 or Volume 2 in the upper right corner to get details about each individual disc]; and you can order the first compilation here and the second one can be purchased here.  I personally opted for the downloads to save time and money – I didn’t want to wait to hear this amazing playing!

While there are many pianists whose playing I adore, there are few for whom I hold unreserved appreciation, and Jascha Spivakovsky is now one of this small group. His highly individual signature – a gorgeous singing sound, with crystal-clear articulation, transparent and utterly consistent voicing, and magnificently forged phrasing – is almost immediately recognizable in the way that the unique fusion of qualities of Lipatti, Cortot, and Hofmann can quickly be perceived. Even if his playing at times can be so original as to raise an eyebrow – his almost pedal-free reading of the first movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata is highly unusual yet also intriguing and an approach worth considering (he told his son that he felt it was the best way to achieve the ‘Agitato’ called for in the score; I expected it to be a bit wilder but his more subdued, dry effect is fascinating) – it always has its own innate logic and is tremendously musical.

I simply cannot get enough of Spivakovsky’s playing and cannot wait for more performances of this superlative artist to be issued – I’ve heard excerpts of a Mozart Concerto broadcast that is outstanding and this and some more live concerto recordings are part of this planned series. This is some of the most arresting pianism I have ever heard and I cannot recommend these discs highly enough.

Living the Classical Life Interview

In July 2014, I was interviewed by Zsolt Bognar as part of his Living the Classical Life series of interviews. Although generally until that point the performers had tended to be well-known pianists such as Stephen Hough, Yuja Wang, and Daniil Trifonov, the series has expanded to include non-piano instrumentalists (such as violinist Joshua Bell) and other non-performer types… which is where I fit in.

Bognar had for several years been a subscriber to my Piano Files page on Facebook and as an active pianist interested in the role of the interpreter was interested in my thoughts about performance practice, and so he extended the invitation to be part of the series. I needed to see a few piano-related folks in New York last year and so we timed my visit to coincide with when he would be in the Hamptons as part of the terrific program Pianofest in the Hamptons, run by Paul Schenly.

Our original conversation extended to about 60 minutes, covering a few parenthetical topics (such as my practice as a Contemporary Feng Shui Consultant and what connections I saw between that and my musical work), but in the interest of focusing on the essentials, it was edited down to its current 26-minute length. We discuss how I first became interested in historical piano recordings, why we should listen to them, and the distinctive qualities of fine piano playing.

Here’s the episode:

And some of the recordings we mention therein…

Joseph Villa’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, transcribed by Liszt, which I use as an example for what is possible for a single musician to accomplish at a single instrument:

Josef Hofmann’s otherworldly interpretation of Chopin’s First Ballade, which I refer to in terms of playing that has to be heard to be believed, playing so different from what it is that we could normally expect to hear:

An example of Alfred Cortot’s glorious pianism – we discussed a lot of his playing (not just his infamous wrong notes), including his incredible tonal colours, exquisite colours, and amazing timing:

Dinu Lipatti’s legendary reading of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso… with at least one textual change that actually creates a more idiomatic effect than the pedal marking Ravel had notated:

And these are just a few of the pianists mentioned therein. I hope viewers will be inspired to examine the playing of these great pianists, as well as others mentioned (Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Marcelle Meyer…)! There are so many amazing artists of the past to explore… hence this website!

Resources for Historical Piano Recordings

If you are interested in purchasing recordings of the artists featured in my posts, the following sources may be useful – most of which are the labels themselves. I always suggest, if possible, that you order directly from the labels producing these items that don’t have huge commercial interest to most buyers, as it helps them get back more of their investment in the project (all of the labels below sell directly, except for Arbiter and Naxos).

Monique Haas MeloclassicThe new kid on the block for historical issues, this label is releasing high-quality rare, previously unpublished recordings by artists both celebrated and lesser-known, including top-notch pianists, violinists, cellists, and conductors. Their piano series boasts some incredible performances that should be investigated by collectors, among them Monique de la Bruchollerie, Monique Haas, Jakob Gimpel, Lazare-Levy, Samson François, and Aline van Barentzen. Their productions use minimal sound restoration and live broadcasts include the radio announcements, really giving a very fresh sense of being present at the performance. Some incredible recordings made available for the first time ever!


Marston Records
hofmann marstonThis deluxe collectors’ label issues some of the finest and rarest commercial and broadcast recordings of pianists and opera singers to be found. Run by transfer engineer Ward Marston with productions assisted by knowledgable pianophiles, the label has issued incredible volumes devoted to Josef Hofmann, Raoul Koczalski, Leopold Godowsky, Ernst Levy, Carl Friedberg, Vladimir de Pachmann, and Jorge Bolet (the recent 6-disc set is a must-buy). If you subscribe to their piano series, you will also receive at least once a year a CD of rare recordings that is not otherwise available for sale (previous volumes include Marcel Ciampi and Ricardo Viñes). The highest level of presentation and annotation (the booklets are truly works of art) together with the best possible transfers of recordings that are indispensable for lovers of great piano playing.


harold bauer aprThis label made its name in the late 1980s with amazing releases of Simon Barere’s HMV Recordings and Carnegie Hall recordings (never before issued), and expanded its repertoire of artists under the leadership of Bryan Crimp (formerly of EMI). Now run by Mike Spring of Hyperion Records, the label has released some incredible comprehensive collections in recent years, including impressive box sets of Dame Myra Hess, Moriz Rosenthal, Percy Grainger, Eileen Joyce, Harriet Cohen, and Harold Bauer – all must-haves. Fantastic transfers and presentation, with full discographies and fascinating insights in the booklets. An incredible source of superlative piano recordings with a perfect balance of content, presentation, and transfer quality.


St Laurent Studios
Fanny Davies St Laurent StudioThis Canadian label produces reissues of mostly commercial 78s, with some live and LP performances in their archive as well, with no filtering, leaving a fuller frequency range together with whatever surface noise existed on the records used. There are no booklet notes, but good discographical information and covers that include at least one image of either the original disc or the album cover. Some fantastic artists are featured, such as Maryla Jonas (her complete 78 and LP recordings – highly recommended), Jakob Gimpel (rare early recordings), Blanche Selva, Fanny Davies (a Clara Schumann pupil), Schnabel, Lipatti, Rachmaninoff, and Horowitz. A label for those interested in a real retro experience of 78s and vinyls, interested in the performances while not bothered by some of the ambient noise found on the old records.


masters of chopinA great label featuring some wonderful rare concert and disc recordings by superlative artists, among them the pianists Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Tiegermann, Iren Marik, Francis Planté, Eugen d’Albert, Samuil Feinberg, Pietro Scarpini, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Detailed notes and discographical information in very well-presented and interesting issues of incredible performances, many of which have never been issued in any other format before. Some of my favourites include a Busoni disc that features incredibly rare concert performances by his pupil Egon Petri and a Brahms disc featuring performances by pianists who knew him.


Moiseiwitsch NaxosA budget label reissuing a vast array of modern and historical recordings, with a wonderful catalogue of historical piano recordings, primarily based on commercial issues. They have produced complete reissues of the recordings of Benno Moiseitiwitsch, Mischa Levitzki, and Ignaz Friedman – all among the most important recordings ever made – and other collections of recordings by Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Josef Hofmann (commercial recordings only). Transfers are generally excellent (there are a few exceptions) and booklet notes are excellent, although the graphic design is nothing much to write home about. Very affordable and with ease of availability.


KASP Records
kasp hungerfordThis label has produced some fantastic reissues of more recent rare recordings by some superlative but less widely celebrated pianists, including Bruce Hungerford (a stupendous high-octane Beethoven recital), Constance Keene, and Adrian Aeschbacher.


Berkshire Record Outlet
A terrific resource for purchasing remaindered CDs – you can often find discontinued items, among them excellent historical issues, at fantastic prices.


My Amazon Page
I created a ‘record store’ at Amazon, linking historical piano recordings from multiple labels available via Amazon. However, because I am in Canada, the site will only accept orders through the Canadian site as opposed to your country’s own Amazon site – I would receive a slight commission for orders placed through the ‘shop’, but it is not worth the extra expense of ordering via Canada unless you live here (and ordering from the labels directly, particularly for the smaller labels, is highly recommended). I primarily set this up as a listing of what was available, but haven’t updated it for a while…


Magnificent Münz

It is a sad truth that there are many great pianists who never had the career that their artistry warranted. For some it was management, for others luck, and yet for others, there is the sad reality of medical issues.

Munz Studio piano 2The great Polish pianist Mieczysław Münz was one such pianist. A pupil of Leschetitzky’s assistant (and wife) Annette Essipova, Münz would go on to be part of Busoni’s inner circle. He created a strong impression in Berlin at the age of 20 when he played three concerted works in one evening (the Liszt E-Flat, the Brahms D Minor, and Franck’s Symphonic Variations). Shortly after his New York debut two years later, he decided to move to the US. A particularly memorable experience came in 1925 when Münz decided to attend Ethel Leginska’s recital at Carnegie Hall: when by 9pm she had not shown up, he offered to play instead and received multiple ovations for his “precision, grace and flexibility.”

Münz was in demand as a teacher. Josef Hofmann brought him to Curtis, and over the course of several decades he also taught in Cincinnati, New York, Baltimore, and Tokyo.
Alas, his career as a pianist would be more limited. In the early 1940s, focal dystonia in his right hand forced him to abandon playing.

There are very few recorded examples of his playing – he made far more piano rolls than disc recordings, and never recorded a large scale work in the studio. There is some silent film footage of him playing in 1929 that is fascinating to watch:

Yet while he would not play much for the last 30+ years of his life, he clearly was a magnificent performer and in demand. This October 17, 1940 concert performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K.466 with Frank Black conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra is a case in point: Münz was the first pianist invited for the inaugural series of concerts dedicated to the concerto repertoire (as per the announcer’s preamble before the concert). His playing is marvellous, and we can appreciate Münz’s wonderfully clear sonority, precise and even articulation, transparent voicing, and beautiful singing line. It is worth noting that Münz plays the Hummel cadenzas in the first and last movements, in addition to a Hummel Eingang at 1:42 in the finale.

The performance which follows may have been Münz’s final public appearance: a December 8, 1941 concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the National Orchestral Association conducted by Leon Barzin. Münz’s style is different than the modern view of Romanticism, with a more chaste rubato and strongly defined line than one might hear today in works that often receive overly sentimental readings, yet there is plenty of emotion expressed through his tonal and dynamic shadings (notice how the two go hand-in-hand), as well as through his soaring phrasing.

While it is tragic that such a great pianist was silenced due to medical issues, his influence as a teacher was profound. He had a great number of successful students across the globe, among them Emanuel Ax, Felicja Blumenthal, Sara Davis Buechner, Rinaldo Reyes, and Ann Schein. Ax stated that “For me, simply no other teacher was necessary.” Sara Davis Buechner is effusive in her praise of Münz, having studied with him just over a year until his death in 1976: “I rather adored that man – he was the Dad I didn’t have enough time to get to know. Phenomenal musician and teacher. He gave off quite a Buddhistic aura, too, like he knew everything.”

Buechner describes Münz’s exercises (learned from Busoni) to make anything at the keyboard possible (‘magic tricks’): “He was a great proponent of rhythmic variants as thorough technical practice and training. Such exercises made the practicing of a two-minute Chopin etude take up to 2 hours, to go through thoroughly. And you understood that to master such a piece, you’d work on those rhythmic variants every day. That kind of slow, detailed work puts your mind into a Buddhistic zone of concentration, but it trains the fingers remarkably and the results are powerful. You can hear the easeful fluency in Münz’s playing… The point for me, as a pianist, is that when I faithfully executed Münz’s many technical exercises, I felt wholly secure at the piano, with the freedom to just interpret without even thinking about technical demands, on stage.” She describes his playing during lessons: “The tone just opened up and swallowed the room in velvet sonorities. The sound of his gigantic paws roaring out the finale of Chopin’s Third Sonata — my God, that was an orchestra. He made it all look easy.”

A man who led a difficult life – his wife leaving him for Artur Rubinstein, losing family in the Holocaust, and having his performing career end due to hand problems – Münz nevertheless relished his teaching and his students, as demonstrated, appreciated him tremendously. He is an artist whose name deserves to be remembered… and pronounced properly. To which end, an excerpt from the Florence Times Daily, Florence, Alabama USA, December 5, 1940:

It is not necessary to sneeze when you pronounce the name of Mieczyslaw Münz, the celebrated Polish pianist, who will appear at the Sheffield High School Auditorium at 8:15 o’clock tonight under the auspices of the Muscle Shoals Cooperative Concert Association. The pianist assures everyone that it is quite easy. The last name is pronounced “Mince,” like the well-known pie. The first name (it is the name of a Polish national hero, by the way) does offer some difficulty to American tongues, but this too becomes simpler upon analysis. “Mee-aich-chis-laff,” accented on the second syllable.

During the first visit of Münz to America — several years ago — one of his admirers who had mastered both pronounciations, was so carried away by the brilliant Münz art — and name, that he addressed his letter to the “Variations” column of the Musical Courier:

“Dear Variations:

I will not Münz matters, but come to the point at once. Mieczyslaw was soloist with the orchestra today, playing the difficult Liszt Piano Concerto in A major. It was pie for the boy — Münz pie. The most astonishing piece of Münzstrelsy heard in the state of Münz-sota in some time or I am greatly Münztaken.”

The Polish pianist, who knows English very well, took pen in hand:

“In spite of beseechings and hints
That plays upon words make me wince,
My friends take my name
And make puns on the same.
“Woe is me!” cried Mieczyslaw Münz.”

The Firebrand

photo (4)The Israeli-American pianist Natan Brand was one of the most fiery of pianists, a towering talent with a mercurial temperament that fuelled his impassioned conceptions. When he died in 1990 at the age of 46, he was known to a handful of musicians. In 1992, the APR label released a two-CD set of concert performances that garnered some rave reviews but which sold poorly, and in 2004, the label Palexa issued some of the same performances along with some other live recordings, and Brand’s name started to spread more. As the internet became more of a music-sharing resource, Brand became known to a wider audience than he had had in his lifetime.

What struck most listeners was Brand’s magnificent interpretations of Schumann. In particular, the complex Kreisleriana receives perhaps its most boldly inspired readings in the hands of Brand, with soaring phrasing, a glorious palette of tonal colours, and a simply massive sonority. Leonard Bernstein had heard the pianist play it at Tanglewood and proclaimed that Brand played it better than Horowitz. Years later when they met again, Bernstein immediately remembered Brand and his passionate playing. (It is worth noting that Horowitz had no greater fan than Brand, who would slide birthday cards and Christmas greetings under the legendary pianist’s door every year – Horowitz wrote back very cordial messages. The two never met.)

The released 1983 concert recording is indeed one of the most amazing performances of the work one could hope to hear:

On a trip to New York City in July 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Brand’s widow Lori, who was delighted to know that Brand’s name and interpretations are still known and admired. I was curious what other performances of this great pianist might exist, having heard from the producers of both the APR and Palexa sets that there was more and having obtained a few odd recordings here and there. As we chatted, Lori said, “I had all the videotapes of Natan transferred. Would you like to see some?” My jaw dropped – why had I not thought about the existence of filmed performances? Of course I wanted to see them!

We looked through a few of the videos, some of which were filmed practice sessions and lessons, but there were some live performances as well – the quality was not terrific overall, but of course the opportunity to see this pianist in action was worth it (I’m used to listening to ancient recordings, so I didn’t mind at all). Lori hoped that some of these could be shared with a wider public but wasn’t proficient at how to do it on YouTube. I offered to help and she was happy to share the videos with me. After my lunch appointment that day (and before my flight back home that evening), I returned armed with a portable hard drive and copied the bulk of the films.

Among the treasures therein are two that I believed were the top priority to share as soon as possible. The first is a filmed performance of the entire Kreisleriana (minus a few measures), a different concert performance from the one that was released on both APR and Palexa (some film footage of what appears to be that reading does exist, but it is incomplete). The original footage was quite dark and murky, and YouTube gave the options of brightening it somewhat, which creates a rather surreal colour palette that is not inconsistent with the otherworldly nature of Brand’s playing, but the benefit of seeing more of his hands and pedalling makes it worthwhile. Like commercially released recording, this performance is overflowing with passion:

The visual and audio quality of the next video are both infinitely better, and the contents will be of particular interest to Brand fans, as this features a composition of which no recording by the pianist is known to exist: Schumann’s Carnaval. This film is of a practice session in an auditorium in which Brand reads through most of the work, and there are some terrific shots of his hands. It is remarkable to see how he can bring such power into a single finger to produce such an enormous sound without ever sacrificing the quality of tone or the legato line (his reading of the ‘Chopin’ section just after the 14-minute mark is divine). It is most unfortunate that his reading of the entire work was not filmed (and we’re looking into whether there is a complete audio recording of Brand playing it). Nevertheless, what follows here is a treat both for admirers of Brand and all fans of great Romantic piano playing:

These are some highlights of what is a more extensive archive of Brand performances than has been publicly available. Stay tuned to this website and our Facebook page for more Natan Brand videos and for other news related to his recordings and future CD releases as we seek to preserve and share the legacy of this unique musician.