“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.

Benjamin Grosvenor’s ‘Dances’

Dances Benjamin Grosvenor’s new album ‘Dances’ launches on August 4, 2014 in the UK and a few weeks later in North America. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to write the booklet notes for this CD, which features a wonderful array of piano music inspired by various dance forms, from Bach through to Morton Gould. The program:

Bach, Johann Sebastian
Partita No. 4, BWV828
1 I. Overture
2 II. Allemande
3 III. Courante
4 IV. Aria
5 V. Sarabande
6 VI. Menuet
7 VII. Gigue

Chopin, Frédéric
Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante in E-flat major, Op. 22
8 I. Andante spianato in G major
9 II. Grande polonaise brillante in E-flat major

Chopin, Frédéric
10 Polonaise no.5 in F sharp Minor Op. 44

Scriabin, Alexander
Ten Mazurkas Op. 3
11 No. 6
12 No.4
13 No.9

Scriabin, Alexander
14 Valse in Ab major Op. 38

Granados, Enrique
Valses Poeticos
15 Preludio: Vivace molto
16 I. Melodioso
17 II.Tempo de Vals noble
18 III. Tempo de Vals lento
19 IV. Allegro humoristico
20 V. Allegretto (elegante)
21 VI. Quasi ad libitum (sentimental)
22 VII. Vivo
23 VIII. Presto

Schulz-Evler, Adolf
24 Concert Arabesques on themes by Johann Strauss, “By The Beautiful Blue Danube”

Albeniz, Isaac arr. Godowsky, Leopold
25 Tango, Op.165, No.2

Gould, Morton
26 Boogie Woogie Etude

Decca have kindly agreed to allow subscribers to The Piano Files an exclusive sneak preview of the album with a free download of a digital bonus track. Grosvenor recorded more music than can fit on a conventional 80-minute CD, so there are a couple of bonus tracks available for download if purchasing a deluxe edition of the album on iTunes (after the release date). Subscribers to this page are offered a free mp3 download of Grosvenor’s thrilling reading of Liszt’s ‘Gnomenreigen’. You can listen here:

If you go to the link below, you can sign up for a Benjamin Grosvenor mailing list in order to receive a download link to the track (you can unsubscribe after the first email and you don’t need to opt in to the other newsletters on the page):

Download link

Enjoy the recording, and do check out the album – brilliant piano playing of a wide range of repertoire!

Refined Impulsiveness

It is always interesting how some pianists’ reputations continue to grow after their death while others’ do not. The French pianist Alfred Cortot, for example, is still known by present-day piano lovers more than 50 years after his death – doubtless due not only to the great number of recordings he made but also the marvellous editions he produced of scores by Chopin and other great composers. And yet other pianists who were his colleagues and fine artists themselves have names that are all but forgotten.

Robert LortatOne of these is Robert Lortat. He was, like Cortot, a student of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire, and was also a friend of Fauré’s, performing many of that composer’s works yet strangely not recording a note of his music. He did record Chopin, however, putting down a cycle of the Etudes Opp.10 and 25 a couple of years before Cortot recorded his legendary sets. Lortat’s readings demonstrate a sense of adventurous and impulsiveness that he shared with Cortot yet with impressive technical precision and other admirable individual touches.

After some poor reissues of his recordings in the 1990s (the Etudes were badly pitched), there is a new release of some of his great Chopin playing on the Canadian DoReMi label that features some of his impressive recordings. His Chopin Preludes – presented below from an earlier reissue – are marvellous, featuring his full-bodied tonal palette, rhythmic drive, clear lines, interesting asynchronization of the hands, imaginative voicing, and some very impulsive touches despite a polished technique – exciting, musical playing by an artist well worth rediscovering!

The Valse Mélancolique

For fans of great music, the possibility of a new discovery is always tantalizing. However, there are times when a work is misattributed – the famous ‘Albinoni Adagio’, for example, was written centuries after the composer died. The Italian critic, broadcaster, and musicologist Luca Chierici has ascertained that one work recently attributed to Chopin, the ‘Valse mélancolique’, was in fact composed by Charles Mayer. Mr. Chierici, in response to my request to comment on his research, summarized the discovery (currently only published in Italian) as follows:

The Valse in F-Sharp Minor (called also Valse mélancolique) was apparently published in 1986 by Stanislaw Dybowski on the bi-weekly “Ruch Muzyczny”. I heard it by chance in 1987 since the italian pianist Bruno Canino played it as an encore in Milano, and I was immediately fascinated by the beauty of some melodic and harmonic lines. Stephen Hough and Garrick Ohlsson made recordings of the piece and YouTube is full of amateurish takes of the same Valse.

Now, it happened that in my recent orders of scores of the composer Charles Mayer (for some research I’m making about him) from the Berlin Staatsbibliothek I unexpectedly found that Mayer was the actual author of the piece. I wanted to write a short communication about my discovery and I immediately thought about the Chopin Institute in Warsaw. A very kind scholar wrote me back immediately saying that the Valse had been not included in the standard catalogue of Chopin works but that the news of a correct identification of the piece was very interesting. With one of the music magazines I collaborate for (the bi-weekly “Amadeus”), I arranged to have an article published. At the same time I visited Canino, gave him a copy of the score and asked if he wanted to record the Valse in the original form. This is a on-going project and the magazine announced that soon a link for downloading the audio will be available for the readers.

The particular values of Mayer’s composition are described in this article [currently at the top of this linked page, but that might change]. The most relevant detail is that the copy of 1986 which is currently circulating (and available at IMSLP) is a shortened version of the original Mayer’s one, and this fact (i.e. its poor architecture) was used to say that Chopin could never write a piece like that, apart the nice chopinesque themes and harmony. The original Mayer Valse is perfect in the sense of architectural balance and re-establish the value of the piece. By the way, another copy identical of the corrupted one had been published in 1936 : I examined it and found that is identical to the current shortened version. The “thrilling aspect” of the whole matter is: who published the shortened version ? Why he could only transcribe that version without consulting a copy of Mayer’s score?

In an email exchange we had relating to this discovery, Stephen Hough wrote (and gave me permission to publish) the following comments:

It was not so much the structure which made me think from the first time I saw the piece (1936 edition) that it couldn’t be by Chopin but the compositional mistakes. Chopin was fastidious about such things and there is false note-leading, inaccurate spelling of accidentals and rough harmony (too many thirds, bad spacing). I also never thought it sounded Chopin-esque but much more Russian. I only put it on as a curiosity and insisted that the notes explain its doubtful attribution.

But as it stands it’s an attractive piece and I’m glad I got to record a piece by yet another obscure composer!

To hear the work in a performance that is not quite as ‘amateurish’ as most on YouTube, as Chierici expressed, click here for Garrick Ohlsson’s lovely recording of the piece, indexed at the end of his cycle of Chopin’s actual waltzes – something that will no longer be the case in new recordings of the cycle thanks to this new discovery.

CD Review: Benjamin Grosvenor’s “Rhapsody In Blue”

The celebrated British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has released the second CD in his much-publicized contract with Decca. After last year’s critically lauded solo disc featuring compositions by Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel, his new release focuses on works for piano and orchestra, giving listeners at home an opportunity to hear Grosvenor performing with an instrumental ensemble, in this case the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by James Judd.

The choice of works and presentation of the disc as a whole is an unusual one: Saint-Säens’ Second Piano Concerto, Ravel’s G Major Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, each followed by a solo ‘encore’ by the respective composers. The Ravel is an interesting bridge between the two works – he was French like Saint-Säens and his Concerto includes jazzy elements at times similar to Gershwin – but as an overall flow it is not the kind of programming that would necessarily encourage all-at-once listening, nor is a quieter solo composition after each larger concerted work ideal on the ear, with their different sound levels having one reaching for the volume control.

Personally, I’d have loved to hear the Saint-Säens with the Liszt Second that Grosvenor performed so magnificently at last year’s Proms, as well as with the Schumann Concerto (I’ve heard a stellar broadcast performance that was astonishingly mature). Whatever the reason for the repertoire choices, entitling the disc ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ when the Gershwin is the shortest concerted work featured seems a bit misguided, since all of the works here are equally worth hearing. However, when presented with what are profound and dazzling interpretations of great music, such objections and considerations are soon overlooked.

Grosvenor’s style, as I commented when reviewing his solo disc last year, blends an unusual degree of refinement and precision with old-school impulsiveness and ‘edge’. Regardless of the work he is performing, his sound is beautifully polished and refined, even at its loudest never becoming hard (the promotional videos filmed during sessions give the impression of brittleness, no doubt due to the mic’ing on the video cameras), and his phrasing is elegantly crafted, always with a sense of line and forward momentum.

The Saint-Säens is newer in Grosvenor’s repertoire – it seems hardly coincidental that the CD was released the same week that he performed the work at the Proms (surely a sign of Decca’s marketing machine at work). If this is a concerto that he hasn’t played as often as the Ravel (which he has performed since age 11), Grosvenor has clearly given his interpretation much thought and consideration – not that his playing seems to lack spontaneity or impetuousness. If midway through the first movement he opts for some stronger accents than I might have liked, the playing is never less than musical or effective. The first-movement cadenza is remarkable for its poetic phrasing, brought about in part by masterful pedalling and magnificent tone production. In the second movement, Grosvenor achieves great buoyancy while maintaining clear voicing and sparkling tone, while the finale features tremendous drive and the sense of risk-taking despite the phrasing never being uneven and tone never being harsh. Truly thrilling playing.

Ravel’s brilliant Concerto in G (1932) receives here one of its finest recorded interpretations. Grosvenor is the only pianist other than the legendary Michelangeli who I have heard create the uncanny effect of somehow enunciating the trills in the first movement such that one appears to hear notes between the semitones, like a zither or musical saw. He navigates through the first movement’s lyrical and virtuosic passages with a seamlessness that is stunning. The sense of flow in the second movement is impressive, with long lines and unobtrusive articulation, and the rapidly paced third movement poses no technical or musical challenge for Grosvenor as he brings the concerto to an exciting close.

For the disc’s title work Rhapsody in Blue, Grosvenor and members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – who provide admirable support throughout the disc but especially here – use the original 1924 orchestration by Gershwin’s colleague Ferde Grofé (which can be heard in the composer’s own abridged recording made the same year). The atmosphere in this more compact version is even more free-wheeling than usual, and here Grosvenor demonstrates that he is a master of whatever work he chooses to perform: an extraordinarily sensitive and refined an artist in ‘serious’ repertoire, he brings a jazzier, more popular work like this to life without lowering his musical or pianistic standards. Grosvenor unaffectedly fuses the work’s unique combination of jazzy and classical elements, with infectious vitality in his rhythmic drive, incredibly suave sensuality in lyrical passages, and crisply articulated passages flawlessly contrasted with fluidly phrased melodic lines. The measures leading into the famous secondary theme near the 9:30-mark may be the silkiest, most beguiling on record, and the subsequent rapid-fire repeated notes are technically brilliant while retaining purity of tone. This performance without a doubt ranks among the all-time greats.

The solo ‘encores’ presented between the major works are no less impressive. Godowsky’s arrangement of Saint-Säens’ The Swan is a perfect showpiece for Grosvenor, whose transcendent technique and Romantic sensibility enable him to bring out the transcription’s full potential: a primary melodic line that soars above the accompanying tracery, melting harmonies beautifully layered yet audible, timing wonderfully pliant and expansive. Ravel’s rarely-played Prelude in A Minor receives an exquisite reading that finds the composer’s experimental harmonies beautifully highlighted through Grosvenor’s delicate phrasing. The final solo, Gershwin’s Love Walked In, is one this young pianist has played for years. The trills, the balance of harmonies, and the incredibly supple phrasing are a marvel and provide a gorgeous closing to Grosvenor’s latest offering.

In short, this disc features performances as glorious as one could hope for. There is no doubt that the CD will be showered with justly-deserved praise, and hopefully sales will encourage the decision makers at Decca to record Grosvenor even more frequently, as one disc a year isn’t nearly enough for an artist of this calibre.

Twilight of a God

Alfred Cortot’s name is sometimes uttered with disdain for his technical ability at the keyboard. It is indeed a fact that some of Cortot’s performances have wrong notes, something that our sanitized ears today are not used to in an age of digital editing and soulless perfection aimed more at satisfying competition juries than touching the heart of a listener. Certainly one need not aim for wrong notes in order to imbue a performance with passion, but if in the heat of the moment a performer misses a note, should the interpretation be discounted and the pianist’s skill be called into question? I think not.

As was clearly articulated in Harold C Schonberg’s classic tome ‘The Great Pianists’, Cortot was an active teacher, school administrator, active performer, and prolific recording artist – with all this on his plate, how much time did he have to practice? There is no doubt as to his well-grounded technical capacity when one merely glances at his book of piano exercises, ‘Principes Rationnels de la Technique Pianistique’, or his study editions for great keyboard works of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, which contain brilliant exercises designed to make performances of these works easier on a physical level (in addition to adding great insight on other levels of awareness).

Indeed, Cortot’s digital dexterity was so brilliant that Horowitz made a trip to Paris hoping to learn the French master’s fingering for the treacherous ‘Etude en Forme de Valse’ of Saint-Saens, his 1919 recording of which the young Russian pianist had heard. (Cortot did not tell him.) Here is that amazing performance:

Unfortunately, while one can appreciate the great Cortot’s digital wizardry, there is less of an opportunity to recognize the beauty of his tone in these early recordings, which were made using the acoustical recording process (whereby a paper horn as opposed to a microphone captured the performance). From 1925, recording techniques improved considerably (microphones came into use), and in 1931 Cortot recorded the same work again – still brilliant fingerwork, though perhaps not quite as seamless, but with that gorgeous, rich mahogany tone that is instantly recognizable:

Despite a few splashy moments, the performance is brilliant on many levels. One accepts Cortot’s wrong notes, as Schonberg wrote, ‘as one accepts scars or defects in a painting by an old master’: it is worth experiencing a work of art so beautifully expressed even if there are a few superficial flaws.

In the 1930s, Cortot recorded a great many of Chopin’s works, among them the Sonatas, Etudes, Waltzes, and Impromptus. His recording of the Third Impromptu – hardly the most commonly played of Chopin’s works – has always struck me as one of his greatest and as the most successful of the work, with soaring phrasing, remarkably fluid timing that fits with the structure of the unusual figurations, and a varied tonal palette. This is the kind of playing that reflects the depth of Cortot’s essence:

Cortot recorded so many of Chopin’s works that one has the mistaken impression that he recorded them all. But while he recorded the Sonatas, Etudes, Preludes, and Waltzes multiple times over the course of three decades, in addition to a few other works, he did not record the complete Scherzi, Polonaises, or Nocturnes (Artur Rubinstein did) – although according to one discographer he made attempts at all of the Scherzi and Polonaises in the 1940s and the complete Nocturnes in the 1950s. My source at EMI France – a great Cortot fan himself – assures me that no traces of any of these exist in the archives.

Which brings us to the point of this post: a rare recording made in his twilight years while on tour of Japan of a work he regrettably did not record earlier. In 1952, Cortot gave an extensive tour of Japan that involved 18 performances in 13 cities, with four different programs. These photos of the elegant program booklet (photos copyrighted – credits at bottom of post) show that among the works he played was Gaspard de la Nuit, a work of which no Cortot recording has been found. (He did in fact record it at the same 1939 EMI session that brought us the wonderful Weber Second Sonata, but it was never issued, the masters have been destroyed, and no copies have been located.) Apparently it was obvious to even the less musical listeners that the treacherous ‘Gaspard’ was beyond the aging pianist’s capacity, though it would still be fascinating to hear if a broadcast recording were ever to turn up.

During this visit, Cortot spent two days at RCA Victor’s studios in Tokyo making a series of records that were only issued in that country. There is no doubt that he was past his prime, and the recordings feature playing with less cohesiveness than his earlier performances, but there is some value to be found in some of them. This series of discs has been issued twice on CD in Japan, the more recent issue featuring fine transfers from the original source material, and has only just recently been made available in the West in a 40-disc Anniversary Edition on EMI. Of particular interest is Cortot’s recording of Chopin’s Second Scherzo, which despite a few splashy moments and occasionally less fluid phrasing than was his norm at his peak, features some very poetic playing and gives us an idea of how he might have played the work in his younger years. (The Third Scherzo, sadly, is tough even for Cortot admirers to sit through.)

Listening to this performance might make us wish that he had recorded it a couple of decades earlier – hearing the Third Impromptu above gives us insight into how he might have played this Scherzo in the 1930s. How wonderful nevertheless to be able to hear him in this work, even if his playing was a shadow of his former glory.

To leave with a perhaps more unified impression of his art, here is what might be the last solo recording that exists of the artist: a 1957 Munich radio broadcast of Chopin’s Berceuse Op.57, in which his rich, penetrating tone and evocative pedalling help him create a truly wonderful dream world.

Photos of Japanese concert programme courtesy of Sumie Ueno, retired seasonal lecturer from the Osaka College of Music. Program courtesy of Hiroshi Fukuda, Professor Emeritus from Hiroshima Prefectural Women’s University. Thanks to Chihiro Homma for making these available for this posting.