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. 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.

Commanding Nobility

Rudolf Firkušný had the air of a warm-hearted diplomat. His elegant demeanour and refined presence came through both his playing and his interactions with the people in his life. The Czech pianist studied with the composers Suk and Janáček in his native land, and with the great pianists Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel, a combination which helped him fuse his love for the music of his country and European classics with an aristocratic and noble air.

As a pianist he had a wide repertoire that ranged from Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert through to the more Romantic Chopin and Brahms, and into the 20th Century with Debussy and as far forward as Barber. And yet more of his fame was due to his dedicated diligence in promoting the music of his Czech compatriots Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček (whose complete piano works he recorded), and Martinů (who wrote a number of works for him).

In his performances of music from his native land, he fuses impeccable charm and brio with his masterful technique to bring to life some lovely vignettes, as in this performance of Smetana’s Czech Dance No.10, “Skočná”.

But while artists could be in danger of being typecast as a performer of music from their country, Firkušný was recognized as a distinguished performer of the standard repertoire as well. His resonant piano tone, probing rhythmic pulse, and peaked phrasing brought everything under his fingers to life. His 1959 recording of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op.58 reveals these qualities in his playing, with a strong sense of line and inner momentum.

Firkušný was remarkably human. As a teacher in New York (he had escaped there from Europe in 1940 and stayed there for the rest of his life), he exuded warmth and true concern for the well-being of his students. Sara Davis Buechner states that he was a “warm, encouraging mentor with a beautiful smile and gentle laugh” who was the epitome of aristocracy. “He was as affable and charming in person as he was commandingly noble on stage.” In his lessons, Buechner recalls, “he spoke to me in a relaxed manner as a colleague and that elevated our dialogue to the highest and most important level.”

This level of respect and connection in his personal life seems to have extended to the connection he forged with his listeners and with the composers whose music he played. Never does he appear to play a note that is less than important, and yet nothing sounds cold or academic, his tone always being beautifully burnished and his phrases as impeccably presented as he was in person. Later in life he played with a level of conviction and precision that belied his age. This 1989 concert recording of Schubert’s Klavierstücke No.1 D.946 is brimming over with an inner propulsion that never interferes with the lyrical phrasing, beautiful tone, and architectural and harmonic structure.

For all the distinguished nobility that Firkušný brought to the concert platform, his down-to-earth humanity was ever-present – he apparently had a fondness of Burger King Whoppers. In 1990, at the age of 78, he appeared in a Nike TV commercial with David Robinson in which he clearly excelled at piano and not at basketball. His rationale for his good-natured appearance? “I think it was good that for once serious music was put together with sports. Music needs all kinds of encouragement.”

In the hands of Rudolf Firkušný, music was indeed encouraged. His performances seem to have been propelled by an inner force such that they never seemed externally driven, giving phrasing a suppleness and enabling him to maintain a full-bodied tone. He was a favourite with audiences and critics alike. Alas, upon his death his name seemed to fade, and there is now a younger generation who seems less aware of his legacy. It is to be hoped that an enterprising producer will reissue his recordings (EMI had a Firkušný Edition in the 1990s) to help give his artistry the recognition it so clearly deserves.

Aristocratic Poise

Benno Moiseiwitsch was an aristocratic pianist : he had flair. Despite his poker-faced demeanour at the keyboard, he brought warmth, elegance, and beauty of colour to his interpretations. Born in 1890 in Odessa, Benno always had a dry disposition and modest character, as exemplified by a conversation one morning over breakfast when his parents asked their nine-year-old son who had won the prestigious Rubinstein Prize at the Imperial School of Music the previous day. “I did,” the young lad replied, his mouth full of egg.

Moiseiwitsch emigrated to England and toured all over the world, eventually becoming friends with his exiled compatriot Sergei Rachmaninoff. The two hit it off, bonding over a shared understanding of one of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, as Moiseiwitsch recounts in this interview later in his life:

Moiseiwitsch’s mastery of Rachminoff’s idiom is evident from the wonderful recording he made of this work in 1940, with a beautiful tonal range that included a brooding bass and rich singing treble, an uncanny ability to balance voicing between hands, and an unusual melting effect he creates that adds even more melancholy to his performance:

Fortunately, Moiseiwitsch made many recordings, and they are being issued systematically on the Naxos label for incredibly reasonable prices and in the best possible sound. One of the most famous – and justly so – is his performance of Rachmaninoff’s transcription for piano of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It is a treacherous work that requires phenomenal fingerwork to play successfully. In the early days of recording, choosing what work to record was subject to many conditions, not least of which was what other performances had been issued on other labels. Because Rachmaninoff had already recorded the work on RCA, Moiseiwitsch’s label HMV (the UK sister-label to RCA) was reluctant to record a performance that would compete with the composer’s own. One day, at the end of a recording session, the producer informed Moiseiwitsch that he’d completed his session with some time left on the clock and suggested recording a short work to keep on reserve. The pianist, being quite tired, didn’t particularly want to play anything else – and he’d already started putting the collar back on his shirt (as one did in the day) – so he suggested the Rachmaninoff Mendelssohn arrangement, thinking the producer would refuse. The producer called his bluff and accepted on condition that Benno make only one take – thinking of course that the pianist couldn’t do it and so they wouldn’t have to issue the recording. (In those days, works were recorded in one 5-minute segment, unedited. Rachmaninoff made at least six takes of the work in his sessions to produce a version that satisfied him.) The pianist no doubt smirked at the challenge, sat down, and made the most flawless recording of his career: a resonant tone even in soft passages, remarkably even fingerwork, and incredible consistency of articulation and speed. It is considered better than the composer’s own performance and Benno himself stated that he thought it was his greatest recording.

Moiseiwitsch’s demeanour at the piano was one of immovable certainty. We live today in an age of exaggerated showmanship, where many less cultivated pianists believe that they must show their emotions rather than convey them through their playing. This illustration of Moiseiwitsch shows the extent to which his controlled appearance was well-known, showing the same facial expression for 16 different tempo markings in a piece of music.

A treasure of recorded pianism comes in the form of a 1954 BBC broadcast, fortunately preserved and finally released on DVD (though as an appendix to a disc devoted to another artist). The work is the treacherous Liszt arrangement of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, a work so challenging that the composer himself used to take a break midway through. The performance here is shot with one camera that zooms in slowly over the course of the 15 minutes, and one can watch in amazement as the 64-year-old Moiseiwitsch overcomes the considerable technical hurdles of the piece without a single grimace. While it may not be note-perfect by today’s standards, one will not find a performance today that has this level of tonal range, grandeur, and abandon (and every commercial recording you hear will be made up of multiple edits sliced together). Never an unnecessary movement (some of the more dramatic arm drops are for tone production) – pure economy of gesture, but a full emotional range! And at the end, a farewell message that demonstrates his suave character. A gentleman and aristocrat.

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.

Benjamin Grosvenor Interview

Benjamin Grosvenor photographed by Sussie Ahlburg

The music industry is not an easy place for a young pianist like Benjamin Grosvenor. Young talents are often sold as the flavour of the month, receiving simultaneously undue praise for their talents because of their age and the disdain of those who assume that they must be just another flash in the pan. The life of a concert artist can be so harrowing that many performers give up when their artistry is of the level that deserves international acclaim, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the ‘flash in the pan syndrome’.

Grosvenor seems to be managing very well, and he demonstrates a modesty and humility that belie his age and musical abilities. The 19-year-old British pianist has never entered an international piano competition, and will never have to. After becoming the youngest ever winner of the Keyboard division of the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2004 at the age of 11, where his performances demonstrated a level of musical maturity that was as inspiring as his technical facility, he has performed internationally, making his Carnegie Hall debut aged 13 and playing to huge acclaim on a tour of Germany when 17. Yet he has kept his total number of concerts each year modest – rejecting the ‘dash for cash’ prodigy circuit – in order to be able to continue his studies with Christopher Elton at London’s Royal Academy of Music. At home in England he is now making a big splash: he is the youngest soloist ever to play the opening concert at the annual Proms concerts series, and he is the first British pianist signed to the Decca label since Clifford Curzon and Moura Lympany over a half century ago.

As Grosvenor has been interviewed more by the mainstream media rather than by in-depth musically-focused publications (how many more times will he need to answer what it feels like to play a concerto with a major orchestra?), and because he seemed to relish the opportunity to answer more probing musical questions, I am publishing our interview verbatim, without any editing (apart from a semi-colon or two).

I started by asking him about the nature of competition, since by all accounts he seems to be incredibly modest yet in one interview he stated that he felt very competitive when he first started playing.

It strikes me as ironic that you have stated that you didn’t take piano seriously until your friends were playing, at which point you didn’t want them to be better than you – and yet you have not performed in competitions. What fuels your piano playing today? And what are your thoughts about the competitive nature of the piano industry?

At that very young age ( about 8 ) I think I was still suffering from those competitive urges of young childhood – to be the best amongst my peers at something. I entered the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 11 and won the Keyboard section. Perhaps ideally 11 is the last age at which anyone should enter a competition, since you haven’t by that time developed the self consciousness and nervous reaction to that unnatural environment that skews playing! I was glad for the exposure of the BBC event, as it meant that I didn’t have to think about entering future competitions, even though sometimes I was urged to do so. The competitive nature of the industry is irksome as there should be no element of gladiatorial combat in playing Bach or Mozart or Chopin… On the one hand, it’s natural that a listener compares and might say, for example, “Horowitz’s Scriabin is more neurotic than Richter’s” – we all do that and it can help clarify our views – but I feel very uncomfortable when I read comments that seem to reduce what we do to a form of sport. In the past, competitions themselves have helped to bring a number of great pianists to the fore. At this time, I do worry that perhaps they have become a kind of worldwide industry, and so many students at conservatories hone their playing to the competition ‘circuit’ that they expect to join shortly, and through which they hope to earn notice and a career. Musical aims can be subordinated along the way, which is sad. But that’s not to say that competitions nowadays cannot bring a major talent to the fore. My concern is rather their dominance in the mindset of young musicians, and the distorting effect this can have on playing.

I play works about which I feel a strong conviction, or those that I hope will expand my musicianship (ideally both!). I’m fueled by the desire to play these as best I can… Sorry that this is a rather dreary answer to that part of your question!

Do you think that you have a vision of the works you play that is consistent from one performance to the next, or do you vary your interpretations and nuances from one concert to the next?

I usually have a kind of fixed map, which I only change if something doesn’t seem to be working or if I come up with a better approach to a certain part. Of course, at fine detail level, this ‘map’ is subject to the tweaks that necessarily occur (often spontaneously) as a result of different pianos and acoustics – adjustments to tempi, voicing, dynamics etc. Not to mention my mood on that day. My overall concept of a piece can change, but typically when I return to a piece after a period of time not playing it.

What do you think are the most important qualities in a pianist’s playing? And which ones tend to be less valued in the playing of today compared to the artists of yesteryear?

We have to keep in mind always that our medium is sound, so projecting a performance to an audience rests on controlling and conjuring with sound, not ‘playing notes’ per se. Perhaps this is a quality that is sometimes now lacking relative to the artists of yesteryear (with exceptions in both directions, of course); also the sense of a pianist having their own sound. Naturally, a Bach Partita should command a different range of tone, touch and colour than a Liszt Petrach Sonnet, but if one listens to Lipatti’s recording of the 1st Partita and the Petrarch Sonnet 104, say, one hears those different ranges, yet there is an element of the sound – of ‘voice’ – that is indelibly Lipatti. Not that individuality of sound or interpretation should be an end in itself (another false goal) but, when it’s the innate result of nature and nurture, as with Lipatti, the results can be moving and inspiring.

Do you have an interest in the pianists of the past? Who are your favourites, and what qualities do you admire in their playing?

While I have great respect for many pianists now playing, I do have a pronounced interest in pianists of the past, both for the absolute merits of their performances and because one is exposed to potentially important musical/expressive and pianistic tools that may have disappeared partially from the modern lexicon. Of course, you cannot give ‘sepia tinted’ performances, as if seeking to re-invent a bygone era (also bearing in mind the quip about a ‘tradition’ being set when a bad habit is repeated!) – but to ignore the recorded legacy of immensely talented musicians who worked with some of the great composers (and painters and writers) and who also, in some cases, studied with Liszt or the significant pupils of Chopin, say, would be to miss out on a rich part of our artistic history.

Notwithstanding my earlier comments about the insidious nature of sweeping comparisons and rankings (!), I answered Cortot, Lipatti and Horowitz when a magazine asked me last year to name my three ‘top’ pianists. Making this choice of a ‘top three’ (a silly notion, I realise) was impossible last year and would be even more impossible now, I should add…it would be better to say that I cited these three as being amongst my favourites. But to explain briefly my reasoning at the time, Cortot was perhaps an ultimate expressive artist, yet also a brilliant mind. If there was a word that meant ‘seductive’ but in a soulful or spiritual rather than a sexual way, I’d use it to describe his playing! Lipatti remains an ideal of musical and technical perfection. Horowitz’s technique is discussed avidly, and what he could accomplish with his unique approach to the keyboard was incredible, but it’s as a musician of often miraculous imagination that he most engrosses me. His playing of larger scale works may not always hold together (at least in conventional terms) but he can make a Chopin mazurka or Scarlatti sonata almost unbearably touching.

Although in most cases I’ve done little more than scratch the surface (I wish I had more time for listening), I’ve also listened with great interest to the playing of Schnabel, Rachmaninov, Kempff, Rubinstein, Moiseiwitsch, Friedmann, Hofmann, Rosenthal, Cherkassky, Cziffra, Michelangeli, Richter, Arrau, Gilels, Sofronitsky… I should also add, I suppose, that it’s not that I react ‘positively’ to all of the performances of these pianists that I’ve heard, but one can learn from a great artist even when you happen to react against a particular interpretation!

What other instruments and musicians do you listen to? What qualities do you admire in their playing? Are there transferable qualities that you strive for in your performances? (For example, is there something in Furtwangler’s conducting that would inspire your piano playing?)

A few years ago I did some comparative listening in the Beethoven 9th and Schubert 9th, listening to a number of Furtwängler’s recorded performances of both, amongst others. His readings made a greater impression on me than those of any of the other conductors I heard – the ‘organic’ nature of his conceptions and plasticity of phrasing and pulse, as well as the sound and intensity he drew from (in particular) the string sections. That plasticity of phrasing and pulse – whilst building a greater whole, which might seem counter-intuitive at first – is something that instrumentalists can certainly learn from. I hope over the years to make my way through every one of Furtwängler’s recordings (something to keep my MP3 player busy!) Recently I’ve also become interested in the recordings of Thibaud and Kreisler – for their phrasing and tone and also their use of portamento. As pianists we don’t have any direct recourse to portamento, of course, but it’s possible at times to intimate this through slightly de-syncronising the hands. Though one has to be mindful that this should never sound like a ‘device’ – it always has to serve a musical purpose and be part of natural expression (and in appropriate repertoire). But used with taste it can serve to intensify or even to ‘soften’ a particular phrase.


How can musicians today learn from recordings without either copying them outright or creating disjointed performances of copied nuances from various interpreters? How do you balance listening to others with your own ideas?

I think it’s a question of drawing inspiration from other musicians, at the same time where relevant learning additional expressive and technical possibilities. If this is done over a period of time (and also as a way of getting to know better the wider repertoire, of course) and the lessons ‘imbibed’, I think there shouldn’t be too much risk of copying a particular detail in another performance. I also have ‘black-out’ periods in preparation when I won’t listen to recordings of that work. And it hardly needs stating that the starting point for learning a new work is the score.

A few months ago, I listened to a recording of my Wigmore debut aged 12, and thought it interesting that, though I wasn’t familiar with any historical recordings at the time, there are elements in some of those performances that are perhaps quite ‘old school’, and some individual details that I wasn’t taught, nor had I heard them in recordings.

What repertoire have you not yet explored that you would like to? Is there a particular era to which you are drawn? Do you have a favourite composer?

So far I’ve played relatively little Baroque repertoire in public, aside from some Scarlatti sonatas, but next season I’m programming the Bach 4th Partita. Although I’ve played a number of Mozart concertos and sonatas, I’ve played less from the Classical than the Romantic era, simply because I found myself so naturally drawn to the latter from an early age. I’m always keen to play more chamber music. Last year I made my first public forays into Brahms and Schubert via chamber works and greatly enjoyed the experience – I was fortunate to be working with talented, seasoned musicians who could help me find my way in speaking these new tongues, as it were!

Do you prefer playing in concert or recording? Or are there different aspects to each that you enjoy?

Definitely playing live! Recording can be exasperating – on the one hand I’ll be tweaking fine details as the piano’s voicing changes or trying to find better possibilities in that particular studio acoustic yet, on the other, my perfectionist instincts make me want to produce the best I can at that particular moment. But then comes another moment..! And what happens many moments later when I compare two takes of the same piece..?!

What other activities do you enjoy in your spare time (if you have any spare time…)? 

I could definitely do with 48-hour days at the moment, particularly with the Liszt 2 and Britten concertos to prepare for the Proms, both of which I’m learning from scratch! But I’ve always read a lot and, in recent years, have become quite a fitness fanatic, running, and swimming when I can (and when I have the motivation.)

Benjamin’s website is http://benjamingrosvenor.co.uk/ My review of his first Decca album is here