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.

Glowing Reverence

When I visited the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at her home outside of Zurich in 1992 as part of my research into Dinu Lipatti, she asked me about a recording Lipatti had made of the Bach-Busoni Chorale ‘Wachet auf’. I was quite certain that Lipatti had not recorded the work, having seen the recording sheets for all of his sessions in the EMI archives the previous year, but she was insistent that he had. Back in Montreal, a collector friend of mine stated that he had a 78 disc of the work performed by the British pianist Solomon from around the time that Lipatti was recording at EMI. I transfered the disc and was amazed by the gloriously controlled but glowing playing. I sent the great diva a cassette, and back came a delighted response that it was indeed the recording she had been looking for, and that she had gotten the pianists confused over the course of the years.

It struck me as incredible that this beautiful recording should not have been widely circulated since its initial 1948 release on 78. It is now available on a 7-CD box set in the Icon series by EMI devoted to Solomon (which regrettably does not include some of his other marvelous performances from the same era). This track alone is worth the price of the set: Solomon plays at a tempo that would drag in another pianist’s hands, but he sustains the melodic line and terraces voices with remarkable control and beauty. A treasure.

La Dadame

Marcelle Meyer met Debussy at the premiere performance of Erik Satie’s Parade, for which she was the pianist. To give you an idea of the production: the mise-en-scene was by Jean Cocteau, the sets were painted by Picasso, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, with orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet – the 20-year-old Marcelle Meyer was the pianist. Debussy was present at this event, which took place just under a year before he died.

Meyer is said to have been coached by the ailing Debussy in how to play his Preludes, and certainly her playing is unique in its combination of impressionistic colours and timing. Meyer also studied with Ricardo Vines, who had premiered several of the composer’s works, and she clearly had insight into his art. While she recorded the two books of Debussy Preludes in 1957 – a recording that was unissued until 1989! – she also committed 3 of them to disc in 1947, among them an incredible “La terrasse des audiences au claire de lune” in which time seems to stand still. Her tone production and dynamic range are perfectly proportioned, and she stretches phrases in a way that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. This recording was never issued on LP and had its first CD issue on a set of her complete commercial recordings produced by EMI France in 2008.