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.

Eloquent Bravura

When I visited London a couple of years ago, I went to see Jonathan Summers at the National Library. He is a walking dictionary about the piano and great pianists, and always has some interesting information to share. On his desk were some records from the Pye label from the 1950s of a pianist I had never heard of, Richard Farrell. When I asked about them, he stated I would probably be interested in him: he was a pianist who had died very young and was an exceptional talent.

I am pretty well-informed about even the least-known of great pianists of the past but his name had never presented itself to me. I was intrigued. Summers said that a New Zealand label was releasing his complete recordings on CD.

Two sets of two discs each are now available on the ‘atoll’ label and they reveal that Farrell was indeed a stupendous talent who played with great flair, a wide dynamic range, and tremendous passion. The discs are exceptionally well recorded and are amazing value (one of them is 85 minutes long). Here is an sample which I uploaded to YouTube as soon as possible (so quickly that I entered the wrong work in the title of the video). I continue to be stunned by the range of Farrell’s tone, the peerless phrasing, and his ability to capture just the right mood of the work. A major discovery and a tragic loss.