Distinguished Elegance

The French pianist Alfred Cortot soon became one of my favourite pianists – once I got used to the fact that he didn’t always hit all the notes. In our era of sterile perfection in recording – and with the same expectation for live performances – his recordings certainly took some getting used to. Cortot was a big-picture thinker and player, not only presenting a beautiful landscape but also including the expansive sky in the frame. Those who know and appreciate his recordings are quick to forgive his technical slips – ‘even his wrong notes are fantastic,’ they say.

One of the greatest CD releases devoted to Cortot came in the early 90s, when the Biddulph label released two CDs of his complete acoustic recordings for the Victor label – acoustic meaning that the recording was made before the invention of the microphone, when the artist performed into a paper horn that caused the needle carving the record to vibrate. While the resolution is significantly less than with standard recordings, one can certainly hear some great playing in some such recordings. These earlier recordings of Cortot captured him at a time when his technical accuracy had not yet begun to wane. Among the recordings was one of a Faure ‘Berceuse’ that had never been released since its session early in 1925, a work Cortot would never again record…a great shame, as he plays with a lovely rhythmic lilt, beautiful tone, and wonderfully balanced melodic and harmonic lines. Despite its age – the recording was made some 85 years ago – the disc reveals some great playing by a master artist.

Gleaming Poise

I learned a lot about the great pianists of the past by reading Harold C Schonberg’s classic book The Great Pianists. While he went into great detail about many pianists, he didn’t talk lots about others, yet I wanted to know about them all. One of the pianists from the early part of the 20th century that he mentioned was Mischa Levitzki, who he said died young.

One day I struck gold at one of my favourite second-hand stores in Montreal – someone had sold an amazing collection of top-notch historical piano LPs to the shop, and among the many many items that I purchased was a disc produced by the International Piano Archives of Mischa Levitzki: His Rarest Recordings (1923-1929). Two tracks stood out, both by Chopin: the Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No.1 and the Third Ballade, Op.47. What struck me about the Ballade was the incredible sense of poise and balance – although Levitzki was trained in the Romantic tradition, his use of rubato was rather chaste, and the architectural structure of the music was beautifully served by his shifts in tempo and his alternating balance of voices in the left and right hands.

Levitzki was an A-List Steinway artist in the 1920s – meaning that he received a subsidy every time he played a concert on a Steinway – and, quite amazingly, Rachmaninoff and Horowitz were on the B-list. And yet a decade after he died, when the LP era came into being and labels were making retrospective LPs of artists who had recorded on 78s, RCA never once made an LP devoted to Levitzki, like they did for Lhevinne and Rachmaninoff. He was simply forgotten.

Fortunately for collectors, Gregor Benko of the International Piano Archives changed that in the 1970s with that glorious LP, and now you can buy Levitzki’s complete recordings – plus some broadcast performances – on a total of 3 CDs for less than $30, in glorious sound. What an age we live in…

Rachmaninoff’s Choice

One of the pianists whom I wanted to hear most after reading Harold C Schonberg’s tome ‘The Great Pianists’ was Josef Hofmann. Schonberg clearly idolized him and wrote about him in such detail that I couldn’t quite imagine what he sounded like. Sure enough, once I did hear his playing, I realized that this was indeed something very different from the norm – there was no one like this at all on the concert stage at the time I was introduced to him (in the mid-80s), While Horowitz was known as a Romantic master, he too seemed almost ordinary…while Horowitz created amazing sounds and lightning bolts, Hofmann seemed to be an alchemist who produced liquid gold.

The legendary concert that Schonberg wrote about – Hofmann’s Golden Jubilee performance of November 28, 1937 at the Metropolitan in New York – was one that I excitedly got my hands on, and I could not believe some of the playing. Perhaps one of the greatest parts of the concert is his performance of Rachmaninoff’s famous G Minor Prelude Op.23 No.5. The middle section finds Hofmann voicing a third voice in such a way that it seems to float and jump out of nowhere. The similarity between the writing of this work and that of the famous Third Piano Concerto brings to mind how incredible Hofmann’s performance of that work might have been – Rachmaninoff wrote the work with him in mind, and Hofmann never played it. The loss is ours. But the 3-minute dream of this performance of the G Minor Prelude can fill the imagination with how splendid that interpretation might have been…

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.