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.

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.

Expansive Precision

When I first heard of Youri Egorov, it was in reference to my favourite pianist, Dinu Lipatti. I was reading a French dictionary of performers, and in the description under Egorov’s name it stated that he had often been compared to Lipatti – a comparison that deepened when he died at the same tragically young age of 33. I was intrigued.

It would be some time before I actually explored his recordings in detail, but once I did I was flabbergasted. Here was a pianist who, like Lipatti, had considered all the nuances in his expression. Every phrase and cadence blended flawlessly into the next; each sound faded seamlessly in the way that a painter blends colours to create an image that not only shows detail but also evokes a bigger picture. Egorov’s death of AIDS in 1988 was clearly a tragic loss to the piano world.

Because he lived well into the era of tape broadcasts, we fortunately have several concert performances of this incredible artist, though these are not as widely available as one might hope. The following is one that has only been issued on a box set devoted to pianists of Holland. In these works of Brahms, none of whose music he recorded in his contract with EMI Records, Egorov’s mastery of tone production, pedaling, phrasing, and blending is as peerless as his more known recordings. Bravo!

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…

The Tragedy of Joseph Villa

In the early 90s, I received a cassette from Gregor Benko, founding president of the International Piano Archives. On the one side was a recording I had been expecting with great anticipation: the great Josef Hofmann performing the Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, at that time only available on a multi-disc set available from the orchestra. The other side of the cassette had a live recording made in 1991 of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata played by a pianist unknown to me called Joseph Villa. I had never connected with that work and had never heard of the pianist, and I naturally thought it must be interesting playing if Gregor had seen fit to include it on this cassette. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I listened to the tape, and didn’t quite know what to make of the music – but it became clear as I listened that this was some stupendous playing. I found myself unable to multi-task as I listened, as the playing was so magnetic, intense, and intoxicating that I could barely grasp what was happening, but I knew that it was something extraordinary.

The faded, muddled recording had been made at a concert held on a barge off the Brooklyn Bridge by someone who had had the foresight to set up a microphone with a Walkman and captured a performance that might have disappeared into the ethers. Instead it opened up the world of a pianist who might have continued to be even more unknown to the musical world than he already was.

I listened dozens of times to the tape, poring over nuances that seemed impossible to achieve by hand. I was reminded of Dinu Lipatti’s incredible glissandi in ‘Alborada del Gracioso’…there were technical feats in this live Villa performance that made the hair on my neck stand on end. He could hold a melodic note as a flurry of other notes cascaded downwards, and a few moments later tie that note over to the last note in that flurry without breaking the line of the melody or the filigree passagework (5:49 to 5:52 in the first movement). Like Lipatti, he was capable of phrasing a note so that it fit into the accompaniment *and* the main melodic line, so that you could hear its dual function (4:06 to 4:09, among others). He could highlight the palpable difference in vibration between different chords, and handled harmonic shifts with uncanny timing and nuancing (3:46 to 4:02 in the first movement). His accenting was phenomenal, with an ability to give a subito that did not break the line (7:20). He not only had a comprehensive architectural overview of the work, but had technique to achieve what seemed impossible and yet which might easily go unrecognized by the listener (the descending 6-note motif is consistently voiced throughout the work). And then there is that volcanic sound, only just discernable through the distortion of the amateur recording.

I excitedly called up Gregor, who raved about Joseph’s playing, stating that he was one of the greatest Liszt pianists ever and was languishing without a career, despite the adoration of luminaries like Alicia de Laroccha and Jessye Norman. I couldn’t understand how such an incredible musician could be unknown.

Within a year I would pay a visit to New York, and Gregor arranged for me to meet Joseph. We talked a lot about interpretation and performance, and about this incredible Rachmaninoff Second Sonata. He had learned the work for a concert for Bargemusic, an organization that presented small concerts – a stupid move, he said, since the work was fiendishly difficult and he was only going to play it three times. He had also researched the various editions of the work and sought to find the best approach to the work, eventually arriving at the same conclusions as Horowitz, and hoped that people wouldn’t think he just copied Horowitz because he hadn’t.

We talked about many pianists and saw eye-to-eye (or heard ear-to-ear?) on all the greats. We had a moment listening to Lipatti where I became aware of his ear for detail. There is one spot in the live recording of Chopin’s First Concerto where Lipatti accents the offbeat in a bar featuring a massive run of notes, an unusual effect; we were listening to this passage, and immediately after that nuance, Villa turned to me and said “Ooooh, niiiice…”. No one I had played this recording for had ever shown that they recognized that particular effect that Lipatti achieved.

Villa’s playing was full of that attention to detail, but was more wildly passionate than Lipatti’s highly controlled approach. He had a combination of Lipatti’s architectural overview, Hofmann’s explosiveness, Friedman’s singing line…the comparisons could go on, but essentially he was unique.

I had the opportunity to hear Joseph at the Bargemusic concert being held shortly after we met – unfortunately he played no solo music, only chamber music. His playing was of course wonderful but the chamber music did not provide the full opportunity for his titanic pianism to shine. This had been the same Barge where that incredible concert had taken place. How I wished I could have traveled back in time…

Joseph died of AIDS-related complications a few years later, on April 13th, 1995, at the age of 46 (New York Times Obituary). Stephen Hough wrote a beautiful tribute to him on his website. A number of live recordings survive and plans are underway for a compilation of his best performances. Stay tuned for more details.

In the meantime, a copy of the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata can be found on youtube (thanks to whoever put it there!) – it is audio only, as there is no video of this performance. I am warning you – it is not for the faint of heart: it is an intense piece of music and the performance is of incredibly raw emotional expressiveness and probing musical depth, and the sound is not ideal, but it is eminently worth examining if you are a fan of the piano. Of the thousands of hours of piano recordings that I possess, this is one of the few that amazes me time and time again. It is supreme playing of a musician of the highest order, and I consider this to be one of the greatest piano recordings ever made.