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.