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Instruments of Mass Seduction III


The piano repertoire really begins at the end of the eighteenth century with the music of Haydn and Mozart and may be divided into three parts: solo piano music, chamber music and concertos for piano and orchestra. Haydn wrote in all three forms and his music for piano solo is a clear expression of his ordered and well-manicured universe. Mozart was a prodigy at the keyboard and his works for piano introduce an element of angst into the repertoire. He wrote 23 piano sonatas, 27 concerti and numerous chamber works. The towering figure in the piano literature is that of Beethoven. His 32 piano sonatas are the cornerstone of Western musical tradition and chart his progress from a composer of strict Classical pieces, through an extended Romantic phase, including the famous “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” sonatas, and culminating in an intellectually free-form mature period which points the way to music of the modern era. Beethoven used the piano as his experimental instrument, working out new ideas and forms himself at the keyboard, and, like Mozart, performing his own music for an eager public. He composed five concerti for piano and orchestra, ten trios for piano, violin and cello, and many other works of chamber music where the piano acts as an anchor for the melodic flights of the other instruments. Schubert, who was not a great pianist (he wrote a simplified piano part for his own use at performances of his popular art song Erlkoenig), composed some of the most profound piano sonatas in the repertoire. Schubert endeavors and often succeeds in destroying the normal progression of time in his sonatas and, in an ideal performance, the listener should have no idea at any given moment as to where he is within the music. These sonatas are very difficult to perform as a result of the alteration of time and meter and many otherwise fine pianists stumble when attempting to interpret this poetic music. Schubert wrote no concertos but produced some of the most memorable music for the piano in a chamber setting, including two mighty trios for piano, violin and cello and the “Trout” Quintet for piano and strings.

Robert Schumann longed to be an accomplished pianist, but early experiments in radical methods of technique (he was instructed to tie certain fingers with string to help to strengthen others) left him partially crippled. He composed many pieces of sublime Romantic poetry for the piano including Carnaval, Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, Papillons and Poems for the Piano. He also wrote a Piano Concerto, three trios, and both a quartet and a quintet for piano and strings. He was married to the famous pianist Clara Wieck. As a music critic, Schumann was instrumental in the public’s introduction to two prolific composers for the piano, Frederic Chopin and Johannes Brahms. Chopin was the master of the short Romantic piano piece, expressively generous in the suggested use of rubato, a technique which lengthens an individual note or phrase to emphasize its beauty. The Chopin solo piano music is some of the loveliest in the entire repertoire and his many waltzes, mazurkas, ballades, scherzi and nocturnes are perennial concert favorites. He also composed two piano concerti. Chopin himself was short on pianistic technique but became a darling of the Romantic salon by capitalizing on the combination of his wan good looks and extremely poetic music. Brahms was more in the Beethovenian tradition and used his piano as a vehicle for magnificent Sturm und Drang music. A powerful pianist, he was often the soloist when the Schumann concerto was a new and frequently performed work. Brahms wrote three youthfully passionate piano sonatas and two gigantic piano concertos, one a youthful expression of the emotions of romance (he was enamored of Clara Schumann at the time) and one a Herculean struggle between piano and orchestra (pianists refer to it as the Brahmsian bear) which slowly develops into a beautiful expression of joy and tranquility. The solo piano music of Brahms culminates in a marvelously autumnal set of valedictory pieces, cataloged as opus numbers 116 through 119, and his chamber music for piano, including three trios for piano, violin and cello, three piano quartets and the incredibly powerful piano quintet are noted for their dense orchestral textures and the predominance of the piano writing (after all, Brahms planned to perform these works himself).

The appearance of Franz Liszt began the era of the virtuoso pianist. Liszt possessed an amazing technique (“all fingers and no brains” was Felix Mendelssohn’s description) and exploited his abilities during years of touring and concertizing. His music reflects his pyrotechnical abilities and many of his pieces, such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies or the Mephisto Waltzes, are extremely difficult to perform. He transcribed the Beethoven symphonies for piano and smashed the bonds of the Classical piano concerto with his two daringly Romantic showpieces for piano and orchestra (a third concerto, reportedly by Liszt, has recently been unearthed). Although composed to highlight his fabulous technique, his music is never exclusively bombastic and showy. There is always a deep intellectualism in the mature Liszt and he was a progressive member, along with his son-in-law Richard Wagner, of the group that created the “music of the future”, filled with chromatic experiments and previously forbidden dissonant passages. The virtuoso repertoire was strengthened by the Russians Anton Rubinstein and Peter Tchaikovsky (the Concerto #1) as well as the Norwegian Edvard Grieg and carried forward into the twentieth century by Ignace Paderewski and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The period from 1890 to 1950 saw a revolution in the piano repertoire. Claude Debussy created shimmering pieces for the keyboard akin to the paintings of Monet. Impressionistic works such as Estampes, Images, L’Isle Joyeuse and the two books of Preludes present the piano sound in a whole new guise. Maurice Ravel continued this tradition with such pieces as Gaspard de la Nuit, Le Tombeau de Couperin and Miroirs and composed two of the greatest twentieth century works for piano and orchestra, the Piano Concerto and the Concerto for the Left Hand. In Russia, Alexander Scriabin created ten piano sonatas and numerous other mystical pieces for solo piano, Serge Prokofieff conceived five piano concerti and many exciting and dissonant solo pieces and Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his monumental Preludes and Fugues. Bela Bartok, an unusually percussive pianist, fashioned three powerful concerti and many solo pieces which reflect his feel for the piano as a barbarous and primitive instrument. Alban Berg composed a youthful Piano Sonata of surprising beauty and his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, wrote the great Piano Concerto, Op. 42, one of the more accessible pieces in his otherwise thorny repertoire (he ushers in the piece with a reworking of a Brahms waltz). Ferruccio Busoni, considered one of the greatest pianists of all time, transcribed many of the keyboard pieces of Bach into modern editions for the piano and these works are frequently programmed today as “Bach-Busoni” compositions.

The modern piano is a descendent of two earlier families of keyboard instruments. The first group, which included the harpsichord, virginal and clavecin, produced sounds by plucking the strings with a quill claw. The other family was that of the clavichord, whose keys caused a metal tangent to press against and vibrate an individual string. The pianoforte (so called because it was capable of producing both soft and loud tones) was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1711. Cristofori’s great invention was the use of hammers to strike the strings, on the model of the dulcimer. Johann Christian Bach embraced the new instrument and was influential in its rapid deployment and its adoption by his famous pupil, the young Mozart. Called the fortepiano in the era of Mozart and Beethoven, the piano was a much softer sounding instrument than it is today and performances of the Mozart and Beethoven concerti using this earlier instrument reveal a very different blending of sonority with the orchestra than that of a performance on a modern piano. Improvements in the nineteenth century include much stronger and faster “actions” (the responsiveness of the individual keys) and louder and louder tones created by the use of more and more metal added to this originally largely wooden instrument. The original Cristofori keyboard of four and one half octaves has been transformed to the modern seven and one third octaves (88 keys) and the invention of the pedals in the late eighteenth century has opened up tremendous possibilities of tonal color (the Debussy pieces, for example, would be inconceivable without the damper pedal). Each individual modern grand piano has its own action and sonority and most soloists travel with their own pianos or spend much time testing instruments in each city where they are about to perform.

Twentieth century listeners are blessed because there have been so many wonderful pianists whose performances have been captured on recordings. Vladimir Horowitz’ career spanned almost the entire century. He was the possessor of an incredible technique that allowed him to perform the most difficult pieces of Liszt or Rachmaninoff with ease. He mastered a trick of the nineteenth century virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg that enabled him to use his thumbs to play melody, thus creating the illusion that he was playing with three hands. Horowitz came to America in 1928 and soon thereafter married the daughter of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. He and his father-in-law performed the Romantic concerto repertoire to worldwide acclaim and Horowitz became famous in the world beyond that of classical music. His trademark bow tie and his extremely unusual technique of holding his wrists below the piano were recognizable to even the most casual music lover. Horowitz’ monumental technique often translated in critical scrutiny to a perception of musical shallowness, however he was actually a very sensitive and poetic pianist, particularly in the performance of works by Schumann. In his eighties, he embraced the music of Mozart and began to play these simple and lovely sonatas and concertos to a still adoring public.

Ignace Paderewski was the image of the Romantic concert pianist, straight out of Hollywood central casting (in fact, he played just such a role in the movie “Moonlight Sonata”). His long, flowing mane of gray hair and his international reputation both as a composer and a performer helped to sustain his long and successful career. Paderewski studied with the great pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky and, as a Pole, was the great interpreter of the music of Chopin. His nineteenth century habit of improvising during performances of the classics is out of favor now, but was tremendously exciting for audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century. Paderewski was also elected president of Poland, prompting the French leader Georges Clemenceau to remark “what a comedown”! Another Pole, Artur Rubinstein, gained an international reputation as a Chopin interpreter, a bravura soloist, and a daring innovator. Rubinstein constantly challenged himself, often attempting almost impossible pyrotechnics at the keyboard (the so-called “Rubinstein reach”), where the noble failure was just as exciting as the success (the sporting aspect of virtuosity, this “living on the edge” technique was also the secret to the success of soprano Maria Callas). After gaining a youthful reputation as a libertine, Rubinstein in his later years became the most respected elder statesman in the pianistic community. His series of Chopin recordings for RCA in the 1960’s are still the definitive version of this repertoire. Alfred Cortot was the model of the intellectual pianist. In addition to his impressive performing career (he formed a famous trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals) he was noted as a conductor and musicologist, studying the works of Wagner at Bayreuth and then presenting them to an unexposed French public. There are wonderful CD’s of reissued recordings of Cortot which emphasize his extremely intelligent piano phrasing.

Considered by many to be the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninoff never wanted a career at the keyboard. He was determined to make a living as a composer, but was forced to tour extensively as a performer to support his family. Rachmaninoff was very tall and possessed huge hands which sometimes left him with a distorted perception as to the abilities of other pianists. His Sonata #3 was so difficult that no one but Rachmaninoff could reach the notes necessary to perform it. His friend, Vladimir Horowitz, helped him to edit a new edition of the piece that is performable for at least a handful of accomplished virtuosi. Rachmaninoff wrote four wonderful concertos as well as much beautiful and brooding solo piano music. Luckily, his recordings of his own repertoire as well as music of other composers have been preserved and the reissues of these performances are a great testament to an important composer and a magnificent pianist. His Prelude in C Sharp Minor and his Piano Concerto #2 are two of the most famous works in the entire piano literature.

Theodor Leschetizky was not necessarily a great pianist, but he is the most important piano teacher of the modern era. Leschetizky taught the “Kugelhand” technique wherein the hand is arched to ensure fullness of tone and dexterity of fingering, and the wrist remains flexible for octave and chord playing. In addition to Paderewski, Leschetizky taught such important artists as Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitch, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Benno Moiseiwitsch (whose recording of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition deserves special consideration) and Isabella Vengerova, whose own pupils included Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. Artur Schnabel was also a pupil of this great master and his performances of Beethoven and Brahms are some of the most intellectually satisfying in the history of recordings. His son, Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, was still active as a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music until his death in 2001 and so the Leschetizky tradition was still alive at the very end of the twentieth century. Rudolf Serkin was perhaps the most intellectual interpreter of the Viennese classics and one who always maintained an extremely high standard of musicianship. He instilled this discipline in the residents of the Marlboro Festival of Music which he directed for many years after it had been established by his father-in-law, the famous violinist Adolf Busch. His recorded performance of the Max Reger Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach is one of the towering examples of outstanding thoughtful pianism. Serkin is the master interpreter of Mozart and his son, Peter, is enjoying a distinguished career as both a classicist and an active participant in the post-Webern repertoire. Josef Hofmann was a child prodigy who grew up to become one of the most accomplished pianists of the twentieth century and later headed the Curtis Institute of Music. Hofmann’s early career was astounding (he performed a Beethoven concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of ten) and as a mature pianist his beautiful lyric tone was especially suited to the music of Chopin, while his incredible virtuoso technique allowed him to navigate the most difficult pieces of Liszt. Claudio Arrau was another wunderkind who had the distinction of performing recitals as a child in his native Chile and was still actively playing well into his eighties. He was an extremely versatile pianist, equally at home in the sonatas of Beethoven or the devilish intricacies of the virtuoso repertoire. His recording of all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas from the 1960’s is as definitive a version as exists on record, as Arrau was the editor of the original texts of these seminal works of pianism. And Edwin Fischer was a great scholar as well as an accomplished soloist. He was the most visible pianist to resurrect the keyboard works of Bach and to perform them on the modern piano and his performance of the complete Well-Tempered Clavier is one of the most famous and important recordings ever made.

Certain pianists possess the star quality which helps to propel their careers and further the cause of their music. Sviatoslav Richter emerged from the Soviet Union in the late 1950’s already shrouded in myth. During those years of the cold war, the Western public only knew Richter by reputation, as he had never toured outside of the Communist world. He lived up to his billing as a superstar when he finally performed in the United States in 1960, making a legendary recording of the Brahms second concerto with the Chicago Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf, who was literally flown in at the last moment to replace the ailing Fritz Reiner. Richter, a small man with freakishly large hands, belonged to the Russian athletic school of pianism which included other large-handed men like Rachmaninoff, Prokofieff, Emil Gilels, and Lazar Berman (a piano once shattered at a 92nd Street Y recital by this Samson of the keyboard). Richter’s craggy, brooding face, amazing hands and poetic style made him an instant success in the West. He was particularly adept at the deceptively difficult sonatas of Schubert and was praised for the amazingly accurate detail of all of his performances.

Van Cliburn exhibited a high degree of star power right from the beginning of his career. Handsome and imposing, he won the Tchaikovsky competition in Russia in 1958, becoming the first American to ever be so honored. He became a specialist in the Romantic repertoire. Wilhelm Backhaus and Wilhelm Kempff were both world famous as interpreters of Beethoven and Brahms and Kempff is particularly noted for his Schubert sonatas. Walter Gieseking played the music of Debussy with such a sensitive touch that the listener may forget that the piano uses hammers, and Egon Petri, a pupil of Busoni, had a flawless technique. His recording of the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Paganini, with both books recorded in only one take, is an amazing performance of this very difficult piece (since it is written in A minor and therefore basically uses only white keys, it is extremely hard to navigate on the keyboard and many pianists lose their way). Alfred Brendel, a student of Fischer, has had a distinguished career as a master of the classics as well as the Schoenberg concerto. Alicia de Larrocha has enjoyed a brilliant career as an interpreter of Spanish music and also as an impeccable exponent of the Classical concerto and Dame Myra Hess was a fine interpreter of the music of Mozart and Beethoven who achieved heroic status as the organizer of the National Gallery Concerts in Britain during the dark years of World War II, continuing her performances even during the air raids of the Blitzkrieg.

Among contemporary pianists, Maurizio Pollini has developed a following among other pianists as a man who always hits every key in its exact center. Pollini prepares extensively for his rare concerts and always impresses with his flawless musicianship. For some bizarre reason, he has been criticized for lack of emotion, but anyone who has ever heard his live performance of the Beethoven “Appassionata” will realize the folly of this criticism. And Evgeny Kissin certainly possesses the star quality and appearance necessary for a brilliant career as a media darling. Thankfully, he also possesses a superb sense of musicianship and has been extremely careful in his choice of repertoire thus far.

Gerald Moore is often overlooked by the record buying public because his art is by nature subordinating. Moore is the master of the art of accompaniment and has appeared in thousands of song recitals over his long career. Yvonne Loriod was a specialist in the performance of the music of her husband, the French contemporary composer Olivier Messiaen. Ursala Oppens, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (essentially the Messiaens’ adopted son) and the Kontarsky brothers, Aloys and Alons, are advocates of the more radical music of the twentieth century. Scholarly pianists include Charles Rosen, author of The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation, and Paul Badura-Skoda, author of two books on Mozart interpretation and one on the sonatas of Beethoven.

Two pianists who died young are rhapsodized as men who were on their way to exceptional careers. Dinu Lipatti, a student of Nadia Boulanger, was in the process of forming a dual career as a pianist and composer when he was struck down at age 33 by cancer of the lymph nodes. William Kapell was an American pianist who seemed destined for superstardom until his life was cut short at the age of 31 in a plane crash off the coast of Australia. Lee Liberace was a student of Paderewski and therefore an heir to the Leschetizky tradition. His career veered off in the direction of popular music, but his masterful technique made critics wonder what his playing would have been like if he had pursued a more classical (and less flamboyant) path. And Glenn Gould, whose life was ultimately lost to drugs, died at 51 after an extremely brilliant and unconventional life spent in the service of music. Gould was one of those rare savants who did not need to practice and could work out complex mathematical problems in his head. He burst onto the classical music scene in 1955 with a brilliant recording of the Goldberg Variations of Bach performed on a modern piano. The performance was not only extremely impressive, but lovably idiosyncratic, with Gould’s audible humming in the background (now edited out in some CD editions by severely misguided recording engineers). He had a stormy concert career (once immediately prior to a performance of the Brahms’ First Concerto, Leonard Bernstein addressed the New York audience to state how strongly he disagreed with Gould’s interpretation of the work) from which he retired at a very young age to devote his time to the recording studio. Gould would arrive at the studio even in midsummer with a heavy coat, scarf and gloves and then plunge his hands into water before performing endless takes of a particular piece, seemingly never satisfied with the final result. However, the recordings are intensely fabulous and range from the pre-Baroque works of Sweelinck and Gibbons to the modern pieces of Schoenberg and Webern. Gould loved controversy (he wrote on one of his record jackets that Mozart died too late rather than too early) and was interested in all of the electronic media, particularly radio drama and filmmaking. A true original, he praised the music of Petula Clark, denigrated the music of Chopin and Liszt and sued the Steinway company when one of its employees dared to shake his hand. He experimented with different tempi for standard works (his playing and conducting of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is extremely slow and yet strangely effective and moving) and recorded much music that would otherwise have languished in obscurity. He left behind a great body of recorded performances and many of these recordings have yet to be issued. Each new release of a Gould performance is awaited with great anticipation by the record buying public.

The modern piano is an entire orchestra contained in one cabinet. In the hands of a master, its vast tonal palette can produce music of tremendous power and great beauty. Its literature is extremely rich, for many of the great composers were also accomplished pianists and they used their instrument to explore their own most intimate thoughts and private emotions. The wealth of great performers of the twentieth century has produced a great legacy of artistry for an appreciative audience of record and CD collectors.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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