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Paul Badura-Skoda (piano and conductor)

Paul Badura-Skoda: A Man and his Music
7 CD’s Kleos KL 5117

Audiophiles who love Bela Bartok have hundreds of recordings from which to choose, but none are so enlightening as the pressings from his own private collection of tapes made of recitals and intimate evenings at home featuring both the master pianist and his favorite student, his wife Ditta Paztory. Listening to these rarities offers an insight into the arcane world of percussive pianism that was the inspiration for much of Bartok’s unique compositional style – even the duo’s Mozart is darkly violent. But these recordings are not for the squeamish: The sound is as primitive as the atavistic piano technique and requires a good deal of devotion from the listener.

No such technical problems haunt the seven CD set of private recordings recently released by Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. The recordings are amazingly clean and precise. They are also refreshingly free from alteration: If there is a wrong note, it appears proudly along with its mates. But since this particular pianist was such a perfectionist, there are very few miscues to remind us of his mere human frailties.

History has judged Badura-Skoda primarily a musicologist, an expert witness to the Classical era and an early champion of the period instrument movement at the keyboard. Certainly this assessment is correct as far as it goes, but for those of us who began collecting Westminster records with their distinctive white covers in the 1950’s, he was a beacon of light revealing the end of an era, one last post-war examination of the great tradition which seemed at the time to be slipping away disturbingly quickly. Alas, our new century has no Schnabel, Kempff or Fischer to keep this particular torch lit. Badura-Skoda, just past his 75th birthday, may very well be the last in line.

Which makes this set released by the Kleos label so invaluable. Badura-Skoda was nothing if not prolific, having issued over 200 LP’s of very high standard. But each track on these seven CD’s is being heard for the first time, as his extensive private collection opens. Highlights include a spectacular performance of the ”Appassionata” from an outdoor concert in Rio de Janeiro, elegant Schubert duets with fellow Westminster pianist Joerg Demus, contemplative Bach intoned with a gravitas unknown in today’s concert hall, and a surprisingly revelatory Berg Sonata, Op.1 that emphasizes that the Viennese tradition was alive and well in its later incarnations.

Of most interest may very well be the performances on Mozart’s own fortepiano, recorded at his birthplace in the 1960’s, before it was fashionable to care about such explorations. There are also discs of juvenilia and turns at the podium, including an exciting Symphony # 2 of Beethoven. The inclusion of interviews with the artist in German may be a bit pretentious, but can easily be skipped over.

Finally, the live recording of his 75th birthday recital from the Brahms-Saal at the Musikverein in Vienna from 2002 features a Boesendorfer with a remarkably rich lower register. Listening to this program of Schubert, Brahms and Ravel, I was struck with the nagging thought that something was missing. About midway through, I realized that what was absent was the sum total of all of the bad habits of that horde of pianists spawned after 1950. The Schubert A Minor Sonata D845 is played in a totally Classical manner, somewhat revolutionary today, when all late Schubert is romanticized almost to the point of transformation. The very jarring nature of this straightforwardness speaks volumes as to the conditioning of listeners over the past fifty years. The Brahms Op. 118 pieces are similarly treated, although some delicious short pauses in the phrasing of the Intermezzo in A Major suggest that Professor Badura-Skoda is willing to allow just a modicum of east of the Danube rubato into his arsenal.

Including Gaspard de la Nuit into the recital of a septuagenarian seems at first a bit foolhardy. After all, almost no thirtysomethings have the wherewithal to navigate its treacherous waters. Certainly, Badura-Skoda plays wrong notes in the Scarbo section, but then again who doesn’t? Much more pleasing are his marvelously deconstructed Ondine, a textbook lesson in impressionism, and a positively frightening Le Gibet, where the hangman appears very near to the listener’s neck, as in a nightmare.

For those of us of a certain age, this set is a magical evocation of a bygone style. For the young, it could be an essential revelation, although one that might sound foreign at the outset. Paul Badura-Skoda’s role in our fragile musical society may be most important as that of the art restorer, cleaning away decades of grime to reveal the true masterpiece underneath.

Frederick L. Kirshnit




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