Perfect Pianists from BBC Television Archives

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various composers, Perfect Pianists (BBC Television Archives) with presenter, David Owen Norris: was first transmitted on 4 March 2016 on BBC4 and then made available for 23 days for downloading on BBC iPlayer. (JB)

Thundering, whispering, communing with the gods, with devils and angels, this is a pianistic galaxy that no one should miss. JB.

This is the kind of programme in which the BBC is unrivaled, not least for the richness of its archives.  David Owen Norris is the ideal presenter and we meet him strolling through the handsome Cobbe Collection of historic keyboard instruments at Hatchlands Park, East Clandon near Guilford –now a National Trust property 23 miles from London.  During the programme he introduces us to Elgar’s piano, Bizet’s, Haydn’s and Chopin’s –this last has two pianos (my own and another on which Chopin played a London recital). As Norris says, every piano has its own character.  And that is before you begin with the pianists!

The programme will be the best hour any young student of piano is ever likely to have.  For the rest of us it is highly instructive and of unequalled entertainment value.  Mr Norris’s introductions are brief, witty and pertinent.

Vladimir Horowitz often gets many people’s vote as greatest pianist. Here he plays two movements from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood (from 1982) –the last recital he recorded for the BBC. This is de-romanticized –almost casual, yet electrifyingly precise.

Then comes Arthur Rubinstein, playing the Chopin A flat Polonaise at one of his last recitals in 1968, aged eighty-one.  He manages to be arrestingly noble as well as incurably romantic.  A brief clip from an interview with Bernard Levin is revealing.  Levin asks him how he manages to bring out in a concert this music with which he is so familiarI shall have to contradict you there says Rubinstein, I’m not familiar with anything.  Being familiar with music would kill it.  The music is somewhere in my head, but bringing it out –bringing it to life, means it has to be recreated fresh at every performance.  Every performance is a re-creation: each time it is different.   Levin hastily withdraws his familiarity charge.

We jump to 1973 where Radu Lupu, seated on his then familiar kitchen chair, plays the finale of the Grieg concerto: rhythmically vital, but lush too.

From Stanislav Richter comes two performances of the Chopin C sharp minor study; the first from 1989 which sounds remarkably fast, but that is nothing compared to the 1969 performance (twenty years earlier) which takes the breath away.  Magic fingers indeed, to agree with Norris’s verdict.

Norris is also right to draw attention to Alfred Brendel’s intellect, which informs all his playing.  But what many viewers will enjoy most here is the unsurpassed singing tone which Brendel coaxes out of the piano in Schubert’s G flat Impromptu (from 2000).

Dame Myra Hess is represented by what became her signature piece –her own arrangement of the Bach chorale, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. This was recorded in 1954, long after the lady’s calming of the nation at her National Gallery recitals during WW2.  Archbishops were rightly saying they could not compete with her spirituality.

From a young Glenn Gould we hear a Bach Allemande recording from 1957, then there he is in the studio explaining his whole pianistic philosophy to a young and slender Humphrey Burton and, explaining how he has rethought that piece and why he prefers making recordings to loud, vulgar concert halls, maybe all right for Tchaikovsky he concedes.

That’s a cue for Lang Lang’s 2003 Prom performance of part of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky first concerto.  I have often objected to Lang Lang’s flamboyance, but I must do a bit of conceding myself here: he comes across as magisterial, and not just to the youthful Prom audience.

In 1961 John Ogdon won the British Liszt Competition. In 1962 he would go on to win the Tchaikovsky competition jointly in Moscow with Ashkenazy.  But following on his Liszt prize, he recorded for BBC, that composer’s Dante Sonata.  This is dark, strange, mysterious music, much like Ogdon himself, difficult to define and more difficult to play.  Of course, no technical difficulty is too great for Ogdon.  And all the glitter is there in this performance.  But it is also shot through with SOUL: a quality which redefines the music.  It’s clear that Ogdon finds in Liszt a twin soul.

1973 was the year when Murray Parriah won the Leeds Competition and also played a BBC television recital, which included the G major sonata of Domenico Scarlatti.  The beautifully clean rhythms and counterpoints, which we came to love from this pianist, are impressively on display here.

Evgeny Kissin is eagerly awaited in most of the world’s leading concert halls. Though he must by now be in his early forties, he retains boyish good looks, with youthfulness and freshness audible in his slow movement of the Rachmaninoff second movement from a BBC Prom (from 2001)

Rachmaninoff knew and greatly admired the playing of Benno Moiseiwitsch. Their friendship was solid. But Moiseiwitsch is on record saying that his real soul mate was Schumann. The BBC offers us a 1954 performance of Traumes Wiren. And dreamy indeed is this playing in  the way that dreams can sometimes be: more mysteriously alive than life itself. The much-discussed rubato of the pianist is used to great effect.

Like many other Jewish musicians, Moiseiwitsch was born in Odessa, on the Black Sea, then in Ukraine. The Odessa Conservatory was world class and at the tender age of ten Moiseiwitsch won its leading prize. But by his own admission he was a mischievous boy, forever up to all kinds of pranks. So though he had given concerts at some leading European venues, when he was eleven his parents packed him off to be with an elder brother in London.  There he met the Director of the Guildhall School of Music who admitted that he had nothing to teach the prodigy.  True enough, and throughout his life Moiseiwitsch remained grateful to the Director for his honesty. Moreover, the Director said he had heard of a Polish piano teacher with an unpronounceable name who had recently Germanized his name and was teaching in Vienna. The Guildhall Director thought the boy should apply for an audition.

Leschetitzky’s audition of Moiseiwitsch is the stuff of legends. The maestro told the boy that it was clear that he couldn’t play the piano with his fingers and maybe he should try with his toes.  Imagine the effect of the verdict on the young imp!  Lessons began. We know more about how Leschetizky taught from Moiseiwitsch than from any of his other pupils.  Even in his sixties in London (where he had become a British national) he told a journalist that he remained grateful to Leschetizky for urging him, when a phrase was not taking perfect shape, to get up from the instrument and take a walk round the house, letting the phrase reshape in his mind; and only when it was reshaped well, to return to the instrument to check its actual validity. Music must be constantly remade to remain alive.  You can see the connection here with Rubinstein’s throwing out Bernard Levin’s concept of familiarity.

Another prodigious Jewish pianist and younger contemporary of Moiseiwitsch, Solomon Cutner, was born in the East End of London and as a child was sent to live with his teacher, Mathilde Verne, who had herself studied with Clara Wieck, Schumann’s wife. Cutner was so popular he only ever played using his first name.  He is treasured for his performances of the Beethoven sonatas.  Listen to a YouTube of him playing the Appassionato. BBC television show him here in a 1956 recital where he plays the Schubert A flat Impromptu.  The rich velvety tone is involved and involving, whether it is rippling or pounding deeper.

No Perfect Pianist programme would be complete without a Mozart pianist. The BBC’s choice here goes to what seems to me a curious one, the Argentinian, Ingrid Fliter. In fairness, Ms Fliter displays both elegance and eloquence in her 2014 performance of  the A major, K488.  But I find myself hoping for more and not receiving it.

No such doubts remain with Claudio Arrau’s 1960 transmission of Beethoven’s last sonata, Op 111. The gods themselves have descended from the heavens to speak with all their authority through Arrau’s fingers.

This is all the more remarkable by being preceded by authoritative Beethoven of a totally different order, in the cadenza of the fourth concerto from Dame Mitsuko Uchida (from 2013). While Arrau thunders with the voice of the gods, Uchida, to use Norris’s phrase, alternates between delicacy and power. 

The final Perfect Pianist is Stephen Hough with the last two variations of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (from 2013).  Showy, yes, but excitingly musical too.

Jack Buckley

Note: BBC are promising an upcoming programme on The Perfect Violinists, which I will try to cover in another dispatch 

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