Perfect Pianists at the BBC: education and entertainment

01/05/2020

Benno Moiseiwitsch

Another BBC triumph. An hour with nineteen of the world’s ‘Perfect Pianists’ captured across almost a century on BBC film. Rarely has education combined so well with rich entertainment. A must for all pianists to learn from, whether professionals or amateurs. Or anyone with an interest in what you can get out of the world’s most versatile instrument. Your teacher and guide is David Owen Norris whose wise and witty introductions are almost as valuable as the pianists themselves. As for the title of the programme, I cannot do better than give you the BBC’s, which says it all: Perfect Pianists at the BBC. 

There’s more before I get down to the nitty gritty of the programme. Many of the pianists were filmed at a BBC Prom or in a studio for a recital. But Mr Owen Norris’s introductions are filmed at the Cobbe Collection of the world’s finest keyboard instruments (including Charles II’s virginals of 1664) and pianos that belonged to Chopin(2) and Elgar. All housed at Hatchlands Park, a National Trust property, just outside Guildford. Open to visitors and concerts when we’re out of lockdown. A trip to look forward to – the concerts are in summer and autumn, but those scheduled for June have been cancelled because of the pandemic.

There are 19 pianists, but two of them get a double innings, which makes 21 performances, or more precisely, sections of performances.

Up first is (1) Vladimir Horowitz 1982 who many regard as the greatest of all time and with reasoning on his side, playing Schumann’s enchanting Kinderszenen Op.15, where enchantment is the key ingredient of his delivery. Norris draws our attention to his playing with flat fingers, rather than usual fingertips. Theodor Leschetizky would have knocked him off the piano stool for that. But there you have it: genius has no rules.

(2) Artur Rubinstein 1986 is seen playing an encore from the RFH of Chopin’s A flat Polonaise with all the Polish dignity you could want. We then see a short extract of his interview with Bernard Levin in which Levin praises the pianist’s profound familiarity with his music. I have to interrupt you there, says Rubinstein, I am never familiar ever with any music that I play. I never ‘play through’ any piece on or off a platform. I go onto a platform, always nervous, butterflies in my stomach and hoping I will find from within myself the music. Only in that way can I deliver it to the public. Only with this freshness does the music come alive. Levin acknowledges the gaff he has made. We then see the maestro playing the same Polonaise (3) in 1968. The Polish dignity and pianistic authority is still there but somehow there is also a darker, more mysterious touch. Something was weighing on him in 1968 which I don’t hear in 1986. But these are my ears. Yours might be different.

(4) Radu Lupu 1973, looking like the hippy that he wasn’t, (long hair and a bit scruffy) and seated on his trade-mark kitchen chair, plays the first part of the last movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto at a Prom. Lupu is gloriously authoritative, combining this with an almost comic mischief: business as usual where determination is coupled with an unexpected lightness of touch.

(5) Stanislav Richter 1989 is rightly celebrated for his solemn seriousness and electrifying precision. We hear him first in Chopin’s C sharp minor study where unapologetic authoritarianism meets a most unexpected lyricism. Could this study ever be heard faster than his breakneck speed? Well, yes. (6) In 1969 all the above qualities are in evidence, but the speed is astonishingly faster. This beggars belief. To prove to yourself that your ears are not deceiving you, go back to hear both performances, one immediately after the other. To do this, click the space bar on your computer to halt the tape, then using the mouse, drag the programme back by about five minutes and touch your space bar for a replay.

Intellectualism of a very different order is to be enjoyed in (7) Alfred Brendel’s 2000 Impromptu in G flat of Schubert. His musical authority is uncompromised, though it makes way for a meltingly beautiful lyricism which also avoids sentimentality into which lesser minds might have fallen. Brendel’s knowledge of German was fluent and, in this performance, he makes the piano speak that language. His playing is less steely than Richter’s. I sorely miss his essays on music that used to appear in The New York Review of Books.

(8) Dame Myra Hesse 1954 was a national institution, partly from the concerts she had given at the National Gallery during the War. Appropriately, she is heard in what became her signature tune, her own arrangement of a Bach chorale, ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Sonority never rang truer or richer, than when it came from Myra Hesse’s fingers. Restoring the nation’s calm in a moment of strife is what she undoubtedly did. It seems almost inappropriate to list her with Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields, who were doing the same thing at the same time. But those last two Dames were in a different key. Vera and Gracie were predominantly for the troops, Myra for the people. Would that Dame Myra could be with us for the pandemic.

A very young-looking Humphrey Burton is seen provoking an even younger looking (9) Glen Gould, who is anxious to get Burton to understand how he had thought in a wrong way about a Bach partita. He’s sitting at a piano and demonstrates this wrong thinking. It sounds all right to me. And to Burton. Then he demonstrates what he sees as the right way. Well we both hear his point. The second version breathes more easily, has a more natural thrust, is arguably more nuanced. You’re predominantly a recording pianist, aren’t you? Why? Without hesitation Gould replies, That is the way music is going. The big concert with the big hall and big orchestra is already a thing of the past. The future is records. Burton says that the BBC Proms seem to be doing rather well, filling the Royal Albert Hall every night. I wouldn’t bet on that continuing if I were you says the young man, sounding impish.

The lesson the rest of us should take away from this exchange is to proceed cautiously over any Glen Gould betting tips.

The scene changes to a packed Royal Albert Hall Prom with (10) Lang Lang 2003 playing the exposition of the first movement of the first Tchaikovsky concerto. I’ve been divided in my experiences of Lang Lang, who so often comes out as Bang Bang. Not so here. His delivery this night is a passionate projection of Russian romanticism with all Tchaikovsky’s pathos and pain, and a pianist who arrives with ease to the back row of the massive galleries.

(11) John Ogden 1961 following Gould’s advice – or was it the BBC’s? – made a studio recording of Liszt’s Dante Sonata. Yes, he liked to be alone. Less aware of the audience he was, the better he played. He sets these notes of Liszt’s monstrously demanding sonata on fire, taking listeners down a path which Gould and Lang Lang would only be able to dream of. He was the first Englishman to win the Tchaikovsky prize. Quite quickly he managed to develop a way to shut the audience out of his performing, then give his best. And what a release that always was. In the seventies I was lucky enough to be a hypnotised member of an audience in Rome’s huge Teatro Olimpico. Thank God dear John that you managed to shut us out. Most performers worry day and night on how to connect with an audience.

(12) Murray Perahia 1973, fresh from winning the Leeds Piano Competition, made a BBC studio recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in G. 1685 was an eventful year for music in which Handel, Bach and Domenico Scarlatti were all born, Domenico (son of Alessandro Scarlatti, a successful opera composer) was eager to explore the possibilities of the just-invented piano (it was called a harpsichord with hammers). It took centuries before Domenico’s sonatas (they had only one movement) found their rightful place in the new instrument’s repertory. Perahia strips these notes naked to expose their beauty. Pornographic? Well yes, if unlike the Renaissance, you don’t celebrate the muscularity of the male nude. It took a young American to show us the way with these miniature masterpieces. Any pianist will tell you that their seeming-simplicity is deceptive. Playing them is an enormous challenge.

Back to the Proms for (13) Evgene Kissin 2002 playing the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. The predominantly young Prom audience was ideal for Kissin, their contemporary. Nor does he disappoint them. Just the kind of audience relationship that would have not had the slightest interest to Ogden. Kissin’s Proms were more like a tennis match than a straightforward performance, with him serving the intimate Russian romanticism with shovels full of lush sound, always managing to meet the audience demands for more. Only Percy Grainger managed to pull off audience relationship to this degree, albeit in a different repertory.

Recently, Andrew Marr interviewed (by video link) Brian Cox, Particle Physics Professor at the University of Manchester, about the home education of his ten-year-old son during lockdown. Did his son ask Brian difficult questions of his distinguished dad, Andrew wanted to know? He certainly did, said Brian. He explained to the boy that there are difficult questions to which we don’t have the answers. Take the black holes in the universe’s galaxies. There are more things we don’t know than those we do on this phenomenal. In astrophysics most of the time we are obliged to work with imagination: speculation taking over from our limited knowledge. Scientists must be ready to acknowledge that their knowledge is always temporary until the latest discovery shows them a different way of thinking. Daddy Cox explains to his son that this is the excitement of science – it’s not yet knowing – so even his young son can begin to enjoy this adventure. Imagination is the name of daddy’s game. For real scientists what could be is almost more important than what is. It appears that the little lad is entering the game at a young age with the help of his clear-thinking dad.

That challenge is what happened to a cocky, mischievous, world-famous sixteen-year-old pianist when he went to his first lesson with Theodor Leschetizky. You certainly can’t play the piano with your fingers, maybe you should try with your toes, said the maestro. We know this because (14) Beno Moiseiwitzsch 1954 describes this episode in in his autobiography. He adds that whenever his playing has lost its best qualities, he always goes back to the Leschetizky method. The truth is there was no Leschetizky method. All his pupils sound different. What the maestro required was the pupil to reconnect the music so the delivery would come from within the performer, not be a casual reproduction of some generalised idea. (This is an approach which Rubinstein touches on in his interview with Levin.)

How to describe Moiseiwitsch’s playing? A single word will do it, but it is one I am reluctant to use: soul. This means hundreds of thousands of things to the hundreds and thousands who use it, not to mention more hundreds of thousands for whom it means nothing at all. We must get back to Brian Cox here: use your imagination to find your inner self. Then use it. You’ve found something important and unlimited about yourself. A new life force. If that is not soul, then I don’t know what is.

In his playing of Schumann’s Traumes Wirren (Dream’s Confusion) notice how Moiseiwitsch lets the music breathe, little rallentandos, accelerandos – hinted at but never suggested in the printed score. Those printed notes certainly come to life, delivered to you from the pianist’s soul. Horowitz and Rubinstein both do some of this but Moiseiwitsch’s soulfulness is something else, woven into, rather than asserted in the playing.

Confession: for me Moiseiwitsch is the most perfect of these Perfect Pianists.

All the same I wouldn’t want to be without the indescribable peace, calm and then surprisingly, percussive aggression that (15) Solomon 1954 brings to Schubert’s A flat Impromptu. This pianist from London’s East End Jewish community was so well known that he only ever used his surname. He also managed to keep a low profile. Don’t be surprised if you hear some soul too.

David Owen Norris tells us that no Perfect Pianists list would be complete without Mozart. Right too. But in a list which makes no mention of Clifford Curzon or Benjamin Britten, I’m not sure I would have chosen (16) Ingrid Fliter 2014 playing the Concerto K488 in A. She is Argentinian, studied in Italy and now lives on Lake Como. Don’t get me wrong. Her playing (it looks like a Prom) is whistle-clean with all the right charm and playfulness of Mozart, backed up by an impressive technique.

We hear from (17) Mitsuko Uchida 2013 the cadenza of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. There is power alternating with a wonderful singing tone here and an articulation which is forensic. That might have made her performance too cold or clinical. But no. Dame Mitsuko’s playing is shot through with – sorry, I must reach for that much abused word again – soul.

(18) Claudio Arrau 1960 plays Beethoven’s last and arguably greatest sonata: a perfect partnership for pianist and composer. They speak as one. The Arrau box of Beethoven sonatas is never long off my player. This is the German school of pianism, dazzling in its articulation and accuracy and almost coincidentally casting light on corners all other pianists missed.

The final place is occupied by (19) Stephen Hough 2013 heard from a Prom, romping with unlimited joy through the last two variations of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Another pianist who makes virtuosity sound easy.

Perfect Pianists at the BBC is still available on BBC iPlayer for a limited time (click here) . Don’t forget to take advantage of your space bar and mouse to repeat any artist for a personalised encore. This arrangement allows you too, to make this music your own.

Jack Buckley

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