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The Golden Age of Pianists

18 November 2016

Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Ignaz Friedman, Theodor Leschetizky, Ferruccio Busoni, Clara Haskil, Beatrice Rana, Stephen Hough, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Carl Czerny, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg, Alfred Cortot, Otto Klemperer, Alexander Scriabin, Early 20th

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The so-called “Golden Age” of musical performance has a lasting legacy in the archives, with pianists such as Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter making history with their ground-breaking recordings. Jessica Duchen explores the piano recordings that charted new musical territory in a fascinating but turbulent era.

The term “Golden Age” still produces misty-eyed longing among piano fans and, often, pianists themselves. But what does it really mean, and what lessons could it carry for today’s performers and listeners?

The so-called “Golden Age” of musical performance usually refers to a period dating from the invention and dissemination of sound recording to the initiation of mass-produced LPs – roughly the first half of the 20th century. The term calls to mind musicians ranging from Sergei Rachmaninov to Dame Myra Hess, from Artur Schnabel to Alfred Cortot, and from Vladimir Horowitz to the less famous Ervin Nyiregyházi, who both took notions of virtuosity to whole new levels.

Many “Golden Age” pianists, from Russia and central or eastern Europe, fled Stalin, Hitler or both. Some stayed put, living for their art. Some moved to the US and made a fortune; some lived all their lives in suburban London; others ended up on the streets. What justifies placing such diverse artists under the same umbrella? It’s about what they represent to us now: the absolute nature of their artistry, something springing from deep within their attitude to musical vocation, and their closeness in heritage to the composers they perform – some were “grand-pupils” of Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt, having studied with the composers’ own pupils. Ego, in most cases, is the last thing on their minds, as fidelity to the composer’s spirit acquires a whole new dimension.

The Golden Age was not about playing faultlessly and eliminating any ideas not written down in the score. Some of the recordings (notably Cortot’s) contain liberal splatterings of wrong notes – they were made before the advent of “patching”. But the spirit of the music dwells less in the notes than between them. Each of these artists possessed an individual, recognisable sound – part style, part touch. Get to know them and you can easily spot the phrasing of Rachmaninov, as vocal and streamlined as the singing of the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin; or the soft, nonchalant glories of Ignaz Friedman; or the translucent gleam and declamatory drama of Alfred Cortot’s sound.

Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal
at the Academy of Music in 1938, courtesy of the Listeners' Club

Even today, Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is often cited as the greatest pianist who ever lived. In his recordings you can hear not only the brilliance with which he dispatches the filigree fabric of his music but the layering of voices, the perspective in which he brings some to the foreground, placing others at different levels of background, and that special phrasing in which the piano nearly becomes a human voice, articulating a theme as if enunciating its words. This playing doesn’t only sing; it speaks. Yet Rachmaninov only pursued a career as a concert pianist by default; after he and his family fled the Russian Revolution he had to earn a living in the West. In Russia, he was primarily a composer, already regarded as the natural successor to Tchaikovsky. Therefore at the piano Rachmaninov remained a fundamentally creative soul, understanding every work – his own or someone else’s – from a composer’s perspective.

So did many other “golden age” pianists – indeed, what we regard as the “phenomenon” of the composer-pianist was once very much what was expected of them. Not all are as known for their own music as for their playing of other people’s, but Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), the glory of whose Chopin recordings remains undimmed, was a fine composer and his works are now being sneaked back into recorded repertoire (try the pieces on this album). A student of Theodor Leschetizky (of whom more in a moment) and Ferruccio Busoni, he was born in Poland and lived subsequently in Berlin, Copenhagen, and ultimately Sydney, Australia, where he settled on the outbreak of World War II. Friedman’s style is summed up in his recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major Op. 55 No.2: an impassioned, mysterious duet over a wide-ranging flow of accompaniment takes wing, its ebb and flow feeling so natural that the music becomes virtually a living, breathing organism, at one with its composer and its performer. 

Ignaz Friedman

Reportedly Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) also wanted to be a composer, but was obliged to become a pianist to help his family after they lost everything in the Russian Revolution. Horowitz is probably the most celebrated of the generation that followed Rachmaninov: his spectacular virtuosity served an intensity of interpretation that at times verged on the visionary. Hear his recording of the Liszt Sonata in B minor or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to appreciate the sheer scale of imagination at work: he sounds as if he has a window into both heaven and hell.

Horowitz, who was born in Kiev, left the USSR in 1925. As a young man he was often paid for his recitals in food, such were the shortages in Russia in the early 1920s. He settled in the USA and was revered worldwide, despite long periods of withdrawal from the concert platform due not least to performance anxiety and depression. Music, incidentally, was nurtured by the Soviet state, not least as a way of proving its cultural supremacy; it is no coincidence that so many great pianists emerged from its top-level, free, specialist training.

Vladimir Horowitz

One artist who stayed in Russia and whose sensitivity and imagination almost amounted to a musical sixth sense was Vladimir Sofronitsky (1901-1961). Though he remained almost unknown in the West, he was revered by his younger colleagues such as Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and enjoyed friendships with Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He was reputedly a troubled soul, “burned out” by the age of 60, and living through the mid 20th century in the USSR he experienced the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, among other tribulations. The fervid, highly coloured and deeply mystical world of Scriabin lent itself perfectly to Sofronitsky’s dark arts; indeed, he married Scriabin’s daughter, Elena, who declared him the most authentic performer of her father’s music.

The start of Alfred Cortot’s career (1877-1962) was notably unconventional for a concert pianist. Between 1898 and 1901 the Swiss-born musician worked as a choral coach and assistant conductor at the Wagner Festival of Bayreuth, under Cosima Wagner; he conducted the Paris premiere of Götterdämmerung in 1902. Perhaps that experience helped to enhance the sense of drama and colour in his playing – notably in the poetic worlds of Schumann and Chopin. One of his teachers, Emile Decombes, had himself studied with Chopin. Cortot’s wartime record as a supporter of the Vichy France regime does not endear him to successive generations, yet cannot change the refulgent purity of sound and sheer poetry in his playing. As for the wrong notes, they were possibly down to a combination of nerves, memory lapses and the fact that he spent much of his time away from the keyboard, preparing meticulous editions and teaching.

Alfred Cortot

The Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) became the first to record all Beethoven’s sonatas, besides some of the finest Schubert there has ever been. Having taught in Berlin since the mid 1920s, he left Germany in 1933 when the Nazis took power, and lived thereafter in Switzerland and the USA. He was a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who was himself a pupil of Carl Czerny, the pianist who had been a student and close friend of Beethoven and had once performed a piano concerto under the baton of Mozart’s son. Schnabel wanted to study composition with Bruckner, but was turned down. He once heard Brahms perform.

Artur Schnabel

By heritage, then, Schnabel’s Viennese classics were as close to the composers – as “authentic”, if you like – as we could hope to hear, like Cortot’s Chopin and Sofronitsky’s Scriabin. Schnabel could delve into the elemental energy of Beethoven, that music’s peerless fusion of structure and substance, and convey it to us with a “rightness” to the sound – the bottom-of-the-keys openness – which can make you wonder why anybody would ever play it any differently.

Myra Hess (1890-1965) from London was a pianist cut from similar cloth. Legendary today for the series of lunchtime concerts she staged daily at the National Gallery throughout the Blitz, for which she was made a DBE, she, like Schnabel, could bring us the Viennese classics with humility, beauty and nobility of tone. But there is more to discover: a recent release on APR has brought back some astonishing live recordings of repertoire including the Chopin Fantasy in F minor, in which Hess’s fiery sense of drama makes the music feel like a matter of life and death.

Myra Hess

Unlike Hess, who lived much of her life in Hampstead, the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903-1987) had a startlingly extreme existence. Starting as a child prodigy in Budapest, though he later moved to the US, he was a complex individual who married ten times, did not own a piano for 40 years and lived much of his life in poverty, at times reduced to sleeping rough. His recordings are rare: sometimes jaw-droppingly amazing, sometimes quite terrifying. Even Arnold Schoenberg was bowled over upon hearing him: “…it is simply a power of the will, capable of soaring over all imaginable difficulties in the realisation of an idea,” he wrote, astounded, to the conductor Otto Klemperer.

Clara Haskill, courtesy of Alechtron

Clara Haskil (1895-1960) faced lifelong struggles of other kinds. Born in Bucharest, Romania, she left a legacy of exceptional recordings, notably of the Viennese classics, in which the depth of humanity and identification with the music – the oneness of performer and work – seems transcendent. Although she excelled in her studies with Busoni and later at the Paris Conservatoire, she suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine), was frequently ill and was beset by crippling performance nerves. After the Second World War, her career was resuscitated chiefly thanks to the support of colleagues who admired her. Those who noted her unique artistry included Charlie Chaplin, who said: “In my lifetime I have met three geniuses: Professor Einstein, Winston Churchill and Clara Haskil.”

If the Golden Age generations made music seem a matter of life and death, perhaps that is in part because it really was. You’ll have noticed that most of these pianists were born between 1880 and 1905; maybe it is worth reflecting that they variously lived through revolution, fascism, totalitarianism, exile and two world wars including the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb. Theirs was no rose-tinted nostalgia for supposedly better, bygone times. These were musicians who had in many cases to grow up very fast and who stared fear, danger and death in the face; artists who knew their composers had done so too; people who knew what human suffering at its ultimate could be.

Sviatoslav Richter, courtesy of WQXR

Nowadays, confined to practice rooms, entering multiple competitions, touring at high speed, the life of concert pianists is often more sheltered and “hot-housed”, less exposed to the closeness of mortality; add to that the ease of patching recordings for an audience that seemingly wants technical perfection ahead of poetic profundity, plus a narrowing of artistic education and the prevalence of pop culture, and you end up with a different set of formative influences. This is, of course, to generalise dreadfully, as plenty of musicians now in their middle years are certainly great artists; it’s just that they are great in a different way.

Yet an extraordinary crop of young pianists, still in their twenties and early thirties, are bucking that trend. Artists like Daniil Trifonov, Benjamin Grosvenor, Beatrice Rana and more are gravitating towards Golden Age recordings and taking inspiration from those artists: their creativity, their depth of understanding, their breadth of cultural background and their closeness to the influence of the composers themselves, handed down from teacher to pupil. Nor has the composer’s sensibility and understanding vanished from the piano recital: Trifonov, crucially, is a composer himself – as are, of the 50-something generation, Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin.

The so-called Golden Age artists have provided us all with an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures. Now their marvels are helping to form the artists of tomorrow. 

Jessica Duchen
Jessica Duchen writes about music for The Independent and is the author of a number of novels, biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017) and a new novel, Ghost Variations, which will be published later this year (Unbound). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.



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