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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 3) (1944-1945)
By Olivier Bellamy
Le Monde de la Musique
"Dans les deux concertos de Tchaikovsky, Moiseiwitsch est Impérial, ne sacrifiant jamais l'élégance à l'effet, ce qui n'est pas un mince tour de force."
"It is with great pleasure that we inform you that your son Benjuma won the Academy Open Contest, the Rubinstein Prize, for his brilliant and individual playing
," said the letter from the Imperial School of Music to Mrs Moiseivich. She had apparently been so overcome that Benjuma himself had to read the full text to her, not once but twice, the second time slowly as commanded. Rushing through the words was to be expected; after all he was only nine and probably thoroughly excited. He had every reason to be. This was a prestigious competition and his rivals had been older by at least eight years.
Benjuma Moiseivich, born in Odessa on 22nd February 1890, eventually becoming Benno Moiseiwitch, having adopted the German transliteration of his surname before he settled in Britain. But the Anglicisation of Benjuma to Benno has an unknown origin and it is said that he had not approved of the change. It did not, of course, make a scrap of difference to his immense talent, something he shared with Simon Barere, Shura Cherkassky, Emil Gilels, Tina Lerner, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Igor Oistrakh, Vladimir de Pachmann, Leff Poushinoff, Vasily Sapellnikov and Tossy Spivakovsky, all of whom were also born in that same city by the Black Sea.
The revolution in October 1905 impelled Moiseiwitsch, who had also been sacked from the School, and his older brother to leave Russia. Their father, a horse-dealer, sold three pedigree animals to finance musical studies in London, but the professors of the institution (according to his nephew Maurice Moiseiwitsch this was the Royal Academy of Music but others think it was the Guildhall School) who assessed the young pianist said there was nothing they could teach him, and an audition with Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) in Vienna was a failure. The legendary teacher dismissed Moiseiwitsch because his playing of Chopins Revolutionary Study was ostentatious. Still, Leschetizky did invite him to return and, at the second attempt, is said to have told Moiseiwitsch, "Now you are no longer a gifted amateur, youre beginning to hear yourself seriously". Leschetizky was not dictatorial and seemed to have nurtured individuality; which probably explains why there was no recognisable house style in those of his students who became distinguished soloists.
Maurice Moiseiwitsch believed that "Bennos style changed and developed over the years" and attributed a lot of it to private sorrow his divorce in 1924 from Daisy Kennedy, an Australian violinist, to whom he had been married for ten years, and later, the death of his second wife Anita, probably in the late 1930s. "He never fully recovered from it," said Maurice Moiseiwitsch, "He became rather self-absorbed and lost a great deal of the sparkle, humour and gaiety he had shown in former days", and the artist who had been "much more enthusiastic about sheer pianistic effects, grappled with difficult pieces with amazing virtuosity . . . varied his moods more abruptly or emphatically and had a tendency to individualise passages markedly" turned to a more introspective means of expression. He had been contracted exclusively to HMV/EMI from 1916 to 1960 and these recordings show signs of the changes in his outlook.
It is only fair to say that the performances were not greeted with universal enthusiasm on their first appearance. The interpretation of the First Concerto was thought to lack glamour, which is less a reflection on Moiseiwitsch than on prevailing opinion that deemed the work to be a vehicle for steely-fingered virtuosity. Perhaps at one time Moiseiwitsch too felt the same way but on this occasion he did not follow contemporary popular fashion and it is a pity that his approach was not fully appreciated. His serious view of the work, however, spread the recording across nine 78rpm sides (as opposed to the usual eight) and the filler was Chanson triste, recorded another day.
Moiseiwitschs partner, George Weldon (1908-1963), was well regarded in musical circles. His efforts to reconstitute the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1943 and enhance its reputation, were appreciated; but he left in 1951, not to be in charge elsewhere but to become second conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. Its music director, Sir John Barbirolli, called him, "A really fine musician of very wide range and sympathies. As a colleague he was helpfulness and loyalty personified, the perfect associate musically and personally". He was popular with the audiences at Manchesters Summer Proms and the critic Michael Kennedy has described him as "an underrated conductor, capable of magnificent performances". Fame, however, eluded Weldon, which was not the case with Malcolm Sargent, once an accomplished pianist and a pupil of Moiseiwitsch for a short time.
Back in 1944, Sargent was music director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and was initially due to conduct this recording of the Second Concerto but fell ill. Interestingly, the work was then virtually unknown and Moiseiwitsch, who may have been the first in Western Europe to further its cause, would doubtless have welcomed the opportunity to expose the music to a wider audience. The scheduling, however, was unfortunate. Shellac, needed to make 78s, was not easily available; and this meant adapting Alexander Silotis edition, in itself a savagely amended travesty of the original but the only one that was recognised, to fit the allotted eight sides. Tchaikovsky knew that the work was long (he himself made some cuts when he conducted it in St Petersburg with Sapellnikov as soloist) and had asked Siloti to suggest modifications that would help to condense the music; but the suggestions offered went beyond mere pruning. They amounted to radical alterations in both the writing and structure of the first two movements, particularly the second, and the composer rejected them. He told the publisher, Jurgenson, "There will be no great changes it will be a matter of cuts only". But Tchaikovsky died three months later and Jurgenson issued Silotis unauthorised version.
Today, it would be pointless to question why this score Tchaikovsky recomposed became accepted and remained a standard for a very long time. Fortunately the composers own manuscript was also published, but we do not know whether Moiseiwitsch ever considered using it. Nor do we know how he played both concertos in later years because he did not record them on LP. Studio work declined in the 1950s and only sporadic issues kept his name before collectors. His last sessions for EMI, three years before his death from heart disease on 9th April 1963, saw him in the undignified position of having to record a compilation of movements from popular concertos, one of which was the third from Tchaikovskys First Concerto. It was the closest he came to a remake. Small wonder that Moiseiwitsch switched his allegiance to American Decca (Brunswick in the UK) but some contemporary reports suggest that the results are not those by which he should be remembered. Better then to remember him by the finest examples of his output, among which are his only recordings of these concertos. They are not flawless (they were also made under less than ideal conditions), but their imperfections do not diminish Moiseiwitschs sharply honed interpretative acumen that gives us a very good impression of the sensibilities that governed this lofty and, by all accounts, magnanimous musician.
A Note From Ward Marston
Tchaikovskys First Piano Concerto has been one of the most frequently recorded works in the concert repertoire. Its debut on disc took place in 1926 with an acoustic Vocalion recording featuring the Russian pianist Vassily Sapellnikoff, and by 1950, some sixteen recordings of the work had been released. Benno Moiseiwitsch made his recording of the concerto for HMV in 1945 and it is little wonder that public and critics alike overlooked its emergence. For by this time, Moiseiwitsch was up against two recordings by Artur Rubenstein, one by Horowitz, not to mention recordings by other less known pianists all vying for a market share of the Tchaikovsky concerto pie. Moiseiwitschs recording was issued on HMVs budget priced "plum label" and was marketed solely in Great Britain. It remained in the catalogue for only a year or two and was never issued by any other HMV affiliate nor in the U. S. by RCA Victor. Consequently, this set is quite scarce and the only available pressings are English HMV discs which are notorious for their crackly surface noise.
For the present transfer, I was able to locate three sets of originals, none of which were in perfect condition but all serviceable. By using a judicious amount of the CEDAR de-crackling algorithm, I was able to attenuate enough noise to make the performance listenable without appreciably diminishing the beauty of Moiseiwitschs unique sound.
Tchaikovskys second piano concerto has never enjoyed the acclaim of his first and it is interesting to note that in 1944, Benno Moiseiwitsch was the first pianist to record the work. It was also issued on English HMV plum label pressings but additionally was offered by Australian HMV on superior pressings. This transfer was made primarily using a set of excellent Australian pressings. Only occasionally was I compelled to insert small passages from English pressings. I have attempted to make these edits inaudible, but a keen ear may well hear some slight variation in surface.
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