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ClassicsOnline Home » MOISEIWITSCH, Benno: Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 2 (1925-1941)
By Olivier Bellamy
Le Monde de la Musique
Benno Moiseiwitsch: Piano Solo Recordings Volume 2
Why do we listen to old recordings? Or, indeed, why should we? Well, they keep the great artists of earlier eras alive, tell us about their styles and performing practices, and we may then be able to map an evolution in interpretation which could help us to relate to what is done now. This CD, however, offers an additional experience. It is certainly about performance and interpretation, but it is also about a less obvious aspect, about audiences and how their preferences in music governed the concerts of the day. A modern listener could see this as an odd and unrelated assortment, but it really represents an era. It is a sort of historical snapshot of musical taste at the time.
Not all Moiseiwitschs programmes have been published but those that are available show that, early in his career, he had played in public many of the pieces we have collected here. His nephew and biographer Maurice Moiseiwitsch has given us an idea of how the pianist felt. "The discussion I had with Benno about artistic principles gave me a clear view of his attitude to the professional musicians rôle in society. He played first class music to sophisticated audiences; but he was certainly not opposed to introducing a popular note in his programmes on suitable occasions".
There were quite a few of those "suitable occasions". Moiseiwitsch made his Australian début in June 1920, and then spent the next three months in the country. "In Melbourne," he said, "they gave me a standing ovation; and in Sydney, which will never allow itself to be outdone by Melbourne, I was nearly mobbed and half my clothes torn off". What he played in Sydney is a mystery but his eleven known programmes in Melbourne (at the Town Hall, a fine building dating from the 1870s), show that the "popular note" was consistently introduced. Among Bachs Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Beethovens Opus 57 Appassionata and Opus 111 Sonatas, Brahmss Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Schumanns Kreisleriana were pieces like Scarlattis Pastorale, Rameaus Musette and Gavotte, Mendelssohns Scherzo, Liszts Liebesträume, the transcriptions of Wagners Liebestod and Tannhäuser overture. Also thrown in was music by the now forgotten composers Selim Palmgren, Sidney Rosenbloom and Roy Agnew. Puzzlingly, though, in an intense all-Schumann recital of complete works he chose only excerpts from the Fantasiestücke, Opus 12 Grillen (Whims) and Warum? (Why?).
Perhaps these were encores that he knew his fans wanted, and a fair idea of what else they wanted may be gleaned from a Plebiscite Programme on 28th June. The audience voted for the music twelve pieces from a hundred offered by Moiseiwitsch. The only large-scale work was Beethovens Appassionata. Otherwise, the "popular note" including Liszts Liebesträume and Tannhäuser dominated, as it did to a degree in Britain too. Nevertheless not all the social customs of the day dictated the need for entertainment above substance and the Courtauld-Sargent concerts of the 1930s rather prove the point. World War II may, however, have been a catalyst for wider change. The programmes for the famous concerts at Londons National Gallery, organized by Myra Hess from 1939 to 1946, show that easy listening, as such, had a low priority, and 824,152 people were introduced to her way of thinking. Moiseiwitsch was very active during this period too. He supported Clementine Churchills Aid to Russia Fund with over a hundred recitals, for which he was honoured with a CBE, but there is no information about what he played.
The programmes from the 1950s suggest that Moiseiwitsch was responding to new audience attitudes. Significantly, perhaps, an all-Schumann recital in 1952 at Town Hall, New York, as intense as the one in Melbourne, now lists (for the first time?) the complete Fantasiestücke, and EMI invited Moiseiwitsch to record the work. Was it also significant that the LP was only released in the United States by RCA, EMIs affiliate of the day? If that is an example of listeners influencing recording, the Andante favori, from 1930, hints at a reverse effect because Moiseiwitsch seems not to have added it to his regular repertoire until about the mid-1930s. It is a profound piece. Beethoven originally meant it to be the slow movement of the Waldstein Sonata, and audiences must have been repeatedly affected by its content.
Among the shorter items that Moiseiwitsch played in the 1920s were two, Arabesque and Intermezzo, by his teacher Theodor Leschetizky. He was not Moiseiwitschs only teacher (the first was Dmitry Klimov at the Imperial School of Music in Odessa) but his precepts carried a lot of weight. A virtuoso as well (his last appearance was in Vienna in 1887 when he played Beethovens Emperor Concerto), Leschetizky was known not to be tyrannical, preferring instead an interest in personal development. Paderewski summarised the philosophy succinctly. "The method of Leschetizky is very simple. His pupils learn to evoke a fine tone from the instrument and to make music and not noise. For the rest every individual is treated according to his talent. In one word, it is the method of methods" which explains why students like Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Mark Hambourg, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Elly Ney and Artur Schnabel had dissimilar styles.
Moiseiwitschs assessment goes deeper because it gives some clues about the education that shaped his own interpretations.
"The distinction between the romantic and the classical schools is somewhat arbitrary. A Beethoven sonata is both romantic and classical, of course; but Leschetizky was right in trying to force me to recognise the distinction, as a rough and ready rule. My tendency was to see music in emotional terms storms at sea, great dramas, sad events, tender love, lingering farewells and so on. He corrected this tendency and at the same time gave my playing an extra dimension, an awareness or recognition of what may be called intellectual passion. On the other hand, my sense of timing, which was quite natural, he decided to give free rein and even to develop. Timing is as important as touch in its effect, and mine he told me, was individual and quite dramatic."
In turn, two American writers assessed Moiseiwitsch pretty accurately. W. J. Henderson (New York Sun) described him as "a pianist of enormous technical skill and possessed of an affectionate feeling for music of a sentimental import"; and J. G. Huneker (New York World), a trained pianist himself, said, "He is more than a technician, for he has brains and a soul as well as the fleetest of fingers". Henderson was with the Sun from 1902 to 1937 (he was considered the doyen of New York music critics) and Huneker died in 1921, so the comments must reflect the impressions gained at Moiseiwitschs American début and subsequent appearances in late 1919 and early 1920. They suggest that he was a versatile artist; and these recordings (Andante favori and Grillen excepted, they are his only recordings of these works), offer the opportunity to test their opinions.
Leschetizky may not have been entirely successful in discouraging Moiseiwitsch from wanting to see music in emotional terms because Schumanns Romance and Vogel als Prophet have emotional weight and affectionate feeling; and the fleetest of fingers come into their own in Webers Rondo Brilliant. Regrettably, the Hungarian Rhapsody (equally fleet) and Isoldes Liebestod are cut, doubtless to accommodate the pieces on one disc each. Listeners will find their own favourites, and they may be intrigued to hear that the hands are not always synchronized. Playing the right hand before or after the left was a selective way of accentuating either melody or harmony; and it was an expressive device that was a natural part of the artistic make-up of earlier generations. An interest in Mozart though was apparently not a part of Moiseiwitschs own make-up. Only the Gigue, K574, can be traced, and it was dropped after a few performances early in his career.
HMV/EMI, to whom Moiseiwitsch was exclusively contracted until 1960, billed him as a domestic rather than international artist; and so he appeared on their cheaper label. It was an incongruous title for a musician who travelled extensively (even to China) and was popular in many countries. He is said to have played chess with Humphrey Bogart in California and on one occasion had Al Capone (also known as Scarface Al) sitting in the front row during a recital. Much to Moiseiwitschs annoyance, Capones minders read newspapers and comics, but the boss had listened. The performances on this disc tell us why even a gangster, who had ruthlessly controlled Chicagos underworld for many years and was responsible for the St Valentines Day Massacre in 1929, was as captivated as we could be today.