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Seen and Heard International Recital Review

 

Earl Wild, 90th Birthday Celebration Recital: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 29.11.2005 (JD)

 

 

Marcello/Earl Wild:  Adagio

Beethoven:  Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3

Liszt:  “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este

Chopin:  Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23

Chopin:  Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31

Chopin:  Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47

Chopin:  Fantasie-Impromptu No. 4 Op. 66

Wild:  Jarape Tapatio” (“Mexican Hat Dance”)

 

 

It is something of a wonder that, midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, there is still a living, active pianist who can be billed as “the Last Romantic” (an appellation previously applied to Cherkassky and, before him, to Horowitz).  It boggles the mind to think that Earl Wild was concertizing when Rachmaninov was still playing, that he played (and recorded) Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue under Toscanini, and that he was the first classical pianist to perform live on U.S. television (in 1939).  As another way to look at his musical longevity, consider this fact and all its implications:  If (assuming you’re a very great optimist on several counts) you want to attend the ninetieth birthday recital of Evgeny Kissin (to take, at random, one of today’s young-ish pianists with aspirations to Wildean virtuosity), you’ll have to wait until the year 2061.

Of course, there are listeners and critics for whom the very notion of virtuosity such as Wild’s is suspect.  Virtuosity in the wrong hands, so to speak, can amount to little more than flashiness, gaudiness, a misplaced emphasis on technical prowess over musical substance (a charge sometimes leveled at the aforementioned Mr. Kissin).  Perfection pursued for its own sake can lead to performances that are impressive but ultimately sterile, as the pianistic careers of so many conservatory graduates shows.  None of this applies to Earl Wild, however.

I suspect many in the audience could not help but approach this recital with something like trepidation—a nervousness about the pianist’s abilities at an age when many of us, if still living, would be in a nursing home; a fear that stamina or memory might fail, that fatigue gain the upper hand, that fingers be unable to fulfill the brain’s commands.  For all that his recent recordings have proved miracles of agelessness (one thinks of his acclaimed 2002 recording of the Brahms Third Sonata, recorded at age 87), the perils of a live recital in front of an audience at one of the world’s great concert venues—just a year after quadruple heart bypass surgery—seem fraught with the possibility of embarrassment or worse.  (Never mind that Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who as far as I am aware holds the record for pianistic longevity, gave his last recital at age 101.  Wild may yet beat that record.)  This recital was bound to be both a celebration and a curiosity; but would it be more?

As this recital demonstrated, there is far more to Mr. Wild’s pianistic accomplishment than mere longevity or virtuosity.  There is wisdom, songfulness, and heart far more akin to Clara Haskil’s, oddly enough, than to that of the latest virtuoso de jour.

Wild walked to the piano slowly but with steady steps, unaided, his carriage erect.  Seated at the piano, he proceeded with a calm and aristocratic bearing, holding his hands out straight over the keys, keeping them always close to the keyboard of his chosen instrument, a Shigeru Kawai EX Concert Grand.

The opening phrases of Marcello’s Adagio (in Wild’s own arrangement) dispelled all fears.  But not only that:  Those phrases, clear, limpid, utterly moving in their simplicity, let us know immediately that we were in the presence of a phenomenon.  He played without affectation, without ostentation, but with a heartbreaking tenderness.

Beethoven isn’t a composer we think of in relation to Earl Wild; or rather, Earl Wild has never been someone we think of as a Beethoven pianist.  And, sure, the Beethoven we hear under Wild’s fingers doesn’t sound the Beethoven we hear under Schnabel’s nor Backhaus’s.  But it is Beethoven nonetheless.  Wild’s performance of the Sonata No. 7, arguably Beethoven’s first identifiably Beethovenian sonata, possessed three overarching qualities:  joyousness, songfulness, and a simple gravity.

Wild’s tone color and cascading runs in Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” brought to mind his famous 1965 recordings of the Rachmaninov concertos.  If the piano did not thunder, so too was there nothing thin or harsh in the sounds it produced under Wild’s still supple fingers.  This was Liszt the dreamer, the precursor of Rachmaninov and Debussy both—a Liszt for whom virtuosity was subsumed in musicality.

The Chopin works that followed were all familiar, and none of them were bagatelles.  What impressed this listener most about Wild’s playing was his ability to imagine a phrase into shape and to maintain the singing line throughout each work—that, and the sheer clarity of the execution.  Every note carried to the upper reaches of the balcony.  At a certain point during the Fantasie-Impromptu I stopped watching Wild’s amazingly prestidigitous fingers and just closed my eyes and listened to Chopin as it was meant to be played.

Wild’s performance of his arrangement of the Mexican Hat Dance brought us back down to earth.  Although he had to stop after a few bars (I’m not sure why) and, apologizing to the audience, begin again, Wild pulled out all the stops and played with all his customary virtuosic vigor.  This isn’t the sort of piece I’d normally listen to with any great interest (although Horowitz would have loved it), but Wild made it interesting.

As an encore, after much encouragement from the standing audience, Mr. Wild played his arrangement of one of Rachmaninov’s songs—a most apt conclusion to a recital that, both on musical terms and as a celebration, surpassed one’s wildest expectations.



John Drexel

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