This is a rather fascinating DVD though its
audience will be confined to confirmed pianophiles and admirers
of the remarkable Ruth Slenczynska. It’s cast in two parts.
The first is a studio broadcast of seven Rachmaninoff Preludes
which, given her youthful association with the composer, is
always of interest. Naturally it’s in unfussy black and white.
The second part is a much more recent 2002 taped interview in
which she talks to camera about her teacher – one of her teachers,
it would be more felicitous to add – Josef Hofmann. The interview
is slightly longer than the concert and even taken together
the DVD doesn’t break the sixty-minute mark. Its compression
will perhaps be disappointing to some, who might have wanted
greater concentration on her pianism. But we can still enjoy
the fruits of that 1963 studio recital.
It too has an interview.
I’m sure I should know the craggy interlocutor who welcomes
Slenczynska to his vaguely Versailles chaise. She, in her trademark
Joan of Arc hairdo, wears modest black, with sleeves raised
to the top of the forearms. She plays the C major Op.32 No.1
and then joins the interviewer for a brief reminiscence. I wish
Olin Downes’ silly comments as to her youthful genius had not
been introduced – they weren’t helpful then, were still unhelpful
in 1963 and have remained so ever since. No one wants to be
saddled with that level of expectation – as it will invariably
be thwarted. As she spoke, in a charming and very natural unaffected
way, I was drawn to the ribbon and medal pinned to her top.
Doubtless someone will inform me whence it comes.
She talks about
Rachmaninoff, how he taught her to take tea but baulked at actually
formally teaching her the piano, which he did de facto. He apparently
also took a look at the young girl’s hands and pronounced that
she had “overcooked spaghetti fingers.”
Her playing is vital
and lithe. The programme is of her own devising and a “bouquet”
designed to bring out moods and keys. She plays a Baldwin. Most
of the shots are over the right shoulder but there are some
static and revealing shots from the left side of the keyboard.
She stops again after Prelude in G minor and rather nervously,
smilingly addresses the camera. One valuable nugget is the reinforcing
of the vivid pictorialism of Rachmaninoff’s poetic inspirations.
We know of the paintings of course but she notes that he told
her apple trees were an inspiration in one of the E flats.
The interview, given
thirty years later, sees her “Joan of Arc” now grey but she
seems otherwise miraculously unchanged, though she was around
seventy-seven at the time. She was four when Hofmann heard her
– she’d heard his astounding Chopin in concert. Her first Mills
College concert was given on a nine foot Steinway but she remains
characteristically modest, human and warm. You imagine that
being with her would be fun – and she says the same of her colleagues
Bolet and Cherkassky whom she seemed especially to like for
their human qualities. She has managed to preserve a child-like
wonder about the people she’s met and her career and she never
misses a chance to praise a colleague – extensively so in the
case of her college friend Samuel Barber.
The booklet is effectively
a single page and there are no other bonuses or features. Spartan
perhaps but geared to the specialist. But then VAI is that sort
of company and their good work continues here.