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Great Pianists:, Moiseiwitsch Volume 2
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL
(1778-1837)
Rondo in E flat, op. 11 (Rondo favori) (rec. 3.2.1930)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
(1770-1827)
Andante in F, WoO 57 (Andante favori) (rec. 3.2 and 14.4.1930)
Carl Maria von WEBER
(1786-1826)-Carl TAUSIG (1841-1871)
Rondo Brillant in D flat (Invitation to the Dance) (rec. 27.9 and 11. 12.1939)
Robert SCHUMANN
(1810-1856)
Grillen, op. 12/4 (rec. 25.5.1927), Romance in F sharp, op. 28/2 (rec. 12.10.1941), Vogel als Prophet, op. 82/7 (rec. 13.5.1941)
Felix MENDELSSOHN
(1809-1847)
Scherzo in E minor, op. 16/2 (rec. 13.5.1941), Songs without Words, in F, op. 53/4 and in A, op. 19/3 (rec. 25.5.1927)
Adolph HENSELT
(1814-1889)
Etude charactéristique, op. 2/6 (Si oiseau j'etais) (rec. 10.12.1925)
Franz LISZT
(1811-1886)
Etude de Concert no. 2 (La leggierezza) (rec. 31.3.1941), Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 (rec. 9.10.1940), Liebesträume no. 3 (31.10.1940)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)-LISZT
Isoldes Liebestod (fragment) (rec. 2.3.1928), Tannhäuser Overture (rec. 28.1, 17.2, 24.3.1938)
Benno Moiseiwitsch (pianoforte)
Recording venue not indicated
NAXOS Historical 8.110669 [78.09]
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I was recently reviewing the companion disc to this, in which Moiseiwitsch offers magnificent performances of major works by Schumann, Brahms and Mussorgsky, and also performances of two late Brahms miniatures which I found reduced the music to kitsch. I promised myself that I would ponder further over this latter phenomenon when I reviewed the present disc, dedicated entirely to short pieces, and often of a frankly "popular" nature.

I suppose that anyone who chooses Tausig's outrageous rewrite of Invitation to the Dance in place of Weber's by no means simple original is open to the charge of playing to the gallery, but how wonderful to be able to do it! Furthermore, what impresses in the end is not the astonishing virtuosity but the unflappable musicality which Moiseiwitsch brings to the piece. So, too, with the Liszt Study and Rhapsody; the virtuosity is there in the right measure and, as I noted in the other disc, his sense of true rubato means that he can be at the same time very free while maintaining the proper rhythmic shape of the piece. As I listened to his gently caressed Liebesträume it crossed my mind that the tawdry old thing was really great music after all!

The opening of the Tristan fragment does show that in some moods he could be decorative rather than deep (perhaps this is true of the Beethoven too, attractive though it is. How wonderfully he times the modulations at the end, however). However, as the music surges towards its climax he seems suddenly to engage with it at another level and builds it up tremendously. As for the Tannhäuser, the recording equipment of the day audibly admits defeat but cannot wholly disguise the fact that this would have been a colossal experience to witness live.

Like his fellow Leschetizky-pupil Ignaz Friedman, Moiseiwitsch evidently had a lot to say about Mendelssohn and, like Friedman, reveals him to be a much more fantastical, improvisational composer than he is usually made out to be. Listen to the great arching lines of the F major piece (the two Songs without Words are incidentally transferred in reverse order compared to that in the booklet and on the cover); no emotional shortfall here, and the piece's erstwhile nickname "Sadness of Soul" seems for once apt.

As in Kinderszenen on the companion disc Moiseiwitsch proves to have an especial affinity with Schumann's leaping imagination, as well as with his introspection. So I haven't really resolved the mystery of why he made those two late Brahms pieces sound like kitsch, and I would like to conclude by quoting from an article Moiseiwitsch himself wrote in about 1919 which leaves no doubt as to his deeply serious approach to his art, not just as he matured but from the very beginning.

This article appeared in The Music Lovers' Portfolio and I cannot resist digressing a little to talk about this publication. Edited by Sir Landon Ronald (should this once ubiquitous conductor not be re-examined?) it appeared in monthly instalments for some years and must have been immensely popular to judge from the number of secondhand copies still around. As a teenager I snapped up parts of it during a school trip to Folkestone (others went to the sea, I had already developed an instinct for sniffing out a secondhand bookshop within minutes of my arrival in a town). I thought I was buying it so as to play through symphonic movements by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Schubert, but it gave me a snapshot of another age. It contained examples of "light" music some of which (Percy Fletcher's "Cairo" Prelude, for example) I have to confess still seem to me rather good. It introduced me to Stanford (the Ballade in G minor, op. 170 for piano - a glorious piece still unrecorded). And it also contained a "literary section", consisting largely of articles by Ernest Newman so opinionated as to raise my hackles even then, but some great artists were also invited to give their thoughts on the pieces printed, so Madame D'Alvarez told us how to sing "O Rest in the Lord", Myra Hess gave her thoughts on the Brahms G minor Hungarian Dance, and Moiseiwitsch wrote on Schumann's "The Prophet Bird".

He begins by stating that "to me he is the most satisfying composer", and his attempts to explain why this is so would be worth reprinting in full. Less useful perhaps are his bar by bar suggestions for how to play the piece, simply because I don't believe words are the right medium for such suggestions, at least not without a practical demonstration too (the disc was not even on the horizon when he wrote this). But I will end with a passage which remains treasurable for what it tells us about Schumann, Moiseiwitsch and piano-playing in general:

The performance of this extremely beautiful composition is by no means easy. At a cursory glance it looks simple enough, and, indeed, it is quite feasible to play the notes; yet I consider it to be one of the most difficult short pieces I know, chiefly because of its delicacy and transparent texture. I have known my master, Theodor Leschetizky, to spend hours over getting it rendered in a way to satisfy him. At the time of his death, many of the obituary notices which appeared imputed to him the capacity of imparting to his pupils technique alone. This was an unjust statement. He spent almost his whole life in making a study of the development of technique, not in the sense of finger velocity only, but with a view to acquiring tone-colour, independence of the fingers, flexibility of wrist, and (one of the most important factors in piano playing - which is often overlooked) the use of the pedal. All this he regarded simply as a means to one end, the expression of music. If, therefore, he was content to teach the "Vogel als Prophet" with such extreme care, we may be sure that he under-estimated neither its technical difficulty nor its intrinsic value. An amateur who had heard this piece, might be able to read the notes with facility, yet, if he did not possess the above requirements of real technique, would be able to convey nothing.

Words as relevant today as when they were written.

Excellent transfers of variable originals and another indispensable disc in Naxos's Historical series.

Christopher Howell



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