Kurt Leimer was
born in Wiesbaden in 1920 and studied in Berlin with Winfried
Wolf. A later scholarship took him to Edwin Fischer, though
his career was halted by the War during which he was drafted
and subsequently taken as a prisoner of war. A pianist but also
a composer his works saw prestigious outings under such as von
Karajan and Stokowski - who performed Leimer’s Fourth Piano
Concerto in Carnegie Hall. Despite a busy concert diary he became
director of the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1953 where he remained
until his sadly premature death in 1974. The Foundation named
in his honour and memory organises an international piano competition
every two years. It has also now collaborated with Colosseum
to produce three discs of Leimer’s performances; a single, containing
concerto and concertante works and a two disc set devoted to
Leimer’s 1960s Chopin recordings.
Let’s address the
Chopin question first because whilst these are welcome restorations
to the catalogue their broader appeal will be limited. The recordings
were recorded very closely indeed. Partly this is the reason
why dynamic variance is so seldom really engendered but it can’t
be the whole reason. Leimer’s Chopin is seen through a microscope.
It’s playing of digital clarity, always keen to bring out polyphonic
lines but very cool. To those brought up on Franco-Polish performances
Leimer will seem, I think, almost perversely non-committal.
He has a tendency to caricature left-hand accents and beats
and often seems rhythmically behind the beat. Technically he
seems unstressed though the contrary motion passage in Op.10’s
E minor is a touch harried. Throughout one feels that his own
perceptions of Chopin – odd voicings, accenting, an unwillingness
to characterise or to provide expressive moments – are a straight
The Sonata is similarly
inert in terms of expression. Leimer does not value or promote
a singing tone and though he takes the central panel of the
slow movement very slowly it doesn’t sound particularly expressive.
These are performances of almost studied disassociation – revealing
of temperament and attitude but strangely passive.
The concerto disc
is much different. Leimer’s astounding smorgasbord of a left-hand
concerto is something of a riot, given his imperiously detached
view of Chopin. If one was expecting a dash of Hindemith and
maybe Bergian associations, prepare to think again. Von Karajan
took up this concerto in London and Vienna and recorded it with
the Philharmonia. What they made of it one can only imagine
but they all pitch in with gusto. Some Viennese critic apparently
dismissed it as “bar room music and bogus romanticism” when
it was premiered there in 1953. Leimer seems to have imbibed
a strong dose of Rachmaninov – via his one-time mentor Gieseking
one wonders? – and then put it on the boil with a pinch of Ravel,
a dab of Schulhoff and a whole heap of Gershwin. The result
may have outraged the snooty burghers of Vienna, but then what
Other features to
stir the limbs are the dance-band muted trumpets, the Addinsell
strings, Paganini Rhapsody piano figuration, American
in Paris bluster, Rhapsody in Blue drama, jazzy ironmongery
and at the climax the amazing sound of left hand Boogie Woogie.
It sounds to me that this is the product of immense relief after
the traumas of war and imprisonment and release. Leimer apparently
witnessed a fellow prisoner lose an arm to an exploding grenade
– which makes the insouciance and almost wilful magpie quality
of the music all the more suggestive.
If Strauss was a
magpie in Panathenäenzug than he only stole from himself.
This concerto for the left hand was another work written for
Paul Wittgenstein, who premiered it with Bruno Walter in 1928.
It was almost immediately dropped and it was Leimer who unearthed
it, earning Strauss’s gratitude. Leimer played it for Strauss
who then bestowed sole performance rights for three years on
the pianist. In 1947 it was dedicated to Leimer and in 1972
he finally recorded it. It has a rich fabric from the sway and
the opening ostinato onwards. In Leimer’s hands moments of Schubertian
lyricism are alluded to but not overstressed. But it too has
strong Rachmaninov inflexions and touches of Elektra –
less so Rosenkavalier. It’s a bewildering work in some
ways but played with tremendous structural awareness by Leimer
and the orchestral forces of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra
under Günter Neidlinger.
These are excellently
restored performances, though there were clearly some intractable
master tape problems in respect of the Chopin sessions. Documentation
is authoritative and the Foundation’s work is important. Leimer
is now a forgotten talent both as executant and composer so
these releases may help in righting one of these perennial wrongs.