Poldi Mildner, piano = SCHUBERT: Fantasie in C, “Wanderer”; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Funeral March”; LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; DEBUSSY: Estampes – Poldi Mildner, p. – MeloClassic

Poldi Mildner, piano = SCHUBERT: Fantasie in C Major, D760 “Wanderer”; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March”; LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; DEBUSSY: Estampes – Poldi Mildner, p. – MeloClassic MC 1022, 78:24 [www.meloclassic.com] ****: 

Leopoldine “Poldi” Mildner (1913-2007) presents us another instance of genius denied – or at least suppressed – until 2014, when Lynn Ludwig decided to assemble a diverse recital from previously unpublished German Radio appearances, 1950-1958.

Poldi Mildner represents one of the last vestiges of the Golden Age of pianism. A phenomenal prodigy, she studied with some of the greatest teachers of the first half of the 20th century — Rosenthal, Schnabel, Teichmüller, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. Like violin virtuoso Guila Bustabo, Mildner’s prior meteoric career suffered a major setback when artist Artur Rubinstein and impraesario Sol Hurok collaborated to boycott her American appearances due to her having performed for the Nazis between 1933-1938.

Mildner opens with a thundering performance of the Wanderer Fantasy of Schubert (from Baden-Baden, 28 November 1950), played at breathless – but not shapeless – tempos that reveal the bravura and persuasive lyricism of her talent. It may be relevant to point out that the Liszt Sonata included in this program (from Frankfurt, 15 November 1955) partakes of the same formal architecture, a seamless, one-movement fantasia that subdivides into traditional four-movement structure. Seamless transitions marked the various evolutions of the main theme, its move to Schubert’s own lied, Der Wanderer, and the subsequent variants that eventually assume heroic proportions. The sheer dazzle of her conception renders the classic Edwin Fischer inscription comparatively tame, and the more contemporary Gary Graffman recording a rival for Mildner’s idiomatic security in the piece.

The Chopin b-flat minor Sonata (from Stuttgart, 6 December 1950) hurls itself forward – Doppio movimento – in explosive fury enough to unseat Horowitz. No first movement repeat, but what the first loses in girth it gathers in digital asbestos. The poetic secondary theme basks in natural Chopin bel canto, moving forward to Rachmaninov’s “point.” The last pages tear the keyboard to pieces while still making potent music. The Scherzo, besides the staggering volatility and animation of the outer sections, reveals a deep song in the trio, supported by a gracious, full-bodied piano tone. Mildner’s Marche Funebre (Lento) projects a noble solemnity without undue treacle. The music flows into its natural periods with the same curvature as we might expect in her c minor Prelude, with authoritative landings, of which the transition to the nostalgic middle section must be auditioned many times for its beauty. The phantasmagoria of the last movement Presto rush by in a whirl of hail, a storm sequence worthy of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

For the quintessential Romantic piano sonata, Liszt’s 1854 Sonata in b minor (from Frankfurt, 15 November 1953), Poldner exhibits a demonic propulsion that might compare to the Gieseking readings of Schumann from the same period, furious and ardently poised, at once. Despite the often uncompromising speed of execution, Poldner manages to attend to Liszt’s ecstatic rhetoric, whether of Heaven or Hell. How often Liszt immersed himself in the Francesca da Rimini narrative might well suggest a tormented “program” for Mildner’s immaculate statement of the passionato theme and its trills at the extremes of her inflamed keyboard! The thunderous layerings of the counterpoint in punishing octaves and leaping registers somehow land on the “ground-theme,” a concession to the past and its demand for sonata-form, and to the future, with Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht’s already lurking in the creative shadows. Rarely has Liszt’s exalted chiaroscuro, his Manichean vision, found an acolyte of such fire. To quote C. Aubrey Smith in The Garden of Allah: “She is the fire!” At the fugato, the intensity, if possible, increases to a paroxysm of liquid frenzy, still identifiable as Liszt. The incarnate “darknesse visible” explodes and then dissolves into the recollection of love, celestial and carnal, a distinction without a difference.

I thought that the Debussy 1903 tonal triptych Estampes (18 March 1958, from Bremen) might constitute an anticlimax after the collective emotional purgation of Chopin and Liszt by Mildner. Rather, with the striking, elastic exoticism of Debussy’s Pagodes, the hysterical intensity of Liszt has merely turned inward, gamelan sounds in competition with whole tones, trills, and plainchant. For me to have intimated at Marlene Dietrich in Allah has become a gem-like flame of Eros and Aphrodite, perhaps by way of Pierre Louys. The Moorish rhythms of Granada sway and invoke the perfumed hashish of musical mesmerism. Mildner’s glissandos alone warrant reflection.  Guitars, zithers, Coleridge’s dulcimer – each stringed instrument emerges from Mildner’s keyboard as children of Orpheus. Chromatic harmony and liquid motion rarely conjoin so effortlessly as in Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie, here alternately typhoon and baptismal font under Mildner’s fingers. Despite the blatant bravura of execution, we feel no sense of academic etude, only the force of Nature, which Debussy instantiates more than anyone.

—Gary Lemco

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