Benno Moiseiwitsch = in piano music of BEETHOVEN, SCHUMANN, MUSSORGSKY, RACHMANINOV & CHOPIN + radio interviews – Testament (3 CDs)

Benno Moiseiwitsch = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”; Andante Favori in F Major; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; SCHUMANN: Kreisleriana, Op. 16; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition; RACHMININOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; Bonus CD: Moiseiwitsch in Interviews; CHOPIN: Ballade No. 3 in F Major, Op. 47 – Benno Moiseiwitsch, piano/ Stadium Sym. of New Yrok/ Josef Krips (Beethoven)/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Adrian Boult (Rachmaninov) – Testament SBT3 1509 (3 CDs) 80:34, 59:21, 79:56 (7/22/15)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Among the most plastic and sensuously gifted Russian pianists, Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) never ceases to remind us of the miracle of great keyboard virtuosity, that combination of prowess and poetry that defines musical genius. Through the efforts of scholar John Bird and recording engineer and producer Ward Marston, Testament brings us a number of studio, concert, and interview broadcast venues which feature Moiseiwtisch in excellent form, 1946-1961. A true disciple of his teacher Theodor Leschetitzky, Moiseiwitsch cultivated an extraordinary piano tone, a thorough technical arsenal, and an often impish sensibility in the works he knew thoroughly.

The Beethoven Waldstein Sonata (18 August 1958) quite defines the Moiseiwitsch approach to the classics, a propulsive, often brilliant demonstration of the pianist’s innately Romantic sensibility. Besides the extraordinary propulsion accorded the first movement, the music tugs at the metric impulse rather freely, with Moiseiwitsch’s underlining a transition or key change with color adjustments. The Introduzione: Adagio may give us the most exquisitely modulated performance in the archives. The last movement offers Moiseiwitsch infinite possibilities to demonstrate his rounded tone, his taut singing line, and his unerring capacity for lyrical drama.  Moiseiwitsch immediately proffers the original slow movement to the Sonata, the Andante Favori in F, as a kind of introspective epilogue to a grand display of epic power.

Moiseiwitsch maintained an unbridled admiration for the music of Robert Schumann, and his Kreisleriana (26 June 1961) projects all the requisite ingredients of splashy virtuosity, polar impulses, and willful playfulness that invest this musical tribute to E.T.A. Hoffmann. The finely-nuanced counterpoints of the first Sehr langsam episode testify to a fluid, alert control of Schumann’s tricky metrics that demand an unbroken melodic contour. The deft alternation of staccato and legato effects marks the Moiseiwitsch realization of the ensuing episode, Sehr lebhaft, with its martial impulses of the Schumann fairy-tale march. The combination of epic sweep and concentrated intimacy makes this performance a marvel of its kind.

That the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (26 June 1961) follows reminds us that Moisewitsch inscribed this combination commercially for American Decca records.  Besides the volatile energy of the more stentorian of the various sections, a flittering moment of bravura, the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, resonates with quirky accents, played by deftly light hand. So, too, Schmuyle’s melismatic sighs ring in plaintive figures against Samuel Goldenberg’s bassy self-satisfaction.  The Market of Limoges carries the same irreverent wit that we expect from Oscar Levant. “In the midst of life we are in death.”  The descent into the Catacombs suggests what Moiseiwitsch might have made of the Liszt Totentanz. The luminous tones of the dead language enjoy vibrant sforzatos and repeated notes, when suddenly our moment of Russian folk-legend intrudes rudely, via Baba-Yaga. Pulverizing octaves and wild rushes ascend, in somewhat edited form, to The Great Gate of Kiev, an evocation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Russian chimes and massive bells compete for predominance in waves of voluptuous archaic sound.

Two concerted works occupy most of Disc 2. From New York City’s Lewisohn Stadium, Moiseiwitsch and Josef Krips and the New York Philharmonic (19 July 1961) collaborate – in fair to good sound – in a relatively leisurely but pointed account of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. What remains impressive are the Moiseiwitsch dynamics in octave passages and runs, but also in the light, fluid character of his transition passages. His landings never cease to startle as well as amaze for their security and metric propulsion, leading a completed phrase to the successive arch. For a more streamlined, linear energy, I can only suggest Michelangeli. The Moiseiwitsch trill spins lessons for the ages. The New York Philharmonic trumpet and tympani sections provide a constant source of color propulsion. Though the first movement lacks a cadenza proper, those extended color soli reveal a detached finesse that bespeaks a multifarious command of nuances, sometimes ironic, as if Moiseiwitsch were the George Sanders of the keyboard.  The conversion of the Adagio and its variants into a ceaseless song may seem, to Moiseiwitsch acolytes, par for an extraordinary course. After the last movement, the New York audience, barely having restrained itself after the first movement, erupts with appropriate fanaticism.

The Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (14 September 1946) from a Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concert with Moiseiwitsch and his old traveling companion, Sir Adrian Boult, confirms the pianist’s exalted status in this work, a pedestal he shares not so much with the composer but with Shura Cherkassky.  Moiseiwitsch takes a page from Dante for his descent into the Dies Irae.  The initiation of the “erotic sequence” or “slow movement” pulsates with amorous, mysterious energy, the wash of piano sound quite in the Aeolian Harp modality. The dragonfly sixteenths throughout – an imitation of the Paganini violin bariolage – and flourishes in the right hand at Variation XIX perk our ears to a master of the (Liszt) bravura style.  The interweaving between Moiseiwitsch, the first violin, and the French horn could have provided a trio entirely its own. The ubiquitous Variation XVIII, by the way, might renew your faith in Love.  The last sequence of variations projects a phantasmagoria of effects, a veil of demonic convulsions based on the notion of a “caprice,” which as Oscar Wilde quipped, lasts longer than a romance.

Disc 3 devotes itself to a series of five interviews with Moiseiwitsch by diverse personalities, like John Freeman, George Scott, and Jack Payne, beginning with a late 1950s talk from WKCR, New York at Columbia University. “Schumann, I consider on any tour,” quips Moiseiwitsch in his laconic manner, “because of the man I see through his music. Feeling. Generosity. He suffered. That’s the way I feel about it.” Though an admirer of American composers (say Barber) Moiseiwitsch admits he has no time for contemporary works. “I very seldom listen to myself, to my own recordings. . .when it’s finished with, I am terrified to listen to it, afraid I won’t like it.”  The new artists, states Moiseiwitsch, “play fast and furious, but I don’t listen to many of them.”  Moiseiwitsch concludes with a remark that he worshipped Rachmaninov, but Winston Churchill more. From 1958 he speaks with a female interviewer. He claims that Brahms and Mozart may be more apt to old, more veteran artists who may have formed sympathy; in his case, he holds off on Mozart “until I have a gray beard.” He speaks favorably of Van Cliburn. He often plays bridge at the Savage Club with Solomon. He enjoys Victor Borge as a comic and as a musician.  Mark Hambourg, Barbirolli, Goossens and Heifetz. Moiseiwitsch eschews teaching, the nature of which means transporting something of himself he does not wish to give away. Recording, too, he calls “too strenuous and not spontaneous.” With the television personality Jack Payne (11 September 1958) Moiseiwitsch and he discuss a first meeting with Rachmaninov and also a miscue on speaking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  For the Golden Wedding of the Churchills, he plays “the galloping horse” Ballade No. 3 in A-flat of Chopin.  While Moiseiwitsch often canters rather than gallops, he also makes the music sing with thunder.  The interviews provide a marvelous hour in themselves, a real addition to any radio tribute to this remarkable musical sophisticate.

—Gary Lemco

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