Ruth Slenczynska, piano – Tribute to RACHMANINOFF

by | Jun 26, 2007 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Ruth Slenczynska, piano – Tribute to RACHMANINOFF 

Program: Preludes: C Major, Op. 32, No. 1; D Minor, Op. 23, No. 3; G Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12; G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5; E-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 6; E-flat Minor, Op. 23, No. 9; B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2
Studio: VAI DVD 4412
Video: 4:3 black & white
Audio: PCM Mono
Bonus: An Interview with Ruth Slenczynska: Remembering Josef Hofmann (29 minutes)
Length: 27 minutes
Rating: ****

This 1963 video record derives from a Camera Three program, and it opens with Slenczynska playing of the C Major Prelude. Slenczynska (b. 1925) recalls having to substitute for Rachmaninoff at a concert, looking at her diminutive person and then exclaiming to her father, “That plays the piano?” Although Rachmaninoff loathed teaching as such, he gave Slenczynska, via her father, music, books, ways to justify her interpretation.  “He was very proud of his preludes,” she offers. “He said it was harder to write a miniature than a large composition.” When he was unhappy with her playing, Rachmaninoff would criticize: “You play that like a little girl!” And Ruth would aptly reply, “I am a little girl!” She does make passing allusion to her martinet of a father, who force-fed her pieces to prepare for her big meeting with Rachmaninoff.

Nothing immature in her D minor Prelude, which adds polyphonic filigree to the martial opening and its attached run. That Slenczynska can make her Baldwin sing comes from studies with Cortot, Rachmaninoff, Schnabel, Hofmann, and Petri. The G-sharp Minor ripples and purrs seductively, layering the effects both scintillating and erotic at once. The lithe G Minor pounces out like Blake’s tiger, burning bright. The glorious middle section drips with the requisite nostalgia. She interrupts the program for a moment to note Rachamninoff’s fondness for poetry, as he would often open envelopes full of Russian poems, which he would read to Slenczynska, although she understood not a word of Russian.

“He was a great believer in hard work,” Slenczynska recalls later in her interview. He could work up to seventeen hours a day, so as to attain a technique near to that of Josef Hofmann! Slenczynska then turns to a personal reminiscence of the E-flat Major Prelude, which the composer told her was filled with recollections of orchards and apple trees. The ensuing playing caresses this work so that both syrup and cider sweeten the air. No pause and we are in the throes of the E-flat Minor, a toccata or etude directly influenced by Chopin’s Op. 10. The huge B-flat Major is all passion and Russian frenzy, and a pity we cannot see how Slenczynska pedals this explosive work to keep it from breaking off the musical staves. The brief, percussive middle section enjoys a graduated dynamic and rebuilds to a resounding da capo cut from asbestos.

The interview takes place September 9, 2002. Slenczynska looks at an old photo of Josef Hofmann and recalls “his absolute attention to the keyboard. He was the first person to have a ‘concept’ of how a composition should sound. All he had to do was make it sound that way. He could hear a concerto wholly.” Slenczynska remembers having been a student of Mrs. Kennedy in California, herself a pupil of Leschetizky who taught chords, arpeggios, good technique. She made sure Slenczynska played for any celebrities who came to town, the first of whom was Hofmann. She went to the Dreamland Auditorium to hear Hofmann play the Funeral March Sonata of Chopin – a unique, arresting experience for the young (aged four) Slenczynska. “He made a very, very strong impression on me.” Slenczynska went to play her own youthful recital at Mills College. The program addressed her a “Baby Ruth” who plays the Steinway piano. The grandeur of the actual instrument possessed her more than the fact that Hofmann was in the audience.

Slenczynska liked Hofmann right away, a father figure. Hofmann made the last movement of the Chopin Sonata, “the window to the grave,” quite eerie. Hofmann wanted to know if she knew harmony, scales, and he subsequently invited Ruth and her father to come to Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study. Hofmann had an apartment rented for Ruth and her father, with a grand piano, and her father required nine hours of practice per day. The neighbors complained about the early hours of piano rehearsal. “My daughter is a Cadillac and requires a lot of work,” her father quipped when reproached by Mrs. Hofmann. Hofmann criticized the weakness of Slenczynska’s left hand, and he wanted a “roof” over the hand to be developed via left-hand scales, from soft to loud uninterrupted crescendo and decrescendo, without accent. His little boy, Anton, motivated Ruth to remain with the lessons. They played jacks. When Hofmann went away for concerts, Slenczynska would study with Isabella Vengerova, who installed Ruth into a technique class with Jorge Bolet, Shura Cherkassky, Abbey Simon, and Samuel Barber. Barber, though no pianist, had something more than all of us: he was under the tutelage of the terrible Fritz Reiner. Reiner’s assignment of a string quartet led to the eventual premier of the Adagio for Strings under Toscanini.

Upon Hofmann’s return, he encouraged a concert at Curtis by Ruth, but her father objected to what he considered Curtis’ exploitation of his daughter, so he withdrew Ruth from the school and took her back to California. “Any artist thought that the titans of the past were superior to anyone playing at present, excepting Hofmann.”

— Gary Lemco

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