Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Pianism personified"

For anyone who happens to like both piano music and history, few twentieth century personalities can match the fame of the Polish pianist, composer, and statesman Paderewski. Polish national hero Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) was "the most publicized, most admired, most successful and most legendary pianist after Liszt", as Harold Schonberg writes in The Great Pianists (a must-have book for any lover of piano playing). Firmly rooted in the 19th century tradition of pianism, he composed romantic piano music in the salon genre, very melodic and pleasant, though not particularly original. He was a fervent patriot and in 1919, following Polish independence after World War I, he became prime minister. He represented his country at the Versailles peace conference that settled european affairs at the aftermath of the Great War. Such was his fame as a pianist, that when Clemenceau, the French prime minister, met him at the conference, he famously said "So now you are Prime Minister of your country. What a comedown!"

Mazurka in B flat major, from Danses polonaises, Op. 9 No. 4, played by Karol Radziwonowicz (LDC 278 1073/75)

Critics and fellow pianists were not always kind in their opinions of him, as he was not a great technician and blurred rhythms too much, even for the lax standards of his era. Moreover, he persisted appearing in public into his old age, long after his best days were past. What he had was nobility of tone, grace, a magnetic personality, and a "poetic haze" that was difficult to resist. Some of his problems with technique were due to the fact that he didn't really receive competent instruction till he was relatively old. His love of music was profound, but technique did not come natural to him, contrary to most great pianists. He had to work very hard to temper his limitations. During his first american tour, in 1891, he practiced 17 hours a day. The hysteria that women in his audiences displayed (his dazzling handsome looks helped too!) was reminiscent of Liszt or of the rock stars later in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, his concerts were so successful that he became very rich. He was very generous with his money and donated much of his fortune to charities and to Polish causes.
He died in New York two years after Poland was overcome by nazi troops, while heading the Polish parliament in exile, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His remains were reburied in Warsaw in 1992.

Monday, February 2, 2009

J S Bach

One of my earliest and continuing musical fascinations is organ music. It started when I was fourteen (14) years old, when a colleague of my father's gave me, as a Christmas gift, a vinyl LP record (Archiv 2565 002) of organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It was a very fortunate introduction to the great works of Bach, as the LP, produced in 1971, was by a great german organist, Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), playing on the Grand Organ of the St Laurens Church, Alkmaar and the organ in the Church of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune, Strasburg. With his magnificent and at the same time subtle playing, Walcha remains to this day my favorite Bach organ interpreter. That old LP, which I still have, is in fact a selection from the complete recording of Bach's organ works by Walcha. Many years later I bought the 12-CD set. It remains in print and is still available today. Among the pieces featured on the record is the Pastorale, BWV 590, one of my favorite not-so-known Bach works, and several of his famous chorale preludes, written on themes of lutheran hymns. Among them, one that I find very moving is Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ - Κύριε, εκέκραξα προς Σέ) which Bach composed around 1713 and is part of the Orgelbüchlein collection of 46 chorale preludes.

I think that, in the right mood, it can bring tears to one's eyes. It was memorably used by film director Andrei Tarkovsky in his 1972 masterpiece Solaris. BWV 639 is one of the Bach chorales transcribed for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Busoni's Bach transcriptions are among the most performed pieces in the transcription repertoire, and it has been recorded by many famous pianists. It is played here by Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950).

Since that Christmas, many years ago, I have been exploring the organ repertory and I have developed a liking for composers and pieces from the Baroque, Romantic, and modern eras. But Bach's works retain a special place in my heart.
(The score of Busoni's BWV 639 transcription pictured here was published by Breitkopf & Härtel and is in the public domain. The full PDF can be had here).