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The Romantic Pianists: Personal and Intimate

The MHS Review 240 Vol 3, No 6 May 28, 1979

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David M. Greene


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Back in the last issue of this publication, you may recall, there was some chatter about a record of Klavierstucke by Schubert. In the piece I wrote I noted innocently enough that Klavier means "keyboard," as indeed it does. Well, sir!--talk about your thrilla in Manila' If you've never heard two scholars quarrelling over semantics, you ain't lived. My worthy antagonist insisted that by 1828 Klavier meant "piano" (the instrument). To be sure I From the time of Christian Bach on, the piano rapidly assumed dominance in the keyboard world (the organ always excepted), and by 1828 the harpsichord was played only by little old ladies in tennis shoes living in Linz or Graz. And where Hammerklavier (hammer-keyboard) once specified the piano, as apart from the other keyboards, it was a tough word to say and inevitably got shortened. So it was later with the concert grand, called a Hammer/luge/ (hammer­wing. from the mechanics plus the shape); nowadays on German records one finds Jorg Demus am Fli.igel (Jorg Demus on the wing, which conjures up a marvelous image). If, however, you think such nomenclature odd, remember that we took over the Italian word pianoforte ("soft-loud," from the dynamic flexibility denied the other parlor keyboards) and cut it down to piano ("soft").

Anyhow, here we have, I believe, the first MHS record of Emil Gilels at the soft. (The Russians too use that term, but they also have royalyh!) As I have noted before, every decade, as regularly as clockwork, Russia exports her latest model of the World's Greatest Pianist (peoples' version). In the 60's it was Richter, in the '7O's Berman; but Gilels was the first, arriving in 1955--indeed the first emissary, as I recall, in the "Cultural Exchange" that signaled the end of the Cold War. He was born in Odessa, that perpetual fountain of musical talent, sixty-five years ago this October. He studied in his native city with people called Berthe Ringgold or Reingbald (depending on the source one consults) and Yakov Tkatch. He then went to Moscow, worked there under H. Neuhaus, and won the blue ribbon in the All-Union Musical Performers' Competition when he was sixteen (or seventeen). At twenty he took second place in the international competition in Vienna, but the critic Herbert F. Peyser wrote home, "If piano playing of utter magnificence means anything in your life, keep a sharp lookout for Emil Gilels." Gilels went on to garner all sorts of glories at home (the Stalin Prize, a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, and the title "People's Artist")--and eventually abroad.

The Schubert pieces were first published in Vienna as Moments musicals--a slipup that should hearten all of us baffled by inflectional endings. If "musical moment" means anything. it probably signifies the Romantic's tendency not to be hidebound by prescribed forms. But these pieces (far from shapeless') belong in the same bag with the Impromptus (than which they are briefer) as "character" pieces, with roots probably going back to the English virginal school. Like the Impromptus, they belong, in the main, to the composer's miraculous brief final period, and someone has said that in these miscellaneous piano works there is more of the essential Schubert than in all the sonatas. The chief chronological exception is No. 3, written about 1822--the odds-on favorite however. (Robert Haven Schauffler complains of having even encountered it on "the accursed jukebox.")

If the Moments musicaux are among Schubert's most familiar piano works, the Nachtstucke are among Schumann's least known. Written in that period before his marriage that saw a flood of piano pieces, these reflect the (no pun intended) dark side of his nature. Specifically, they were turned out in 1839 at about the time his brother Eduard died and the composer was haunted with nightmares and aural hallucinations having to do with death. He even thought of calling them Leichenfantasie "corpse fantasies." the title, incidentally, of a Schubert song written at the age of 13. (Ah, those romantic Romantics!) I detect, however, nothing either morbid or gruesome in them. Joan Chissell finds them country cousins of the Noveletten. Nevertheless, if you need the names Schumann once though of applying to the individual pieces, they are (translated) "Funeral March," "Curious Company," "Nocturnal Carouse," and "Rondo with Solo Voices."

Review of Gilels Plays the Romantics: Schubert and Schumann

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