I am going to do something a little unusual for this posting. I am going to concentrate on one particular piece by Chopin and then two interpretations of it. I know this particular piece quite well because it was really the last complicated piece that I played when I studied the piano a thousand years ago. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “how could anyone have written anything so beautiful?”.
The piece that we are concentrating on is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in b-flat minor, op. 31. Several of Chopin’s large works came in fours, though not composed consecutively: there are four Impromptus, four Ballades, and the same number of Scherzos. And they are all extraordinary. The B-flat-minor Scherzo, the second of that genre’s four, was composed in 1837 and bears the full imprint of the composer’s unique creative qualities. It is big and brawny, filled with magical harmonic coloration and huge pianistic flair. In the present piece, the very opening gesture informs us that a drama is about to unfold. Following a long-held B-flat, three soft and quick ascending notes lead to a longer note; this is immediately repeated. After a pause, a very loud B-flat is followed by a long-held chord and in turn by four emphatic chords. The opening four notes return (three-longs-and-a-short, a famous enough rhythmic combination by 1837), and they become a kind of key which throughout the piece opens the door to a floodgate of tension and drama, as well as some pulsating Chopin poetics.
The Second Scherzo is the favorite of the four. Schumann compared it to a Byronic poem, “so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love, and contempt.” According to Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Chopin, the composer said that the renowned sotto voce opening was a question and the second phrase, the answer: “For Chopin, it was never questioning enough, never soft enough, never vaulted (“tombé) enough. It must be a charnel house. The melody, marked “con anima”, is repeated three times during the lengthy proceedings, the last time bringing us to the coda in a magnificent key change. The gorgeous melody overlies a six-note-per-measure-left-hand accompaniment of exceeding richness. The trio, filled with longing, takes on a pianistic complexity. Huneker* exalts, “What masterly writing, and it lies in the very heart of the piano! A hundred generations may not improve on these pages.”
*Ask any person in the street or any current tiller of the arts, “Who was James Gibbons Huneker?” and you are apt to draw a blank stare. But in his lifetime (1860-1921), Huneker was the most influential and widely read American critic, as highly regarded in Europe as he was in his own country.
Huneker’s principal love throughout his life was music, particularly the music of Chopin. He never gave up writing about music but he branched out early into theater, literature and the graphic arts. In all those fields he eventually became as influential as he was in music. In recent years we have seen music critics double in theater or ballet, but there has been no one of Huneker’s versatility and general authority.
I would also like to make it clear that pianists have pedigrees. By that, I mean that a given pianist has studied with someone, who has studied with Leschetizky, for example, and if you go back far enough you get someone such as Liszt, Chopin, or even Beethoven. A pianist’s pedigree used to matter earlier in the 20th century. Now, it seems to matter much less so.
Benno Moseiwitsch CBE -February 22, 1890 – April 9, 1963) was a Russian/Ukrainian born British pianist.
Benno Moiseiwitsch was one of seven children. His father was a farmer and his mother musically gifted. At the age of seven Benno began piano lessons with Dmitri Klimov at the Imperial School of Music in Odessa and two years later won the Anton Rubinstein Prize at the age of nine. By the age of fifteen Moiseiwitsch was already a fine pianist and he and his older brother John went to London where he was told at the Royal Academy of Music that he could be taught nothing. From London, Benno (and his brother) travelled to Vienna to play for the great pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky who rejected him, told him to practice more control and to return in a few months: Moiseiwitsch did this and was accepted. He studied with Leschetizky until he was eighteen, learning about the musical side of playing the piano and developing his individuality.
Moiseiwitsch made his American debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall and immediately became a favorite with the American public. After hearing Moiseiwitsch during the 1926–1927 season, pianist and writer Abram Chasins said to his friend Josef Hofmann, ‘I think I have just heard your heir apparent.’ Hofmann replied, ‘Ah, so you have heard Moiseiwitsch. Now there’s a natural pianist in the Romantic tradition.’ Moiseiwitsch was just as popular in Britain where he took British citizenship just before World War II, never returning to Russia.
One of the best of the best Leschetizky pupils and one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, Moiseiwitsch had a wonderful tone, infallible technique and a stage manner and persona of reserve. Due to his enormous and exhausting efforts during World War II, there were post-war performances where he appeared tired and worn-out, but he never gave a performance that was less than professional. He excelled in the Romantic music of the nineteenth century, and was particularly identified with the works of Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov. He idolized Rachmaninov and was a close friend of the composer.
Solomon Cutner CBE (August 9, 1902 –February 2,1988) was a British pianist known professionally as Solomon
Born Solomon Cutner in London’s East End, the pianist used only his first name professionally. The seventh child born to tailors of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish extraction, Solomon had musical parents and he began to play the family piano at the age of five. He received piano lessons from a local teacher and at eight was taken under the tutelage of Mathilde Verne, a pupil of Clara Schumann and head of her own Piano School in London. Verne made Solomon’s parents sign a contract giving her complete control over the boy for five years: recent investigation by biographer Bryan Crimp shows that Verne exploited the child for her own gain. His London debut, at the age of eight, was a great success and the following year Verne had the nine-year-old play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and Henry Wood. Verne pushed the child to learn large works and his performances served as an advertisement for her teaching and her Piano School. At the age of twelve he played at six Prom Concerts, the repertoire being totally unsuitable for a child of his age, including as it did concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy. The following year, 1915, the thirteen-year-old Solomon performed at least fifteen times with Wood, playing the concertos from the previous year and adding those by Schumann and Brahms, as well as arrangements for piano and orchestra by Liszt of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and Beethoven’s Die Ruinen von Athen.
When Verne’s contract expired in 1915 Solomon refused any further contact with her. Thereafter, he rarely mentioned her name and not until he was seventy did he state that his childhood with her was ‘awful, terrible’. However, he still continued to perform, giving nearly forty concerts in 1916. By now the boy was entering maturity and it is not surprising to read that between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one Solomon suffered from exhaustion, anxiety and stress, and had a nervous breakdown. It was Henry Wood who suggested that Solomon should give up music for a while; but by then he had been robbed of his childhood, something he could never regain.
It was fortunate that Solomon had friends and benefactors to help him though his ordeal; most particularly a pupil of Leschetizky, Simon Rumschinsky, who dismissed Verne’s teachings and made Solomon begin afresh. Solomon then decided to go to Paris, probably hoping for inspiration and a different outlook on music and life in general. He studied piano with Lazare Lévy and harmony and counterpoint with Marcel Dupré. By 1921 he felt able to return to the concert stage with a recital in Paris, followed by two in London; the next year he played in London twice again and then toured Germany, returning to London to restart his career.
Solomon made a successful debut in America at New York’s Town Hall and returned to the city in 1939 for a performance of the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss which was written expressly for him and the New York World’s Fair. However, in the late 1920s Solomon supplemented his income from public appearances with a heavy teaching schedule, to which was added a strenuous practice regime of eight or nine hours a day, something that may have been a legacy from his years with Verne. His career blossomed during the 1930s and all through World War II he entertained troops in Britain and abroad. He played for the forces in North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, India, Singapore and Bangkok, his efforts being rewarded with a CBE. After the war, Solomon regularly toured Europe and North America and played also in Australia and New Zealand, in South Africa in 1946, in South America in 1953 and in Japan in 1954. He continued to work hard and practice hard, but in December 1956 he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right arm. He never again appeared in public although he lived for another thirty years.