S I HAVE SAID in the past, I find it extremely difficult to write blogs about the great pianists. Every time I sit down to post a blog, I fail. Why do I fail? Because once I start selecting excerpts, I get really excited. I listen to piece after piece, saying, “Oh, I just have to talk about this.” Then I say, “Wow, this is the greatest. Oh, except for that one. Oops, I guess this one is the best. Oh, I can’t forget this other section.” By the time I’m finished, I end up not posting a single thing, because I feel “guilty” not posting a billion other fantastic, unbelievable, magnificent excerpts. It’s quite frustrating.
A Franciscan priest used to tell us, “The problem with some of these young priests is that every time they preach a sermon they feel compelled to tell the congregation everything they know.”
Therefore, I will try to do a better job in the future when it comes to the great pianists. I will attempt to “contain myself” and not feel compelled to share “everything I know” in each blog post. But just know this: there’s a ton more awesome stuff out there!
HOSE OF US who have spent our entire lives being obsessed with the Golden Age Pianists know that there is so much to “listen for.” We listen to the same masterpieces over and over again, always finding new things which amaze us. “Oh, listen to what he does with the left hand here,” we say. “Oh, listen to how she shapes this long phrase,” we say. And so on and so forth.
What I find hilarious is listening to the really great masters. On the one hand, they’re supreme musicians (not just technicians): musicians of the highest order. On the other hand, their fingers can blow every other “finger flapper” out of the water, even when they’re old! I love thinking about how every young pianist in the world can sit in front of a piano for a billion hours, yet never play thirds as fast or as clear as, say, Josef Lhevinne. Notice that I said “clear.” It’s not just about speed. It’s also about articulation.
Let’s start with a little excerpt by Josef Hofmann. Hofmann was being recorded live (as he almost always was) celebrating 50 years since his debut. The guy had already stopped practicing 30 years ago, mainly so he could focus on his inventions (he had many patents to his name, several of them of epic importance to the world). Yet listen to how he can still play left hand passages faster than every youngster in the world (toward the end of the excerpt):
By the way, you probably noticed that Fritz Reiner’s orchestra was (oddly) not even close to staying together.
OK, let’s consider another example. Listen to how Hofmann’s supreme fingers allow him to not use pedal, where almost every other pianist would:
For the record, that’s the first time that passage appears. Each time it reoccurs, he grows stronger and more powerful. By the final repeat, he actually does use more pedal in that section. Hofmann was quite an “architect” when it comes to the overall shape of the piece. The elderly Hofmann does the same thing in his “live” recording of the Waldstein Sonata. Each time the theme returns, he adds more pedal and grows stronger (using other effects). Here’s the very first time the section appears, and note how very little pedal is used:
Not bad for a guy who stopped practicing thirty years prior! Nice left hand! I’ve been talking about this very thing (and, indeed, showing people excerpts about this) since I was about 10 years old, and it’s still amazing. Harold Schonberg was right when he talked about the fact that all other pianists sound “thick” compared to Hofmann. For another example, just listen to the elderly Hofmann play this cadenza:
When Horowitz was “on,” he was doubtless up there with the very best of them, musically and as a technician. I laugh when people say, “Horowitz was a great technician, but he wasn’t a true musician, like Claudio Arrau.” I laugh when I hear such nonsense. Arrau was a nothing, a nobody, a small person compared to Horowitz as a technician and a musician. Recordings prove this to anybody who cares to listen. By the way, speaking of Horowitz the technician, here’s Vladimir proving that his repeated notes are faster and more articulate than all the young “finger flappers” combined:
Finally, listen to how even after 50 years before the public, Hofmann can still “storm the gates” with the best of them:
Uh oh. It’s happening again. There is so much more I want to share . . . sonatas, nocturnes, more concerti, ballades . . . I better stop for now. But, God willing, I will have an opportunity to share much, much more soon!