La Scena Musicale

Monday, January 5, 2009

Arthur Loesser's Well-Tempered Klavier Revived!

Review by Paul E. Robinson


Pianist Arthur Loesser (1894-1969) made few recordings for the world to remember him by; happily, one of his most important has recently been brought back to life by Jacob Harnoy of the Canadian record company, DOREMI.

J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is one of those monumental works worshipped by all musicians as something akin to 'holy writ.' The forty-eight 'Preludes and Fugues' are endlessly fascinating as compositions, and as challenges for aspiring performers. Only a master musician with both technique and maturity, however, can do them justice. On the other hand, this is not audience-grabbing music; the entire “48” are rarely programmed for live concert performance. Record companies have not been enthusiastic either.

Arthur Loesser spent a lifetime studying and playing the “48” and when no record company asked him to preserve his performance for future generations, he did it himself. In 1964, Kenneth Hamann brought his microphones into Loesser’s studio in Cleveland, and just last year Jacob Harnoy restored and remastered that original recording with the help of Jack Silver and Clive Allen. The result is a 3-CD set for posterity (DHR-7893-5).

Loesser was 70 years old when he made this recording, but age is a factor only in a positive way. His technique was equal to whatever the music required, and he chose some very fast tempos indeed.

Loesser is never dazzling in a way that Glenn Gould could be dazzling in his inimitable detaché style of playing baroque music; neither is he ponderous, as German pianists and others can often be in this music. In Loesser’s hands, the music is pretty much what it looks like on the page – what the composer intended, in one sense – but always alive and fresh in its phrasing.

Loesser wrote extensively about the “48”, and his insightful notes are included with the CDs. From the notes, it is clear that Loesser thought deeply about the type of keyboard Bach had in mind for this music, and shaped his performances accordingly. He concludes that Bach certainly did not have the piano in mind for this music, but that with understanding and restraint, the performer can use the piano to do justice to the music. There are, for example, several places where Bach has written a note to be held for so long that its sound entirely dies out. Loesser allows himself the liberty of repeating this note to clarify the harmony. I wish he had done it more often - say, in the concluding bars of the fugue in BWV 846.

An added feature of this new CD set is an appreciation of Loesser by former pupil Anton Kuerti, himself an internationally renowned artist. When the consummate history of music performance in Canada comes to be written, Kuerti's name will, no doubt, figure prominently. He is one of the few Canadian pianists to have achieved international stature and maintained it for many decades. He is himself a teacher whose pupils rank among the foremost pianists of their generation.

Loesser, Kuerti recalls, was “the best (teacher) I have had”... “there was a palpable joy in him as he played, and an uncanny instinct for how to make the dance rhythms infect and delight the listener.”

The all-but-forgotten Arthur Loesser, a fixture at the Cleveland Institute of Music in his day, was not only a fine musician and teacher, but an author as well. His classic text - Men, Women and Pianos: a Social History (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1954. Reprinted by Dover in 1990) - recounts the evolution of the piano, its glory days of the late nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, and then ends on a note of sadness, as Loesser documents how the rise of the phonograph and radio undermined music-making in the home and how the emancipation of women meant that feminine accomplishments of previous generations, such as playing the piano “now began to turn stale and trivial” (p.606). “Skepticism of the piano," he notes, "went with skepticism of the way of life that had nurtured it” (p. 608).

As Loesser tells the story, the 'Age of the Piano' was all but over. He was on to something, especially with his observations on how the rise of the piano as a popular instrument was closely connected to the ebb and flow of history and cultures. He may, however, have been somewhat premature with his gloomy conclusion concerning the imminent demise of the piano.

Why, he wondered, had “the 'electronic piano' never caught on” (p. 613). He was writing in 1954, and one could say that it had indeed ‘caught on' - in the form of the 'synthesizer'. Keyboards of all kinds are, after all, uniquely suited to express musical ideas. The piano is no less a ‘period instrument’ than any other, and it probably has one or two permutations yet to go.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich in Historic Chamber Music Recordings

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Haydn: Piano Trio in D major Hob.XV:16 (Moscow, 1951 and London, Feb. 28, 1959)
Haydn: Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:19 (Moscow, 1952)
Mozart: Piano Trio in G major . 564 (Moscow, 1952)
Mozart: Piano Trio in B flat major K. 254 (Moscow, 1952)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat major Op. 97 “Archduke” (Moscow, 1956)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in E flat major WoO38 (Moscow, 1950)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Trio in A minor Op. 50 (Moscow, 1952)
Saint-Saens: Piano Trio in F major Op. 18 (Moscow, 1953)
Schumann: Piano Trio in D minor Op. 63 (Moscow, Aug. 8, 1958)
Shostakovich: Piano Trio in E minor Op. 67 (London, Feb. 28, 1959)
Borodin: Piano Trio in D major (Moscow, 1950)
Faure: Piano Quartet No. 1 Op. 15 (Moscow, 1958)
Brahms: Horn Trio in D minor Op. 40 (Moscow, Feb. 25, 1951)
Doremi DHR-7921-5 (5-cd set)

I will never forget my first experience with Emil Gilels. It was at Massey Hall in Toronto – in 1956 or 1957, I believe – and Gilels was the first Soviet artist of stature to be allowed to concertize in the West. I was a young piano student at the time and I simply could not believe my ears when Gilels tore into Stravinsky’s Petrouchka like a man possessed. The power and virtuosity were staggering. I dubbed him ‘the mad Russian’ at the time, but like so many others I had completely mischaracterized this remarkable musician.

Gilels was the first to come to Canada. He was followed by Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich and many others. It was an incredible parade of talent. We had known many of these artists only through recordings. By the time they were allowed to accept engagements outside what was then the Soviet Union, they had become legendary figures. In almost every case, the reality surpassed the legend. Wherever they went, these great musicians enriched the cities they visited and the people they met.

Like all the Russian musicians, Gilels was considered authoritative in music by Russian composers and that was the music he was always asked to play. Over time, however, it became clear that Gilels loved the music of Brahms and Beethoven and played it as well as anyone alive. His recordings of the Brahms concertos with Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic are universally recognized as among the best ever made. It was also soon apparent that he had a special affinity for chamber music, and that he welcomed the opportunity to play it.

One of Gilels’ most highly-acclaimed recordings was the Brahms’ Quartet in G minor with the Amadeus Quartet for DG. This new release from Doremi of Gilels chamber music recordings from the 1950s demonstrates that his chamber music mastery went back a long way, and that it was well documented by the Russian Melodiya record company. These recordings were never given wide circulation in the West, but they are most welcome even after all these years.

While it was Gilels’ participation in these recordings that first got my attention, one can hardly ignore his distinguished colleagues, Kogan and Rostropovich. The trio was formed in 1949 and lasted for more than ten years. These recordings provide a vivid documentation of this great partnership.

It’s difficult to know where to begin a commentary on such a large body of work contained in a single boxed set. Overall, I would say that the standard of performance and musicianship is incredibly consistent throughout, and the performers seem authoritative in every musical period and every style. Haydn and Mozart are played with lightness and elegance with virtually all repeats observed (the first repeat in the first movement of Haydn’s Trio No. 16 is omitted in the London recording), Schumann and Tchaikovsky with passion, and Shostakovich with searching intensity.

More particularly, I loved the jaunty, relaxed style of the first movement of Mozart’s K. 564 and the noble and exciting playing in the fourth movement of the Schumann Trio Op. 63. And while there have been fine recordings of the Tchaikovsky Trio, this is one of the best. The pianist tends to dominate in most performances because the part has so many virtuoso elements and so many big fat chords. Gilels makes the most of every one of them but there is no way he is going to drown out the likes of Kogan or Rostropovich. This is big-boned playing in a piece that absolutely demands it.

If there is one performance in the set that best demonstrates the rarified artistry of these three musicians, it is the Tchaikovsky. In this piece, Tchaikovsky takes us on a journey through a vast range of human emotion and Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich give everything they have to make the trip unforgettable.

From the opening bars we hear the playing of three remarkable soloists, but as the music unfolds and the tempo ebbs and flows, we hear something else – almost like three great jazz musicians riffing off each other, reveling in the music they’re playing and building the tension. When the great familiar melody comes back at the very end of the piece, these three musicians go all out to make it grand and thrilling before falling back into the sense of gloom and despair which closes the piece. Along the way we have a wonderful give and take between Kogan and Rostropovich in the waltz variation and incisively characterful playing by Gilels in the mazurka.

One of the biggest surprises and delights for me in this set was the performance of Brahms’ Horn Trio. The hornist is Yakov Shapiro and the man is a supreme artist on his instrument. He plays with the vibrato that one has long associated with Russian and French performers and it is a style of playing that has almost disappeared. But perhaps that style needs to be reconsidered. I’ve always felt that in most performances of this piece the horn doesn’t blend well with the violin or the piano and it is often too loud. But just listen to this 1951 performance; Shapiro not only plays with vibrato but he manages to match and blend perfectly with Kogan’s vibrato. I couldn’t believe how wonderful this sounded, and I began to think about what Brahms had in mind. Does anyone know if the french horn player at the first performance played with vibrato? And what about the horn parts in the Brahms’ symphonies?

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough what a splendid job Jacob Harnoy has done in remastering these recordings. There are no clicks and pops from the original 78s or LPs, and one never gets the feeling that artificial means have been used to dampen the surface noise. In other words, nothing comes between us and the music-making. The technicians at Melodiya in the 1950s knew something about making good recordings. We must thank Jacob Harnoy and Doremi for making them available to us after all these years, and in the form in which they were meant to be heard.

Doremi has already issued the Emil Gilels Legacy Volumes 1-7 and a CD featuring Kogan and Gilels playing Beethoven Sonatas. At you will find a complete Gilels Discography compiled by Ates Tanin.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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