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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The Real Szpilman Revealed

By Norman Lebrecht / December 4, 2002


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In classical music, you've got to be dead to be good. Only two or three composers at any given time achieve posterity while alive. The rest go gently into that good night, praying for posthumous recognition. "My time will come!" declared Gustav Mahler, and it has become something of a motto for his profession.

The latest to have his eternal rest agreeably disturbed is the Polish composer Wladyslaw Szpilman. Who? You might well ask. Szpilman is unrecorded in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, or in any other current reference work outside his own country. He was also, until last month, unpublished abroad.

But the German reissue of a suppressed autobiography and the empathetic involvement of an aggressive film-maker have begun to awaken the world to Szpilman's musicianship. Szpilman is the author and subject of The Pianist, an account of his wartime survival in Warsaw which has been filmed by Roman Polanski and released sporadically around the world. Having won a Palme d'Or at Cannes and a showing at the London Film Festival, it will reach British screens next month (opening on 24 January).

Against Hollywood's glamorisation of Holocaust stories - Sophie's Choice, Schindler's List - The Pianist beams a searchlight of authenticity. Szpilman, slipping out of the Ghetto before its annihilation, was hidden by Poles in empty apartments and fed, near the end of the war, by a conscience-stricken German officer.

Szpilman's memoir appeared in Polish in 1946 as Death of a City, only to be choked off by Stalinist censors. Championed in 1997 by the dissident singer Wolf Biermann, it captivated German readers and activated Polanski, who as a child survived the war in hiding. The magisterial literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, another survivor from Warsaw, extolled the film's "meticulous accuracy".

Szpilman died in July 2000, aged 88, living just long enough to witness the international reception of his book. Whether he was a good, bad or moderate musician is immaterial to his story. He was saved not by music, but by common (at the time, uncommon) human decency.

His musicianship can now be substantiated, in the wake of his literary and filmic revival. Szpilman's pedigree is impressive. He studied in Berlin with the paramount pianist Arthur Schnabel and the romantic composer Franz Schreker, both of whom prized intellectual rigour above digital agility. Returning to Warsaw in 1933 after Hitler seized power, Szpilman played for concert and café society.

The august Polish-born violinist Ida Haendel remembers him, just about, as her accompanist in a recital when she was six years old. "A brilliant pianist," is her recollection. In the early stages of the German occupation, Szpilman continued to play in cafés.

The composer Andrzej Panufnik, who eked a living four-handed in similar venues with Witold Lutoslawski, failed to mention him either in his memoirs, or (his widow tells me) in any of their conversations. Reich-Ranicki, who knew Szpilman in the ghetto, likewise omits him from his memoirs.

After the war Szpilman was director of music at Polish Radio for 18 years, a position of considerable influence on the bustling new generation of Panufnik, Lutoslawski, Grazyna Bacewicz, Tadeusz Baird, Kazimierz Serocki and Henryk Mikolai Gorecki. None made public acknowledgement of his contribution, if any, to their careers.

He continued to play the piano, accompanying the violinist Bronislaw Gimpel, with whom he formed the Warsaw Piano Quartet, which toured widely. Szpilman did not achieve individual renown. He appears to have been a man with no shadow.

Musical evidence has begun to emerge from the archives of Polish Radio revealing Szpilman as an artist of ironic refinement and

restrained muscularity. Two tapes of the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor - the music he was playing in 1939 when the radio station was bombed and with which he reopened its broadcasts in 1945 - avoid bombast, triumphalism or sentimentality. The pianist can almost be heard to smile when there was nothing to smile about.

In the ubiquitous Rachmaninov Prelude in G-sharp he makes no attempt to compete with the fingerpower of Russian masters, but tosses the piece off with nearcasual panache. These recordings, along with music by Schumann, Debussy and Bach, have been crammed onto a Sony Classical disc that comes out this week, a testament to a shy executant.

The most interesting discovery on the disc is Szpilman's own music. Two of his compositions are included; others were played in a recent Warsaw concert. As a composer, Szpilman started out with a neo-classical Little Overture, picked up an echo of Bartók in a 1933 piano suite and tried his hand at film and ballet scores.

In the ghetto he composed a Gershwin-like concertino for piano and orchestra, astonishingly cocky in the deadly circumstances. The concertino was given a public performance last May in Los Angeles and is poised for wider revival. Naggingly persistent, it is not a particularly likeable piece but it lodges in the ear like a grommet. It's one of those pieces you find yourself humming and wonder where it's from.

Under Stalin, Szpilman like most other composers was obliged to write mass songs for the workers and peasants. A dutiful civil servant, he turned out 450 numbers, many of which remain popular. A dozen have been translated into English and recorded by the Montreal chanteuse Wendy Lands on a forthcoming Universal release linked, like Sony's, to Polanski's film.

The music industry's piggy-backing on a talkedabout movie is a nineweek wonder of no reputational consequence. In a year or two, Szpilman's music will be played no more than Górecki's, whose third symphony sold a million discs in the 1990s without raising him to lasting celebrity.

Nevertheless, Szpilman's moment of glory has wider implications for the art. As a movie legend, Szpilman's life will now be scavenged by music critics and doctoral students. He will emerge as a pivotal figure in the postwar rebirth of Polish music, itself a cornerstone of European modernism. Interest will quicken in the discarded, spartan works of Bacewicz and Baird, inspiring a generational revival.

There is no telling how many fine composers will rise from the dead as a result of the pianist's filmic apotheosis.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001