We have all heard many recordings over the years and have our favorites, yet it’s easy to overlook how the process that goes into producing them can be very challenging. The pressure for a performing artist is considerable, what with the absence of an audience, the fear of making mistakes, and the pressure to craft a permanent artistic statement with their name attached. In the days of 78rpm records, when precision editing was not possible, it was an even more daunting exercise, as discussed with Artur Schnabel’s experiences producing the first cycle of Beethoven Sonatas. Many of the pianist’s colleagues also complained about the rigors of the recording studio, but like Schnabel, they were still able to produce some magical performances despite arduous circumstances.
Sometimes conditions aligned for an artist to produce their very best, and this is the case with one particularly special recording by Benno Moiseiwitsch. Although he left behind many incredible readings that are still admired several decades later, this great Russian pianist — a pupil of Leschetizky who was a friend and favorite interpreter of Rachmaninoff’s — did not particularly enjoy the process of cutting discs, feeling much more at ease in front of an audience. The record that he himself considered being his most successful one has an amazing backstory that gives some fascinating insight into some of the magic we can hear.
Moiseiwitsch had hoped to record Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the composer himself had suggested that the pianist perform the work and Benno loved the piece — but because Rachmaninoff had recorded it for RCA, the HMV label that Benno recorded on didn’t think it commercially viable to compete with the composer. Despite Moiseiwitsch’s great reputation for interpreting his compatriot’s music, his proposal was denied in deference to Rachmaninoff’s own wonderful record:
One day, Moiseiwitsch finished a recording session a bit ahead of schedule. The producer noted that 30 minutes of studio time was still available, so he suggested using the time to set down another performance. The pianist was a bit tired and didn’t particularly feel like doing anything else, but he enjoyed joking with his colleagues a bit, so he said he would be willing to put in the extra effort — if and only if he could record the Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff Scherzo. Naturally, he thought they would refuse again, but the famous producer Walter Legge called his bluff: he agreed to Benno’s suggestion but said he could have only one attempt, no retakes.
Given the fact that editing was not possible due to technological constraints at the time, it was unheard of for a performer to attempt only a single take: even the composer himself had required six to produce a satisfactory version, so it seemed a foregone conclusion that Moiseiwitsch would not be able to do it in one.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Moiseiwitsch agreed to the dare. He went back to the piano, the engineer started the recording machine, and then from Benno’s fingers came the most jaw-dropping, flawless, musically inspired, and note-perfect performance of the work that one could ever hope to hear — an absolute miracle of pianism!
This is a fiendishly difficult piece, but in this uninterrupted, unedited performance, not only did Moiseiwitsch not make a single flub, he played with incredible consistency of articulation and astounding lightness, each note singing with his trademark resonant sonority even in soft passages of rapid finger-work. His playing is dazzling not just technically but musically as well: there is an almost breathless quality to his momentum, and he adds lovely nuances with delectable charm and incredible beauty of tone. One can almost hear how both the pianist and producer were waiting for something to go wrong, but it never did — there’s just the second-by-second unfolding of this superb interpretation!
There is no doubt that the lighthearted banter and amicable relationship between producer and artist were contributing factors in making this miraculous record a reality (it goes without saying that Moiseiwitsch’s mastery was a baseline requirement). Music-making demands a lot of technical precision, but the right inner state is also necessary to bring a performance to life. Concerts and recording sessions are not only more enjoyable but can more readily fulfill their true purpose when the pressure of performing does not overshadow the act of infusing a masterpiece with life and meaning. The magic that Moiseiwitsch created at the Abbey Road Studios on March 17, 1939, continues to enthral listeners more than eight decades later and can serve as inspiration for us all in our own creative endeavors.