Many pianists famous during their lifetimes have been overlooked by posterity, and similarly there are many who could have had significant careers but did not. In some cases, it seems to be almost happenstance as to whether a certain artist would have a career of note or be remembered after their death, but one thing is certain: without recordings that continue to be made available, it is much less likely that their reputation will endure.
One fascinating pianist surely would have left a more considerable legacy had destiny not been so cruel — but fortuitously, circumstances aligned to ensure that a fateful concert was captured on record (much like Dinu Lipatti’s famous last recital). This performance from 73 years ago that is so jaw-dropping that it has cemented the artist’s position in the pantheon of legendary pianists.
Rosita Renard was a Chilean pianist who studied in Berlin with Martin Krause, a Liszt pupil who also taught Edwin Fischer and Renard’s famous compatriot Claudio Arrau (who went to train with the master at Fischer’s suggestion). In fact, it was Renard who held young Claudio’s hand as she walked him to his first lesson with the man who would become a father figure to him.
When Renard finished her four years of tutelage, Krause declared that “there is no doubt she will conquer the world as an artist,” adding that “her spiritual interpretation, her sound, can only be compared with the great maestro Emil von Sauer.” But while Arrau had a long career, leaving behind dozens of hours of recordings made over a six-decade period, Renard’s career and legacy were not quite as secure, despite her capabilities.
While she enjoyed some success and critical acclaim, Renard was shy and withdrawn, her personality not cut out for the rigours of concert performance and touring. She made a few recordings in the late 1920s that reveal some of her brilliance, among them an account of the famous paraphrase of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz by Schulz-Evler (a work made famous by another pianist’s disc made around the same time — one that will be featured in a future post). Even in this faded recording, we can hear Renard’s gorgeous glistening tone, marvellous balance of voices, rhythmic vitality, and a host of other qualities of her refined pianism.
But soon after this recording was made, Renard returned to her native Chile and retired from most public appearances until 1945: conductor Erich Kleiber was looking for a pianist to play with in Chile and Renard was suggested. She played for him and when selected she accepted the booking, and their rapport was such that they traveled throughout Latin America performing together.
When it was proposed that Renard go to New York to play at Carnegie Hall, her inclination was to decline: “You are going to lose your shirt because no one is going to come to my recital. Your family and some acquaintances would go, but nobody else,” she declared. She had no idea what was to come. A young critic by the name of Harold C Schonberg, who would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote books on great pianists (including one called The Great Pianists), later recalled:
…while I was not prepared for the worst, I certainly did not expect anything out of the ordinary. It took the first five measures of the opening of the Bach B-Flat Partita to get the latter notion out of my head: this was piano playing of individuality, strength, and colour… altogether intriguing… it was quite a recital, and Miss Renard received the acclaim due her.
While she might have received critical adulation, her life circumstances regrettably did not align. Renard returned to Chile and soon began displaying symptoms that caused by a strain of sleeping sickness being treated by Albert Schweitzer in Africa. She could not be cured and died on May 24, 1949 at the age of 55.
The pianist’s friend Bernardo Mendel, who founded the Society of Friends of Music in Bogota in 1945, had helped arrange this recital and had the foresight to have the concert recorded. The Society issued the records after Renard’s death and the set became highly prized, being reviewed by Schonberg in Gramophone magazine soon after. Decades later, it was reissued on LP by the International Piano Archives and then on CD by VAI, and it is now justly considered one of the most legendary recorded concerts of all time.
Renard’s playing in this concert is of such verve and passion that it flies in the face of descriptions of her more self-effacing, introverted character. Witness the incredibly powerful and individual readings of nine Chopin Etudes, particularly the towering account of Op.10 No.11 that begins the set that she played on this occasion: what intensity fused with sensitivity, with stunning momentum and volcanic eruptions that one would never imagine came from a timid woman not much more than 5 feet in height.
This is playing that is so radically different from the artist’s handful of commercial records that one can barely fathom that they feature the same performer. Take, for example, her 1928 recording of Mozart’s Rondo in D Major K.485: very fine, if a bit boxy in the opening measures, yet certainly a distinguished reading.
It is natural that some artists are somewhat more restrained in the recording studio (as has been discussed previously), but it is still scarcely comprehensible that the pianist above is the same as the one that follows. Here is Renard playing the same work in that fabled Carnegie Hall recital of some 20 years later, at a much brisker pace, with breathtaking drive and adventurousness.
Considering the tragic trajectory of Renard’s life, the existence of the entire recital in recorded form is a treasure that cannot be underestimated. As Schonberg stated, her playing overflows with “individuality, strength, and colour,” to the extent that it is almost startling to modern ears. Her vibrant rhythmic pulse, soaring melodic lines (reminiscent of Josef Hofmann), and volcanic climaxes (not unlike what we hear with both Hofmann and Horowitz) are unified by her intelligence and refinement. The overall character of her playing is a throwback to a time when pianism was highly personal; this is music-making that is not for the faint of heart, and it can take a few listens to fully appreciate the magic of her ideas and how she communicates them.
How fortunate we are that the miracle of recording technology makes it possible for us to hear an entire recital that might have vanished into thin air, so we now have evidence of the commanding presence and potency of this artist’s playing in front of an audience. Listening to Rosita Renard’s legendary Carnegie Hall recital of 73 years ago, we can experience artistry that sounds like it’s from another world, pianism that simply defies description and expectation.