My Piano Files posts focus on the range of styles and approaches to piano playing in previous generations, highlighting how the greatest artists of the past put their unique personal stamp on their interpretations. To modern-day listeners, it might come as a shock that some recordings from over half a century ago — in some cases close to 100 years ago! — are still listened to by some music lovers and even by some of today’s leading pianists and scholars. But many recorded performances of Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, and Schnabel — and others! — continue to be revered by performers and academics — though some are a bit more divisive of opinion.
One pianist whose recordings are still considered legendary, if at times controversial (though the one that will be the main focus of this feature is universally acclaimed) is the Polish pianist Ignaz Friedman. The pupil of Theodor Leschetizky and Busoni made a few hours of recordings in the 1920s and ‘30s, but these were overlooked in the first decades of modern long-playing (LP) records. Although many of the companies that produced the old discs of pianists from earlier generations put some of them on LP after that playback format came into circulation in 1950 — RCA produced several LPs of Rachmaninoff, Paderewski, and Bauer, for example — Friedman’s recordings were never reissued by the company (Columbia) that recorded him.
The late musicologist Allan Evans was in his teens when in 1972, he heard a broadcast of a 1927 recording of Friedman in Chopin’s famous A-Flat Polonaise that James Irsay aired on his WBAI radio program. Evans then devoted his life to researching the pianist, uncovering much about his artistry and tracking down all his recordings. He produced the first-ever complete release of his known performances on Danacord in 1985 and on CD on the Pearl label in 1990.
My own introduction to Friedman took place in the mid-1980s through the writing of Harold C Schonberg, whose book The Great Pianists was my teenage musical bible. In the days before the internet (some of us are older than Google), it was harder to find information about and recordings of old pianists, so I devoured the information in his book and sought what I could at second-hand record stores. Schonberg wrote of Friedman’s unique way with Chopin’s Mazurkas, something that I referred to in my introductory video: because Friedman had actually performed this folkloric dance as a child, he had personal insight into a particular rhythmic emphasis that Chopin had difficulty marking precisely in the score (my spoken video refers to one documented incident, a disagreement between Chopin and the composer Meyerbeer). While the pianist’s bold accents and rhythmic impulse can be unsettling to present-day listeners’ ears, the fact is that authenticity might not always sound like we expect (and authenticity can have several faces and expressions).
But the focus in this present feature is a recording considered by many to be not only Friedman’s greatest but what Schonberg said “may well be the most beautiful, singing, perfectly proportioned performance of a Chopin nocturne ever put on record” — the pianist’s glorious November 23, 1936 recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major Op.55 No.2.
As is always the case, verbal descriptions will only go so far, and it was only upon hearing this performance that I could begin to understand what Schonberg was pointing to, and listening to it again and again over the course of over thirty years, I have come to hear ever more clearly the miracles found in the grooves of this now 85-year-old recording. Friedman’s sumptuous singing sonority, soaring phrasing, creative interplay between primary and secondary voices, magical pedal effects, and inimitable rubato – and a host of other pianistic qualities — have long made this one of the greatest examples of piano playing ever recorded. Try singing along, and you will be all the more aware of the remarkable nuancing and evocative touches that the pianist incorporates into his reading:
The eminent Liszt and Chopin biographer Alan Walker often includes this performance in his lectures about Chopin, highlighting an important fact from his superb new comprehensive biography of the composer: Chopin loved the sound of the voice in song. In fact, it appears that it was opera concerts that the Polish composer attended most, and in his Nocturnes, we hear his masterful attempt to emulate the human voice at the keyboard in his melodic lines and embellishments. If you listen carefully to Friedman’s recording, you can hear how the primary line is joined by an inner voice that makes the work sound like an operatic duet, with the two voices coming in and out as they share the stage.
In this 2019 lecture, Walker sets the stage for Friedman’s masterful performance in the context of the composer’s love of the human voice, giving with some fascinating insights and playing an operatic aria before presenting an excerpt from Friedman’s recording:
The more one listens, the more one marvels at the myriad effects that Friedman is able to draw out of the piano — a percussive instrument — among them a sighing ‘melting’ effect between two notes that is similar to a sigh that one might hear in an emotional operatic aria. And he doesn’t simply make one voice more prominent by just playing it louder: Friedman adjusts the timbre as well as the projection of each line so that this performance emulates the sound of two singers with different voices.
Old recordings can be engineered with a range of equalizations to provide varying balances of the crackling surface noise from the old discs and the prominence of the instrument. Some listeners prefer to hear a bit more of the hiss and crackle of the old records because then one hears more of the piano’s full tonal range too, whereas others prefer to hear less noise, even if it reduces some of the presence of the instrument. To close this presentation, here is a second transfer of the same Friedman recording that features a bit less filtering than the one above, resulting in increased audibility of some of the pianist’s sublime nuancing. It can take a little practice to hear ‘through’ the noise, but the more you listen to the performance, the more the surface noise disappears, and you are left with the timeless magic of a master pianist, serving the composer and his vision to perfection.