The Golden Age of the Piano

The Golden Age of the Piano

Reviewed by Neville Cohn

DVD Philips 075 092-9

TPT: 1:55:00


At the height of the London Blitz during World War II, with Nazi bombs raining down on people and property, Dame Myra Hess, the personification of serenity, would turn up week after week to play the complete series of Mozart piano concertos at the National Gallery afternoon concerts. These performances – and hundreds of solo recitals in London and elsewhere in Britain were a powerful morale boost – and it was this, more than anything else, that resulted in this great pianist being made a Dame of the British Empire, an honour richly deserved. But if, outwardly, Dame Myra was the quintessence of serenity as she made her inspired way through the complete piano concertos of Mozart, she was very much less tranquil when a microphone was in the vicinity – and even less so when film cameras were trained on her. So, sadly, there is very little film footage of the great pianist in action. Here, we see her in an extract from the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. And even if this is not Hess at her best, it is an affectionate souvenir of one of the most loved musicians of her day.
She was born in 1890.

Thirteen years later, during the year that is indelibly associated with the Wright brothers’ first aircraft flight, were born three giants of the keyboard: Vladimir Horowitz in Russia, Rudolf Serkin in Austria and Claudio Arrau in Chile.

Each was to go on to a stellar career – and there’s a fair amount of good film footage available. On this DVD, we see and hear Arrau in a flawless account of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, Horowitz in the much aired – and magnificently addressed – Etude in D sharp minor by Scriabin. Serkin is superb in Schubert (an excerpt from the Sonata in B flat, D 960) and a maddeningly brief snip from Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata.

On this fascinating DVD, the main work on offer is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with Arrau a magisterial soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti.

There is surprisingly little film footage of many of the great pianists of the 20th century and this DVD contains a fair amount that has been widely available for many years: Paderewski, in his dotage and past his best, playing Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise, Josef Hofmann in Rachmaninov’s hackneyed Prelude in C sharp minor from opus 3 – and Alexander Brailowsky in a waltz by Chopin.

Australia-born Percy Grainger, a physical fitness nut as well as a pianist in the grand manner, plays Maguire’s Kick with huge gusto. And that most eccentric, and diminutive, of pianists Vladimir de Pachmann (the oldest by far of all the pianists here represented; he was born as far back as 1848), gives us a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of a pianola.

Rubinstein is at his most magnificent here, earning laurels for near-incredible digital agility and staying power in Mendelssohn’s Bee’s Wedding. Note Rubinstein’s forearms, as toughly muscled as any rugby forward, a very real asset when generating massive climaxes as he does in some rivetting Schumann in footage shot in the recording studio.

Although she had already built a reputation as a fine pianist while still a young woman, it was Wanda Landowska’s performances on the harpsichord that made her an iconic musician of the 20th century. Watch the perfection of her technique in a traditional folk dance. Glenn Gould was another one-of-a-kind. Tragically dead of a stroke at 50, his interpretations of the music of Bach are incomparable, notwithstanding his irritating penchant for singing along. Here, he gives a euphoria-inducing account of an extract from the
Partita in E.

There’s also footage of the great Leopold Godowsky, sadly not of him playing but from a home movie shot by his son who was the inventor of colour film. As well, there are extracts from Debussy’s Children’s Corner with Alfred Cortot doing the honours but photography is poor and sound quality indifferent.

David Dubal provides an eminently listenable linking commentary on the genesis and development of the piano and there are interesting titbits about this composer or that.

© November 2003

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