Earl Wild’s parents were not musical but their child was exceptionally talented, possessing perfect pitch and an impressive sight-reading ability. His first teachers, all local, were Henry Volz, Harry Archer and Mrs Hanson. At six he was enrolled at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute where he studied with Alice Walker, and from the age of twelve until graduation he studied with Selmar Jansen, who had been a pupil of both Xaver Scharwenka and Eugen d’Albert. Due to the Depression and the break up of his parents’ marriage, Wild had to earn money to help support his mother, so at the age of thirteen he managed to get jobs at the local radio station KDKA, playing the piano or making arrangements for orchestral groups. He continued this work until he graduated, and then became pianist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra working under such conductors as Fritz Reiner and Otto Klemperer.
In 1934 Wild travelled to New York for lessons from Busoni pupil Egon Petri and was able to hear the great pianists of the time. Those whose playing influenced him most were Josef Hofmann, Josef Lhévinne, Artur Schnabel and Walter Gieseking. He also took further tuition from Paul Doguereau (a pupil of Paderewski and Ravel) and Helen Barere, wife of pianist Simon Barere. From 1937 Wild worked for NBC in a similar capacity to that at KDKA, but also had the opportunity of sometimes playing concertos with the NBC Orchestra under such conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Walter Damrosch. He accompanied a great number of eminent instrumentalists and played chamber music, in 1944 giving the US première of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor Op. 67. During World War II, Wild served as a musician playing fourth flute in the Navy Band and piano concertos with the Navy Orchestra.
At a Toscanini wartime concert of American music Wild was asked to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The concert was a great success and as a result Wild was in demand to play Gershwin throughout America. Unfortunately however this served to compound a problem which had already arisen as a result of Wild’s previous work in radio studios: like Oscar Levant, he was not taken seriously as a musician because he played ‘popular’ music.
At the end of the war Wild began work at ABC’s studios where he composed, played for television shows and performed frequently for radio broadcasts. He also concentrated more seriously on a performing career as a solo pianist, touring when his duties at ABC permitted. It was not until 1968 that Wild made the decision to leave ABC and concentrate fully on a career of performing and teaching. He moved to Palm Springs in Florida and rapidly increased his concert schedule. He has since appeared throughout the world in North and South America, Europe, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand.
Wild has conducted for the Santa Fé Opera and has been a composer all his life. He is most famous for his piano transcriptions, particularly those of music by Gershwin and Rachmaninov, and in 1962 was commissioned by ABC to compose an Easter Oratorio, which was broadcast on television conducted by the composer.
Wild is a pianist in the tradition of the nineteenth century in that he entertains audiences rather than lectures them with his performances. He believes that there is much lacking in modern piano playing, that most pianists are concerned only with the notes and not what lies beneath. His goal is beauty and emotion in music, something he believes is being destroyed by musicologists. Although perfectly at home in Beethoven and Schumann, Wild delights in playing transcriptions and less well known music of the late nineteenth century. He is also a noted Liszt player and often performs the Russian Romantics, Rachmaninov and Medtner. His repertoire is all-encompassing with the exception of atonal music, and he seems able to successfully perform music of any period he chooses. He has played works by Buxtehude, Hindemith, Menotti, Scharwenka, Paderewski, Glinka, Barber and Copland. He has championed contemporary American music, giving the première of Paul Creston’s Piano Concerto in 1949 in Paris, and also in the late 1940s performing Morton Gould’s Concertino and Samuel Barber’s Excursions. In 1950 he gave the première of Martinu’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with George Ricci and in 1970, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Georg Solti, gave the first performance of the Piano Concerto by Martin David Levy, a work he had himself commissioned. During his long career Wild has played with most of the famous conductors and instrumentalists of the twentieth century including Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Mischa Elman, William Primrose, Ruggiero Ricci, and even Maria Callas whom he accompanied in Dallas in 1974.
Wild apparently made his first recording in 1939 for RCA and he has since recorded a huge range of repertoire for more than twenty different labels. At the age of eighty-five, Wild recorded a disc of piano sonatas by Barber, Stravinsky, Hindemith and himself, and he has continued to record into his late eighties. Some of his best discs are of the concerto repertoire, the finest being the 1969 recording of Scharwenka’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 32 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Erich Leinsdorf. Through his teacher Selmar Jansen, Wild was introduced to the Romantic repertoire of the composer-pianists of the nineteenth century, and learnt this concerto with Jansen in 1928. It is a delightful disc, as is Wild’s recording of Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 17 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Arthur Fiedler. When these recordings were made no other pianist was playing such material and Wild became something of a specialist in this repertoire. However, it is impossible to label him as a certain type of pianist. His roots are firmly in the late nineteenth century but his repertoire is vast, extending from Buxtehude to Barber and incorporating French and Spanish music and works by many rarely-played composers. Of specifically American music, a disc from 1962 of piano concertos by Gian Carlo Menotti and Aaron Copland is another highlight of his discography, whilst in 1988 he recorded a disc of works by Edward Collins for the Composer’s Recordings Inc. label.
Thought by some to be the best available cycle, Wild’s recording of Rachmaninov’s complete works for piano and orchestra has rightly received high praise. Made in May 1965 for the Reader’s Digest label (and reissued on compact disc by Chandos and Chesky), it teams Wild with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Jascha Horenstein. He brings a clarity to the music reminiscent of the composer’s own recordings. Other fine concerto recordings include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Anatole Fistoulari, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent from 1962 and Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra and Massimo Freccia. Although Wild recorded Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman in the 1940s, his best recording of it was made in 1959 with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra with whom Wild also recorded a stunning version of the Piano Concerto in F major in 1961.
Of the solo repertoire, a disc on the Vanguard label entitled The Demonic Liszt contains excellent performances of the first Mephisto-Waltz and the Fantaisie on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. In 1981 Wild gave a concert at Carnegie Hall consisting entirely of transcriptions; this was recorded and released by Audiofon. It contains some miraculous piano playing, one of the highlights being Wild’s own transcription of the Pas de Quatre from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lakewhich is breathtaking in its lightness of execution. A Vanguard disc from 1964 has a collection of transcriptions by Leopold Godowsky, Henri Herz, Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Liszt. Another Reader’s Digest recording reissued by Ivory Classics is The Months Op. 37a by Tchaikovsky. In an excellent recording, all of Wild’s colours and shadings are caught in this intimate and delightful group of pieces.
A Sony disc from 1995 entitled The Romantic Master, and recorded when he was eighty, gives Wild a chance to display his humour in another of his own transcriptions entitled Reminiscences of Snow White. Some of Wild’s best transcriptions are those of Rachmaninov’s songs which he recorded for dell’Arte in 1982. Here he captures all the ardour of the complex song accompaniments and weaves a wonderful bel canto line amongst it. An augmented version of this release has been issued by Ivory Classics. No less impressive are his Seven Virtuoso Études on Gershwin Songs. Recorded in 1976 (and again in 1989), these are as enjoyable for the listener as they must be for the pianist.
Wild has recorded a fair amount of Chopin of which the best is probably his complete set of the nocturnes recorded in 1997; whilst from 1986 he gives a fine, crisp reading of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in B flat Op. 22 for the dell’Arte label. A fine Liszt recital recorded for EMI in 1973 includes an excellent performance of the Tarantella from Auber’s La Muette de Portici arranged by Liszt.
In 2000 Pearl issued a disc of historic broadcasts and studio recordings from the late 1940s. It is fascinating to hear the young Wild in a group of waltzes and études by Chopin as well as Buxtehude’s Suite in D minor and Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3 which he recorded again more than fifty years later. Recent releases on the Ivory Classics label include radio broadcasts from the 1940s containing a brilliant Piano Sonata in B minor by Liszt and a 90th birthday recital disc.
Wild has performed at the White House for six consecutive presidents and has become an American ‘national treasure’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist