Ignaz Friedman’s father was a musician who played in a local theatre orchestra. After about ten years of piano lessons with local teacher Flora Grzywinska, Friedman left Kraków in 1900 to study composition at the Leipzig Conservatory with Hugo Riemann. It was not until 1901, when he was already nineteen, that he decided to go to Vienna for lessons with Theodor Leschetizky. As with Moiseiwitsch, Leschetizky was not enthusiastic when the young Friedman presented himself, but after three years of study (also becoming Leschetizky’s teaching assistant), Friedman was ready to make his Vienna debut in November 1904. He chose to play three piano concertos at his debut: the D minor Concerto Op. 15 of Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s in B flat minor Op. 23, and the E flat Concerto by Liszt. This debut launched a touring career that began in 1905 and during the next forty years he toured the United States twelve times, South America seven times, and Europe every year, as well as visits to such countries as Iceland, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Palestine, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Friedman gave around 2800 concerts. He collaborated with such artists as Emanuel Feuermann, Erica Morini, Mischa Elman, Leopold Auer, Antal Dorati, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Willem Mengelberg, Arthur Nikisch and Eugène Ysaÿe.
Until 1914 Friedman lived in Berlin but during World War I he lived in Copenhagen and after the war resided in Italy. Friedman’s first visit to America was in 1920 and in April 1923 he made his first records for American Columbia. In 1938 with the approach of World War II Friedman tried unsuccessfully to get a teaching position in America. However in 1940 Friedman was able to step into a tour of Australia due to a cancellation by other artists. He settled there and performed, taught and broadcast. His health began to fail in 1943, and he died in Sydney five years later.
Friedman also composed, with many short works and transcriptions to his name, as well as a piano quintet and three string quartets. He edited the complete works of Chopin as well as the major works of Liszt, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. His vast performing repertoire ranged from eighteenth-century keyboard works (often in his own arrangements) to modern music of his day by Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz, Dohnányi, Kodály and Bartók. It was in the Romantic repertoire that Friedman excelled. He had a technique that apparently Horowitz acknowledged was superior to his own, and he used this to bring compositions alive. Rhythm and colour were very important to Friedman and he considered these attributes the most difficult to teach to students. His programmes would often contain a few major works such as a Beethoven sonata, a work of Schumann, a group of Chopin and a virtuosic closing work. When he played in London in 1925 the programme included Beethoven’s last piano sonata Op. 111 and Schumann’s Études Symphoniques and closed with Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltz No. 1. ‘It is no exaggeration to say he created a sensation by his technique alone. It looked so simple…’ Friedman’s desire to breathe life into compositions, to add colour and vibrancy, could lead to interpretations that were somewhat apart from the original text of the composer. His large musical personality could sometimes come between the composer and the audience, but then, Friedman was an interpretative performer (as were many musicians of his era) whose readings stemmed from his own feeling about the work he was playing, rather than subjugating himself entirely to what (he imagined) the composer would have wanted.
All of Ignaz Friedman’s recordings were made for Columbia, and the most famous of these are selections of Chopin’s mazurkas and Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte as well as Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat Op. 55 No. 2. Harold Schonberg famously described the latter when he said it ‘…may well be the most beautiful, singing, perfectly proportioned performance of a Chopin nocturne ever put on records’. Friedman’s love of rhythm and colour can be heard to full effect in his recordings of Chopin’s mazurkas. The infectious swing of his subtly-controlled rhythm is irresistible, whilst his tone production in Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte is something of pure beauty. This singing tone that Friedman produces has rarely, if ever, been equalled in these works. The few recordings of Chopin’s études are extraordinary. Both Op. 10 No. 7 and No. 12 are given performances of great bravura and drama with absolutely no sign of strain being put upon Friedman’s technique as he dashes these works off with aplomb. The same can be said of his dazzling recording of Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s La Campanella. Friedman again plays with unbridled bravura, in an astonishing performance that sweeps the listener along; although these traits can have a certain drawback in some works, such as Hummel’s Rondo in E flat, where Friedman’s impetuosity sounds incongruous.
Friedman’s only released concerto recording is disappointing. He recorded the Grieg Piano Concerto Op. 16 with an unidentified and under-rehearsed orchestra in 1928. An eminent critic once said that it sounds as though Friedman is playing with his legs crossed and a fat cigar wedged in the corner of his mouth. That is not to say that it is a slap-dash affair, but it is hardly a committed performance. What a thrill it would be to hear Friedman’s recording of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, made with Henry Wood and the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1927 but never issued and now probably destroyed.
Friedman often played chamber music during his career, but only recorded one work with an instrumentalist, and that was Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata with Bronisław Huberman. Some of Friedman’s most delightful recordings are those of encore pieces of his own composition. His recording of his own Elle danse is full of teasing rubato and as two takes were published, we can compare different recordings of the same piece and note that Friedman plays differently in each. One ends quietly, the other loudly, Friedman playing as he felt on the day. Friedman's complete commercial recordings have been issued on five compact discs by Naxos. Two short broadcasts have survived from New Zealand radio in 1941. Unfortunately, Friedman does not play the piano in these, but speaks on Chopin and Paderewski.
One of the greatest of the Leschetizky pupils, Friedman was without doubt one of the great pianists of the Golden Age, a larger-than-life musical personality whose character infused everything he played.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).