Moriz Rosenthal’s father was a professor of mathematics at the Lemberg Academy. The family was not musical, and it was not until young Moriz was seven years old that his father bought a piano. Progress for the child was so rapid that a local teacher was sought and at the age of ten, Rosenthal began studies with a pupil of Chopin, Karl Mikuli, who at that time was director of the Lemberg Conservatory. From Mikuli, Rosenthal learnt the secret of a perfect legato as passed to him by Chopin. At the age of eleven, Rosenthal played Chopin’s Rondo for Two Pianos Op. 73 with Mikuli in public.
When his family moved to Vienna in 1875 Rosenthal began lessons with Liszt pupil Rafael Jossefy, learning from him the detached, brilliant technique of the Liszt school, and it was the combination of these two teachers that gave Rosenthal his comprehensive technique of vast range and diversity. At fourteen Rosenthal made his debut in Vienna playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 with Joseffy at the second piano, Beethoven’s Variations in C minor, some Chopin, and Liszt’s La Campanella. In October 1876, on a visit to Vienna, Liszt heard Rosenthal and immediately accepted him as a pupil. Before he commenced studies with Liszt, Rosenthal toured Poland and Romania where the fourteen-year-old boy was made court pianist to the Romanian royal family. While studying with Liszt in Rome and Weimar he was sometimes fortunate enough to be the only student, receiving Liszt’s sole attention. Rosenthal gave concerts in Paris, Warsaw and St Petersburg but in 1880 decided to cease performing for a while in order to complete his academic studies at the University of Vienna where he studied philosophy and aesthetics. When he returned to the concert stage in 1886 he caused a sensation wherever he played. He also made friends with the greatest musicians of the time including Johann Strauss, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and particularly Anton Rubinstein with whom the young Rosenthal would often travel.
At the end of 1888 Rosenthal made his first appearance in America, astounding audiences throughout the country and returning many times to tour. It was not until 1895 that Rosenthal made his debut in London, playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat: ‘The tone he produced was simply prodigious, yet it must be admitted that it seldom or never degenerated into mere noise…’ He returned to London in October 1898, when he played Scharwenka’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 32 with Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy as an encore.
Rosenthal sustained a career through the first three decades of the twentieth century. In 1921 he gave a series of seven historical recitals, as had his friend Anton Rubinstein, surveying the literature for the piano from Bach to Brahms. The following year he married Hedwig Kanner and they remained in Vienna until forced to leave by the Nazi regime, settling in New York. Rosenthal was appointed guest professor at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his students included Charles Rosen. In 1936 the seventy-four-year-old Rosenthal played his series of seven historical recitals again in London and in 1938 he gave a Carnegie Hall recital celebrating the 50th anniversary of his American debut. Rosenthal was still before the public at the age of eighty, although by this time the titanic thunderings of his youth were replaced by the most subtle of shadings, a wondrously beautiful tone and exquisite poise and control.
At the height of his career Rosenthal was unsurpassed as a pianist. Not only did he have the greatest technique, allied to a poetic musical insight, but he was also a great thinker who believed that the study of literature, the visual arts, poetry and nature was of extreme importance to musicians. Though a small man, he was powerfully built with a great deal of stamina and often earned the description ‘titanic’. He was famous for his wit and could be caustic about fellow pianists. His repertoire was based around Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, but he also played Debussy and Albéniz and would programme Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111 and some of the piano sonatas by Schubert.
Rosenthal did not make his first recording until he was sixty-five years old. The reason for this is probably because he was waiting for a method of recording that could accurately reproduce his range of tone, something that the acoustic recording process could not do. Rosenthal recorded for a number of companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s and his recordings appeared on labels including Parlophone, Odéon, Edison, Ultraphon, Decca, Telefunken, Victor and HMV. For some reason many of these discs were only issued in France, Spain or Japan and his early recording sessions in France and Germany produced no published discs at all. Rosenthal’s first published disc was recorded by Victor in America and issued in Germany. It is of his own paraphrase on his friend Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz (more correctly titled Fantasie um Johann Strauss über die Walzer ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’, ‘Fledermaus’ und ‘Freu euch des Lebens’) and is a performance, if not of bravura virtuosity, of experience, style and leonine grandeur. Rosenthal recorded another work, his paraphrase on themes of Strauss, the Carnaval de Vienne, a number of times, the best being the recording for Parlophone made in May 1930. In 1929 Rosenthal recorded for Edison, many of the discs being of Chopin; the sound is poor and they were unpublished at the time, but have since appeared on a Biddulph compact disc. Rosenthal’s recordings of Chopin are some of the finest on disc, and for Odéon and Parlophone he recorded many mazurkas, waltzes and études. In the Étude Op. 10 No. 1 in C major, he uses a detached technique with very little pedal. His most important recording from this time is his only recording of a concerto. In 1930 and 1931 he recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra and Frieder Weissmann. It is a sublime performance and of considerable historical interest as Rosenthal studied with Chopin’s pupil Mikuli. When Rosenthal was a boy, the Princess Czartoryska, a close friend and pupil of Chopin, had played portions of the concerto to the ten-year-old-boy: he had played Liszt’s La Campanella for her. For Ultraphon/Telefunken Rosenthal recorded some works by Liszt including the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and the Liebestraum No. 3. The Rhapsody is a performance in the grand style, very impressive and imperious, but never vulgar; Rosenthal also plays his own cadenza at the end. He also recorded some ‘modern’ music by Debussy and Albéniz. His performance of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from Images Book 1 is given a cool, limpid reading.
From 1934 to 1937 Rosenthal entered into a recording contract with HMV in England. He recorded eighty sides, of which only six were issued in Britain, with a further eight titles released in America on the Victor label. Although by then he was in his mid-seventies, these are some of the best of Rosenthal’s discs as he was caught in excellent sound. He repeated much of the repertoire he had recorded for other companies, mainly Chopin; but he also recorded some nocturnes and there were some other titles such as a Schubert Moment Musical and a Chopin prélude that he had not recorded before. The Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 is particularly good for its demonstration of Rosenthal’s glorious tone quality, as is the Prélude in F sharp major Op. 28 No. 13. Another great disc from these sessions is of Rosenthal’s own version of the Chopin–Liszt song The Maiden’s Wish. The complete surviving HMV recordings were issued on compact disc in 1992 by APR, and are an excellent testament to a great pianist. APR also published Rosenthal’s correspondence with HMV over these recordings, and they make fascinating reading, giving insights into his nature as man and musician.
In June 1939 Rosenthal made some recordings for Victor in Chicago. None of them were issued at the time, but have been issued since and fortunately so, because they include a major work, Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58. The tone quality in the Largo is extraordinary; as Rosenthal wrote of his teacher Mikuli, ‘I never heard such a perfect legatissimo. It was an inheritance of his great master (Chopin) and he gave me the secret.’ Some other titles recorded at these sessions seem not to have survived, but those that have are impressive for a seventy-seven-year-old man. Rosenthal’s last recording session took place in March 1942 in New York. Now aged eighty, Rosenthal recorded just two titles, the Tarantella in A flat Op. 43 by Chopin, and Liszt’s arrangement of Chopin’s song My Joys. This last recording is a distillation of a lifetime’s knowledge of playing the piano and is exquisitely beautiful. A few recordings from radio broadcasts have survived from Rosenthal’s seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. The Romanze from the Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 11 in E minor by Chopin is performed with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Frank Black. Rosenthal also played his Carnaval de Vienne during this broadcast.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist