Barere was the eleventh of thirteen children, and the death of his father found young Simon using his pianistic talents in cinemas and cafés, earning money to help support the large family. His initial training was at the Imperial Academy in Odessa, but when he was sixteen his mother died and he respected her wish for him to obtain the best possible musical education. He made his own way to St Petersburg where he played at the Conservatory for director Alexander Glazunov and two formidable members of the piano staff, Annette Essipov and Isabella Vengerova: all were astounded at the talent of the young man. Glazunov took Barere under his wing, sparing him the formal entrance examinations. He also ensured that Barere would stay seven years at the Conservatory and thus avoid conscription into the army. Barere studied piano with Essipov until her death in 1914, whereupon he continued with Felix Blumenfeld, whose pupils included Vladimir Horowitz and Heinrich Neuhaus.
Like many pianists leaving full-time education Barere proceeded to make a living as a touring virtuoso, although he did initially have the security of a teaching post at the Kiev Conservatory. Barere had a career fraught with bad luck and affected by unfortunate circumstances. The start of his career was hampered by the fact that he was not permitted to tour outside the Soviet Union until 1928, when he was sent to the Baltic and Scandinavia. Making Riga his base, he managed to gain the release from Soviet Russia of his wife (whom he had married in 1920) and young son, Boris. A decision to settle in Berlin was a big mistake as the Nazi regime was already persecuting Jews, and Barere had to make a living by playing in cafés and bars, just as he had done in his childhood. Fortunately the family was able to flee to Sweden, and from here Barere could pursue a European touring career. His British debut was such a success that HMV immediately asked him to record for them. These records spread his name across the Atlantic and led to his Carnegie Hall debut in 1936.
Just as his career was under way in Europe and the USA, World War II interrupted it. Barere decided to settle in the USA in 1939, and, although he toured Australia, South America and New Zealand after the war, it was through his Carnegie Hall concerts during the 1940s that his name was kept before audiences. The New York Times referred to a recital in 1949 as ‘…one of the most amazing feats of pianism heard in this city in many a year’. His tragic death, on the stage of Carnegie Hall from a cerebral haemorrhage during a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto Op. 16 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, robbed the musical world of one of its most thrilling pianists.
Barere made his first recordings in 1929 for Odéon when he went to Scandinavia. The four sides were of repertoire that he played throughout his career, by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov. Perhaps the most important of Barere’s recordings are those he made for HMV between 1934 and 1936.
These astonishing discs show just why the critics were grasping for superlatives. The Times reported in January 1934, when he was known as Simon Barer: ‘Even in these days when good pianists are common, M. Simon Barer, who gave his first recital at Aeolian Hall on Tuesday, is exceptional.’ Of Barere’s performance of Blumenfeld’s Étude for the Left Hand the paper stated: ‘If the eye had not seen the right hand resting on the trouser-leg the ear would have declared that it was not possible to range over the whole compass of the keyboard with such consummate ease and unspoiled musical effect with the left hand alone. This was the measure of M. Barer’s technical accomplishment, which was at the service of a mature musical judgement.’
Barere excelled in the virtuoso repertoire, particularly Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and his Réminiscences de Don Juan, Schumann’s Toccata Op. 7, and Balakirev’s Islamey. Fortunately HMV recorded all this repertoire as well as music by Scriabin, Godowsky, and Barere’s teachers Glazunov and Blumenfeld. The technique displayed in these recordings is breathtaking in all respects, especially as it is coupled with an astounding elegance in Blumenfeld’s Étude and an extraordinary power and drive in Islamey. In fact, Barere’s style was akin to that of his fellow-pupil Horowitz in its clarity, rapidly articulated finger-work and explosive dynamics, yet Barere could also play with poetry and a tone colour that few with his effortless digital dexterity possess. Horowitz himself said: ‘Barere had a tremendous technique. He played Professor Blumenfeld’s Étude for the Left Hand like a miracle.’
His son Boris had some of Barere’s Carnegie Hall concerts recorded during the late 1940s and these precious documents have been released on compact disc by APR. These display Barere in large-scale works: Liszt’s Sonata, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, as well as works by composers whom he did not record commercially, like Bach and Beethoven, and two works with orchestra (Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 Op. 18).
Barere’s final recordings were made for the American company Remington, fifteen years after his previous commercial recordings for HMV. The confidence of post-war America and the introduction of the long-playing microgroove record created seemingly ideal circumstances in which Barere could secure his place among the greatest of international pianists. In the event, Barere died only weeks after making these recordings, and the resulting LP was issued as a memorial album. The playing here is as wondrous as ever; as Glazunov was reported to say, ‘Barere is an Anton Rubinstein in one hand, and a Liszt in the other.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist