About this Recording
8.110668 - SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen / MUSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 1) (1927-1945)

Great Pianists: Moiseiwitsch, Volume 1

Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15

Brahms: 25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition



There must be something about the air in Odessa that produces musical flair of a special order. Sviatoslav Richter made his debut there in 1934 and, artistically, he never looked back. More importantly, this city on the Black Sea was the birthplace of Simon Barere, Shura Cherkassky, Emil Gilels, Tina Lerner, Nathan Milstein, David Oistrakh, Igor Oistrakh, Vladimir de Pachmann, Lev Pouishnov, Vassily Sapellnikov, Tossy Spivakovsky ?and Benno Moiseiwitsch. He was born Benjuma Moiseivich on 22nd February 1890 but adopted the German transliteration of his surname before he settled in Britain. The change to Benno was, however, an Anglicisation that apparently he did not like.


Moving forward a number of years to the fully-fledged artist acutely aware of his responsibilities: "At the back of one's mind," he said, "there is always the consciousness that there are far more wrong notes to be played than correct ones. There is the fear of a memory freeze, the knowledge that you are facing hundreds of real connoisseurs who will spot any faking. There is the feeling that the standards demanded must be of the highest always". The child probably had no such ideals but he had what his nephew and biographer, Maurice Moiseiwitsch, called "the almost insatiable interest and craving for music". Benjuma's ability to pick out tunes on the piano and play them easily by ear impressed his mother, who taught him to read scores. Keyboard prowess won him a place at the Imperial School of Music in Odessa, but his first report - "Inattentive; mischievous; does not like to practise his special exercises" - was not encouraging. Benjuma had a surprise in store though. He won the Rubinstein prize at the age of nine. The citation read "Brilliant and individual playing" and he had competed against colleagues who were at least eight years older.


Gifted though he was, Benjuma loved playing tricks on people. One incident, however, worked against him and he was sacked from the School. It was now 1905 and many Russians, dissatisfied with the established political order, staged a revolution. The consequences were unpleasant and even an eminent figure like Rimsky Korsakov was affected. He lost his professorship at the St Petersburg Conservatory through his sympathy for student demands for better conditions. He stayed in the country and was later reinstated, but the Moiseivich family decided that perhaps it was time for Benjuma and one of his brothers to leave. Their father, a horse-dealer, sold three pedigree animals to finance musical studies in London but, according to Maurice Moiseiwitsch, the tutors at the Royal Academy of Music (other sources say it was the Guildhall School) rejected Moiseiwitsch on the grounds that there was nothing they could teach him. He then went to Vienna for an audition with Theodor Leschetizky (1830 -1915), who rejected him too, but for different reasons. Moiseiwitsch's performance of Chopin's Revolutionary Study, Op.10, No.12, had infuriated the great teacher and his alleged reaction, "I can play this better with my left foot", has passed into legend. True or false, it still makes for a good story. What is crucial is that Moiseiwitsch was offered a second chance and Leschetizky became an influential mentor.


"A curious thing," said Moiseiwitsch many years later, "There was a time in the tuition when I realised that I had a much better technique than the old man and yet the moment he sat down at the piano and began to play, I began to learn things. He taught me above all, I think, never to stop studying". Formal study, however, ended after two and a half years when Leschetizky simply said, "I have nothing more to give you. It's up to you alone. You are ready to climb to the mountain top. I have shown you the map but you must do the mountaineering yourself Yes, it's a very lonely task being a soloist. Everything you have learned you must be able to say to several thousand people at a time, clearly and well, without nerves, hesitation, forgetfulness or too much anxiety. This is something no one can teach you".


On 1st October 1908, Moiseiwitsch made his debut in the English town of Reading, where he shared a recital with the singer Nellie Melba and played to a small audience in a room. Reaching out "to several thousand people" did not actually begin until 8th February 1910, when he played an exacting programme at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall in London, comprising Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Schumann's Carnaval, Chopin's Sonata in B minor and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Interestingly, he had offered a piece by Schumann (we do not know which) for the Rubinstein competition and, in one respect, this London recital showed that he had started as he meant to continue; the music of Chopin and Schumann was never neglected. Carnaval, in particular, may have had special appeal because it was also played for two other debuts, at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1919 and at the Town Hall in Melbourne the following year.


HMV, to whom Moiseiwitsch was contracted between 1916 and 1960, twice tried to record an abridged version of the work in 1919 but neither was issued and it is likely that the matrices were destroyed. Kinderszenen fared better. Between March 1929 and April 1930, Moiseiwitsch made three recordings of this work and the last, offered here, was approved. Technical standards in the inter-war years were probably haphazard because it was also a case of 'third time lucky' in March 1930 for Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. There were two attempts in 1925. The first, in January, recorded acoustically (through a horn rather than a microphone) is now thought lost; and the second, in October, was vetoed.


The authorised recordings, including Brahms's two pieces from Opus 119, were made in the Queen's Small Hall, as were a number of others after 1926 when electrical recording became the norm. In its day, Queen's Hall itself was the venue for the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts and, ironically, Moiseiwitsch was the last soloist to appear at one of these in September 1940, eight months before the entire building was bombed in an air raid. So, Pictures at an Exhibition emanates from HMV's Studio 3 at Abbey Road; and what we have is the second recording. The first, in June 1945, was abandoned because a bid to squeeze the performance on to six sides failed, but even spreading it across eight the next time round was not enough to record two of the movements complete; Moiseiwitsch had skilfully to amend Old Castle and the Great Gate of Kiev to fit the limitations imposed. Almost certainly, there was no choice in the matter because shellac, needed for manufacturing 78s, was in very short supply during, and immediately after World War II.


Sadly, HMV/EMI rather neglected Moiseiwitsch in the vinyl era of the 1950s. He was not unreservedly invited to take advantage of better technology and, of the major works on this CD, only Brahms's Handel Variations had the benefit of an LP recording on EMI. The others had to wait until 1962 when American Decca (Brunswick in the UK) offered him a contract. By then Moiseiwitsch was past his prime, and the remakes of Pictures at an Exhibition and Kinderszenen, together with his first-ever recordings of Carnaval and Kreisleriana, were poorly received. One review was blunt: "It is with great regret that we find such deterioration in the playing of such a fine artist", who, not long afterwards, on 9th April 1963, died of heart disease. Less than three months earlier, on 30th January, this much-travelled musician played Carnaval at a recital in Pittsburgh. It was his last in the United States, and the last performance of a piece that had helped to start his career.


We must accept that Moiseiwitsch was "such a fine artist" when recording techniques were not always in a fine state. Recording policies were not always consistent either. Why, for instance, only Brahms's Handel Variations? Moiseiwitsch played this work relatively infrequently; yet the composer's Paganini Variations, regularly programmed at recitals until the late 1940s, was ignored. In this instance, perhaps repertoire mattered more than musicians and Wilhelm Backhaus's 1929 version of this piece in HMV's catalogue had been the deciding factor. Still, there is much to be grateful for and the best of Moiseiwitsch explains why no less a figure than Josef Hofmann said of him, "Now, there's a pianist in the romantic tradition".


Nalen Anthoni


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