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Benno Moiseiwitsch was one of seven children. His father was a farmer and his mother musically gifted. At the age of seven Benno began piano lessons with Dmitri Klimov at the Imperial School of Music in Odessa and two years later won the Anton Rubinstein Prize at the age of nine. By the age of fifteen Moiseiwitsch was already a fine pianist and he and his older brother John went to London where he was told at the Royal Academy of Music that he could be taught nothing. From London, Benno (and his brother) travelled to Vienna to play for the great pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky who rejected him, told him to practise more control and to return in a few months: Moiseiwitsch did this and was accepted. He studied with Leschetizky until he was eighteen, learning about the musical side of playing the piano and developing his individuality.

Moiseiwitsch made his official debut in Reading in 1908 and his London debut fourteen months later. The Bechstein Hall (later Wigmore Hall) recital was a great success and his career was launched. In 1914 Moiseiwitsch married violinist Daisy Kennedy and of their two daughters, Tanya became a well-known scenic designer. His second marriage in 1929 to Anita Gensburger lasted until her death in 1956 and produced one son.

Moiseiwitsch made his American debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall and immediately became a favourite with the American public. After hearing Moiseiwitsch during the 1926–1927 season, pianist and writer Abram Chasins said to his friend Josef Hofmann, ‘I think I have just heard your heir apparent.’ Hofmann replied, ‘Ah, so you have heard Moiseiwitsch. Now there’s a natural pianist in the Romantic tradition.’ Moiseiwitsch was just as popular in Britain where he took British citizenship just before World War II, never returning to Russia.

Moiseiwitsch worked hard all his life: a life of constant touring, through America at least twenty times, three tours of the Far East, four of South America and six of Australia and New Zealand. He also toured in South Africa, and during World War II worked tirelessly for the war effort and Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund, giving more than eight hundred concerts throughout Britain. He played so much during the war that he suffered from fibrositis of the arms: for example giving concerts on 6, 7, 8, 11, 12 and 14 March 1943, but cancelling that scheduled for 15 March. However after the war in 1946, when he was exhausted from so much playing and recording, his manager actually brought a court case against him for his failure to appear on 15 March 1943.

One of the best of the Leschtizky pupils and one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, Moiseiwitsch had a wonderful tone, infallible technique and a stage manner and persona of reserve. Due to his enormous and exhausting efforts during World War II, there were post-war performances where he appeared tired and worn-out, but he never gave a performance that was less than professional. He excelled in the Romantic music of the nineteenth century, and was particularly identified with the works of Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov. He idolised Rachmaninov and was a close friend of the composer.

Moiseiwitsch made his first recording in 1916 when he was twenty-six and continued to record for HMV until 1960 when he was seventy. From the acoustic period comes a wide selection of music from Daquin to Debussy. The titles are all short pieces and there is some exceptionally fine playing here. Pieces such as Chopin’s Berceuse, Debussy’s Clair de lune and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau all sound remarkably clear, and the Chopin and Ravel works are some of the highlights of these early recordings. Repertoire that Moiseiwitsch did not record again includes a Chopin mazurka, Anton Rubinstein’s Barcarolle in F minor Op. 30 No. 1 and Scriabin’s Nocturne for the left hand Op. 9 No. 2. Right at the end of the acoustic era, in January 1925, Moiseiwitsch recorded Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and Sir Landon Ronald. At the beginning of the electrical era Moiseiwitsch re- recorded many of the acoustic titles and from this rich period of his recordings come superlative performances of music of which Moiseiwitsch had a perfect understanding: works such as Godowsky’s Concert Paraphrase on Die Fledermaus, Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Tausig’s arrangement of Weber’s Aufforderung zum Tanz, Rachmaninov’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Liszt’s La Leggierezza. Extended works recorded at this time include Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel Op. 24 and Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15. Until April 1930 Moiseiwitsch’s recordings appeared on HMV’s Black Label, but from then for a period of seven years he made no recordings.

When he returned to HMV in 1937, his recordings were issued on their popular and cheaper Plum Label, but this was a sign of his popularity with the public, not because he was not of the calibre to be on their Red Label with artists such as Rachmaninov and Kreisler. During this period Moiseiwitsch recorded many of his concerto performances that were so popular with the public. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 was recorded with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Walter Goehr in a performance that Rachmaninov considered better than his own, and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 is given a similarly committed performance. During the late 1930s and 1940s he also recorded excellent versions of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp Op. 1, Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto Op. 73, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16, Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 and, unusually, his Concerto No. 2 in G major Op. 44, the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 and the Piano Concerto by Delius which Moiseiwitsch held in high regard. In 1950 he recorded Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37, by which time HMV was using tape for the recording sessions. All of Moisiewitsch’s 78rpm discs have been issued on compact disc by Naxos.

Moiseiwitsch’s best recordings are those of Chopin, Schumann and the Russian repertoire. His performances of Rachmaninov’s solo works and those by another of his friends, Nicolas Medtner, are some of the most persuasive on disc. He also recorded Kabalevsky’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F major Op. 46 and a stunning performance of Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique Op. 4 No. 4. Of the Chopin recordings made during the 78rpm era there are fine performances of the four ballades, the four scherzos, and the Préludes Op. 28. In the late 1950s EMI issued a wonderful disc of Chopin including the Nocturne in E major Op. 62 No. 2; it vies for a place as the best recorded nocturne with Ignaz Friedman’s Columbia disc of Op. 55 No. 2. This Chopin recital appeared in the Philips Great Pianists Series. Major works taped during the 1950s include Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, Fantasiestücke Op. 12 and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel Op. 24, all works dear to Moiseiwitsch’s heart. He said that Schumann was his favourite composer, and in 1953 he recorded the Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 and Grieg’s Piano Concerto Op. 16. All of these recordings have been reissued on compact disc by Testament.

Having made his first recording in 1916, Moiseiwitsch lived into the stereo era, recording Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 and Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op. 43 in 1955 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Hugo Rignold; but his last effort for EMI was a disappointing issue of individual movements from piano concertos.

In a postlude to his long recording career Moiseiwitsch made three stereo LPs for American Decca whilst in New York in 1961. These are important as they include extended works he did not record for HMV/EMI. One disc is of Schumann and includes Kreisleriana Op. 16 and the Arabeske Op. 18 (which although recorded for HMV in 1951, was never issued). An LP of Beethoven contains the Piano Sonata in E flat Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’, and the third record is of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9. The Mussorgsky he recorded for HMV in 1945, but early attempts in 1919 to record Carnaval were not successful.

Moiseiwitsch made one recording of chamber music with violinist Jascha Heifetz. It is of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, recorded in 1951. However, earlier attempts to record the work in 1949, with a more realistic balance disapproved of by Heifetz, have recently been issued by APR.

Some live material has survived including BBC broadcasts of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 from 1956, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op. 73 from March 1963, his last Royal Festival Hall performance. Arbiter and Pearl have issued broadcasts and recitals from New York in 1960. Perhaps the most interesting material from the end of his career is a BBC filmed performance of Liszt’s arrangement of music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recorded in 1954 and now issued on DVD, it gives the viewer a glimpse into another world.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).

Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF PIANISTS Naxos Educational
BEETHOVEN / BRAHMS / FRANCK: Violin Sonatas (Heifetz) (1937-1951) Naxos Historical
Chamber Music
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 8) (1950, 1938) Naxos Historical
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14 and 21 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 9) (1927-1950) Naxos Historical
BRAHMS, J.: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel / SCHUMANN, R. Fantasie in C Major (Moiseiwitsch) (1954) Naxos Classical Archives
CHOPIN, F.: Barcarolle / Nocturnes Nos. 2, 19 / Scherzos Nos. 1, 3, 4 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 13) (1939-1952) Naxos Historical
CHOPIN: 24 Preludes / Ballades / Fantaisie-Impromptu (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 12) (1938-1952) Naxos Historical
CHOPIN: Piano Works (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 11) (1916-1927) Naxos Historical
DELIUS: Piano Concerto / RAVEL: Jeux d'eau (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 6) (1925-1950) Naxos Historical
Instrumental, Concerto, Instrumental
Great Pianists (1926-1945) Naxos Historical
GRIEG / SAINT-SAENS: Piano Concertos / LISZT: Hungarian Fantasy (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 5) (1939-1947) Naxos Historical
Concerto, Orchestral
MEDTNER: Piano Sonata, Op. 22 / KABALEVSKY: Piano Sonata, Op. 46 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 7) (1928-1948) Naxos Historical
MOISEIWITSCH, Benno: Acoustic Recordings 1916-1925 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 10) Naxos Historical
Instrumental, Concerto, Instrumental
MOISEIWITSCH, Benno: Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 2 (1925-1941) Naxos Historical
RACHMANINOV, S.: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Moiseiwitsch, Philharmonia Orchestra, Rignold) (1955) Naxos Classical Archives
Concerto, Instrumental
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 4) (1937-1948) Naxos Historical
SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen / MUSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 1) (1927-1945) Naxos Historical
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 3) (1944-1945) Naxos Historical
Instrumental, Concerto

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