Arbiter Records 152

Irén Marik: From Mozart to Messiaen

"A stunning performance, like being submerged in a bath of beauty." – André Marchal, on Marik & Ranck performing Messiaen. Our third and final volume of Marik's art comprises essential works in her repertoire. Liner notes include a rare interview.

Disc 1

Irén Marik and John Ranck performed as a duo for several decades, with an early interest in Messiaen’s Visions de l’ Amen and they were among the first to perform the cycle. Marik had an empathy for Liszt and played his Sonata as a radical musical experiment rather than offering a virtuosic display common to most players. Her Debussy creates a unique sound world, evoking the piano as a transformed instrument.

  1. Debussy Prelude: La cathédrale engloutie 5:57
  2. Debussy Prelude: Ondine 3:05
  3. Debussy Prelude: Voiles 3:18
  4. Debussy Prelude: Général Lavine, eccentric 2:41
  5. Debussy Prelude: Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses 3:03
  6. Debussy Prelude: La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune 4:07
  7. Debussy Prelude: Le vent dans la plaine 2:26
  8. Debussy Prelude: Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest 3:33
  9. Bartók Mikrokosmos: Perpetuum Mobile 1:13
  10. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen de la Création 6:18
  11. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l'anneau 6:26
  12. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen de l'Agonie de Jésus 7:41
  13. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen du Désir 10:33
  14. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen des Anges, des Saintes, du Chant des oiseaux 7:42
  15. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen du Jugement 2:36
  16. Messaien: Visions de l'Amen for 2 pianos: Amen de la Consommation 8:35

Disc 2

  1. Liszt Sospiro 5:45
  2. Liszt Sonata in b 29:07
  3. Mozart Rondo in D, K.485 4:51
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata op. 78: I 4:48
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata op. 78: II 3:06
  6. Schubert Impromptu in B flat op. 142/3 7:30
  7. Brahms Intermezzo in E flat op. 117/1 4:13
  8. Schumann Fantasiestucke: Des abends 3:00
  9. Schumann Fantasiestucke: Aufschwung 3:12
  10. Debussy Reflets dans l'eau 5:12
  11. Debussy Prelude: Les collines d' Anacapri 2:59
  12. Debussy Clair de lune 4:03

Leaving war-torn Europe for the safety and obscurity of exile in the United .States, Irén Marik (1905-1986) survived by teaching at Sweet Briar, playing concerts, and later, retiring to the desert hamlet (population 1,000) of Independence, California, where she spent her final years. Until our project to issue her finest performances, Marik’s art existed on limited edition private LPs, and in the memories of those who attended her recitals. With this edition, we conclude a three volume series covering the most compelling documents of her art to have survived on recording. Her duo partner, John Ranck (9 April 1915­15 October 2005) passed away during the preparation of this CD, well aware that his performance with Marik of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen would be finally released. Ranck enabled Marik to record (with Zodiac) and did much to further her as a musician. On the verge of his 90th birthday, he complained little of severe health problems, still managing to play a couple of hours daily and teach those who sought his advice.

Ranck eagerly recalled his work with Marik, which began soon after they met in 1955. He mentioned how Marik once came to New York for a recital, staying at the home of a socialite. Marik requested an alarm clock to be placed in her room, set for six a.m., explaining “I have to say ‘Good morning’ to Jesus.” She combined a deep religious spirit with witty sarcasm. Ranck was quick to remember her gourmet cooking. The duo played the Messiaen quite often, once at New York’s Guggenheim Museum (designed by Wright). The nature of the music suited them, as Ranck took first piano (written for Yvonne Loriod), a treacherous foray into rhythmic dissonant canons and birdsong, while Marik sat with the score Messiaen himself played (second piano), providing a foundation through harmonized plainchant and thematic statements. Marik and Ranck played Bartók’s Sonata, the Debussy En blanc et Noir, and a work they commissioned from Paul Earls (two pianos and electronic sounds on tape). Their collaboration lasted over a decade. When they met, Ranck had successfully persuaded his teacher, Carl Friedberg, to overcome his reluctance to record, taking him to the Koszciusko Foundation’s dining room, where Friedberg at once found the ambiance and acoustics to be satisfactory. Marik and Ranck also made solo recordings in this space for the Zodiac label. One delighted listener to Ranck’s recording of Poulenc’s Soirées de Nazelles was the composer himself.
We dedicate this set to John Ranck’s memory.

It is not known when Marik began to study Debussy but one likely influence was hearing Gieseking’s Budapest concerts, which Bartók also attended. She arrived at interpretations which in no way reflect Gieseking’s approach. Her originality is evident throughout, especially in a unique solution to the change of meter in La cathedrale engloutie soon after the opening theme is stated. The work by Bartók, her mentor, and Debussy’s Les collines d’Anacapri are among the earliest surviving examples of her art, dating from 1952 when Marik was forty-seven years old. Her ever-present fiery temperament is more on the surface, a quality which gradually became internalized to create interpretations of greater depth and intensity.

The morning after a concert, I barged in on Irén with a recording by a Liszt pupil, Frederic Lamond, playing Liszt’s Sospiro, curious about her reaction: she listened to half of it and turned it off, finding it “terrible.” Marik’s and Lamond’s performances could not be further apart in conception, as Lamond flits about in haste as a colorist, unmindful of details and proportioning. It is a difficult work to judge his recordings, as time limitations on 78 rpm discs obligated pianists to perform the work in under 5 minutes, perhaps unrepresentative of their true tempi.

The Liszt Sonata was a work she most likely began studying late in life, as no information has been found of Marik’s having played it before her seventieth year. A work one usually dreads hearing, Marik reexamines the sonata, producing an original reading which highlights thematic transformation, voicing and narrative in discerning ways. This performance was recorded at home in one take.
Around 1968, Marik had prepared a recital program which began with the Mozart Rondo, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 78, several Debussy Preludes, Liszt’s Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este, two Rachmaninoff Preludes, ending with the Chopin G minor Ballade. This repertoire survived on numerous recordings, especially the Mozart (19 versions) and Beethoven (16 versions). Those designated by her for publication on a private LP were accurate but less inspired. It was a daunting task to select the most compelling versions, as most were valid and commanding. The decision was to offer performances settled in their conception, finding her highly attentive to phrasing and articulation, whereas other readings implied a work in progress. Of interest are the lace-like interlocking broken arpeggios in the second movement of the Beethoven, audaciously shaped by a pale tone into a Pointillist entity, followed by the conversation of a thematic question-and-answer interplay between the registers.

On the day of our first encounter in 1982, Marik obliged with an interview (recorded), perhaps the only occasion on which she was asked about her background and pianistic approach. Indicative of her character, she kept any talk about the past to a minimum while eagerly describing the art she had developed.

Who was your first piano teacher?

Her name was Madame [Ludmilla] Foldessy, she was a wonderful woman, she taught at the Conservatory of Music and I was with her until I left for England when I was about seventeen years old. And I started to concertize when I was not quite fourteen years old, and it was mostly in Hungary, and then I had some engagements in Europe, and I went back again to school, and then I left for England.
Were your first concerts solo recitals or with orchestra?
Solo recitals, all of them, and I was sometimes working with another artist. Once, I think it was my first recital, I was together with the greatest actress in Hungary, and she talked about acting and she was doing some parts of some parts and I was playing the piano.

What was her name?

That I don’t remember [laughs]: I have forgotten the name of the greatest Hungarian actress!

What did you play in your early programs?

Well, you see that the whole musical education in Hungary at the Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy was very strictly scheduled. From the beginning you learn to read and you learn to sing, and to play by heart, and then you learn touch, and you go through the material which is terribly rich: all Etudes from Bertini up to the Chopin Etudes and the Liszt Etudes. And then according to this, the sonatas from the different periods – classical, romantic, and so on – and every year you have to finish a certain amount of material, and I was very fortunate because I was able to do every year two years material, and so I was very fast in learning. I don’t know what it was like, I don’t remember [laughs].

Did you learn a lot from your first teacher?

Yes, I have learned practically everything from her of all my teachers because I remember her so well and certain lessons when she has been showing me things, and she was a very kind woman also and very patient, and worked very hard with all her students.

And the you went to England and worked with a pupil of Leschetizky. . .

George Woodhouse. He was a very nice man. And then I was concertizing there, also with orchestras in Belfast, in London for the BBC and various other places. And I was there for five years and then I had to go back to Budapest to get a degree from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, because they had brought out at the Ministry of Culture a very wise decision that everybody who was playing or teaching the piano had to have a degree from the Liszt Academy, and so I had to do two years there which I had done before so it was no problem, and that was the time that I had some private lessons with Bartók. I think it was about ten times that I went to see him. [In a 1971 newspaper interview, Marik stated that it had been for two years. See Arbiter 149 for more details.]

Do you remember the works you studied with him?

I worked on some Bach and then we worked on a Beethoven sonata, and the first time I was with him he asked me to play things and I did and I played some Bartók and he said “That’s all right.” But you see, that’s only because I am Hungarian too! I have never have known anybody with the utter and full concentration at whatever he was doing. He was right there and he didn’t think of any other thing, his mind was on what he was doing. And that, I think, is the secret of how he accomplished such an enormous amount, not only being a pianist, but as a teacher, he was at the Franz Liszt Academy, but he was also one of the greatest musicologists and he did a tremendous research on folk melodies from different countries.

Did you meet Kodaly at that time?

He taught me. He taught Harmony and he gave me an ‘F’ [laughs] in the middle of the year because I made parallel fifths between the fermata and the next part, which you’re not supposed to do, but he was very kindly remembering me ever since then, I don’t know why – because I made this mistake or some other reason.

Did you play any of his pieces? [n.b. Arbiter 143 has a recording of the Marosszék Dances, discovered on an unmarked tape which Marik left to the writer after her passing].

Yes, many. I liked him very much, I liked his music and he was a terribly nice man, very silent, and he had a wonderful wife who talked all the time about himself, so you sat with them at a gathering or something and there was Kodaly sitting absolutely quietly, not looking at anybody, and there was Mrs. Kodaly talking about Kodaly. And how he stood it, I never know, because she never stopped! She was a nice woman. She was about twenty years older than he was [Kodaly’s first wife] so she died earlier.

You have a great sympathy for Liszt’s music

Yes, I had, I think I had a natural instinct how to play Liszt because I don’t remember anybody ever teaching me how to do it. It was, that music was in me. And I was very happy about it because I loved his music.

And you play works that aren’t generally performed. . .

Yes, that was the whole point, because you see that when people hear about Liszt everybody thinks about the [Hungarian] Rhapsodies. The Rhapsodies are very beautiful and very brilliant, but they are like ‘popular’ music, it’s not like Bach and Bartók’s music where everything comes from an original song, but it is mostly of songs which you can hear in restaurants and other places. But his other compositions, and those which are never played are just glorious! And I don’t know why people don’t play it. Horowitz has a recording of the Vallée d’Obermann, but it is the second edition which is not at all as interesting as the first one. [see Arbiter 143.]

Of the time before the [Second World] War, which pianists did you like?

There was, I think in all my life, there was one pianist whom I admired immensely and that was Gieseking, because whatever he touched, it was marvelous. And his Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit [Marik owned Gieseking’s 1938 recording] will never be played like he did it, also his Debussy Preludes were absolutely imaginative, and his touch was so beautiful. And whatever he touched, he did all the Bach works, Mozart sonatas, I think all the Beethoven sonatas.

Regarding touch, lately you have developed a different touch.

I did because there is a point when you discover that you have to have everything set perfectly, as according to the intentions of the composer, and to depend on your talent and your ability and your speed and so on, is not enough. You have to be absolutely correct. Until you work on it hard and slowly, until that composition becomes your own, following faithfully everything what the composer tells you. and this is what I find very difficult to take from most of the pianists, that they are tampering with the composition. They put their own feelings into it, which is absolutely wrong, because if you don’t feel like Chopin, you don’t feel like Beethoven, you do your own composition. And also what’s terribly important, absolute control of your touch, and out of the touch, the one which is the most important is the legato playing, which means absolutely connected, singing tone, and there are different touches like staccato, the portamento, and so on, and then there is the phrasing, what you must instinctively follow what the composer is telling you about the sentences. Every sentence goes towards a climax and goes away from that, and you have to feel that without making it too obvious. It’s not such a ritardando but it is just the end of a sentence, and you start another one. For the absolute legato and the control of that tone, I found out by looking at a picture of what is in our body, that all the muscles from your shoulder come down to the tip of your finger, and you do play on the tip of your finger. That’s where you are in touch with the keys and that’s why you have to concentrate everything. And that’s why this technical approach is marvelous.

How do you develop and get a pure legato touch?

What is important in legato playing is that between two notes, that there is no disconnection between the notes, and also how you never hit the key but you go down with a controlled finger action where you take the weight down from your shoulder to the bottom of the key. And you stay together, you do this counting, you say “one, and” and when you say “and’, you lift the previous finger [overlapping the two tones].

All the weight has to be in the fingertip?

Absolutely, because you don’t play on your elbow and if you hit these notes, you get a bang, it’s not legato anymore. If I want to play non-legato, I am more active with my action, but not on the legato, the legato is an absolute connected and overlapping sound. And never any hit and your weight is all the time on the fingertip. How do you control your dynamics? This weight control? If you want to play loud you put all your weight on your tip when you down to the bottom of the key and then gradually decrease this weight but you have exactly the same touch, and in the end you are absolutely weightless [in the wrist especially] and you still have the glorious legato. [After a finger which has played is lifted, it becomes weightless.] You put the fingers in the air, one goes down. It’s very important that you learn to move only one finger. When you are down with this, you are up with the rest and the next one goes down very slowly till you reach the bottom. [As one finger moves, the others remain up, still and weightless.] Why is this so marvelous? Because when, as it often happens, you have a melody in the upper [register] of the music and you have to be pianissimo in the other fingers because these voices are not so important, and you can control this perfectly by having the weight on the melody and then weightless are the other fingers. And the best way to work this out in a text is Bach, the Two and Three Part Inventions. When you have to control two voices that you play at the same time but one voice is important, one is singing and the other one or two are quiet. So this is the whole crux of the matter. And for staccato playing, that’s the easiest touch in the world, but people always play staccato by lifting their hand [at the wrist] and hitting the key. Now that makes a very ugly sound. But if you stay on the key and give a little push to the bottom of the key, but you never leave the key, then you get that very beautiful, very short sound. And then you can increase or decrease the weight. And now the sforzando, that is a very violent quick push into the key bed (with the finger kept on the key).

Schnabel had a type of sforzando-piano in which you press the key lightly after striking it suddenly and raising it up. Do you use this?

Well it all depends on the composer wants with that sforzando. If you want it short, the action should be short. But you cannot have it on the same note, because you don’t release it, that would be a sharp staccato. When you play a sforzando, the main thing is the fastness of the action and that you stay on the key.

How do you position the hand to play rapidly?

The same way. That’s why it’s important that your knuckles are high and your fingers are curved, and the little finger, which is the shortest, is almost straight and the thumb has to be near the other [finger] and when you are practicing a scale, you never move your wrist or anything for crossing [the thumb] under or over but you have your thumb ready and when you go over then you just fold your arm over. If you move the wrist and arm around, you lose the evenness of the tone.

And octave playing?

Everything comes from the shoulder because it can be a loud or soft octave passage, it can be a staccato or legato, it depends. And it works extremely well. I have an extremely talented student whom I have been teaching and torturing now for three years giving her a two hour lesson each time she comes and she’s just caught on marvelously, and her playing is very colorful and beautiful. Very well-controlled. That’s the whole point and that’s why we have to practice seventy-seven hours a day, because when you play something, when you finally think it is done, then it has to be just as the composer says, following everything.

After the interview, Marik seemed puzzled, asking “Why are you so interested in me? I’m not that good a pianist.” I fired back: “Oh, I have a different opinion. . .” and noticed she had permitted herself, with down turned eyes, a rare, modest smile.

– © 2007 Allan Evans