awarded the Diapason d’ Or
Leo Sirota performed Chopin’s solo piano works over the years on radio broadcasts. The fortunate discovery of tape copies presented to the artist allowed us to select essential interpretations. SIrota’s mastery blends late 19th century expressive Romanticism with poetic objectivity that makes for a unique style.
- Chopin Nocturne in B, op. 62, no. 1
- Chopin Scherzo in B minor, op. 20
- Chopin Ballade in F minor, op. 52
- Chopin Valse in F minor, op. 70, no. 2
- Chopin Fantasie Impromptu op. 66
- Chopin Funeral March op. 72, no. 3
- Chopin Etude in F minor, op. 10, no. 9
- Chopin Etude in A flat, op. 10, no. 10
- Chopin Andante spianiato op. 22
- Chopin Grand Polonaise op. 22
- Chopin Mazurka in A minor, op. posth.
- Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, op. posth.
- Chopin Fantasie op. 49
When my father practiced, he didn’t play scales or arpeggios, he played all the Chopin Etudes. As I heard him play, I began to dance. The house in Tokyo was filled with music; whether it was my father playing, or his private students, or a visiting artist from Europe, or a trio of musicians from the Imperial Academy, there was always live music. To this day, I am not used to the mechanical ways of providing music through radio, TV, tapes or CDs. But having listened to this Chopin recording, I am, at the advanced age of seventy-nine, ready to dance again, because it feels as if my father is playing in the next room.
As my mother tells it, when I was six months old, she put me on the piano in a dresser drawer so that I could be entertained by my father’s rehearsing Stravinsky’s Petroushka for its premiere in Vienna. Stravinsky had made a piano version of the suite for Artur Rubinstein, who did not have the time to prepare this enormously difficult piece, and so my father stepped in. I must have enjoyed the rhythm, for I bounced up and down in the drawer.
Three years later, at a cocktail party in our apartment in Vienna, a grown-up asked me in a patronizing way which composer I preferred. My answer: “Stravinsky.” Such was my avant-garde taste in 1926!
In 1929, when I was five years old, we left Vienna, where I was born, to accompany my father on a concert tour of Japan. My father’s contract was for six months, but he stayed for sixteen years, and thus became the most influential proponent of Western music in Japan. Although many Western musicians came to Japan to perform and teach, they usually did not stay for more than a few years, and thus did not have the continuity my father offered to Japanese music lovers and students. My father wanted to encourage the Japanese in all their endeavors to promote Western music, including the manufacturing of pianos. He was the first to play a Yamaha piano in public. The Japanese, being very brand conscious even then, only played a Bechstein or a Steinway in concert. It took my father, a Westerner, to make a Japanese piano popular. The Yamaha Company was so grateful that they sent a piano wherever my father needed one. One summer, we had two in our house in Tokyo, one in our summer house in Hayama, and one in the mountains where my parents had gone for a three-week vacation!
Besides concertizing in Japan, China, Korea, and Manchuria during the sixteen years of my father’s sojourn in Japan, he taught at the Imperial Academy in Tokyo and gave private lessons at home. Students from Korea and Manchuria came to Tokyo to study with him. In addition to Japanese private students, there were many foreigners in Tokyo who also took lessons- Americans, Russians, Czechs and British. This attracted the attention of the secret police (kempeitai) who kept an eye on foreign residents. A secret police agent would come almost every day to check with our servants about the visitors to our house, suspicious about so many nationalities being represented by the license plates of the cars outside. Since our servants didn’t speak English, they were not of much use to the police, but our cook came up with a clever idea. Every time my mother gave a dinner party, she collected the guests’ place-cards and gave them to the police! She did not see anything wrong with that – she was just being cooperative.
My father was a very charming man. He was also kind – always ready to help his family, friends, and students. He loved amusements – bridge, tennis, swimming, horse-races, parties, concerts, and casinos (he liked to gamble, but always set himself a limit). I will never forget returning to Vienna for a vacation, after seven years in Japan, and the very first thing my father did was call his brother-in-law with whom he often had gone to the races before going to Japan. He asked him about what was going on at Freudenau, the famous Vienna race-course, and off they went the next day! Many years later, my uncle, the conductor Jascha Horenstein (my mother’s younger brother) told me that when he visited St. Louis where my father had settled after World War II he and my father had gone to the races, and that my father had gotten so excited when his horse was in the lead, that “he jumped up on the bench – a sixty-five-year-old man!” Uncle Jascha was mortified.
My father and mother were very hospitable to visiting musicians like Jascha Heifetz, Alexander Brailowsky, Fyodor Chaliapin, Emmanuel Feuermann, Michel Piastro, and many others. My mother had taught our cook how to prepare Western cuisine. Since she was a very talented woman, she learned quickly, and soon our house became famous as the best place to eat in Tokyo. She even made Sachertorte, the delicious Viennese chocolate cake. I remember the cellist Emmanuel Feuermann signing our guest book with a little poem:
“Beate, be like your father.
If you want to be better,
Be like your mother.”
When he returned ten years later for another tour of Japan, my mother gave a dinner party in his honor at which he continued his poem:
“If, however, you want to be the best,
Be like your parents
To their guests.”
When Chaliapin arrived in Tokyo for a recital, he brought boxes and boxes of vodka with him, but no food. He stayed at the Imperial Hotel, and did not like what the dining-room had to offer. He was also not feeling too well, was grumpy, and his manager A. Strok was in despair. Mr. Strok, who was a friend of my parents, saw them playing bridge in the lobby of the hotel (a weekly occurrence), and asked my mother to have our cook prepare some chicken soup and chicken for Chaliapin. She took a taxi, and brought the food to Chaliapin’s room. It was 8 p.m., and Chaliapin said he had already eaten, but that he would try a little soup. It was so delicious that he finished the whole tureen, and also ate the whole chicken. After his concert the next evening, when my mother went to the green room to congratulate him, he lifted her up (he was a big, strong man, over six feet tall), and kissed her.
My father was truly involved with his pupils in Japan. So many of them were very talented, but also very poor. There were several he taught free of charge. One of his pupils was to make his debut at a prestigious concert hall in Tokyo. My father and mother discussed the matter of the young man’s dilapidated shoes. My mother said she would go with him and get some new shoes for the concert. The pupil said: “Don’t worry, I don’t need new shoes, I will shine these up so well, nobody will notice.”
My father and mother played bridge for recreation. My mother was a better player, but my father loved it more, and could go on playing for hours. One day, I was at the movies with my Estonian Christian-Scientist governess, when we were summoned out of the theater. The manager told us he had received a message that a neighboring house was on fire and that we should go home. We quickly summoned a taxi, and when we arrived, my parents were calmly playing bridge with Ignaz Friedman, despite the burning house next door! Another time, when they had an evening bridge party, I woke up the next morning to a heated debate on whether or not a partner should have played no-trump – they had played all night! I think that this experience was the reason why I never wanted to learn bridge.
My father was a moderate eater and drinker. He was careful about what he ate because he had a delicate stomach. But there was one delicacy he adored – black caviar. He told me how he became addicted to caviar. When he went to the Gymnasium in Kiev, a classmate from a rich family brought caviar sandwiches to school for lunch. My father, coming from a poor family, brought an ordinary sausage sandwich. The rich boy became tired of his caviar sandwiches, and asked my father to exchange sandwiches with him. So, when I was a little girl, my father introduced me to caviar. Every birthday I spent in Tokyo, I received a white jar of caviar with a black screw top which my father had ordered from Vladivostok, since it was not available in Japan.
Although my father came from a poor family, he had a happy childhood. He had two sisters and two brothers and many white homing pigeons which he took to school every day. They were trained to fly home when he entered the school house.
Leo was a good student, especially appreciated by the class bully who would not let anyone touch a hair on my father’s head, for Leo helped him with his homework. The teachers and the principal treated him well, because he was their showpiece. Whenever an official from the Ministry of Education came, they would trot him out to entertain the guests by playing the piano, which he had begun studying at the age of five. By the age of nine he started touring Russia, and by the age of eleven, he was teaching a twenty-one-year-old boy. Since he was only eleven, a servant had to accompany him to the older boy’s house.
Although Paderewski had invited Leo to study with him, Leo’s parents thought, at the time, that he was too young to leave home. It wasn’t until he finished both the Kiev and St. Petersburg conservatories that he left for Vienna, in l904, to study with Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni was impressed with Leo’s inborn technique and beautiful tone. One of my father’s most cherished memories was of Busoni closing the piano after hearing him play the Don Juan Fantasie by Liszt at a master class, and saying “after this masterful performance, I do not wish to hear anyone else.”
Beate Sirota Gordon is the former Director of Performing Arts Program of the Japan Society, and retired from the position of Director of Performing Arts, Films and Lectures of the Asia Society in New York City. She is the author of The Only Woman in the Room published by Kodansha, International.
Leo Sirota’s repertoire, based on surviving recordings, radio broadcasts and an incomplete selection of concert programs:
Agghazy: Fairy Play
Antonio, Jose: Two Preludes
Arensky: Petite Ballade; Trio op. 32 (with Pollak, Buxbaum)
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 (with Horenstein); Cello Sonata no. 3 (with Parnas); Chromatic Fantasy; Concertos for 2, 3, 4 pianos (as conductor); English Suite no. 3: Sarabande, Gavotte; Goldberg Variations; W.T.C. (excerpts)
KPE Bach: Rondo in B minor
Barber: Excursion no. 4
Beethoven: Cello Sonata op. 102/1 (with Parnas); Triple Concerto (with Horenstein); Dervish Chorus; 32 Piano Sonatas; Trios op. 1/1, 3, (with Pollak, Buxbaum); Turkish March (arr. Rubinstein);
Borodin: In the convent
Brahms: Capriccio op. 76/2; Cello Sonata no. 2 (with Parnas); Intermezzo op. 117/2; Paganini Variations; Quartet op. 25; Scherzo op. 4
Burg: Three American Dances
Busoni: Concerto (with Busoni); Elegy (unspecified); Fantasia; Gigue, Bolero & Variation
Chopin: Complete solo piano works; Concerto no. 1; Rondo for two pianos
Chopin-Rosenthal: Valse op. 64/1
Clementi: Sonata in B flat
Couperin: La Favorite
Daquin: Le Coucou; Rondeau
Debussy: Cello Sonata (with Parnas)
Falla: Ritual Fire Dance
Field: Nocturnes in A flat, B flat
Franck: Violin Sonata (with Pollak)
Glazunov: Gavotte op. 49; Sonata in B flat minor
Grieg: Violin Sonata op. 8 (with Mougilevsky)
Gurlitt: Slumber Song
Handel: Harmonious Blacksmith
Korngold: Sonata op. 2
Liszt: Canzonetta; Consolation no. 3; Dante Sonata; Don Juan Fantasy; Don Juan Fantasy (two piano version, with Busoni); Hungarian Rhapsody no. 6; Liebestraume no. 3; Mazeppa; Paganini Etude no. 3; Three Petrarch Sonnets; Rigoletto Paraphrase; Sposalizio; Valse Impromptu
Liszt-Busoni: Ad Nos Fantasy; Mephisto Valse no. 1
Marais: La Follia (with Parnas)
Mendelssohn: Rondo Capriccioso; Songs without words. op. 19/3; op. 62/3; Scherzo a Capriccio; Scherzo op. 16/2
Mozart: Adagio K. 540; Fantasias K.396, 397, 475: Gigue K.574; Rondos K.485, 616; Quartets; Complete Piano Sonatas; Sonata & Fugue (for two pianos); Violin Sonata no. 17 (with Mougilevsky); Variations K.264, 265, 354, 573
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Nikolaiev, Leonid: Violin Sonata op. 11 (with Mougilevsky)
Prokofiev: Gavotte op. 12; March (Love of Three Oranges)
Rachmaninoff: Barcarolle op. 10/3; Paganini Rhapsody; Polichinelle; Polka de V.R.; Preludes op. 3/2; op. 23/5; op. 32/12
Rameau: Gavotte & Variations; Le Poule
Rimsky Korsakoff: Flight of the Bumblebee
Rubinstein: Mazurka (in F); Polonaise op. 118/6; Prelude in f op. 24/2; Près du Ruisseau op. 93; Serenade op. 93; Valse Caprice; Variations, op. 88
Scarlatti-Tausig: Pastorale and Capriccio
Schönberg/Busoni: Three Pieces op. 11/2
Schubert: Impromptus op. 90/2; op. 142/3, 4; Moments Musical nos. 2-4; Sonatas D.845, D.894; Symphony no. 9 (for 2 pianos, with Pennario); Trio in B flat (with Pollak, Buxbaum); Wanderer Fantasy; Soirée de Vienne (ar. Liszt); March Militaire (arr. Tausig)
Schumann: Abegg Variations; Andante & Variations (with Pennario); Carnaval; Davidsbündler Dances; Etudes Symphoniques; Fantasie; Fantasiestücke op. 12; Faschingschwank; Kinderszenen; Kreisleriana; Novellette op. 21/1; Papillons; Romance op. 28/2: Sonatas nos. 1, 2; Violin Sonata op. 105 (with Mougilevsky)
Scriabin: Two Etudes; Poeme satanique
Smetana: Wedding Scenes
Strauss-Rosenthal: Vienna Carnaval
Strauss, R.: Burleske (with Horenstein)
Stravinsky: Petrushka; Polka; Valse
Tchaikovsky: Berceuse; Rococo Variations (with Parnas); Sonata op. 37
Weber: Konzertstücke (with Horenstein); Momento Capriccioso
Yamada: Haha ni sasageru; Kare to Kanojo; Kojo no Tsuki
On Sirota’s Chopin recordings:
When Sirota broadcasted Chopin’s complete solo works in St. Louis, he was presented with a tape of each performance. Some were discovered forty years later in his own archive, others had been given to his student Edward Petsch, who safeguarded them. As these brittle tapes were paper-based, they barely survived playback. Petsch examined his collection and forwarded over 20 hours of material, yet hinted that more might exist. After Petsch’s death in 2001, Stephen Fierros, his pupil and executor, uncovered an additional 15 hours of recordings. These three sources now reveal Sirota as a major Chopin interpreter, one whose artistry emphasizes tonal and structural elegance while projecting intimacy, introspection, essential qualities so often overlooked now. The survival of significant documents often depends on individual acts: we are grateful to Beate Sirota Gordon, the late Edward Petsch, and Stephen Fierros for having saved Sirota’s legacy. — Allan Evans