Arbiter Records 123

Leo Sirota: Tokyo farewell recital & Liszt program

Track List

Leo Sirota lived, taught, and performed in Japan from 1929 – 1946. He returned in 1963 to give a farewell recital tour. With the first part of his Tokyo recital we have published Sirota in two of Liszt’s masterworks.

In 2014 this CD was remastered for downloading.

  1. Scarlatti-Tausig Pastorale
  2. Scarlatti-Tausig Capriccio
  3. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E flat, op. 31, no. 3: I
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E flat, op. 31, no. 3: II
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E flat, op. 31, no. 3: III
  6. Beethoven Piano Sonata in E flat, op. 31, no. 3: IV
  7. Schubert Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 845: I
  8. Schubert Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 845: II
  9. Schubert Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 845: III
  10. Schubert Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 845: IV
  11. Liszt Sposalizio
  12. Liszt Don Juan Fantasy
  13. voice of Leo Sirota

“He was a pianist’s pianist,” recalls his student Robert Rosser, ” a man of powerful technique, yet outwardly he always radiated an aura of simplicity. Philosophical and introspective by nature, he seemed so unassuming with his slight smile and twinkle in his eye which I always associated with a contented soul. “He loved to play bridge with his wife Augustine and other faculty members, yet when he sat at the piano I felt I was in the presence of a powerful giant. To this day I have not heard anyone who could implement a crescendo with such force. I literally thought the piano was in danger of being destroyed by such power.” A master musician, Leo Sirota (1885-1965) concertized throughout the world before the Second World War, yet made too few recordings for an artist of his stature. Although many of his discs have been republished, an immense repertoire was not represented until the private archives of two individuals yielded over fifty hours of recordings. Beate Sirota Gordon, the pianist’s daughter, had several boxes in a storage closet containing more than thirty hours of broadcast recitals Sirota gave while teaching in St. Louis (1947-1964); Edward Petsch, a pianist who was aware of the need to preserve his teacher’s legacy, also saved many hours of Sirota’s radio recitals, including the Liszt works heard here. Among the recordings located in his daughter’s home, was a 1963 Tokyo recital,taped during Sirota’s final visit to Japan; the first visit took place on an Asian tour in 1928. In her memoir, The Only Woman In The Room (Kodansha, 1997) Beate Sirota Gordon writes: “We had originally expected to stay in Japan for six months, but those months passed quickly . . . [and] we had taken root. Kosaku Yamada [prominent Japanese composer], our family’s sponsor. had lent us his support from the beginning, but we had also been befriended by Hidemaro Konoe, the co-founder with Yamada of the New Symphony Orchestra. It was not long before members of other aristocratic families – the Tokugawas, Mitsuis and Azabukis – started visiting us. Many of them had become fans of my father after hearing him perform.”

Gordon writes of one young pupil who would gain prominence: “His youngest pupil was a nine-year-old boy of great intelligence and self-confidence. Listening to my father play, the boy was so absorbed he seemed to be hypnotized. But when Leo moved aside to let him play, the boy came to life, playing with remarkable vigor. My father would lean forward and listen intently. His name was Takehiro Sonoda, and indeed later he became a world-class pianist.” Sonoda described his work with Sirota: “When I made a mistake, Professor Sirota would say, ‘No, listen,’ and play it for me. Since I didn’t speak any English at the time, I used my eyes and ears to see how the pedaling or accent should go. Then he’d say, ‘Once more, please,” and I’d go through it again. His Beethoven was played with such quiet power I was surprised by the strong physical effect it had on me. With Liszt, though, I could feel the piano shake – I learned the sheer power of Liszt with my body.”

An idyllic life in Japan ended when, in 1943, during the Second World War, Sirota and his wife were evacuated to Karuizawa, a remote mountain village and suffered privations: unbeknownst to them, their Tokyo home had been destroyed in a bombing. In 1946 the Sirotas moved to the United States, settling in St. Louis where he succeeded the Busoni pupil Gottfried Galston on the piano faculty of the St. Louis Institute of Music.

A number of former pupils persuaded the 78-year-old Sirota to return once more to Japan in December, 1963, where he played solo recitals and conducted concertos featuring his students as soloists. He recalled his final three weeks in Japan: “It was fantastic. The entire trip was like a wonderful dream.” Sirota continued teaching in St. Louis until shortly before his death in February, 1965. Sirota performed the works heard on this disc frequently throughout a career spanning over five decades. The Schubert is found in recital programs dating back to 1924, a time when few pianists were familiar with Schubert’s sonatas. For his formal Viennese debut, Sirota played Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy was played by Sirota in a 2-piano version of the score with his teacher Busoni, who later led his pupil in the Viennese premiere of the Busoni Piano Concerto. Busoni had a profound influence on Sirota, who wrote about the role this composer and master pianist had on those fortunate enough to have worked with him. The following essay appeared in the St. Louis Institute of Music bulletin in March, 1958:

“Anyone who, like myself, has enjoyed the privilege of studying with the great master, Ferruccio Busoni, is indeed fortunate. Busoni, like Liszt, made it a practice to choose unusually gifted young pianists and give them unstintingly of his genius and experience, completely without recompense.

“His abilities were prodigious. It is no exaggeration to describe him, – after Liszt – as the greatest pianist in musical history. No other artist before or after him was able to produce the fantastic color in sound that he was able to draw from the piano. His ideas about interpretation of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt were unique. His musical personality contrasted vividly with those of his great contemporaries to the extent that a listener hearing Busoni play for the first time would react with shock before falling completely under the musical spell of the master.

“In his teaching, Busoni did not concern himself with technical problems, but left them to the individual student. Nor did he force upon his students specific practice methods for particular composers’ compositions. Instead, he encouraged his pupils to grow musically through their own experimentation and he provided them, in the form of very brief suggestions, with ideas of new approaches to various styles and interpretations. Such artists as the world renowned Mitropoulos, Ganz, Petri, Gruenberg, and some other former pupils of Busoni bear forceful testimony to the effectiveness of his methods. Busoni’s musical abilities were not limited to playing and teaching. He is famous for his piano transcriptions of Bach’s organ works, and is, indeed, without rival in this field. “Furthermore, his edition of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, is in my opinion, one of the best editions of Bach’s great work. His editorial comments are particularly helpful to the student as a mine of invaluable lessons in technique and interpretation. Nor can one overlook Busoni’s own compositions. He wrote orchestral, operatic, and various piano and instrumental works. His Piano Concerto with male chorus, which this writer had the unforgettable privilege of performing, under the baton of the composer in Vienna, ranks with the greatest piano literature extant.

“In addition to teaching, playing, and composing, Busoni made important contributions to the development of modern music. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of Schoenberg and Bartók, and invariably included works by these and other contemporaries in his annual concerts in Berlin. He was so vitally concerned with young artists that he set aside daily periods in which he was available for consultation, advice, and encouragement. Ferruccio Busoni’s death at the age of fifty-eight (in 1924), was a blow not only to all of those who today remember him with great esteem and deep affection, but to the entire world of music which will be forever indebted to him.”

In an article from 1963, Sirota reminisced further about Busoni:

“He immediately assigned to me the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Paganini – very difficult pianistic work. I went to my apartment and practiced for seven or eight hours a day for one solid week. The following week I arrived for my lesson, utterly filled with excitement, for I had mastered the entire work. Ah! I shall never forget how disappointed Busoni was – my performance was excellent, but not from memory!

“I made my European debut in Vienna under the baton of Busoni. It was a fantastic program, including works from Liszt (Don Juan Fantasy), Mozart (Sonata in D for two pianos) which my former master and I performed together in a duo-piano ensemble, and the Concerto composed by Busoni himself.

“How I came to play Busoni’s Concerto is rather an interesting story. I had planned to make my debut in Vienna, under the baton of one of the more noteworthy conductors of that time. Since Busoni was not only my former master but also a most excellent conductor, and because of his immense popularity throughout the European continent, I decided that I must persuade him to come to Vienna. I, therefore, quickly wrote to him, offering to perform his Concerto, which had never been performed before at a concert in Vienna. Busoni quickly replied, making all necessary arrangements, and indicating any specifications he had in mind. It was September [1910] and the performance was slated for early November. I immediately set to work, practicing eight hours a day during the entire six weeks before the concert, and when the night arrived, I walked out onto the stage without so much as a single rehearsal. Busoni was overjoyed at the success. We received sixteen curtain calls. It is a night I shall always remember.”

-Allan Evans ©2000

(note: Further biographical information on Sirota is to be found in the notes accompanying a previous release, Sirota plays Rare Russian Masterpieces, Arbiter 110 and a Chopin recital, Arbiter 137. A biography of Sirota is by Takashi Yamamoto.)