Benno Moiseiwitsch’s art was best captured in recital, as he did not enjoy making records. These rare documents are supplemented by his spoken reminiscences of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
- Chopin: Ballade in F, op. 38
- Chopin: Nocturne in G, op. 37, no. 2
- Chopin: Scherzo in B flat minor, op. 31
- Chopin: Prelude in F, op. 28, no. 23
- Chopin: Prelude in B flat minor, op. 28, no. 16
- Bach-Liszt Fantasie & Fugue in G minor: Fantasie
- Bach-Liszt Fantasie & Fugue in G minor: Fugue
- Schubert-Liszt Hark, Hark the Lark!
- Chopin-Liszt My Joys
- Wagner-Liszt Tannhauser Overture
- Stravinsky Etude op. 7, no. 4
- Moiseiwitsch intervewed by Abram Chasins
Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) was an extraordinary synthesis of a Leschetizky- trained master musician who played contemporary works and 19th century composers with profundity. His too few surviving live performances are a more genuine representation of his art as the pianist loathed making recordings. These non-professional tapes have lacunas effecting a few opening notes and a weakness in transmission twice intrudes during the Bach. Our priority is for music, msking it imperative to publish these performances, especially as Moiseiwitsch never recorded a work by Bach. This taciturn man once spoke more candidly than usual on a radio program. Here follows an abridged transcription of his comments (the three interviewers words are italicized).
Is there any part of the life of a concert pianist which becomes pure tedium?
Maybe, but when I find it, then I close shop.
Could you tell us a little of what this life as a concert pianist is? For instance, now, at your position of eminence, how many hours a day do you practice?
I practice as many hours as I can spare, at least traveling allows me. If I’m at home I’m always at the piano, not because I have to do it, but because I still enjoy it.
And when you’re away from your piano, can you improvise practice of any kind?
If I have to travel I sometimes practice on a dummy piano which I invariably have with me, or go to the hall when it’s empty, but I always like to practice, not just leave it until the time of the concert to step on the platform.
When you practice with a dummy piano, are you in a sense a sportsman limbering up his muscles or are you hearing sounds as well?
I limber up my muscles and fingers but I hear sounds.
Do you see a lot of the countries you visit, go out on the streets, talk to people?
Naturally there’s always the hotel, and the bedroom, and the concert hall. In this country you go to Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, just arrive there in time for the concert more or less and go back and that’s that. But I’m very much interested in the human point of view, and having traveled seven times in Australia and New Zealand, five times in South America, dozens of times to Canada, North America, and South Africa, I made friends all over the world, real friends, to me that’s something very much alive.
When not actually traveling, how do you divide your day?
I cannot possibly have a regular routine because it all depends how much time in between I have. But when I’m at home, now I live in London, I know I can practice first thing in the morning whenever I wake, up until evening, and if I want a little relaxation, recreation, I go to my club [The Savage Club] have a game of bridge, but if I have to travel, I contrive to get some sort of instrument either in the hotel or in the concert hall, where I can practice. But I’m not the sort of nine-to-six sort of man who can regulate his time, it all depends from day to day.
Where you ever that, even when you were a young man?
I was a young man such a long time ago I forget what it was like. I began to concertise when I was a young man and I suppose it was about the same thing. But now the responsibility is greater than ever and it’s more regulated.
Have you got favorites yourself among the different countries that you’ve visited?
It is difficult to say. In other countries there are differences of enthusiasm, appreciation, demonstration. But I always have a soft spot for Australia.
Do you feel this enthusiasm before you start playing?
I feel the enthusiasm because I know how anxious they were, so far away, or were so far away before the advent of airplanes, that they are just dying to hear music and the enthusiasm which they displayed in those days was something quite out of this world. Since then they had a tremendous number of artists going there and they still live up to that enthusiasm.
So you’re definitely sensitive to other people’s opinions and you would feel if an audience wasn’t liking you for any particular reason.
No, that doesn’t impress me at all whether they like me or not, I don’t take it personally, I’m just thinking of a reaction I have to the audience to whom I’m playing.
I can imagine, and maybe quite wrongly, that after a recital, after a performance, that you meet the usual crowd of people ready to shower compliments upon you, people you’ve never seen who offer hands and so forth. Does this bore you or do you find it pleasing?
No, I always keep an open mind. If someone says something sensible, I react that way, if something inane or stupid, I would just smile gracefully.
Do you ever find yourself playing music for which temporarily you’ve lost the taste because you have to, more or less it’s expected of you?
No sir, when it gets stale I stop playing that sort of music.
Do you go to other people’s concerts, Mr. Moiseiwitsch?
I’m afraid very seldom.
What do you think of the younger generation? Have you pupils?
No, I don’t teach. Occasionally somebody comes before a concert and wants to play to me, wants a little advice, but I do not teach.
Have you ever taught at any stage in your career?
Many years ago when I started professionally, the engagements were not coming forth often enough and there were people who asked for lessons, and I gave them very reluctantly because I don’t like teaching. It exhausts me much more than giving concerts.
Do you hear the rest of the concert in which you yourself are performing?
Why is that? Do you know?
Because of this always: you go through a nervous time, tension before the concert, and once the concert is finished I wouldn’t be a fit subject to listen and appreciate whatever comes next.
This nervous tension persists even though you’ve reached a stage of eminence where one might imagine you took it all for granted?
No, every concert is just a concert, it doesnt matter how often I’ve performed it.
In spite of your enormous repertory, is there any particular composer or single piece of music for which you have a very special personal affinity and which you turn to for emotional relief when you’re feeling under stress yourself?
Yes. It’s Schumann.
And any particular piece of Schumann?
No, it’s Schumann as the man that composed those pieces. To me, Schumann was a wonderful person and my heart bled for him in his trials as he had a very difficult and tragic life and everything, every moment of his life was translated into sound. And every time I play the Fantasie or the Carnaval or a Romance, I see Schumann, this man I admire as a composer more than anyone else and this is why he is more akin to me than any other composer.
This suggests an immensely emotional response to the music you are playing which to a layman is slightly surprising. Have you thought it was in fact a technical exercise even though you were giving of yourself through your fingers, that it was chiefly technical, somebody who was executing the music? You respond emotionally the whole time?
Are you referring to Schumann?
No, that’s the only thing I might have against Schumann, because technically he was not as brilliant as Chopin or Liszt, but with Schumann, it was so tense, he had to express what he felt like, irrespective of the facilities of the piano and it is much more difficult for us to play Schumann than it is Chopin and Liszt, but I’d rather struggle with the piano as long as I can express Schumann, which gives me much more emotional and spiritual satisfaction than anyone else.
In the last decade of your life, when you are coming into the position of becoming an elderly. . .
. . .it sounds like an obituary notice!
In the most recent decade of your life have you made any startling new musical discoveries from your own point of view? Has something else suddenly become exciting?
Suddenly, yes, because I enjoy playing the piano more now than I ever did before and that’s because something strikes me as being greater than I appreciated in all the fifty years I’ve been playing.
What is this something? Do you know? Have you been able to analyze it yourself?
I don’t know. I suppose some sort of maturity that crept in and gives me more freedom and a feeling of “that’s the way I feel it and to hell with everything else, this way I’m going to play it, whether the critics like it or not!” I’m not anymore in any sort of straight-jacket as one could be, because you don’t know when you’ll wonder “Is this right or is this wrong?” And I must confess that I was sincere and in many ways possibly brave, but just at the moment I feel I can just do what I like as long as I know it is not in bad taste. I never try to distort music. Call it individualism, or what you will, but it gives me a certain freedom and I revel in it and I enjoy it.
Do you collect gramophone records?
So you do not listen on record to the other great pianists of the day?
I have records of friends of mine like Rachmaninoff and Heifetz and one or two others.
Would you say that the standard of technique has gone up rather than down, that the best of the modern pianists are at least as good or better than the giants of the past?
Well, I’m afraid the standard of technique has gone up, which is a pity because that is a very great expense for the giants who still loom large. It doesn’t matter. It’s alarming. I hear sometimes on radio a gramophone record by youngsters with terrific technique, which is wonderful in its way, but what they miss is a different story. If they’re not encouraged too much, they might come to a certain level and then find themselves and then use this technique in good stead. But if they’re encouraged, because they say that there’s phenomenal technique and so on and they still try and play faster and louder, then it’s a lost cause.
But then you were a prodigy yourself as a child surely Mr Moiseiwitsch? When you were playing at nine years old before you went to Leschetizky and so on, you had a technique which exceeded your expressive powers, didn’t you?
I don’t know. I never really tried to get a phenomenal technique, it did not interest me, but Leschetizky, since you mentioned his name, he opened my eyes. He’s supposed to have been the greatest teacher for technique, which is all wrong. With him it was color and he tried to instill musicianship into the artist, into his pupils, but technique, naturally you had to have a certain technique as a means to an end, and that he kept on emphasizing. Now with all my respect and admiration for Horowitz, I blame him for it. Because since he came, it was something of a hurricane and everybody started to emulate him, but Horowitz is a great artist, a great musician, but there are so many teachers and pianists that try to say “Oh! I can play this as fast as Horowitz and as loudly!” and they do, and that’s all there is to it. Naturally there are a few exceptions, and these exceptions will eventually emerge as good or great pianists.
You were playing at the age of nine…
I was playing at the age of six and a half and we were a large family, and only my sister was playing the piano, and I had six brothers and two sisters and for my sins, I was the only one who always used to stay next to the piano and watch her playing, and the family decided there’s something in it and they started me with lessons. I went to school in Odessa and I hated it, I hated to practice, but in spite of myself I couldn’t help making a certain progress which led me to the Broadcasting House tonight. [laughter]
If you hated practice that time, who made you do it?
Who were artistic in fact?
But all living in a fairly musical world . Yes Odessa is rather extraordinary in that sense.
The cradle of much Russian talent. It’s surprising because now people like Oistrakh, Gilels, Milstein, Mischa Elman, god knows how many, about a dozen internationally known musicians come from Odessa.
Just give us a brief picture of what your family background at that time was. Were your parents prosperous people?
No, they were not. My father was a timber merchant. He used to travel around the wilds of Russian forests buying timber and I believe one of my grandfathers or something was a Jewish cantor, whom I had never met, but that’s the only musical background. . .
But the artistic life was in the hands of the Jews, as it always is. Was it especially so ?
Because the people you all mentioned are Jews. I’m not quite sure about Gilels, but certainly Oistrakh, Elman, Milstein.
If you hated practicing so much, did you feel a sense of frustration, resentment, when in fact you were sent to a very great teacher in Vienna to go on practicing, to become a greater pianist?
I’m talking about Odessa. It’s because I was a very mischievous boy at school and I had to do everything, all the school routine apart from the piano. I was forced to practice and I cheated as soon as my father went to sleep while listening to my practicing, I used to sneak out. But in spite of that I couldn’t help but making, in all modesty, I’d say, phenomenal success, because I made records there. Instead of being three years in the lower grade, three years in the middle grade, I was two years [in each] and then went to the top. It was a very good teacher, a pupil of Liszt and Leschetizky. But I still hated practicing. I did not take any interest and would like to [tell] a little story in connection with this. There’s a prize called the Rubinstein prize which only one pupil can keep as long as he or she keeps it. It doesn’t change yearly: he or she dies or leaves the school then somebody else has to get it. Well it’s an important thing because it’s a government as well as a school concern, and there’s always articles in the papers saying “Next month it’s going to be decided who is going to win the Rubinstein prize.” There’s lots of commotion amongst the pupils and so on, and eventually the day of the announcement arrived and I was in the school playing about and the director of the school came to me and said “You were the one to win the Rubinstein prize.” I was nine then, and I said “Well, thank you.” He said “Aren’t you surprised?” I said no. I wasn’t boasting but I didn’t expect it and since I got it, I got it,. However, later that afternoon I came home and spent the afternoon, evening, the usual time, and the next morning my mother who woke me up to get ready for school, said “By the way, did you hear who won the Rubinstein prize?” I said “Oh yes, [yawning] I forgot to tell you, I won it.”
Was it a great family wrench when the decision was taken to send you to Vienna to study? Did you want to go?
Well, that’s another story. I was expelled from school in 1904 and not because of my lack of pianistic talent or whatever it was, but just because I was mischievous. I used to do all sorts of things which I shouldn’t have done and always say that I didn’t do it. But then one day there was something I did not do and they accused me of it and I said I didnt do it,, and that was actually demolishing the school. I would [try to] break the school gate on to the ground and I inadvertently told a porter, I said “Oh, I did it” but I didn’t do it so I heard there was a director’s meeting immediately. They said “We forgave you when you did this, and when you did that but once you start demolishing the school, that’s too much for us. Out!” Actually I think it was a three-months sentence to be absent from the school, but meanwhile my parents got panicky and wrote to my brother who lived in London and told him about this calamity and they immediately said bring him to London, we’ll see what we can do. And so I went with my mother to London, and in all admiration, I must say that I went to play for the head of the Guildhall School, Dr. Cummings, who said “There are no teachers for you in this country and I strongly advise you to go to Leschetizky and I went right myself.” And he did and I went to Leschetizky. I think it was so admirable of the old man because as a rule they like to get hold if they see a talent and afterwards boast “He’s a pupil of the Guildhall, the Royal Academy” whatever it was, but he was honest enough and sincere. With Leschetizky it was a different story. Once I started playing, studying with him, then it was an eye-opener. Then I didn’t break down any buildings but I studied eight hours a day and every moment of my stay in Vienna, two and a half years, was just wonderful.
Have you any unrealized ambitions? Would there have been something else you would have liked to have been?
I couldn’t think of doing anything else.
Has there been no disappointment?
No. If there had been any, I would only blame myself.
On the contrary, just gratitude.
Do you find you have much in common with your friends? Are they mostly musical people or very mixed?
It makes no difference. I’m not fussy about musical people. I’m a little bit afraid of musical people. If they happen to be musical and nice, this is very seldom, all the better.
Do you need friends very much, because the life of a musician one imagines to be very lonely despite the great crowds who may come to hear you?
I can’t say that I need friends because I have friends. I’m not short of friends. I get letters from all over the world from faces whom I might have met casually, but once we’ve made friends, we are friends.
Are you interested in criticism?
I’m interested if I have a criticism which is glowing, which very seldom happens. I don’t believe it and I’m inclined to write to the critic to say that he was all wrong. Of course I’m inclined to write, but I don’t want to have any truck with critics. But I’m not one of those people who say “Oh, criticism doesn’t interest me.” Even in any provincial, small town I like to see the criticism just to see what sort of reaction they’ve had. If they coincide with mine, it is all right, if they don’t I just leave it at that. I know more or less what I can do and cannot do, what I have done and didn’t do and I’m the only one responsible.
You were talking about Schumann, that he was your favorite composers. Is there some music that you now enjoy playing?
I put Schumann very much above Chopin, but I revel in him as much.
What about Delius, the Delius concerto?
I’m glad you mentioned the Delius Concerto; I’ve been playing it on and off for the last thirty or forty years and always loved it. But I’ve sort of played it every four or five years, and this time I was never so enthusiastic, it gives me such a tremendous emotional kick. And I felt like shouting from the housetops that everybody must listen and I’m annoyed that they do not have the Delius Concerto at least once a year. They have to wait until he’s 25 years dead and now I suppose they’ll have to wait another 25 years before they play it again. It’s one of the most beautiful modern concertos – the wealth of color, the wealth of emotion, poetry. . . I don’t know of any modern work, and I’ve told the same thing to my friends Rachmaninoff and Medtner, and they were surprised because they did not know the concerto. But just now, I’m much more in it than ever before. It’s an English work and I’m ashamed that in England it is not played more than every four or five years. In America, my recordings have been a tremendous success, I tried to play it there but of course to them it’s still an English work and has no money value, but here, that it should be neglected is a crying shame.
-Benno Moiseiwitsch, May 13, 1959