Arbiter Records 110

The Sirota Archives: Rare Russian Masterpieces

  • First publication
  • Released Feb 18, 1997
  • $16.98, free postage within the US
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Track List

Leo Sirota studied with Ferruccio Busoni, who commented "after such playing, I don't wish to hear anyone else today." Live radio recordings from 1955, first publication. In 2014 this CD was remastered for downloading.

  1. Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata in G, op. 37: I
  2. Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata in G, op. 37: II
  3. Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata in G, op. 37: III
  4. Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata in G, op. 37: IV
  5. Anton Rubinstein Près du ruisseau
  6. Anton Rubinstein Sérénade
  7. Anton Rubinstein Prelude in F minor
  8. Anton Rubinstein Polonaise in E flat minor
  9. Anton Rubinstein Valse caprice
  10. Glazunov Piano Sonata in B flat minor I
  11. Glazunov Piano Sonata in B flat minor II
  12. Glazunov Piano Sonata in B flat minor III

The Sirota Archives
Rare Russian Masterpieces

Leo Sirota, piano

Great artists of the past often had eventful and consequential careers yet left inadequate documentation of their music-making. Such was the pianist Leo Sirota, a remarkable musician who was one of Busoni’s foremost pupils, and who led a broad and active life in music. His concert programs bespeak the scope of his repertoire: the complete piano works of Mozart, all of Beethoven’s sonatas, most of the major works of Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, and other eminent nineteenth-century composers, and from this century, music by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Sirota’s mentor Busoni, Schoenberg, and the pianist’s contemporaries, including Samuel Barber.

Sirota left more than an hour of commercial recordings made in England around 1924-26 for the Homochord company and half an hour of performances for Japanese Columbia, recorded in the 1930’s. Among the latter group was Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in the first recording of the score’s piano arrangement; Sirota had given its premiere as Arthur Rubinstein, for whom it was intended, was unable to master it. Rubinstein played a simplified version in later years. Sirota’s acoustic Homochord discs are important documents, and the later Tokyo sessions offer vivid impressions of a compelling artist. Yet so much of his repertoire remained unrecorded. Did more survive?

One day, Beate Sirota Gordon, the pianist’s daughter, phoned to mention that she might have a tape or two from Sirota’s weekly radio recitals in St. Louis, broadcast live from 1951 until 1962, in which he covered much of the piano’s literature. Her New York apartment’s storage closet contained several boxes which had remained untouched since his death; they held over 30 hours of taped radio recitals and a home movie of the singer Chaliapin made in 1936 when he visited the Sirota home in Japan. On a nearby shelf were acetate transcription discs containing 28 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, played during Sirota’s 1951-1952 season. At Gordon’s suggestion I contacted the pianist Edward Petsch, a student of Sirota’s, who had lived with the pianist and his family and studied with him for several years. Many lost performances, such as the Liszt Don Juan Fantasy, and the entire Ad Nos Salutarem Undam Fantasy were located (this writer had earlier published a surviving fragment of the Liszt work on the Pearl Records CD Busoni and His Circle ).

Among the surprises in Petsch’s archive were the performances now contained on this disc. These rarely heard works were in Sirota’s repertoire and represent the Russia in which he gained his artistic background: Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein were still alive when the young prodigy Sirota was giving his first recitals. Later, Glazunov became a mentor to the young pianist. Among the compositions of Anton Rubinstein heard here is a Polonaise, his final composition for piano, dedicated to his young pupil Josef Hofmann. Sirota’s performance is the first published recording of the work.

For Sirota, these composers were living contemporaries whose works he played in a manner characteristic of their Russia – a style that was soon transformed when the Communist era began to influence performance styles. Sviatoslav Richter’s performance of the Tchaikovsky sonata is an example of the post-Revolutionary art: taut, energetic, and clearly defined, yet remote from the spacious poetry and repose characteristic of Sirota’s time.

Leo Sirota was born in 1885 in Kamenets Podol’skiy (Russian Ukraine) and studied music in Kiev with Chodorowski, who also taught Horowitz’s teacher Sergei Tarnowski. By age eleven Sirota was already instructing older pupils, playing locally and touring. In her book, The Only Woman in the Room- a Memoir, the pianist’s daughter Beate Sirota Gordon writes:

“At fourteen he became head music coach of the Kiev State Opera. On one occasion he even accompanied the great singer Fyodor Chaliapin.” His training continued at the Imperial Conservatory in Petersburg, where its director, Alexander Glazunov, was so impressed with him that after Sirota’s graduation in 1904, he persuaded him to approach Busoni:
“Leo, deciding not to use Glazunov’s letter of introduction to Busoni immediately, but to choose a teacher for himself, attended classes given by Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Paderewski, and Busoni. He auditioned for each of them and all four accepted him. Only then did he choose the Italian. When Leo gave him the letter from Glazunov, he responded, smiling, ‘What need is there for this? I have heard you play.’ “

Practicing assiduously for his lessons with Busoni while studying law at the University and taking courses in philosophy, Sirota also assisted the conductor Jascha Horenstein as rehearsal pianist (he later married Horenstein’s sister Augustine). Some years afterward, Sirota remarked laconically that he had worked hard in Vienna.

Busoni organized a demanding Vienna debut for Sirota. Together, they performed Mozart’s Sonata in D for Two Pianos, followed by Busoni’s five-movement Piano Concerto with the composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic; Sirota then played Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy. Busoni’s Giga, Variazione e Bolero was dedicated to Sirota, and Busoni presented him with the orchestral score of his piano concerto, inscribed with a detailed list of all the work’s previous performances. He introduced Sirota to Schoenberg’s music: The enhanced transcription Busoni made of the second piece from Op. 11 became a part of Sirota’s repertoire. A recording of his performance of the work, unfortunately in poor sound, projects the music as a decadent idyll. Sirota began touring extensively throughout Europe, and when Serge Koussevitzky organized his orchestra in Berlin, he invited Sirota to perform the Tchaikovsky B flat-minor and Rubinstein D-minor concertos with him, prompting a critic to comment, “Have the Russians a monopoly in pianism?”

After a concert tour in Japan in 1928 Sirota was offered to head the piano department at the Ueno Imperial Academy in Tokyo. In 1929 the Sirota family settled in Japan, where he became the pre-eminent teacher and recitalist, remaining there until 1946.

During the Second World War, with their daughter at school in the United States, Leo and Augustine Sirota were exiled to a remote mountain village where they faced great hardships. They lived with only one piano, as two of his pianos had been burnt during a Tokyo bombing. When a local farmer recognized the pianist, he secretly supplied the couple with food. After the war’s end, Sirota moved with his wife to the United States and became artist-in-residence at the St. Louis Institute of Music, taking over the position of the retiring Gottfried Galston, another Busoni pupil.

One of Leo Sirota’s final projects was to coach a blind koto player about to give the world premiere of Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Koto and Orchestra with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In late 1963, Sirota returned to Japan for several recitals, one of them televised, and a number of concerts as soloist and conductor. He was reunited with his pupils, many of whom, such as Takahiro Sonoda, became Japan’s musical elite through his guidance and example. The concert appearances were among his last, for he died in 1965, ending a musical career spanning more than seventy years.

Chopin, by Leo Sirota

The following speech by Sirota was given in St. Louis. While he was analytical during lessons, his text was intended for the general listener. Sirota carefully inscribed breath-marks, pauses, and underlined (sometimes doubly) specific words and phrases in his manuscript. As there exist no substantial published interviews with Sirota, this rare manuscript provides an idea of his aesthetic outlook.

Chopin revolutionized traditional piano music and created a new Art of the keyboard. In place of the old rules he introduced principles of his own and his iconoclastic romanticism was at the same time an original classicism.

Even before this, the piano had a magnificent history written in the pages of Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber, but it was Chopin who discovered its soul and gave form to its unique poetry.

Chopin created an authentic piano music. His compositions are born of the piano and intended for the piano. All attempts to adapt them to other instruments end in failure or result in distortion.

Chopin was the Prospero of the piano; he cast his spell on it and transformed it. He touched the keys of what had been till then merely a percussion instrument, and worked miracles. How did this come about? The answer to this question contains the entire secret of Chopin. First of all, he made the piano sing. This idea was not an abstract invention, nor was it born in him by accident. From his childhood he had a passion for opera, especially Italian opera; he had made himself an expert in vocal music, and he could have become a distinguished vocal teacher. He understood instinctively that a melody, if it is not to sound mechanical, must breathe like a human voice and he commanded the piano to breathe. Thus was born his famous tempo rubato. He used it in an uncanny way where this breath was needed, without losing sight of the basic framework of the composition, and without overstepping its boundaries. He left behind the teaching that tempo rubato can be applied properly on one condition: namely, that the player have an unerring sense in the use of it.

Chopin also possessed the secret of the pedal, and with this knowledge he opened a great unexplored world of new sounds and vibrations. He mixed sounds as paints are mixed on a palette, and produced colors that had not ever been imagined before, and this in an ever more delicate variation. He created harmonies with extraordinary freshness, and opened up new horizons of musical poetry. This enabled his successors to make further discoveries; Debussy above all others excelled in such discoveries, although he exploited them for their magic rather than for their potentialities of musical content.

Chopin was a genius who lived for the sake of music and who acted through music. He overthrew the piano scholasticism of the established schools. He emancipated the pianist from servitude to pedantic canons and hastened the development of individual freedom in the realm of piano playing. Nevertheless, Chopin’s compositions present great difficulties for the performer.

In the course of my world-wide travels I have met many promising pianists. As a rule they give adequate performances of Bach fugues; their playing of Scarlatti sonatas is almost always perfect, their Mozart and Beethoven sound correct and are held to a good style, but when they come to Chopin, I am for the most part disappointed. Even if my young friends have mastered the technical requirements, they lack the key to Chopin’s magic.

After a hundred years the works of Chopin have lost nothing of their vitality. How many great names have been forgotten, how many famous works have fallen into oblivion, while Chopin’s piano music is still heard throughout the world. It is extraordinary to observe how the most diverse audiences are conquered by the music of Chopin. I have met with lack of understanding for Bach in some places, with slight enthusiasm for Mozart in Italy, with a curious antipathy to Brahms in Latin countries – but Chopin has a hold on the hearts of men everywhere. This most national of composers is also the most cosmopolitan. Chopin’s secret was rediscovered by Debussy and Ravel. He has had many imitators and two of the most felicitous of these were Scriabin and Szymanowski. Unfortunately, the later masters were unfaithful to Chopin’s pianistic art. Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Milhaud, Prokofieff, Shostakovich have written beautiful and great works, but they have lost contact with the soul of the piano. For them, it has once again become a mere percussion instrument. A return to the full potentialities of the piano can take place only through a return to Chopin’s secret. But Chopin himself will remain unique.

Allan Evans © 1998.

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