Moiseiwitsch's successful 'Variations'


January 16, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Theme and variation form is one of the most elementary and primitive forms of musical construction. Its limitation for the composer is that he or she must work with a predetermined module that keeps repeating. For the performer, the biggest challenge is that he or she must introduce enough variety so the work does not become tiresome, but not so much variety that the performance lacks continuity.

This difficulty is easily illustrated in Brahms' "25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel," one of the greatest exercises in variation form and one of the greatest challenges, musically as well as technically, in the piano literature. The work has been recorded dozens of times -- there are about 20 performances listed in the current catalog -- but only a handful of pianists have ever achieved genuine success with it.

Most pianists fall into the traps of either making the piece sound too predictable or making it sound like 25 short pieces followed by a fugue.

One pianist who achieved success with the Brahms "Handel" was Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), the Russian-born British pianist who was perhaps the most naturally gifted of the students of the greatest teacher in the history of the piano, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) -- and this takes into account such names as Ignacy Paderewski, Artur Schnabel, Ignaz Friedman and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Moiseiwitsch was at his peak between the two world wars, and the Testament label's announcement that it was reissuing his "Handel Variations" along with works by Schumann caused much excitement among connoisseurs because they assumed it would be the pianist's legendary 1937 recording.

As it turns out, however, Testament has reissued the pianist's 1954 remake of the Brahms "Handel," a performance that Moiseiwitsch was not happy with. That's the way he felt about most of the recordings he made after World War II. It was shortly after the war that Moiseiwitsch's wife died and the pianist turned increasingly to alcohol for solace. The effect of his alcoholism was not disastrous -- Moiseiwitsch never gave an uninteresting performance -- but the astonishing equipment that made his playing sound as easy and natural as breathing became increasingly impaired, making his playing sound labored. When you listen to his 1937 "Handel Variations," you hear a musician for whom technical limitations did not exist; listening to the 1954 performance, you hear a pianist who occasionally needs to be cautious.

But whatever the pianist's own evaluation of this recording, it still ranks among the greatest and is perhaps surpassed only by the earlier one. No other pianist makes Brahms sound more vivacious and less academic than Moiseiwitsch. This is a performance that is teasing and humorous without being affected, and sounds improvised on the spot without losing the composer's all-important sense of logic and continuity.

The "music box" variation 22, for example, is rendered with a delicacy of wit and a mastery of exquisitely prismatic sound that beggars description; Moiseiwitsch is still able to whip up a storm of controlled fury in variations 23 through 25, announcing the beginning of the fugue with what sounds like a roar from a wounded lion; and the fugue itself -- while not as daring as 17 years earlier -- is commandingly regal, a magnificent culmination of all that has gone before.

While Moiseiwitsch ranks with Richter and Cortot as one of the greatest of Schumann pianists, the performances of that composer's "Fantasiestuecke" and "Fantasie" on this disc are not quite as persuasive. Hearing him play the "Traumes Wirren" of the former and the coda of the second-movement march in the latter, one is conscious of pianistic effort as one is not in the Brahms. But these are still magnificent performances, filled with grandeur, feeling and a perpetually singing tone that make those by most pianists today sound trivial.

How good his Brahms' "Handel" is can be gauged by comparing it to three recent performances. The Russian Nikolai Petrov (Olympia) plays the piece with an astounding command of the notes almost equal to that of the younger Moiseiwitsch. But while it's always a delight to hear Brahms' difficulties made light of, Petrov's fearless reading doesn't yield much insight into the piece. This 50-year-old Russian is heard to much better advantage in some of the other works on this disc, particularly in his whirlwind traversal of Georges Bizet's insanely difficult transcription for piano of Saint-Saens' Concerto No. 2 and dTC Leopold Godowsky's weird rewriting of "The Swan" -- he stands Saint-Saens' harmony on its head.

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