Now, you know I am indulging myself when I think of the nominated topic and come up with examples that are all piano recordings! That’s a limitation within a limitation, and I admit it. And I am also aware that when we talk about sound, I am supposed to make noises like a hi-fi buff, and that I never was.
No, when I mention music and sound, I am thinking about music’s physicalization or manifestation or realization through specific vibrations. Sometimes such a rendition can be a highly specific sound, and on rare occasions, that sound can be, or seem to be, the sound for which the music was conceived; or if not that, then nevertheless, the sound that has captured our aural imagination, or at least mine.
So let me add before I cite a familiar example that I am not necessarily thinking about the engineering of recordings, but rather more something like the preparation of the instrument: the adjustments of the pedals, the mechanism of the keyboard, the voicing of the registers, which add up to a sound image that may become a sound ideal. And I do concede up front that an element of aural fetishism may be creeping in, as far as the older recordings go. Their very historical nature and even defects may be part of the sound image.
So then let me put some cards on the table. A big hit recording of 45 years ago foregrounds exactly what I am thinking about. I refer to Joshua Rifkin’s renditions of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, which were highly enjoyable revelations of an era long eclipsed: The impact of these performances was tremendous. Rifkin was scrupulous to a fanatical degree in his restraint, his respect for the text, and his refusal to indulge any temptation to speed up or to vulgarize. He played the notes as written with ultimate care. We can say a lot about the musical, cultural, and pianistic success, but I want to call attention to the sound itself. The recording is one of the best representations of an expertly prepared piano that I have ever heard. The appealing music is caught forever in an unexaggerated presentation of articulated sound.
And by the way: Rifkin’s refusal to overstate is not only sound musical practice from a musicologist; it also corresponds with Joplin’s musical background. Joplin always acknowledged the influence of his piano and music teacher, Julius Weiss. There are those who believe that certain “ragtime moments” in the Adagio sostenuto of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and in the Arietta: adagio of the Opus 111 might actually have come to Joplin’s attention from the German-Jewish musician who led him to compose not only piano rags but the opera Treemonisha and a symphony and a piano concerto, both lost.
A second example of the phenomenon is the work of Michele Campanella, and I refer specifically to his set of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and to some of his other recordings of Liszt. The combination is the same: a remarkably prepared piano, a strict treatment of the text, a refusal of vulgarity, and a revealing, restorative result. Like Rifkin, Campanella treated music that was open to abuse with serious attention, and the sound and action of his piano were in sync with his goals.
But then I want to nominate another recording that is treasurable not only as a document of music and of pianism but as an aggressive revelation of sound. Of recent recordings of the piano, I would nominate this as the best. And it is also a steal—the last I heard, the two CDs on EMI Virgin were selling for less than the price of one. I am referring to the set of Scarlatti sonatas by Mikhail Pletnev, but this treatment, though loving, is a bit less than respectful. As a statement about Scarlatti, it is outrageous and even provocative. Pletnev tweaks the noses of all the little Early Music puritans by flaunting the psychedelic tail of the piano’s colors—as modest as a peacock is he. Never has a piano been used more shamelessly to represent the work of a composer born in 1685! And never has a piano sounded better. Recorded in October 1994 at Abbey Road, these multi-scintillant Scarlattis are superior in their way even to the best recordings of such notables as Maria Tipo, Vladimir Horowitz, and Ivo Pogorelic. So don’t hesitate, don’t flinch, don’t even think about it—just obtain the goods, legally if possible, but always “with plausible deniability,” as the lawyers say today, or “with discretion,” as Joel Cairo says in The Maltese Falcon.
I would also classify some of András Schiff’s Bach recordings, particularly of the first Partita, as worthy of comparison with Pletnev’s Scarlatti. The sound alone is so crisply articulated that you have to wonder how you could have ever settled for less. Murray Perahia’s Goldberg Variations is another exalted example of Bach on the piano.
Another example of an outstanding piano recording of recent vintage is of Chopin’s Études, Op. 10 and 25, by Juana Zayas. The beautiful sound is her vision of the music—there is a balance and a singing, ringing lyrical emphasis no matter how tough the challenges become. The sound is itself the music, poised, focused, and full. John Browning’s Chopin Études are the opposite: brilliant and cold, to be compared, perhaps, to the first complete recording by Backhaus back in the 20’s.
Now I have mentioned Rifkin’s and Campanella’s and Pletnev’s and Schiff’s and Perahia’s and Zayas’s recordings first because with them, there is no technical issue about the sound—quite the opposite! But as we go further back in history, conditions change, and we are in another environment, in which sound is always a problem, whether the limitations are sonic specifically or simply physical interference, as with the swishing of a 78 rpm shellac. But we may find that, even so, beautiful sound can emerge from such a compromised source. And it is always worth remembering that the best filter is the one in your head.
Going back in time then to the late 40’s, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s famous recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne is most impressive for its virtuosity and dramatic power, registered not only with éclat and even force but also, of necessity, with remarkable sound. Michelangeli was obsessed with controlling sound and the dynamics of the piano, and with fidelity to the score. The result is musical command and an outrageous idiosyncrasy of sound—the sound of an old upright played in a church basement by the Phantom of the Opera! But I must concede that Ervin Nyiregyházi’s surreptitiously recorded performance of Liszt’s La prédication aux oiseaux has a similarly Gothic effect, one unforgettable for the same reason, though recorded much later than Michelangeli’s was, and surreptitiously as well.
There’s a lot to say about the pianism of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and of the artists who recorded into the 30’s, and I hope to speak to the matter, but now I will mention only a few more instances of sound that must be acknowledged. The first pianist I ever heard from the old days was Fats Waller, of all people. But what a player he was! His flexibility and his humor should never allow us to forget that he was a remarkable pianist with a beautiful tone. I have never understood why RCA Victor gave Fats better sound than they did to Rachmaninoff, but he was a shrewd musician and performer, with a musical education to back him up, and it shows. When I think of piano sound that is itself enjoyable, Fats comes quickly to mind.
So does Alfred Cortot, especially beginning with his first electrical recordings in 1926, and his indispensable recordings that continued to be produced into the late 40’s. What a repertory, what a command, what spontaneity and power of characterization, and what a sound! If I had to choose, I would say that Cortot was the greatest player of his time, but be that as it may, certainly he had the best competition we could name: Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Schnabel, Friedman, and so on. Horowitz and Arrau, who were both born in 1903 and who both lived in Paris in the late 20’s, agreed that Cortot’s Chopin and Schumann were the best. But Cortot thought of himself as a Beethoven specialist, and he played Liszt superbly, and the French repertory he owned. All of this he did with a distinctive sound and a way with the pedals of the Pleyel and Érard pianos that set him apart. Anyone who is interested in the pieces Cortot recorded must hear him. As our contemporary the distinguished pianist Maurizio Pollini has declared, Cortot had “the most beautiful singing tone in all piano playing.”
But let us close with a negative example. When we talk about sound, what are we not talking about? Who is it that does not give us a persuasive sound? There are many names of various bangers and typists we could mention, but one that insists upon the dubious distinction of actually sounding ugly is György Cziffra. This Hungarian escaped oppression but not injury by fleeing to the West in 1956, and he quickly drew attention because of his individualism. He was a Liszt specialist who took chances—he was a great man who lived a tragic life. And I have always liked Cziffra and enjoyed his work. But he did not engage the piano in a productive manner, settling for speed, thrills, and even violence instead of getting into the bottom of the key. His musical appeal was compromised, without question. And the aesthetic of the romantic music he played was scanted. As a result, much of Cziffra’s fabulous energy was wasted—his performances were actually counterproductive, for the more he slashed, pounded, and smacked the piano, the less music he produced. Benno Moiseiwitsch and Jorge Bolet delivered the big sound and the ringing sonority required for Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, but Cziffra, his facility not withstanding, could not match that music with its required sound. Sound is of the essence!