How neglectful of David Dubai not to write the great book on the piano, especially considering what a fine position he was in to do so! So let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way first, before reviewing the merits of his study.
The Art of the Piano is internally divided against itself in more than one way. It’s halved between “The Pianists” and “The Piano Literature With Lists of Exceptional Recordings,” while the second half is itself halved by a subdivision that segregates major from minor composers. In addition, the halves aren’t attuned to each other—or perhaps I should say that too often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. When Grieg’s Concerto in A minor is cited, the recording by Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conducting, is mentioned, as it must be. But the flip side of that disc—an even better reading of the Schumann Concerto in the same key by the same artists—doesn’t show up as it unquestionably should under “Schumann.” Neither is one of Alfred Cortot’s recordings of Schumann’s concerto cited, though back in the first half we find (under “Cortot”) four versions as well as three different Carnavals, none cited back again in the second half under “Schumann.”
This sort of thing happens too often. Edwin Fischer’s recording of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue is rightly singled out for praise under that pianist’s name, but when we look at the entry for that piece under “Bach,” Fischer isn’t there. Similarly, Dubai sees Wilhelm Backhaus in the right perspective: “his readings of the Schumann Fantasy, the Brahms Paganini Variations, and history’s first set of the Chopin Twenty-four Etudes, peerless in execution, were ‘musts’ in any collection.” They still are. But they aren’t listed where they belong in the second half of Dubai’s encyclopedia.
Though David Dubai has the knowledge and authority necessary for the task he undertook, he has not delivered the finished work he is capable of doing. The decision to combine his survey of pianism with a survey of the piano literature was a bad one, a refusal to choose, and the decision to give the book the form of three runs through the alphabet was disastrous, the result too often seeming to be a jog through Dubai’s card file. In the end, dependence on the arbitrariness of the alphabet appears to equate the mediocre with the magnificent, the living with the dead, the documented with the legendary, and the satyr with Hyperion. One sentence on Hans Graf lives next door to five pages on Glenn Gould; two sentences on Helen Hopekirk are juxtaposed with nine pages on Vladimir Horowitz.
In other words, The Art of the Piano doesn’t eclipse Harold G. Schonberg’s The Great Pianists, though it could have—and, I think, should have. Yet having come to bury Dubai, I will remain to praise him. His book on the piano, in spite of some shaky writing, says some essential things about the great players of the instrument, and, even more, it communicates much of the love, the passion, the joy that great performances can bring the listener. Dubai cares. He knows what he’s talking about, and when he gets wound up, he doesn’t hold back.
Let’s get down to cases: Dubai’s treatment of Wilhelm Backhaus is at least fair—compare to it Schonberg’s neglect of that major artist. Dubai is right about Simon Barere; for him Glenn Gould is, as an artist, no problematical figure; his account of Claudio Arrau is just; he makes fine and valid distinctions about Rudolf Serkin. I can’t argue with what he says about Lazar Berman, or William Masselos, or Vladimir de Pachman, or Josef Lhevinne, or Mischa Levitzki, or Earl Wild—but why did he omit Raoul Koczalski altogether?
A fine pianist himself, Dubai likes pianists and he understands their problems. He reacts strongly to strong personalities, and vividly to colorful and stylish execution. The best thing about his book is its kinetic quality—he makes you want to buy tickets to recitals and copies of great recordings. Again and again, he cites the great recording, the essential interpretation, the great name, the one to have—legally if possible, you understand.
What Dubai has to say about Ignaz Friedman’s magnificent Chopin Mazurkas and his uncanny rendition of the Chopin Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2 is a testimony not only to Friedman but also, to Dubai’s own sensibility and apprehension. His reservations about Josef Hofmann—not ones I share—say perhaps as much about Dubai’s interior conflicts as they do about Hofmann. Dubai’s strictures on Hofmann are his most controversial judgments and show a deep ambivalence toward his subject. With Dubai, Hofmann touches a nerve.
My favorite pages here, though, are the ones devoted to Alfred Cortot and his recorded legacy. Not only the recordings Dubai glosses but recent remasterings of Cortot’s early Victors and later EMI test pressings must convince the listener of Cortot’s greatness. David Dubai’s impassioned responses to the music left by Alfred Cortot do justice to the artist, and well become the author. His accounts of the art of Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, and Vladimir Horowitz also demonstrate why music lovers and piano buffs will want to consult this book often. In spite of structural flaws and some overripe phrases, David Dubai’s The Art of the Piano is a book for piano-lovers in large part because the author loves the piano.
[The Art of the Piano: Its Performers, Literature, and Recordings, by David Dubai (New York: Summit Books) 477 pp., $40.00]