Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wild tones

A few years ago, having become frustrated with my own over-slow tempi and clumsy tone while reading through Stravinsky's Sonata, I just had to hear the piece played once well and at tempo.  I  forced myself to listen to one recording after another.  I was mostly disappointed by the performances, but one recording stood out, and — to me — it was a complete surprise.   It was that of pianist Earl Wild, who has just died at the age of 94.  

I was surprised becaused Wild's name was not one that someone involved in new music would immediately think of, moreover it was a name that I associated with the showy virtuoso end of the big-name classical music establishment, not territory where musical sensitivity is always valued, but that association was a mistake on my part.  Sure, he was a flamboyant stage presence and sure, he was a Liszt specialist, but he was a Liszt specialist who could handle all of Liszt, which means not just the fireworks, but also the reveries, lugubrious gondolas, and bird songs.  To handle such a range, a pianist needs not only fluency and velocity in passages of great density, volume, and complexity, but has to give those dense sections a coherent composite form and clear harmonic rhythm, and has also to be able to make single, isolated tones come alive in sparse textures at minimal dynamics, being sensitive to how each new attack influences the instrument's ensemble sound, gathered and developing under keys held open or the pedal, a near-impossible balancing act. 

What has that got to do with performance practice for Stravinsky?  The default setting for Stravinsky performance is usually "dry", but for me, Wild's recording and the experience of hearing works by Jo Kondo — whose own musical identity was very much shaped by Stravinsky — being recorded by the ensemble L'Art pour l'Art under the composer's supervision absolutely were convincing arguments that the quality in question was discretion not dryness, that single tones could and should be shaped and allowed to blossom and resonate.   (As Kondo put it “I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.”)  Wild's Liszt-grown technique turns out to have been perfect for this style, giving elegant harmonic shape to passages of great velocity as well as bringing out the internal activity of individual tones.  

Wild was probably the last survivor of the great house pianists from the days when American radio stations took live classical music seriously.  His initial popularity was no doubt due to his recording of Rhapsody in Blue, but his association with American music of the mid-20th century was broader than that and, if the evidence of a Sonata which shares the Stravinsky recording means anything, he was no slouch as a composer for the piano himself, not just turning out the kitsch required for television appearances and I have also read that he was also an active transcriber, a serious musical activity in its own right, also with a Lisztian origin.  It will be interesting to hear if other pianists now  take up Wild's music.

(BTW: This chat (on YouTube) with Wild is a blast; you'll never think of knitting the same way again.)

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