Monday, September 6, 2010

Benno Moiseiwitsch; Pianist of the Grand Style

“The critics are occasionally pleased to compliment a pianist by saying that he plays in the grand style. Exactly what do they mean by that phrase? In the broadest sense, they mean a style of playing which penetrates deeper than the physical conquering of the piano. It concerns itself with the release of music.” Benno Moiseiwitsch



Benno Moiseiwitsch played in the “grand style.” He also lived his life by those ideals, leaving a legacy that is human and lasting, inspiring and sincere. A modest and self-effacing personality offstage, he generated extraordinary energy, excitement and glamour in concerts hall worldwide. Photographs radiate his sense of ease, and he maintained a distinctive calmness while performing. Yet, his recordings project music that is full of passion, inner-voices balanced with an orchestral depth, and lyrical lines that attract and reveal and surprise.

He was born in a suburb south of the Russian seaport of Odessa in 1890. His love of music, and aptitude for learning the piano lead him to the Imperial School of Music where he studied music along with general educational courses as a boy. At the age of nine he was awarded the Rubinstein Prize, a scholarship sponsored by the government to one student at a time for the duration of their studies. He outgrew the musical life at the Imperial School, and left in 1905 for a new start in England. Benno then followed the recommendation of his new teachers to fully develop his unique musical personality by seeking the best training available anywhere: to audition for study in Vienna with Theodore Leschetizky.

The transition between the nineteenth and twentieth century was dominated by the pupils of Franz Liszt and Theodore Leschetizky. Leschetizky studied with Czerny who studied with Beethoven. This direct lineage was handed down directly to Moiseiwitsch, and also to other significant pianists who studied with Leschetizky like Paderewski, Schnabel and Gabrilovitch. Moiseiwitsch later commented of his teacher that “no two pupils played the same piece in exactly the same way, but all his teaching was grounded in fundamental beauty of tone and emphasis on expressive color. Individuality, not method, made him the wonderful teacher he was. He turned what accomplishment I had into a love for the piano.”

In 1910, Moiseiwitsch’s official debut took place in London, after which he built an international career from a prolific performing and recording schedule. He married the Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy in 1914, but as happens all too often when active musicians marry, frequent professional separation led to legal separation and divorce after ten years. Moiseiwitsch remarried in 1929, having fallen in love with Anita Gensburger, the daughter of a prosperous Franco-Russian family living in Shanghai.

His career brought him in contact with most significant musical personalities of his day, but his bond was particularly strong with Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the two often spent informal time together razzing one another. Moiseiwitsch biographer Lawson Cook recalled that, “Moiseiwitsch was fascinated by Rachmaninoff’s response to humor, recalling that he would toss his head back, open his mouth wide, and wrinkles would form around his eyes. Tears would stream down his face, but he never made a sound!” Rachmaninoff expressed on more than one occasion that he considered many Moiseiwitsch recordings of his music better than his own.

Moiseiwitsch became a British subject in 1937, and when war broke out, gave an endless succession of concerts to help develop the Russian War Fund. Sir Winston and Lady Churchill were deeply touched by his artistry, and often invited he and Anita to dinners, informal performances, (Churchill’s favorite request was reported to be the Chopin Ballade No.3 in Ab Major. The middle section inspired in him the image of a galloping horse.) and perhaps most entertainingly, Moiseiwitsch became Churchill’s favorite Bridge partner.

Benno Moiseiwitsch died in 1963, active performing and touring until the very end of life. A premeir representative of the early century’s golden age of pianism, he helped to define pianistic eloquence itself. The “grand style” is increasingly studied by pianists today, who have found artistic integrity and love of sound in its recordings.

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