A tribute to Earl Wild

DistlerTue 9th February 2010

An American success story

My wife and I just returned from a month in Brazil, recharging our batteries, visiting friends and relatives, and escaping New York’s cold weather (except for public places that pump up the air-conditioning to the max).

I didn’t have constant e-mail access, and mainly got news through the daily papers, so, strangely enough, I only learned that Earl Wild passed away when a reader alerted me two weeks after the fact. Ironically, the first of many packages greeting me upon returning home was a pair of new releases featuring the legendary pianist, brought out by Ivory Classics, the label started by Wild’s longtime business and personal partner Michael Rolland Davis.

Like many young American musicians growing up in the 1960s, I first encountered Earl Wild on record, specifically his Gershwin collaborations with Arthur Fiedler. My parents also had some of those mail order LP box sets from Readers Digest, replete with cheesy titles and cover photos. Many of the classical piano selections featured Wild, but I didn’t pay attention too much. However, in college, when I first began studying piano repertoire seriously, I got turned on to an LP on Vanguard’s budget Cardinal line titled "The Demonic Liszt". What ebullience and panache Wild brought to his world premiere recording of the Robert le Diable paraphrase, not to mention his sparkling Mephisto Waltz No 1, Waltzes from Gounod’s Faust, and the Liszt/Mozart Don Juan Fantasy.

The Quintessence label appeared in the late 1970s, launching something of an Earl Wild cottage industry of reissues and new releases. That’s when I heard the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody for the first time, via Earl’s incisive and still sonically breathtaking benchmark recording with Jascha Horenstein and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (the rest of the cycle’s just as good, especially the First and Fourth Concertos.)

In time, I learned more about Earl’s long and varied career, how he made his living as a studio musician for many years, his staggeringly eclectic resume, his practical approach to music making, and his immense musical curiosity. All of this proved just as true when I interviewed Earl for the first time in November 1995, a few days before his 80th birthday. Earl and Michael were staying at a quite expansive (and most likely expensive) penthouse apartment near Lincoln Center, replete with high ceilings, endless views, and the shiniest Baldwin concert grand I’d ever encountered.

Earl looked at least 15 years younger, and spoke with the rapid-fire enthusiasm and slightly mischievous demeanour of an artist in his 20s, yet his musical observations clearly revealed a seasoned performer who had no respect for sacred cows or received opinion. Carefree banter, naughty gossip (from both parties: I admit, I egged him on!), and fascinating insights intermingled during the course of our two and a half hours together. Who else would have the courage to say that Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations were too long? Or claim that the best accompaniment he received in Chopin’s F Minor Concerto was from Bruno Maderna, who actually cried during the slow movement? Needless to say, I got more quotable material than I bargained for, although Earl saved his best line for a 2005 sit-down with David Dubal, when he dubbed Lang Lang “the J-Lo of piano playing.”

Yet much as Earl graciously answered my questions about the past, he clearly lived in the present, and looked forward to future projects. One wonders if Earl had a premonition that his best playing and finest recordings would emerge over the next ten years. Think of the Brahms Third Piano Sonata, the Barber Sonata, Bach’s First Partita, the Mozart F Major K 332 Sonata, Beethoven’s C Minor Variations, Chopin’s Impromptus and Nocturnes, two discs worth of totally unknown and ravishing Reynaldo Hahn piano music, or the fresh, concise and beautifully balanced four movement Piano Sonata Earl composed in 2000.

Earl was independent minded, true to himself, a consummate professional, and an inspired artist. That’s an American success story.

Distler

Composer, pianist, concert presenter and Gramophone contributor Jed Distler looks back, present and forward about the piano in our lives, and the lives of the piano.

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