The great pianist Earl Wild has died

Gramophone25th Jan 2010
Earl Wild performing at Carnegie HallEarl Wild performing at Carnegie Hall

Earl Wild was one of the greatest pianists in history. In many ways he may be said to be unique. His omnivorous repertoire took in the works of more composers than almost any other pianist – from Buxtehude, Bach and Mozart through all the great pianist-composers of the 19th century (and a few more besides) to Hindemith, Copland, Menotti, Creston and Gould.

He composed and transcribed all his life leaving an impressive body of work that runs from his scintillating études on Gershwin’s songs and Rachmaninov song transcriptions to his 1962 oratorio Revelations (commissioned by ABC), the “Doo-Dah” Variations for piano and orchestra, and his Piano Sonata (premiered in 2000), its final Toccata movement marked “à la Ricky Martin”. Leaving aside the transcendental technique – Wild had one of the supreme keyboard mechanisms – the sheer beauty of tone he unfailingly produced serves as a model for any pianist.

In recording his “Doo-Dah Variations”, Wild claimed to have been the first virtuoso pianist-composer since Rachmaninov to record his own piano concerto. He is certainly the only pianist to be invited to play at the White House before six consecutive Presidents (beginning with Herbert Hoover). In 1939, he became the first pianist ever to give a live solo recital on US television. Remarkably, in March 1997, he also became the first pianist to give a live solo recital on the internet. In 1942 Wild was the first American-born musician to be invited by Arturo Toscanini to appear with him (in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue), making him the youngest soloist ever engaged by the NBC Symphony.

Though born into an unmusical family (his father was in steel, his mother was a hat designer), Wild’s pianistic genealogy was distinguished: at 11 he was accepted as a pupil of Selmar Janson, himself a pupil of Scharwenka and d’Albert (who had studied with Liszt); later he took lessons with Egon Petri (a pupil of Busoni), Paul Doguereau (a pupil of Paderewski and Ravel) and Helene Barere (wife of the Russian virtuoso Simon Barere). This foundation enabled him to maintain playing well into old age. He rounded off his celebratory 85th birthday recital in Carnegie Hall with d’Albert’s finger-crunching Scherzo. His 90th birthday recital in Carnegie Hall showed that his playing had lost none of its colour and vigour. He gave his final recital in February 2008 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles when he was awarded the President’s Merit Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Wild made his first recording for RCA in 1939 (accompanying the oboist Robert Bloom in a selection of Handel sonatas) and went on to record for a further 20 labels, including his own, Ivory Classics. In total his astonishing discography has more than 35 concertos, 26 chamber works and over 700 for solo piano. Among the finest are his 1965 set of Rachmaninov’s complete works for piano and orchestra, Scharwenka’s B flat minor concerto (a work he learnt as early as 1928) with Leinsdorf, Paderewski’s Piano Concerto and Fantaisie Polonaise and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto (both with Fiedler), “The Art of the Virtuoso” (works by Herz, Godowsky, Paderewski, Thalberg and Rubinstein) and “The Demonic Liszt” (both for Vanguard), “The Art of Transcription” (Audiofon) as well as the recordings of his own music.

In addition to his career as a pianist and composer, Wild also conducted, held numerous teaching posts in the United States and gave master classes. His partner of 38 years, Michael Rolland Davis, was also his manager and producer. With a wicked sense of humour and a fund of scurrilous anecdotes, an early view of Wild’s memoirs – to be published later this year – suggests it promises to be an entertaining and insightful read.

Jeremy Nicholas

Earl Wild - American pianist, composer, transcriber, conductor, editor and teacher
Born: 26 November 1915, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: 23 January 2010, Palm Springs, California

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