Ignaz Friedman: introduction to an icon of the piano

Jeremy Nicholas
Friday, June 24, 2022

Today’s pianists could learn much from the unconventional interpretations of Ignaz Friedman, who tended to put himself before the composer

Ignaz Friedman (Alamy)
Ignaz Friedman (Alamy)

Ignaz Friedman (Alamy)

Back in 2007 in an audio interview for Gramophone, Stephen Hough and I chatted about Chopin. Among the recordings he chose to illustrate the conversation was one by Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948): Chopin’s Étude in C, Op 10 No 7. ‘It’s one of the greatest recordings of a Chopin Étude ever made,’ he said.

‘It’s a way of playing that’s directly related to bel canto singing, to the coloratura, to this way that a melody takes flight. That takes consummate pianism – and I don’t know any recording that comes close to this.’

See also: 50 of the greatest classical pianists on record

Again, of Friedman’s recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, Op 55 No 2, the distinguished music critic of the New York Times Harold Schonberg wrote that it ‘may well be the most beautiful, singing, perfectly proportioned performance of a Chopin nocturne ever put on records’.

Other famous – one could justifiably claim benchmark – recordings made by Friedman are the selections from Chopin’s mazurkas and Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte. The former, in David Dubal’s opinion, are ‘now mythic in the annals of the piano … yet the interpretations have nothing even remotely in common with other mazurka playing’.

‘Friedman’s sumptuous tone production, subtle rubato and flowing cantabile shine through the (slight) surface noise’

The latter date from sessions over two days in September 1930 (Friedman’s recordings, all for the Columbia label, were made between 1923 and 1941).

More than 90 years later, one is hard-pressed to name any pianist since then who has surpassed these accounts. Friedman’s sumptuous tone production, subtle rubato and flowing cantabile shine through the (slight) surface noise.

One of the most popular pianists of the day, he gave roughly 2800 concerts during his 40-year career, visiting the US 12 times, South America seven times and playing in many countries from Iceland to Japan and New Zealand, including making an annual tour of Europe.

He composed more than a hundred works, mainly for solo piano, but all of them involving the piano, including a magisterial quintet (recorded by Jonathan Plowright and the Szymanowski Quartet).

He edited the complete piano works of Chopin and his vast repertoire ranged from Akimenko and Bortkiewicz to Wolf and Żeleński with, as you’d expect, large swathes of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt in between.

Among other short works that dominate his discography are delightful performances of Moszkowski’s Serenade and his own Elle danse (from Cinq causeries), which Anna Pavlova danced to.

Horowitz is said to have acknowledged that Friedman’s technique was superior to his own.

If you want examples of heady bravura, look no further than Busoni’s version of Liszt’s La campanella (dedicated to Godowsky) in which the extreme technical demands are positively (and audibly) relished by Friedman.

Pianists today may turn queasy if challenged to record it in a single take without the luxury of editing.

Then turn to the astonishing tour de force that is Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, set down on the same day as Op 10 No 7.

Friedman plays the left hand’s solo part with both hands, creating a dramatic surge beneath declamatory right-hand chords. It may not be what Chopin wrote but it is certainly what he meant.

Not everything on disc came off equally successfully and not everyone liked his playing.

In 1985, Danacord issued a groundbreaking box-set of six LPs containing his complete recordings. Alan Sanders reviewing the release in these pages (12/85) felt that his playing ‘seems to reflect an earlier era … and one can hear why his master Leschetizky had doubts that his wilful nature could be restrained’.

Hummel’s Rondo favori recorded in 1925, the finale of the Moonlight Sonata and Rubinstein’s Valse caprice are among some gabbled, rhythmically unstable offerings.

Then compare the tender playing of Victor Borge (yes, the Danish-American comedian) in three of the six arrangements by Friedman (his best-known creations) of Gärtner’s Viennese dances with Friedman’s own strangely unsympathetic manner (duplicated on the piano rolls he made).

The Grieg Piano Concerto from 1928, his only published concerto recording (why?), features an under-rehearsed orchestra, with Friedman described by one critic as though he were ‘playing with his legs crossed and a fat cigar wedged in the corner of his mouth’.

Friedman sat at the top table of so-called golden age pianists alongside Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Godowsky and Rosenthal. One reason, perhaps, why he is less celebrated today than some of his peers is because his musical aesthetic is now considered unfashionable.

Like many pianists of his era with outsize personalities, his interpretations stemmed from putting his own feelings about a particular work before those of the composer.

Some of us may wish for a return to those days.

Ignaz Friedman's defining moments

1882 – Promising beginnings

Born February 13 in Podgórze, near Kraków, Poland, his father an itinerant Jewish musician; becomes a child prodigy.

1901-04 – Initial piano studies

In Vienna with Theodor Leschetizky.

1904 – Ambitious Vienna debut 

Plays three piano concertos in one concert: Brahms’s First, Tchaikovsky’s First and Liszt’s First.

1909 – Marries Maria von Schidlowsky in Berlin 

Lives there till 1914, moves to Copenhagen, then to Italy (1919‑39); settles in Australia in 1940.

1943 – Plays his last concert, in Sydney

Suffers from painful neuritis; dies January 26, 1948.

Key recording

‘Ignaz Friedman: Complete Recordings 1923-1941’


Newly remastered for its first CD release, Danacord’s six-CD set is a replica of its much sought-after 1985 LP box-set. The total playing time is 335'49", and at the price of three CDs.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe to Gramophone today

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