Moriz Rosenthal: charmer or charlatan?

Bryce Morrison
Friday, May 26, 2023

Bryce Morrison explores the inimitable playing of Moriz Rosenthal

Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)
Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Once again controversy – that blessed word – is the name of the game. First that aggressive plea for the ‘golden age’ of piano-playing with its overtones of the ‘good old days’ and things in the past always being better. This is exemplified by writers who cotton on to the idea that there was a time when giants of piano-playing roamed the earth, their like never to be heard or seen again (the novelist John Fowles) and by commentaries where clouds of incense erase any notion of critical perspective. In contrast there are those who believe a less tarnished, more truly golden age came later with artists of the stature of Wilhelm Kempff, Edwin Fischer and Arthur Rubinstein, alongside the kind of throwback pianism exemplified by Horowitz. Today a journalist can tell us that in terms of technique the quality of piano-playing has never been greater (he cited Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit). But if inaccuracy, smudges, telescopic phrasing and exaggeration seem things of the past, eradicated in recording studios that sometimes resemble operating theatres, with producers on the qui vive – eagle-eyed and -eared – for all possible flaws, the argument remains that there are losses as well as gains. For old-timers the spirit of the score is sacrificed for the letter, and the results are bland and impersonal, with one performance sounding much like another. The answer surely lies in a necessary sense of progress, of changing times and attitudes, creating a different musical ethos.

Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Regarding Moriz Rosenthal, it is important to note that the dawn of recording came at the end of his illustrious career (he was described by Virgil Thomson, that most acute if savage of critics, as ‘inimitable’, though he did not elaborate). Rosenthal was 64 when he made his first recording and 77 – arguably more foolhardy than courageous – when he recorded Chopin’s Third Sonata, with its strangely desiccated view of the opening Maestoso, a relatively stable and warm-hearted Largo and a desperate, buccaneering charge through the finale. More generally, Rosenthal’s legendary early thunder and aplomb gave way in old age to gentler attributes, and although I would dearly love to have heard him in his prime, I remain grateful for the intermittent magic of the recordings he left to posterity.

This is particularly true of his selection of Chopin’s mazurkas (Chopin lay at the heart of Rosenthal’s repertoire), where his charm and affection are rarely in doubt. APR’s superbly incisive collection of Rosenthal’s complete studio recordings gives us four versions of the Op 42 Waltz in A flat major (the one with a teasing mix of triple and duple time) and six of the G major Mazurka, Op 67 No 1, allowing ample opportunity for aficionados to compare one performance with another. Although differences are minimal and it would be wishful thinking to say there are no swoops or swoons (almost as if the playing was interchangeable with, say, Rubinstein’s first and classic set of the mazurkas), there is much personal engagement, empathy and instinct for poetry.

Pure entertainment is found in Rosenthal’s Fantasy on Themes from Johann Strauss and Carnaval de Vienne, lavishly praised but overloaded confections that will prompt puritans and conservatives to join Miss Brodie (of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) in icy disdain: ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.’ For others less severely inclined, the tradition for such offerings has continued long after Rosenthal’s death in the repertoires of the romantically and virtuoso-inclined, including Jorge Bolet and Earl Wild. (I recall Wild’s venomous attack on ‘Alfie’ – Alfred Brendel – as being representative of snobbery and all that is wrong with the music world.) Again, for Rosenthal as for these pianists, the score was hardly sacred and could be ‘improved’ with a bass reinforcement here or a treble re-texturing there. All the same, the Chopin-Liszt-Rosenthal ‘My Joys’ transcription exemplifies that more is often less. Although Horowitz was not immune to altering works to his own rather than the composer’s advantage (his takes on Balakirev’s Islamey and on Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann and Hungarian Rhapsody No 19), he never took things to Rosenthal’s lengths.

Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Moriz Rosenthal (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Finally, for a further reminder that Rosenthal was truly of his time, look no further than his critical swipes and vitriol. For him the future of piano-playing looked bleak. Exploiting a pedigree that included study with Liszt and immersion in the school of Chopin, he relegated those less blessed to a lowly place in his own hierarchy. On his colleagues he was catty in the extreme. Schnabel’s failure to qualify for military service was because he had ‘no fingers’. Paderewski may have been impressive but – strangely enough – he was ‘no Paderewski’. Horowitz received a glancing blow and a luckless pianist who failed to make the grade in Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz was thanked for ‘a most enjoyable quarter of an hour’. There were fearsome confrontations with critics and with anyone who challenged his supremacy. Not that such controversy, wit or venom – call it what you will – was exclusive to earlier times. For Cziffra his critics were ‘the black beetles of the mind’, while Pogorelich’s legendary sending of a photograph of himself accompanied with an unprintable suggestion to a critic who had dared to suggest that he was a fake circulated among agents, many of whom were convulsed with laughter at such obscenity.

And yet if controversy remains (does his playing glow more brightly or fade with the years?), at his finest Rosenthal remains an enduring figure in the pianist’s pantheon; less so when he goes off at a tangent, tinkers and plays to the gallery. Again, as a pianist he was less noble or phenomenally equipped than Rachmaninov. You may long for music-making from a purer spring, but Rosenthal’s way with Chopin’s A flat major Étude, the second of the Trois Nouvelles études, is hard to resist. Here, his entirely personal quality shines out with the freedom and fantasy of another time and place, quite different from our own more classically orientated ambience. 


This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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