Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Benno Moiseiwitsch
Benno Moiseiwitsch possessed a charm and wizardry that could neither be taught nor confined within received notions of musical wisdom. His performances, an unforgettable part of my own musical childhood, sang and scintillated with a calibre and quality all their own, the mirror of a deeply sensitive, witty and civilized nature. A born lyricist, he could tease us out of thought with a variety of mischievous emendations: why allow the conclusions to, say, Prokofiev’s Suggestion diabolique or Rachmaninov’s E minor Moment musical to mark time when they could be sent rocketing skywards in a more thrilling direction? Why not play this or that passage in double rather than single notes, or raise it an octave higher than written if it captures a fleeting fancy or mood of the moment? True, there are passing insecurities and lapses of concentration but never so as to mar the effect of playing as personal and adventurous as the most engaging of after-dinner speakers.
Listen to the start of Kabalevsky’s Third Sonata if you want to meet Moiseiwitsch the ultimate charmer and sly-boots, easing his way into the composer’s ingratiating melody with the sleekest, most feline ease. In his hands the Rachmaninov Moment musical becomes a delicate rather than elemental whirlwind, while in the second of his two recordings of the Second Concerto he, once again, takes us by stealth rather than storm, his silken-voiced bravura surfacing very much primus inter pares. The Mendelssohn-Rachmaninov Scherzo appears on just about every pianist’s desert-island disc short list, while Liszt’s La leggierezza (complete with Leschetizky close; a tribute to Moiseiwitsch’s teacher) is as teasing and light as air – as befits its title. The Medtner G minor Sonata alternates that legendary fleetness with the most luminous delicacy, and if I wanted to illustrate the art of bel canto at the keyboard it would have to be in Chopin’s E major Nocturne which can rarely have been confided with such ravishing tonal allure and inwardness in its entire history.
The catalogue of such felicities is endless, compelling me to add a corollary to Michael Steinberg’s stylish and provocative accompanying essay. Moiseiwitsch may have ‘sought to delight rather than plumb and disturb and to risk ecstasy’ but by proceeding subtly and indirectly he easily achieved all the qualities (witness his quiet menace in Prokofiev’s Third Sonata or the rapt visionary beauty of his Schumann Fantasie not, alas, included here). Moiseiwitsch was not always fully appreciated during his lifetime. It was Andrew Porter who famously dismissed him as a ‘plum label, neither here nor there pianist’ and that august publication The Record Guide described a Weber, Prokofiev, John Vallier disc as ‘a pointless collection, dully played and recorded’. Philips’s excellent transfers provide a rich and necessary compensation.'