An orgy of pianism

from the liner notes:

Audiofon: Why Moszkowski?

Bar-Illan: Because it’s a glittering showpiece, an effective, delightful work and it’s not profound.

A: You mean you play it because it’s not profound?

B-I: That’s right. I think restricting the repertoire to great masterpieces and profound statements is needlessly limiting. Obviously, one should not expect the same kind of musical experience from the Moszkowski concerto as from the “Empreror.”

A: How would you characterize the Moszkowski experience?

B-I: It is first and foremost an orgy of pianism, an intoxication with what the instrument can do, a celebration of sound, sparkle and speed. It’s the kind of assault on the senses experienced at a fantastic fireworks display. Plus a little pulling at the heart-strings. Profound?—No. Thrilling?—Yes.

A: Why hasn’t it returned to the concert repertoire?

B-I: It may be a manifestation of snobbery, and it may simply be a lack of imagination and boldness in programming. But, most likely, it reflects a change to a more austere, sober musical taste, which started developing after WWII. Whatever the reason, programs are less varied and colorful because of it.

A: Anything we should know about Moszkowski?

B-I: He was a Polish Jew, born in Breslau in 1856, died in Paris in 1925. He was a successful performer and composer whose compositions were in the repertoire of many of his contemporaries, but today, if he is known at all it is for such “encore” pieces as Etincelles, Spanish Dances, and a few superb Etudes. He considered himself Mendelssohn’s musical heir, but his harmonies are richer, his gestures more extravagant and technique more sophisticated. If one must point to a resemblance, I would suggest Saint-Saens, another pianist-composer of the late 19th century who reveled in pianism, and was blissfully oblivious to the advent of modernism.

A: Is that why the Saint-Saens Second is on the same disc?

B-I: I can’t think of two concertos that go better together. Saint-Saens, too, is often criticzed for lacking seriousness and depth. But it is the kind of criticism leveled all too often against all French music, particularly by German critics. From the clavicinists to Francaix and Poulenc, French piano music strove for elegance, clarity, uncomplicated expression, polished technique, clever effects and sensual excitement. It shunned the imposing structures of German music—how many great French sonatas are there?—in favor of epigrammatic ideas and individual, personalized forms more often than not full of joie de vivre.

A: Aside from their French character, is there anything specific these works have in common?

B-I: Both composers obviously knew the works of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt. But the Moszkowski, not surprisingly, contains Slavic elements, while the Saint-Saens, as the late pianist Sigismond Stojowski cleverly remarked, “begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.” Actually the “Bach” refers only to the opening, while the wit and flair of Offenbach’s music characterizes much of the rest. I believe, though, that neither Saint-Saens nor Moszkowski would have been offended had the Scherzo of the latter’s concerto been described as a direct descendent of the former’s Allegro scherzando.

A: How does the Franck fit into this company?

B-I: Like Saint-Saens, Franck was a great organist, thought not in his class as a piano virtuoso. He was born in Belgium but lived in Paris for fifty years before composing the variations in 1885, a year before Saint-Saens wrote the Second Piano Concerto. He is thoroughly French, but his music could never conjure the “boulevardier” image of the Saint-Saens work. There is a mysticism and melancholy in it that are almost completely absent in the other two concerti and, in fact, in French music in general until Messiaen. Only the jaunty lightness of the Finale, which belies both the composer’s age at the time (63) and the somber character of his earlier music, foreshadows the piano writing of Saint-Saens and Moszkowski.