The Piano Files

A Mighty Emperor

A remarkable early broadcast recording gives an unexpected glimpse into historical approaches to playing Beethoven.
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Eugen d'Albert

Historical recordings can offer a window into the realms of musical interpretation of previous generations in a way that words can only suggest. While we can read evocative reviews of the playing of the great artists of earlier epochs, until we actually hear with our own ears an artist’s tone, phrasing, timing, and so on, we cannot really truly appreciate the kind of music-making that existed the past.

As previous Piano Files postings have shown, pianists who trained with Liszt and Brahms play in a style quite different to what is generally heard today, as do composers themselves, from Rachmaninoff through to Prokofiev, Bartók, and Stravinsky. One artist who was a Liszt pupil and also coached with Brahms left behind a handful of official recordings that are quite insightful, but it is a radio broadcast of the pianist that reveals pianism in a style radically different from the norms of today.

Eugen d’Albert, born in 1864 (that’s nearly 160 years ago), was an esteemed pianist and composer whom Tchaikovsky considered to be the true successor of Anton Rubinstein. He was a fiery personality, which we might ascertain by virtue of his having had six marriages — including one to the equally fiery Teresa Carreño, the most vivacious female pianist of the time. (An amusing tale finds Carreño calling out to him, “Eugen, your children and my children are fighting with our children.”) He was highly regarded as a pianist, despite having a reputation for playing recitals with an abundance of wrong notes — something that was noted (no pun intended) but not a deal-breaker at the time because of the astonishing power of his interpretations.

It is also worth noting that he played both Brahms Piano Concertos at a single 1896 concert with the composer himself conducting — d’Albert’s pupil Wilhelm Backhaus was present (as he told my interviewee Gerald Kingsley) — and d’Albert also coached with Brahms on how to play some of his solo works.

Eugen d'Albert Brahms

Around 1910 d’Albert recorded an account of the Brahms Capriccio in B Minor Op.76 No.2, which the pianist’s and composer’s history together makes particularly worthy of study. Like many of the pianists who knew Brahms that are represented on disc, he plays with remarkable rhythmic freedom and a playfulness often unrecognized by present-day pianists in their quest for musical ‘depth’ (they might consider looking up the meaning of ‘capriccio’). His beautiful tone, clear voicing, and transparency of texture are all appreciable despite the faded sound in the recording.

D’Albert has the distinction of being the performer in one of the earliest surviving broadcasts of a pianist, in no less than the complete first movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. It is nothing short of miraculous that this December 1, 1930 performance has been preserved, among the oldest such documents featuring a pianist (there also exists a solo radio recording made the year before by another Liszt pupil, Moriz Rosenthal).

The artist was 66 at the time and even with the relatively faded sound we can hear him play with robust tone and grand gestures, exhibiting a spacious rubato, a glowing melodic line, silky runs, gorgeous bass notes that ring through with remarkable transparency. Some truly volcanic fortissimo moments (some chords seem to explode like cannons) can lead us to imagine how d’Albert must have played this in his prime.

Wilhelm Kempff, whose own Beethoven recordings have been revered for many decades, wrote in his autobiography about the impact of hearing d’Albert play the Emperor in concert:

There was probably only one pianist who could cause the critics’ sharpened pencils to fall miraculously out of their hands, as when this unique presence set out to construct the opening cadenza after the E-flat major fanfare in Beethoven’s last concerto. We instinctively stood up in order to hear this declamation of the mighty Proemium, as the piano was no longer being played here; rather there seemed to be a creator at work who came to construct a new world, a world made of tones. Many ‘colleagues’ liked to chastise a pied piper who could make even ‘wrong’ notes magical. By the Finale of the ‘Concerto of Concertos’ it was clear that a natural phenomenon was romping about, a phenomenon whose force no one could resist.

While d’Albert’s approach may be more aligned with how Liszt and others of that generation might have performed it, this performance is a revealing look into an era of music-making far closer to the composer’s time than to ours — it is certainly nothing like what we could expect to hear in the present day.

One of the all-time treasures of recorded history — magnificent pianism from bygone age magically available in our modern times at the click of a button!

Website: thepianofiles.com

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