With our last two posts exploring groundbreaking recordings of Bach and Beethoven, it makes sense to turn to the next of the big B’s: Brahms. In this case, historical recordings can provide a more direct link to the composer himself as they feature pianists that he knew personally but whose playing he adored. While the two cylinders that Brahms himself recorded in 1889 are in such poor sound that there is little we can glean from them, there are fortunately recordings of several pianists who coached with the composer.
While several musicians who heard Brahms play recorded his works, our attention today is on two pianists who were extremely close to the composer but who recorded so little that they have been virtually forgotten. The examples of their artistry that we do have reveals an approach to this composer’s music that is vastly different from what we tend to hear today.
Ilona Eibenschütz and Carl Friedberg were both pupils of Clara Schumann, and Brahms played for them personally, giving them detailed insights into his own approach to his piano works. Eibenschütz was the first to hear his Opp. 118 and 119 when he played them privately for her — she would premiere these works in London a few weeks later. For Friedberg, he ran through nearly his complete piano works (the Paganini Variations were too difficult for him at that stage), all the while indicating his intentions as to how they should be performed.
Both pianists played somewhat differently from one another; it is important to note that it was not expected at the time for every artist to sound the same, even when sanctioned by the same composer. However, we do hear similar qualities: great gusto and directness, clarity of texture, and expansiveness of phrasing that is grand and noble — without being weighty or dense, as Brahms’s music tends to be played today.
Neither Eibenschütz nor Friedberg made many recordings, which is largely responsible not only for their being somewhat forgotten but also for this style of playing being less familiar to our ears. Eibenschütz made her only gramophone records in 1903, retiring that year after getting married; however, she lived until 1967! (It really is rather incredible to consider that a pianist whose playing Brahms loved was alive into the late 1960s, the era of mini skirts!) Fortunately, she produced some private discs in the 1950s, and these reveal a very individual style, with a soaring line, fluid rhythm, and leaner textures than we often hear in his music.
We are also privileged to be able to hear Eibenschütz talk about her experiences with Brahms in a 1952 talk she gave for British radio in which she additionally illustrates at the piano in the studio. This is an astounding recorded document, where we hear the very voice of someone who not only spoke with Brahms but was one of his favourite interpreters. Also fascinating is the speed at which she plays — in some cases, double the tempo at which we hear these works played today!
Friedberg had a long career as a performer (his debut with orchestra was conducted by Mahler), but he was also revered as a teacher, having taught for many years at Juilliard in New York — until he was unceremoniously let go around the age of 75 (imagine a music school not wanting someone who knew Brahms to teach as long as possible)! While he resisted making records for a long time, he finally produced some at the age of 81, and they feature pianism that is bold, dramatic, and sensitive. In concert, he was even more impassioned, playing with phenomenal vitality and expansiveness even at an advanced age.
The clip below is absolutely fascinating. We first hear Friedberg teaching his student Bruce Hungerford how to approach the Brahms Ballade in G Minor Op. 118 No. 3 in a lesson that Hungerford recorded. Like a diligent student, Hungerford doubted whether certain things could be done because the score didn’t indicate them; however, Friedberg points out that this is not the case at all — the score does not show every detail the composer wanted. (The recording of this and other lessons can also be heard on this page on the Arbiter Records website.)
Immediately after the excerpt from this lesson, we hear Friedberg playing this piece all the way through, from a recording of a recital held at Juilliard in 1951 (the entire recital is stupendous and can be purchased here). Not only is the playing of the 78-year-old pianist daring and blazing to the point of being volcanic, it is incredibly expansive in phrasing and adjustments to tempo according to the musical content. Even as he stretches phrases, he never loses the line nor the pulse; while these adjustments to timing can sound unusual to modern ears, they are, in fact, aligned with the structure of the composition and how the composer expected such nuancing to be employed.
At the time that we hear both Friedberg and Eibenschütz performing in the early 1950s, this style of playing Brahms was already a thing of the past, despite interpreters then and now claiming a prime intent to do justice to the composer’s wishes. Given how much performance styles changed over the course of a mere 50 years — and it’s now nearly 125 years since the composer died — one wonders how much our current approach to Bach and Beethoven might be different from the eras in which these composers lived too. Hearing the actual playing of people whose playing was appreciated by Brahms is an incredible voyage back in time that bridges the divide between our present world and that in which this great composer crafted his masterpieces. How fortunate we are to have these recorded documents available!
For a little more insight: I recently interviewed Eibsenschütz’s grandson, who shared some more personal reminiscences about this great pianist along with photographs, autographs, and some other unpublished recordings:
To read more about Eibsenschütz,’ I also have a feature about her on my website, which includes biographical information, as well as her complete 1903 recordings and several later private ones. A website page at The Piano Files devoted to Friedberg is in preparation.