The Piano Files

Josef Labor Plays Beethoven

A recently discovered 100-year-old recording by a forgotten musical giant takes us back to the musical culture of Beethoven’s time.
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Josef Labor

As The Piano Files posts have been exploring, the rich history of recorded piano playing reveals some fascinating and insightful music-making. While some legendary composers like Rachmaninoff did record, the playing of others was not captured by technology, though we can hear those who studied with Liszt, coached with Brahms, and were grand-pupils of Chopin.

Among the deepest insights that can come from this exploration is the fact that composers were not always dogmatically fixed on their own vision of how their works should be played. There is plenty of documentation that suggests that the very greatest composers might not have been as married to a sole way of playing their music, such as this fascinating one from Beethoven’s life: Marie Bigot, who taught both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, was the first pianist to play the composer his own Appassionata Sonata. He is reported to have said, “That is not exactly the character I wanted to give this piece; but go right on. If it is not wholly mine it is something better” — and he then gave her the autographed manuscript of the work.

While it would be a dream come true to be able to hear the contemporaries of Beethoven play (or the composer himself), there is a recently discovered recording that is an unparalleled link to this time in history, an exceptionally rare record by a formerly revered musician now largely forgotten, and what we can hear in these few minutes is revolutionary to say the least.

The pianist, organist, composer, and teacher Josef Labor was born in 1842, only 15 years after Beethoven died. His more famous pupils include Arnold Schönberg, Alma Mahler, and Paul Wittgenstein (the pianist who would lose an arm in World War I and commission left-hand concertos from Ravel, Prokofiev, and others); Labor was a close friend of Brahms, Richard Strauss, and King Georg V of Hannover. He was blind since childhood due to smallpox but was still prolific in his musical activities, and despite his high standing during his lifetime, his name and contributions are now quite obscure.

Around 1921, when Labor was close to the age of 80, this man raised in a culture not far removed from Beethoven’s time made two records on the obscure Union label of Austria. Even Gregor Benko, the co-founder of the International Piano Archives, had never heard of Labor or this record until the only known copy of one of the discs found its way to him a few years ago via John Maltese, Jr. Benko tells the tale of its discovery, along with an assessment of its importance, on the Marston Records website page for the Landmarks of Recorded Pianism compilation on which it was released.

The discovered disc features Labor playing part of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D Major Op. 10 No. 3 (only one of the two records he made has been found, so the opening of the movement is missing). In the precious five and a half minutes of this recording, we can hear some fascinating timing, accents, and dynamic shifts that would surely be frowned upon if employed in a performance today. Indeed, this interpretation has been met by some academic listeners with less enthusiasm, and while that is certainly their right, and I am not suggesting that we emulate this kind of playing, we would do well to consider how we might respond to the playing of others from Beethoven’s time and how we reconcile that with our quest for authenticity.

Indeed, a question naturally arises that I referred to in previous posts: if a recording were found of Beethoven playing, is there any guarantee that you would like it? And if not, what of today’s interpreters’ stated primary goal to ‘do justice to the composer’? As stated in my post about Ignaz Friedman, authenticity might not always sound like we expect — and authenticity can have several faces and expressions.

I believe that listening more than once is essential when we encounter audio documents like this, as upon hearing something for the first time our personal preferences and reactions to what is different from the norm can prevent us from neutrally and accurately hearing and assessing what is happening. We can be so busy swimming in our surprise, shock, and judgements that we don’t have a full apprehension of what is actually taking place. The more one listens, the more one hears.

It is absolutely incredible that in 2021, we can hear pianism preserved 100 years ago of a man who was born almost 180 years ago — a mere 15 years after Beethoven died. The playing is not just radically different in style from what we hear today but in intent. This work was written at a time when music was inextricably linked to live performance: recording technology did not exist, so if people wanted to hear music, they played it at home or went to a concert. They did not listen to music in the background as an afterthought: it was a conscious, lived experience. The listening to and playing of the music were different faces of the same event, and the performer was expected to bring the work to life in an individual way. The notes and markings were a guide, but the music needed the interpreter to interpret it. (Why do we tend to use the word ‘performer’ today and not ‘interpreter’? I believe that this reveals a shift in our intentions and our current musical culture.)

It is important to remember that many means of expression were not marked in the score because such ‘touches’ were the norm at the time: Liszt expected that trills and repeated patterns would be played as long as the pianist wanted to, not for the duration printed on the page, and secondary lines in the left hand were expected to be clearly voiced even if not highlighted in the notation. Composers also did not feel the need to point out and therefore micro-manage every nuance, as doing so would go against the nature of music and performance as they knew it. Ironically, those who follow only what is in the score might be ignoring what composers intended.

In Labor’s playing, we hear the linear form of bar lines melt away with his fluid phrasing and flexible timing in a way that allows the music to unfold as if it is being made up as he plays it. Left and right hands do not always land together while accents and pauses highlight both structural and emotional content. Beethoven’s music was once new and in hearing it played by Labor, we can feel time disappear as we experience the emergence of each note, chord, and phrase in the moment.

While this might not be the way to play this work — that didn’t exist back then any more than it does now — hearing this remarkable reading is certainly an invaluable experience for anyone interested in the art of musical interpretation and performance. How fortunate we are to have this unparalleled window into another age of musical creativity!

Website: thepianofiles.com

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