The Piano Files

The Master Teacher: The Great Theodor Leschetizky

Exploring some of the unique pianists who studied with a truly remarkable teacher.
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Theodor Leschetizky

After some posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) focusing on recording ‘firsts’ and the relationship between artists and composers, it looks worth exploring another aspect of fine piano playing as revealed by recordings: great teachers. One particular pianist educated more first-rate performers than anyone else — indeed, most of his pupils are still considered among the greatest of all time — and he himself was part of a rich lineage: the Polish pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky.

Leschetizky was born June 22, 1830 — 191 years ago this past week — and his pedigree is jaw-dropping: from the age of 10, he began training with Carl Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven, and at age 11, he played a concerto conducted by Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart. This musician, who was one degree of separation from both Mozart and Beethoven, lived until 1915, but Leschetizky regrettably made no disc recordings. He did produce some player piano ‘rolls’ — paper that was perforated during a performance and later played through a mechanized piano to ‘reproduce’ the pianist’s playing — but these simply aren’t accurate with finer details such as tonal colour, pedalling, and timing, all of which are major elements that distinguish average pianists from skilled ones.

Fortunately, many of Leschetizky’s students made recordings, and even a basic list of his pupils reads as a Who’s Who of the legendary pianists of the 20th century: some of his better-known disciples include Artur Schnabel (featured in a previous post about his groundbreaking Beethoven Sonata cycle), Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Jan Paderewski, Mieczysław Horszowski, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and Mark Hambourg. Many more also had important careers but are less known today because they made few or no recordings; fortunately, some broadcast or private recordings are now available that can help us appreciate their artistry.

What is fascinating about Leschetizky’s pupils is that these pianists all sound very different from one another. Their famous mentor did not teach them to play in one way but rather to sound like themselves, highlighting their individual strengths and personalities while focusing on universal aspects of piano playing, such as tone production, phrasing, and pedalling.

Here are five of Leschetizky’s great students:

Ignaz Friedman left just a few hours of recordings that are considered among the most remarkable ever made. Here is the legendary Polish pianist in a superb account of two Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, recorded over 90 years ago in 1930 (100 years after his teacher’s birth). Friedman’s reading of the Venetian Gondola Song has some of the most gorgeous legato playing you will ever hear, with a long singing line, masterful pedalling, and magnificent communication between primary and secondary voices, while Lost Happiness features a deep, resonant tone, magnificent timing, and a soaring melodic line.

The playing of Mark Hambourg is, in our times, occasionally frowned upon because some of his recordings are not technically precise or stylistically aligned with today’s expectations (they are certainly rich in vigour, enthusiasm, and spirit). However, this 1929 performance of the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie reveals that he was capable of tremendous subtlety, and since Leschetizky considered him to be one of his finest pupils, it is worth exploring his artistry. In this three-minute marvel of pianism, we hear seamless legato phrasing, beautifully balanced voicing, phenomenal pedalling, and refined dynamic and tonal gradations.

The Polish pianist Severin Eisenberger left behind no official recordings and would be completely forgotten today if some broadcast performances had not been miraculously preserved. The pianist had put a box of radio recordings outside of his apartment to be thrown away, telling his building custodian that he didn’t like the mistakes; the custodian secretly kept them and gave them to Eisenberger’s widow when the pianist died. On the basis of the few performances that have been released, we can hear that he was an astounding pianist. Two live concerto recordings have been made available (with several more still preserved), among them this superb Chopin F Minor Concerto from 1938, which reveals his incredibly focused sonority, soaring phrasing, and marvellous timing.

The great Russian pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch was a compatriot, friend, and preferred interpreter of Rachmaninoff (he was mentioned in the previous feature), but he was equally marvellous in a wide range of repertoire, playing with a unique combination of elegance and power. This 1952 account of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor, Op.72 No.1, was produced a month before his 62nd birthday, and his rich tone and phrasing are exquisite. Notice his beautifully nuanced adjustments to timing and dynamics: try singing along, and you’ll more easily recognize the incredible refinement of his shaping and rubato. Moiseiwitsch makes a few minor changes to the score (this was not uncommon at the time, as shall be explored in future posts), but he always remains true to the spirit of the music. He was one of the most satisfying of all pianists, leaving behind many recordings and a few brief but marvellous filmed performances [read and hear more].

Polish pianist Mieczysław Horszowski was the last surviving Leschetizky pupil: he was still giving concerts not long before he died in 1993 at the age of 100. This film footage of a Carnegie Hall recital in April 1990 — two months before his 98th birthday — reveals playing that is utterly mesmerizing. Just listen to his gorgeous luminous sonority, flowing phrasing, refined dynamic range, and marvellous pedal control — and in watching him, notice the absence of any extraneous gesture. It is absolutely miraculous to consider that, in 2021, we can see and hear a pianist playing in 1990 (only 31 years ago) who studied with a teacher born in 1830 (160 years earlier!) who studied with Beethoven’s legendary pupil Czerny and performed with Mozart’s son!

This is but the most basic introduction to the great Leschetizky’s incredible students — many more await discovery and exploration. The Sakuraphon label in Japan has produced several volumes of CDs devoted to both his famous and less-known pupils, and single-artist releases devoted to many of these pianists are available elsewhere. All of these pianists are worth hearing and learning from, and fortunately, YouTube provides a rich opportunity to explore their playing as well.

We would all do well not only to learn the varied possibilities of the piano as demonstrated by these remarkable musicians but also to emulate their approach of personalized yet artistically aligned expression, as opposed to striving for conformity.

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