Disc of the ? – the Art of Ignaz Friedman

This is actually a regular blog entry attempting to masquerade as a ‘disc of the month’ post (he said sheepishly). In my defence, owing to a terribly hectic yet artistically rewarding summer of great music-making and much intercontinental dining, I have fallen behind and thereby come to the sad realization that this whole ‘disc of the month’ series is not destined to be as, cough, ‘monthly-ish’ as it suggests. However, when I am struck by the urge to recommend something, I will certainly do my darndest not to keep it to myself!

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As a music student in New York City I enrolled in an analysis class with the great Carl Schachter. By this time he was already a bit of a legend; arguably the most influential Schenkerian analyst since Schenker himself. Each week I would look forward to Prof. Schachter’s class with much enthusiasm. He strikes a wonderful balance between elucidating music cerebrally and intuitively – a rare gift possessed by college professors, in my opinion. One day he decided to discuss tempo rubato (literally, ‘robbed time’ in Italian, referring to rhythmic flexibility in musical performance). He played this crackly old recording for us, without first announcing the either the title of the piece, the composer, or the performer:

I remember instantly thinking that, until that day, I had not heard such sophisticated pianism. Firstly, I didn’t think that someone could elicit a tone from a piano that was so singing that it could completely defy the percussive nature of the instrument. The melody here floats so freely that it seems disembodied. When it’s in the treble, it glows; when it’s in the bass (check out 0’49”), it booms with rich orchestral resonance. All the while, a hushed accompaniment pulsates with a heck of a lot of momentum….but boy can it turn on a dime. And this brings me to the ultra-expressive, swoon-worthy rubato. Personally I find it totally sincere and never indulgent. Indeed, the virtuosity of this playing is not in the speedy fingers or flashy runs, but in how everything else is precisely controlled to evoke an emotional response. Yes, it’s never felt this good to be manipulated ;)

Ignaz Friedman (b. Poland 1882, d. Australia 1948)

Listening to this recording even today, many years later, I marvel at a testament of how the art of Ignaz Friedman can be transmitted through a haze of pops, crackle, and hiss. And all in a mere 2½ minutes, in the form of an unassuming little ‘Song Without Words’ by Mendelssohn (op.53 no.2). Within a miniature exists an entire world of musical expression that evokes the so-called ‘golden age’ of piano playing in full force.

Now that I have your attention (wry smile), let me ask you whether you think anyone will ever surpass Friedman’s 1936 recording of the Chopin E flat Nocturne op.55 no.2…..

At 0’23”, after the delicate balance between the melody and its accompaniment has been established, we are suddenly yet subtly made aware of a secondary voice (also played by the right hand). Subdued but with its own intensity, Friedman presents it as a quietly assured dissenting opinion, imbuing it with a human quality (hear it again for instance at 0’30” and 0’42”). His exquisite handling of voicing and balance reminds me of a Daniel Barenboim quote:

“The most important part of piano-playing is the symphonic element.”  –  from ‘I was reared on Bach’

Not forgetting that the two right hand voices – one dominant, one subversive – are imbued with such human qualities in this recording that they might represent ‘real’ characters in the listener’s mind. Sound takes on meaning, and then comes to life. In my previous post, I expressed that the spiritual significance of musical counterpoint for us listeners or performers might represent some kind of Utopia, in which conflicts and resolutions play in out in a more ideal way than they do in real life.

a great collector’s item (2CDs), now sadly out of print :(

Friedman’s recorded legacy is preciously small. It fits on about five CDs, and really doesn’t comprise any large pieces. I would recommend the NAXOS albums. However, we should be wary of branding him as a miniaturist (despite his genius for it) since he was in fact a globe-trotting repertoire-hound who, in 1904 for instance, performed the Brahms D minor, Tchaikovsky B flat minor, and Liszt E flat concertos all in one evening! (I’m still trying to get my head around that one). And for his most lasting impression on posterity? It is said that nobody could play a Chopin Mazurka like old Ignaz :)  The great pianist Stephen Hough, in his fantastic blog, even refers to the ‘charisma’ of Friedman’s Mazurka playing. Also, a brief but much appreciated webpage talks about Ignaz Friedman’s sorcery here. They include two complete Mazurka recordings. Have you ever heard such classy left hand swing?! He danced the Mazurka as a child in Poland; little wonder that it is ‘in his blood’.