Rare radio tape: Martha Argerich, 19, plays Schumann

September 9, 2017 by norman lebrecht


Comments (51)

  1. Robert Hairgrove says:

    This is certainly the most beautiful recording of the Schumann Toccata I have ever heard … she makes it sound like fun, so unlike most other pianists who you can almost “hear” sweating while they play it. She has the courage to take time and sing, bring out middle voices, and play with the incredible syncopations as if she were improvising jazz. Most other pianists’ interpretations are much more metronomic and mechanical in comparison. I think she must have been inspired more by Josef Lhevinne in this performance than Horowitz or Barere, for example.


    1. Hedgehog says:

      Yes, I do agree. I believe this is her only recording, and it is certainly my favourite performance of the Toccata. It is available as a CD on DOREMI DHR-8030, together with some wonderful Beethoven (a magnificent Op.10/3), Liszt and Prokofiev. There are 5 discs in this extremely rare series, and another absolute gem is DHR-8036, devoted to Chopin and mostly in performances recorded at the famous 1965 Warsaw competition no less – I never thought I’d get to hear these. You will be lucky to hear a finer Op.10/1 Etude, and a lot else besides; the jaw-dropping bonus is the 14-year-old Martha giving Op.10/1 maximum revs in Buenos Aires. This is a truly remarkable disc. Knowing how quickly these things disappear, I would urge you to acquire them asap. If you want more staggering Schumann from Martha, her Sony Schumann disc 88697858282 has a wonderful performance of the Fantasiestücke Op.12 (Traumes Wirren is superhuman), and the greatest performance of the Fantasie in C that I have ever heard, live or on CD – incredibly special. Enjoy!

      1. Seeker64 says:

        Unless you absolutely need hard copies, the Doremi albums can also be downloaded from at least here: ; and here: …

  2. This pretty girl reminds me strongly of Khatia. Has she ever recorded or played this piece?

    1. Steinway Fanatic says:

      Khatia? Please don’t compare a rhinestone to a diamond.

  3. Sue says:

    I think this is superior to Argerich, who is always in a terrible hurry:

  4. Angela Giblin says:

    Thank you for posting this extraordinary performance, Norman Lebrecht! We missed Martha Argerich this winter in Sydney. A great pity but it is a long way, though I gather she recently played at a festival in Argentina…Yuja Wang was a very excellent replacement. Though who could ever be worthy?

  5. Michael Endres says:

    The best version I have ever come across.
    The work doesn’t get hacked here, no endless accents on downbeats, like in so many versions, no heaviness, no huffing and puffing. Everything sounds spontaneous and free.
    Her command of some of the the near impossible passages is truly staggering. ( thirds at 0.33 min. and the infamous octave passage from 3.20 min., and what happens from 4.56 on is hard to believe… )

  6. boringfileclerk says:

    It’s a nice close second. This is still the top reading of this work.

  7. Robert Hairgrove says:

    György Cziffra was certainly one of the giants of the piano. It is amazingly done considering that there was certainly no editing done of what must have been a live broadcast. The same can be said about Evgueniy Kissin’s Verbier performance, which I’m fairly sure must have been an unedited concert recording. I have tremendous respect for all three of these amazing artists, and I really find it difficult to say that this one or that one is the “best” or “superior” to any others. Let’s go over the performances one-by-one:

    Evgueniy Kissin:
    A tremendously honest and powerful performer in the Richter tradition with a beautiful tone in the louder passages. He never bangs! And I find his Schumann Toccata is played at quite a good tempo, not too fast and not too slow. But I feel like he is working too hard in the more virtuosic passages. He does take time to sing at times when it is needed, but overall it sounds too heavy to me when compared with Marta Argerich’s version. Hers is definitely more “fun” for me, much more subtle.

    György Cziffra:
    As I said, a giant. I prefer his version to Kissin’s. Since we have video of both performances, I must say that I enjoy watching Cziffra more than Kissin because he moves around much less. I find it fairly distracting to watch Mr. Kissin at times; so I just close my eyes and listen to his beautiful playing. Comparing Cziffra’s interpretation to Argerich, I don’t know … the development section (octave passage) of his is quite hectic and overpedaled compared with hers, and he has to slow down in the fugal section which follows. She also “discovers” many more hidden inner voices than either Kissin or Cziffra and is able to bring them out most subtly.

    At the very end, Schumann marks the ending “p”, or piano. If you look at the original edition, there are very few places which have any dynamics marked at all. This is one of them. Quite remarkable that all but Argerich choose to ignore that and play their ending chords in a triumphal forte. I much prefer the understatement of the original.

    Evgueniy Kissin plays all of the notes in the left-hand chord on the downbeat of measure 25, albeit with arpeggio (this is a chord which is impossible to play solidly, it must be broken). Cziffra (as well as Horowitz) leave out the top c’ and just play the rest of the chord solidly … Josef Lhevinne played all of the notes as a broken chord, IIRC. Marta Argerich seems to play it broken, with all the notes, but I could only hear it cleanly in the repeat of the exposition (which Cziffra does not play, BTW) and the bass notes did not all audibly speak. The first time around, there is a nasty tape edit right on the downbeat, and some lower notes unfortunately got cut off (this was only 1960, of course, when not too many people were well trained in the high art of tape editing). I know from personal experience that radio recordings were often done with as few edits as possible, and a young artist at the age of 19 who hadn’t yet won the Chopin competition presumably had little to say about the matter and just left the editing up to the radio technicians.

    György Cziffra manages to bring out the grace notes at bars 60-61 and similar places; it seems that Kissin either leaves them out, or plays them together with the main note as a fifth, or does play them but plays them so fast that you cannot hear that they are grace notes. Argerich does play them; perhaps even faster than the others, but you can hear them.

    I hope that it is now clear why I choose not to use words such as “superior” or “better” here. All three of these are fantastic recordings in their own right. But I like Argerich’s Toccata the best, and now you hopefully know why.

  8. James Irsay says:

    Impressive indeed. Normally one doesn’t want to play this piece too fast, but Argerich uses her tempo to best advantage. Amusing to hear that Argerich misses both times what is for many the most difficult passage – the tricky inner fingers of the F major rising chords between :21 and :24.

    1. Robert Hairgrove says:

      Yes, it’s quite treacherous … that passage comes back again in the recapitulation, though, and all the notes are there, AFAICT.

      That spot becomes much easier, of course, if you don’t have to worry about hitting the c’ at measure 25, etc.

      Amazing how little pedal she uses throughout the piece, especially compared with Cziffra’s performance. Her left hand work is miraculous, IMHO … something most people wouldn’t notice who only listen to the octaves and jumps in the right hand…

  9. M2N2K says:

    It seems to me that some of the commenters here are listening more to the notes than to the music which is always more than just the notes. All three pianists are of a very high virtuoso quality, so the comparison is interesting. For me, Sziffra, in spite of his phenomenal technical ability, does not rise to interpretative achievements of the other two. This recording of Argerich shows her best qualities – ease of technique, sparkling tone, fluidity of phrasing – very well. However, for me Kissin’s interpretation is, albeit by a rather modest margin, the most satisfying of the three, mainly because in his playing one can hear more music – more colors, more character, more storytelling – in other words, more musical content behind the notes.

    1. James Irsay says:

      It seems to me that some commentators here are attempting to select the “best” interpretation by using such objective phrases as “one can hear more music” in so-and-so’s interpretation. This shows little understanding of the fact that music is written for the individual.

      1. M2N2K says:

        Some may be doing that, but definitely not me, since my comment includes words like “for me” and “most satisfying” rather than “best interpretation” (though I do stand by those two words when they are used separately and in different contexts as I did in my previous comment above here). And of course my comment was never intended or claimed to be “objective”, whatever that may or may not mean in music.

  10. James Irsay says:

    @[email protected]@K I’m sure you meant to say, “I can hear more music.” 🙂

    1. James Irsay says:

      oops….I meant to write M2N2K.

      1. M2N2K says:

        Don’t be so sure – I did not. Usually I write what I mean and, as far as I know, “one” does not mean “all”. Besides, when I wrote it I knew that “can hear more music” was an inadequate phrase when taken all by itself, which is why I elaborated on it by explaining the main points of what I include in my understanding of this, in order to make what I actually meant clearer for those who bother to read my comments.

        1. James Irsay says:

          In any case, I completely agree with what you write about Cziffra and Argerich. But Kissin? Absolutely not. I find his opening pages a bit harsh and panicky, desperate maybe, sometimes herky-jerky… the complete antithesis to Cziffra’s suave, almost nonchalant opening. Argerich is also more flowing. Kissin’s opening makes me think of a battle in progress.

          Kissin has his moments to be sure, but I feel he does not take advantage of opportunities for contrast, which is much needed in this piece. For example, in the a minor section he remains exaggeratedly non-legato and fortissimo (as in what I feel to be his clunky opening) where I’d prefer smoother playing at a lower dynamic. Both Cziffra and Argerich do this, and I love how Cziffra takes the interpretive initiative for the sake of contrast and plays the “get ready, get set” motive leading to the a minor section pianissimo, though I must say Cziffra is overall my least favorite. Not always well enough musically defined, and a bit too much pedal for my taste. At any rate, Schumann’s sparse dynamics is a challenge to the pianist, and for me, Kissin does not sufficiently meet that challenge.

          I like Kissin best in the last two minutes, really nice playing! As it happens, of the three he seems to bring the most contrast to the alternating fortissimo-pianissimo chords (dynamics indicated by Schumann) with the skipping left hand octaves (Kissin’s 5:11 – 5:27). Argerich not so much, and Cziffra doesn’t even try. Any reasonably accomplished pianist could play those treble answers to the two fortissimo chords by themselves at a barely audible pianissimo. But to jump up and play them pianissimo repeatedly after the two fortissimo chords? Now THAT is difficult, and Kissin acquits himself well on that score, while the music benefits greatly from his efforts.

          But again, in Kissin”s (and Cziffra’s) fortissimo close he turns away from contrast, and a moment of contrast specifically indicated by Schumann (not that interpreters must always etc etc…).

          Each of these three fine musicians brings admirable ideas and realization of same to the Toccata. If Argerich would slow it down a bit, I’d like her amazing performance more, because the tempo is not necessarily where the amazement lies. And while none of these three would be my desert island Toccata, Argerich tells more of a tale to my ears than either Cziffra or Kissin.

          Peace, M2N2K my friend.

          1. M2N2K says:

            In spite of your “absolutely not” declaration, our disagreement is not that huge. As I noted in my first comment, “by a rather modest margin”. And you heard quite a few superior qualities in Kissin’s version too. It would’ve been scary and boring if we agreed on everything. Vive la différence!

          2. Robert Hairgrove says:

            @James Irsay: “And while none of these three would be my desert island Toccata…”

            I’m curious to know if you have a “desert island” Toccata in mind, and who it might be?

          3. M2N2K says:

            Somehow I am not surprised that your legitimate question remains unanswered.

          4. James Irsay says:

            Sorry Robert, I was just reminded that I’ve not answered your question (preoccupation with work, weighty matters, etc.). Can’t imagine why a perfect stranger would somehow not be surprised that I haven’t yet answered… kinda snarky. Hey, I thought he and I had kissed and made up! But I forgive him – after all he didn’t murder a relative or anything.

            In any case, your question is easily answered: If it’s to be a “desert island” performance, I’d go with Josef Lhévinne’s 1935 recording – the classic, elegant performance that sounds pretty much like the pages of the score look – flowing, continuous, regular, with Schumann’s few dynamics scrupulously adhered to. It is Lhévinne’s overall approach, and his avoidance of ultra-personal details that make his performance desert island worthy for me.

            Yet I would not want to say that all desert island performances must be devoid of strong personal touches. It’s simply my preference regarding the Toccata. If I had to choose a “DIP” for, say, the Chopin op.55 no.2 Nocturne, I would unhesitatingly choose Ignaz Friedman. As we know, there is no such thing as a Friedman performance without strong personal touches!

            Some details of Lhévinne’s performance come to mind: His tempo seems perfect for a desert island existence. “Allegro” must be determined according to context and concept, and I feel that Lhévinne’s tempo gives Schumann’s music more bang for the buck… savoring versus wolfing down. Incidentally, Kissin’s tempo is only a bit faster, but his approach is much different, more tense *in general*. Of course there are those who would say that Lhévinne’s playing is often on the cool side, showing easy mastery and superlative fingers. For me, that works in the Toccata.

            Re: the alternating ff and pp passage (with the downward-leaping left hand octaves). Lhévinne brings out the dynamic contrast superbly. Maybe only a pianist who has played the Toccata can fully appreciate what that means, hey Robert? He does slow the tempo a tiny bit, but the result is so beautiful it doesn’t matter, and the continuity… well… continues.

            Lhévinne takes Schumann’s “smorzando” seriously (the 2 mm beginning at 18 before the first ending). Cziffra plays as if the smorzando had been scratched out in his copy, and Argerich actually gets louder there. Kissin does make a smorzando, albeit limited. But Lhévinne… ahhh!

            He gives a nice placid ending, as indicated. Perhaps one reason many “marquee” pianists end the Toccata fortissimo is simply to act as a detonator for audience applause. Check out what Cziffra does at the conclusion of one of his typically manic warm-ups!

            Anyhoo… you asked what I would choose for a desert island, and there you have it! Too bad Lhévinne didn’t take the repeat, but if he’d taken it, we would have missed out on his Frühlingsnacht, as on the original Victor 78, the Toccata was split in 2 parts, with the B side filled after the conclusion of the Toccata by the shorter Schumann work.

            Love to hear your own performance 🙂

          5. Robert Hairgrove says:

            @James Irsay: Thank you for getting around to letting us know … Josef Lhevinne would be my choice as well … and as I mentioned in my first post, I believe that Argerich must have been inspired by it!

            I have played this piece a lot in the past, even recorded it once:

            Guess I was too young to realize how difficult it really is! (if you Google for it, who knows; there might be a version out there on the internet?) 🙂

          6. M2N2K says:

            No snark was intended by me in my previous comment, but I am glad that at least I helped someone else get an answer that he/she was apparently interested in.

  11. Robert Hairgrove says:

    I’d like to throw another recording of this piece into the mix … by one of my all-time favorite pianists who died way too young: Julius Katchen.

    I have long admired him for his recordings of Brahms, but found this Schumann Toccata of his on YouTube:

    Although he also changes the dynamics at the end to ff, he plays everything else the right way for the right reasons (for me, at least). Interesting to compare the recording dates here – Argerich 1960 / Katchen 1958 (presumably without edits??) / Cziffra was probably around the same time, but don’t know for sure.

    I also listened for 1 minute or so to Daniil Trifonov’s recording of this … one of my all-time favorite pianists of today, BTW … Why do Russian pianists often insist on playing the opening sixteenth note passages of this this piece quasi staccato, when their own countryman Josef Lhévinne played it with such a beautiful legato?

    Unfortunately, Schumann does not specify exactly how he wants the opening played. There is merely a footnote at the bottom of the page stating (to the effect) that only passages which might be “misinterpreted” (in German: “vergriffen”, or played wrongly) were marked with any indication of expression. But if one had to guess, choosing between staccato and legato… what would you choose?

  12. Robert Hairgrove says:

    “Why do Russian pianists…”

    should be:

    “Why do SOME Russian pianists…”

    1. James Irsay says:

      Robert, I think Katchen does a beautiful job with the Toccata, one of the very best I’ve heard. His touch is the perfect *non-legato*, with very light binding pedal (sounds to me like 2 pedals per measure during the opening, with the last eighth of beats 2 and 4 not pedalled). Perhaps his performance would have been quite pleasing to Schumann.

      Katchen’s dynamics are fine, and the architecture is well presented. Another detail that stands out is the way he brings out BOTH motives in the so-called “fugal” section. Most pianists seem to go for the repeated note motive over the “portal” motive, but Katchen deftly projects both. In fact, Schumann’s accents in that passage would suggest that he wanted the “portal” motive to be brought out over the repeated notes. I chose to subordinate the repeated note motive in favor of the portal motive in my own playing of that section.

      Speaking of the note at the foot of the opening page, most pianists are not 100% down with Schumann’s plan, as we’ve heard numerous times. But overall, Schumann’s indications seem to follow a certain logic, and so his concern with vergriffen may be warranted.

      You no doubt know that the Clara Schumann edition (some say more Clara than necessary) translates the note into French and English. Both translations alter the meaning to refer to the sparse fingering – which doesn’t quite fit with the vergriffen part of the sentence!

      Thanks for bringing the Katchen performance to my attention.

      The Trifonov, on the other hand, seems to have the same kind of desperate choppy tension as Kissin’s opening pages. His body/face activity do not help. I don’t think this is what Schumann had in mind, though as you point out, his note at the foot of page 1 would seem to say “anything goes” as long as the performer conforms to his few written indications – and conforms to “taste”… whatever that may have meant to Schumann. Both Trifonov and Kissin verticalize much of the music to my ears, though each does good things as well… they are artists after all. Having said that, whatever the touch or tempo, I like to hear forward motion, not high-speed wood-chopping. But that’s me.

      When I performed the Toccata back in the Stone Age, I played mainly legato, but mixed it up with short staccato passages as well, mostly for contrast and emphasis… which were first manifested mostly in the heat of the moment before being adopted, as many interpretive touches are born.

      I also like the Kempff acoustic, though it’s sort of a guilty pleasure.This very well may be the first ever recording, abridged a bit more than merely omitting the repeat. I love how he corrects a missed bass octave on the fly, literally without missing a beat! Kempff plays nicely non-legato, but it’s a wild and woolly performance for sure, and you can hear that he knows he’s got to hit the double bar before the shellac runs out! The warm sound coming from that ancient recording is noteworthy. For convenience, here it is:

    2. James Irsay says:

      Robert, we have lots in common, including 20th century piano music, Peabody Conservatory, and Bolet! Let’s get in touch off this thread.

      1. Robert Hairgrove says:

        Hi James, I assume you found my website?

        If not, it’s … you can drop me a note through the contact form there, and then I’ll have your email address.

        Looking forward to hearing from you!

  13. James Irsay says:

    Robert… I did not find your Toccata online. I’ll have to take a chance at ordering your cd, as I’d love to hear all your Schumann. I say “take a chance” because I’ve had my share of difficulties ordering from Europe. BTW, is there a way we can confidentially exchange email addresses?

  14. M2N2K says:

    When listening to a piece that one knows “intimately” by having learned and performed it in the past, it can be extremely difficult to separate its text (notes and markings) that is so well known to a listener from the actual musical result that is being achieved by a performer. In this case, Josef Lhevinne and Julius Katchen are of course both outstanding pianists, but being understandably picky after sampling several very good ones, I was underwhelmed by their recordings of the Toccata. To me, JL sounded a little bit like a good student whose goal is to win a competition and therefore he tries not to offend anyone – in other words, rather bland and timid. A more interesting recording by JK is compromised greatly for my taste by too many musically unjustified tempo fluctuations where steady pace would have been much more effective. For me as a listener, both Argerich and Kissin are more satisfying in this piece. As for Wilhelm Kempff’s recording, there are many fantastic qualities in his interpretation, though there are some episodes that are rushed a little, while slowing around 2:40 does not make much sense to me. Overall, it is truly hard to compare it seriously with more recent recordings because of a rather poor quality of the recorded sound. Anyway, thanks for presenting so many fine versions of this exciting piece.

    1. James Irsay says:

      As you have aptly said, “Vive la différence!”. That’s why we each have our own ears, and do not share one giant pair. The day we can all agree on everything will be a sad day indeed.

      1. M2N2K says:

        Amen to that. But in this case I believe that there is an objective reason for at least a part of the difference.

        1. James Irsay says:

          I quote: “And of course my comment was never intended or claimed to be “objective”, whatever that may or may not mean in music.” Oh I know you are now going to tell us exactly what “objective” may or may not mean in music – hahaha! I’m braced and ready….

          1. M2N2K says:

            Unbrace yourself and read my previous comment once more: there is nothing in it about “objective in music” – only about objective reason for the difference in perception.

  15. James Irsay says:

    Are you referring to objective elements such as tempo and dynamics? That these objective elements are what produce individual unique responses to a performance? Isn’t that more or less a given? Please excuse any possible density here on my part.

    1. M2N2K says:

      No, I am referring to those differences in individual perception of a given piece of music that are objectively caused by differences in people’s knowledge of, and their “relationship” with, the said piece and the type of instrument on which it is being performed. My opinion about it was articulated – rather clearly, I think – in the very first sentence of my comment from 7:41 pm on the 19th above here.

  16. James Irsay says:

    Ah yes… you said:

    “When listening to a piece that one knows “intimately” by having learned and performed it in the past, it can be extremely difficult to separate its text (notes and markings) that is so well known to a listener from the actual musical result that is being achieved by a performer.”

    How do you know this? You speak with such certainty, as if you have actually witnessed the struggles, the extreme difficulties, of pianists in attempting to appreciate disparate interpretations of pieces they have studied. Please relate a single example that has helped to give birth to your generalization. Are you a pianist yourself, and have experienced these extreme difficulties? Your next door neighbor, perhaps? A schoolmate?

    Your main point seems to be that it is difficult for those familiar with the written text of a piece, from their own study of it, and who play their own distinctive instruments, to accept the playing of interpreters who go their own way – that is, players other than themselves. It also seems to me that you are assuming that all players who are familiar with the text actually follow the text, yet we know that is not true.

    In fact, my own conception of the Toccata is far different from that of my fav interpreter, Josef Lhévinne’s reading! (Please, no “You dare to mention yourself in the same sentence as Josef Lhévinne?!” comments.)

    Further, I cannot tell what your first statement has to do with the rest of your post, in which you give your opinion on Lhévinne, Katchen and Kempff. Wait a minute… are you making the extraordinary statement that deep musical knowledge is a handicap? Are you actually telling us, “Move over boys, I’ve never studied the Toccata. I cannot even play a C major scale, so I’m the only one who can effectively discern the “actual musical result” of everyone’s playing.” Is that it? If not, please rescue me from my misapprehension…. something you must be getting used to 🙂

    And by the way, what is an “actual musical result”? Whose actuality are we talking about? It’s beginning to sound suspiciously “objective” in here.

    Btw, M2 (you may call me James) I may be away from my computer for a day or two. I detest using my tiny iPhone 5 as a computer, visiting websites, etc. Just sayin’.

    1. M2N2K says:

      Why all this defensive indignation? Aren’t you protesting too much? All I have done was to point out something that is well known to all reasonable musicians I have ever been in contact with during my life in music and among my colleagues. We are humans, not robots, which means that what is already in our brains affects the way we perceive new information. In musical terms it means that no matter how much we may try to deny it, a piece that we know well after having worked on it ourselves (when it is performed on our instrument) is heard by us differently from a piece we only know as listeners (when it is played on some other instrument). We often try to overcome it by attempting to forget our own prejudices when listening to fine artists and in some cases some of us are able to succeed in that better than others in other cases. Many of us are certainly able to enjoy and admire performances by great musicians even when they play “our” piece very differently from the way we did it, but at least a little bit of a difference in perception still remains there. That is what I meant by citing “objective reason” for our differences of opinion.

  17. James Irsay says:

    Well now that you have softened your argument, and brought it away from an extreme struggle to overcome some kind of “imprinted text” syndrome, I can see your point.

    While listening to a work I have studied I may experience something impossible to share with those who have not physically studied the piece. But I don’t believe that has ever been a factor in assessing the musical value of a performance. It certainly adds insight, appreciation of difficulty, etc. But speaking for myself, while on some virtually unconscious level I may be aware of how a performance differs from or resembles my own interpretation, I have never experienced the “extreme difficulty” you mentioned in your earlier post.

    One must be a good listener. Listening is giving.

    Much better that you base your argument on our personal experience generally, which should not be based only on the experience of studying a piece, but also on our lifetime experience as listeners, which may also be prejudicial. We may consider a favored performance, often one with which we have grown up, as “our piece”.

    We all have a tendency to cling to what we know, and to sometimes resist intruders, whether that feeling derives from study or listening. We may have a predisposition against a particular artist, for whatever reason. Maybe the artist is admired by someone we detest, or performs wearing a dress that shows much more than we care to see. Maybe the performer makes clownish facial gestures while playing, or the tempo is unusually slow, or the articulation is unusually sharp and staccato.

    In these cases, I have seen time and time again that repeated listening can change one’s assessment of a performance to which some resistance may have been felt at the outset, for whatever reason.

    Anyway, I suppose I’m wandering….. my point is that there are more causes than one to the phenomenon you wrote about – a valid phenomenon to be sure. I would not emphasize actual study of the piece as the prime cause, perhaps only because that has never been a factor in my own listening. I would sooner steal from others than cling to my own ideas! Haha… kidding.

    Btw, I can detect no appreciable slowing at 2:40 in Kempff. Did you mean the slight pause at 2:54, which does not disturb me in the least? Why don’t you give it a few more listenings… are you going to let one little pause destroy a performance with “fantastic qualities”? Embrace the pause.

  18. M2N2K says:

    If anything “softened”, it was not my argument which remains essentially the same, but your understanding of it, possibly due partly to my phrasing it slightly differently, and in any case I do gladly welcome your long overdue acceptance of my “original” hypothesis. There are several valid points in your “wandering” and I agree with much of it. But I can only say that one of the reasons making the “difficulty” I referred to “extreme” is the fact that often many of us are not even aware of it being a “factor”. As for WK’s recording, believe me I know a difference between a slowing and a pause. What I was talking about was a sudden switch to a slower tempo just before 2:40 that I find unconvincing musically. When I have a chance to listen to it again, I shall check my initial impression once more and if my opinion about it changes I shall report as soon as I can. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything new to say about this.

  19. James Irsay says:

    “When listening to a piece that one knows “intimately” by having learned and performed it in the past, it can be extremely difficult to separate its text (notes and markings) that is so well known to a listener from the actual musical result that is being achieved by a performer.”

    That was your “original hypothesis”. It did not agree when I first saw it, and I don’t agree now…. generally! I agreed that one may be conscious on some level that the performer is not yourself. On the other hand, I did mention my displeasure with those who conclude fortissimo. If I’d never seen the music, it would not be worth mentioning, so I’ll definitely give you that! It’s just that I feel anyone would hear the advantage of a piano ending to the Toccata. Fortissimo endings do not ruin it for me, but yes, I am aware…

    When I listen to a performance of a piece I have studied, I do not have my mind on the text to such a degree throughout that I experience any difficulty in perceiving the “musical result”, that is, in hearing what the performer has willed, though I may not like it, of course.

    When you later spoke of a “difference in perception” due to another’s interpretation, this is stating the obvious, as that is what it’s all about. I do fully accept your statement that others might be impeded by their own interpretive bias. All I can say is that I’m not one of them. Sorry if I was a bit hardass about it.

    About Kempff’s tempo at 2:40, yes he does slow there, ever so slightly, and it’s not the only place his tempo changes. Kempff’s tempo wavers elsewhere for no discernible reason, e.g. between :43 and :50 – ish. Kempff is not alone.

    Changing tempo to a very slight degree (or even to a great degree e.g. Barere) is common in performances of the Toccata, often for technical rather than musical reasons, or because the notes run away a bit (Kissin). It’s hard to tell if Kempff consciously planned to slow at 2:40, or if it just “happened”. It’s very subtle, but yes I do hear it, and in fact heard it before, which is why I used the word “appreciable” rather than denying it outright.

    I doubt it was a conscious musical decision. You said it makes no sense to you, and it makes no sense to me either. But personally, it does not detract from the music. I guess his performance is handmade.

    I could not close our discussion without mentioning your comment about the poor quality of the 1920’s acoustic recording of Kempff. I understand your feelings about this.
    The YouTube example is rather dull sounding, and doesn’t show the ancient recording as well as it could be presented. I actually had it processed and livened up a bit, and found more in it than was apparent on YT. It would be nice to have the original 78, before i was so poorly transferred. But yes, it will always be an acoustic recording. At least it’s not a roll!

    Shanah Tovah (you don’t have to be Jewish to look ahead to the next year)… May yours be filled with beauty and fulfillment… and good health! Signing off.

  20. M2N2K says:

    It is the way you and RH were discussing the recordings that made me believe that the phenomenon that I mentioned was in evidence. Nothing that I can detect has contradicted my opinion about it so far. Our disagreement is actually quite mild about the issue: you think that the problem exists but not for you personally, and I think that to a certain degree it does for you too. The reason I singled out Kempff’s slowing at around 2:40 (not among the most technically difficult passages in this piece which makes this “meno mosso” even more puzzling) is that, unlike his other tempo changes, this one sounded musically unjustified for me – definitely a subjective judgement but I am glad that you agree with it. Thanks for good wishes; I wish you all the best in 5778 and beyond as well.

  21. James Irsay says:

    Thank you for your kind response. I couldn’t resist offering a possible, fantastical explanation for Kempff’s temporary “meno mosso” – which really is a very tiny differential, and is barely discernible, which is why I would hesitate to call it a musical decision, or any other kind of decision. The slight variation in tempo might be measured in the musical equivalent of angstrom units, and would probably pass by most listeners, or they would “sense” it rather than actually “hear” it.

    Perhaps we are listening to an ill-defined temporary flagging of the spirit. Kempff has just made a decisive mistake from 2:28 – 2:29 (I alluded to this in a previous post but did not fully describe it). He scrunched the bass octave G’s at 2:28, and then, after the following upper quarter note G7 chord has been sounded he jumps back down on the eighth note and corrects the bass octave, then jumps back up to resolve the G7 to the C – literally without missing a beat! He knew he had made an inexcusable error against the Toccata, like saying “In the beginning Zod made God the heavens and the earth…”.

    One wonders if the producer/engineer attempted another take. Kempff was surely aware in his gut as he approached 2:40 that he had screwed up big time, and that this take would remain a poor representation of his Schumann Toccata. Could his disappointment be reflected in his energy dip around 2:40? As if he had wondered in a subverbal, interior way “what’s the point of going on?” He seems to revive quickly.

    One wonders if they attempted a retake. You KNOW Kempff would have wanted one.
    Maybe the suits told him, “Well Wilhelm, you know not all that many people know this piece intimately – after all it’s never been recorded before.”

    1. M2N2K says:

      Yours is certainly a very elaborate hypothesis that may or may not explain that part of the recording, but in any case it does not change anything that is relevant for “musical result” (this “term” is starting to annoy me, but so far I am unable to come up with a better one).

    2. Robert Hairgrove says:

      In those days, messing up a take in a recording was presumably quite an expensive mistake, since there was no tape to edit and one had to repeat the whole 3 or 4 minutes again.

      Could it be that there were other takes, and that this was the best he could do?

      It would be interesting to know whether or not Wilhelm Backhaus ever played this, or even recorded it … I am a great admirer of his Chopin Etudes which he recorded in the late 1920’s. As usual for 78rpm discs, there were almost always two etudes perdisc which had to be recorded back-to-back in one take … which means, of course, that he had to play Op. 10 Nos. 1+2 together!

      Shana tova umetukah, to everybody!

      1. M2N2K says:

        “Could it be that there were other takes, and that this was the best he could do?” Why not? The same may be true of just about any studio recording ever made.

  22. James Irsay says:

    Sure it’s possible. Still, I’m guessing that Kempff wished he could have had another go at it (wouldn’t you?), regardless of his possible other takes. For all we know the released recording was take 1 of 3! Maybe he spoke of his early recording experiences in his autobiography, which has probably not been “Englished”.

    Personally, I have nothing to complain about. Its pluses – its verve and passion – far outweigh its glitches. Kempff’s on-the-fly bass correction is an amusing highlight.

    Yes Robert, Backhaus (especially the young Backhaus, as you say) – with his clarity, energy and directness – would have been impressive in the Toccata. He never recorded it, according to current internet discography. Shanah Tovah back at you and yours!

  23. M2N2K says:

    What – no detailed discussion of the recording that does not exist?? I am very disappointed in you! But forgiving nevertheless.

    1. James Irsay says:


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