Dear La Folia 13.

Russell Lichter

[April 2004.]

Dear La Folia,

There’s just no way I am going to rehearse my usual greeting, Gee, it’s been a long time…. It has, of course, but I’ve been busy. One might with justification say preoccupied. The season’s changed and it’s no longer mandatory to light an evening fire. This means music listening unaccompanied by the fan in our wood-burning stove. CES has come and gone leaving acquisitive longings in its wake. Digital amps are making new inroads in our strange audiophile landscape. As happens every season, perfection has been improved upon.

Some things have not much changed: The technical standards of equipment reviews continue to shock the unwary. I read, for example, of an amplifier’s super-proprietary power supply (which appears to be a switching power supply as used in every desktop computer) converting the AC input to a special high-frequency signal that never gets converted to DC. Imagine that, a solid-state amplifier that doesn’t require DC! What will they think of next? The economy, we are told, is doing wonderfully. I’m glad to hear it. Why, just the other day, calling about a problem with my Chinese-made DSL router, the customer service representative, speaking to me from somewhere in India, congratulated me on the healthy state of the American economy. Kind of cushions the blow of being booted into the ranks of the unemployed when our entire quality assurance department was moved to Bangalore.

Cover of EMI Classics 7243 5 75233 2 5 Cover of VOX ACD 8192

Worry and fear, interspersed with leisure, seem to have keened my senses for the well-turned trill, the intelligent phrase, the transcendent intonation. And not too long ago my brother gifted me with a splendid CD of Sviatoslav Richter playing Schumann (EMI Classics 7243 5 75233 2 5). This gives me two versions of the Fantasy, the other played by Abbey Simon (Vox ACD 8192).

There is an elusive dimension to Sviatoslav Richter’s playing. I know this is not the first time I’ve raised a paean about the Richter CD to which I happened to be listening at or about the time of writing you, but I continue to find myself of an evening grasping for verbal resources to express my exuberance. I remember in an earlier letter saying that Richter’s performance of Beethoven seemed quite as if the composer himself were present. I can’t say exactly the same thing about his Schumann, not because this quality is absent, but because I don’t really get Schumann yet. I like much of his music a great deal, I recognize the brilliance, even the greatness of the writing, but the man himself eludes me, and if he’s there in Richter’s playing, I wouldn’t know it.

What is there, and what seems to distinguish Richter from perhaps any other pianist with whom I’m familiar, is humanity, that quality of ordinariness we all have in common, once the superfluities of genius and the splendors of aesthetic excellence are stripped away. No, not stripped away. And, of course, not superfluous either. Rather, these things are gently and unpretentiously placed into a perspective that is, at one and the same time, greater and more humble. Like the pianist himself.

Whether we think of aesthetics as abstract or not, here is an experience that is fundamentally of flesh and blood. It breathes and has warmth. It includes us. What a thing to have been in the audience when Richter played!

I did have the good sense to buy tickets and go see Abbey Simon play at a small venue in the Palisades near Los Angeles. Years and years ago. Now, his Schumann Fantasy is simply bristling with excellence. Simon is a singularly unaffected, no-nonsense sort of piano player. If it’s in the music, you get it. The emotion, the drama, Schumann’s sheer delight in pianism — all are there. Nothing more. Simon has that relatively rare quality of actually thinking about the music, and he’s clearly got the intelligence to do it successfully. He belongs to the old school. He has nothing in common with the showy indulgences of the young (or the old) Turks. And he is, as I’ve no doubt said before, a highly underappreciated pianist. But like the late Michel Block, there are those fortunate few who know and admire his work.

Cover of VAIA/IPA 1037-2 Cover of Hyperion CDA67411/2

Then out of the blue last night, the brains of the outfit requested I play a CD I’d not spun for probably two years or more, David Saperton’s Chopin Etudes (VAIA/IPA 1037-2). And again, as with the Richter, I found myself hunkered in the sweet spot, in a state of wonder. Saperton made very few recordings; these two precious CDs contain everything remaining, the Etudes and various pieces by his father-in-law, Leopold Godowsky. Another recording, of ten Chopin-Godowsky Studies, was lost when RCA donated the brass masters to be melted down for shell casings during World War II. Saperton, who led an obscure and unrecognized life, was hired by Josef Hofmann at the Curtis Institute, where he taught Abbey Simon, among others.

I have heard many versions of the Etudes but have never heard anything to match this, not even Abbey Simon’s (Vox CDX-5167), and I have long considered Simon’s recording of the Etudes to be among his finest work. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the first time I played the second disc: Godowsky, 11 of the 53 Studies on Chopin Etudes. Between those who regard these works as sacrilege, those who regard them as mere technical showpieces, and those who regard them as separating the men from the boys, there’s probably not a very large audience of admirers. I am one. Marc-André Hamelin is another. He recorded the complete set on the Hyperion label (CDA67411/2), and if you think you’ve heard mind-boggling pianism, wait till you get an earful of the left-hand-only studies. Saperton brings a masterful technique to these pieces, but he also brings a profound musicianship and a lifetime’s experience. Not everyone can even play these things, considered among the most difficult piano music ever written; but to make of them such beautiful music is truly extraordinary.

Hope all is well up in lobster country.