Thursday, September 14, 2006

One of the last of a generation of pianists

I was writing an entry for another blog post when I needed a biographical link for Ivan Moravec. Instead of the article I expected, I found that it had been toasted, pulled down by someone who obviously (and admitted it) knew nothing of Ivan Moravec. I thought it was a rather hasty and rash on his part seeing as he admitted that he didn't know who he was. It was obviousy written by a fan!

But, I do not know of anyone who has heard his playing who is not a fan. I've never heard anyone actuallly say the didn't like his playing! This is quite a compliment since I know quite a number of pianists, and they can be blistering in their critism of other pianist. But you can hardly find any critism, past personal taste that applies to this last of a generation of pianists.

I won't go into the biographical details, you can read those at the Wikepiedia. I will, however, tell you that his is some of the finest Chopin and Debussy playing anywhere. The first time I encountered Moravec other than breif tracks on the radio was on an LP a fellow student loaned me. It was on the private record label Connessiuer Society. The label is dedicated to recording piano music played by some of the finest players. The LP is, needless to say, no longer avalable. Sharon very nearly didn't get her LP back, but she was just as passionately in love with this playing as I was so the motivation to get it back from me was great. She ended up studying for a time in Prague with Moravec. This isn't the Prague of today, this was in the mid-seventies when the iron curtain still held back easy travel and communication.

There were two trully memorable works on this album, the Polonnnaise-Fantaie in A Flat Opus 61. This is not the famous Polonnaise in A Flat, but another which Chopin wrote late in his life. The work is pianistically and musically challenging. Technically difficult just from the standpoint of merely executing the notes, but then to have the added challenge of addressing what Chopin was saying when he took a dance movement usually a grand processional and wrote the equivalent of a sonata first movement around the rythmns of the dance.

The Polonnaise-Fantasie is not immediately endearing to the listener, but one each successive listneing I found myself increasingly attracted to it. It is one of those works which has no hummable tune, certainly it has never found form as a popular song the way the A Flat polonnaise has or the way the Fantasie-Improptu has. The work is entirely at the mercy of which ever pianist attempts it. Few are that brave, and of those that are, few succede. Moravec is one who does succede in spades.

The other performance on the album which is still to my mind one of the best available, is the Barcarolle Opus 60. Another late work of Chopin, in which the brilliant obligato figurations he was so famous for, are gone and a new musical depth is present. So a Venetian Boat Song becomes a vehicle for some of the most empassioned writing Chopin ever did. Written near the end of his life when he was sick with Tuberculosis, the piece fluctuates back and forth between the gentle rock of a gondola and the intense conversation between the passsengers as they float across the water.

Moravec manages to capture all this perfectly. His technique is unmatched, but clean, crystal clear execution never gets in the way of the music. Each climax is calculated to the finest detail. Moravec, like Glenn Gould, is a technophile. His method of rehersal includes a microphone and (at one time at least) a real to real tape deck. He records each of his practice sessions, plays it back and makes notes of exactly which notes, which dynamics need changing. The microphone can be a ruthless critic, it captures everything. All the flaws and blemishes are there to hear. For Moravec, it has turned out to be an advantage. Its benefit is clear.

As I said the LP's are now gone, but his recordings are usualy available somehow somewhere. The particular release I am listening to is on the Philips lable. Former CBC Producer, Tom Deacon, produced a series for Phillips called "Great Pianists of the 20th Century". Moravec, is of course among them. Tom Deacon has produced one of the best series of piano recordings ever released. Every major artist is represented by one or more two CD sets. The Moravec set has one CD devoted to Chopin and one devoted to Debussy and Ravel. Of course the change of millenia is old news by now and the series is almost cetainly deleted.