Introducing Jascha Spivakovsky (1896-1970), "One of the greatest pianists of our time"
First solo piano release from a brilliant pianist who never recorded commercially
“Back in Russia when I was four years old, my mother dragged me through
snowdrifts twenty feet deep to hear an outstanding prodigy. YOU were that prodigy.”
Vladimir Horowitz, 1948
“The sensation of London. At the last evening concert in the Albert Hall it is estimated that
3,000 people were unable to gain admission, and there were scenes of wild enthusiasm.”
“Supreme mastery of the instrument and brilliant technique [and] that rarer quality to be described only as soul …
much as I want to hear Cortot, I want to hear Spivakovsky again still more”
Producing this first volume of recordings by the pianist Jascha
Spivakovsky has been something of a global endeavour. Co-ordinated by
Spivakovsky's grandson, Eden Spivakovsky initially from Singapore, now
in Australia, with transfers overseen by Spivakovsky's son, Michael at a
renowned mastering studio in Melbourne, Australia, the choices for this
volume were then sent to me in France for audio restoration and
After much deliberation, this first volume concentrates on Jascha Spivakovsky's solo work - later volumes will include concerto and chamber music, the latter alongside Jascha's renowned violinist brother, Tossy Spivakovsky, and will delve further into the past. Most of the present recordings were made by Jascha during rehearsals for concerts and broadcasts in Australia in the 1960s, and were recorded by Michael Spivakovsky onto a mono Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder using a standard-issue microphone. They were not therefore intended for release, and it has been my task to elevate the quality of the recordings to a standard which not only is acceptable to modern listeners but also does full justice to Jascha Spivakovsky himself.
Using the most up-to-date audio restoration and remastering software, I've been able to correct pitch anomalies, compensate for the tonal inaccuracies of the microphone, eliminate electrical hum, greatly diminish tape hiss, and digitally "rehouse" Jascha in one of the more intimate concert halls at Santa Cecilia, Rome, renowned for fine musical acoustics which complement the piano's tone, without introducing a wash of unnatural reverberation.
This page can only serve as an introduction to the incredible musical story of Jascha Spivakovsky - for a fuller picture I strongly recommend you visit www.jascha.com and immerse yourself in an amazing musical voyage of discovery. As Damian Thompson of The Spectator wrote to me a few days ago, in response to first hearing Jascha Spivakovsky: "Greatest pianist I've never heard of? More like one of the greatest pianists I've heard."
BACH-LISZT The Great Organ Fantasy & Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
Recorded Melbourne, November 1963
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op. 53 (Waldstein)
Recorded Melbourne, around October 1967
CHOPIN Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op. 23
Recorded Melbourne, December 1966
BRAHMS Romanze in F Major Op. 118 No. 5
Recorded c. October/November 1955 (location unknown)
DEBUSSY Prelude Bk. 1 No. 7, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest
Recorded c. February/March 1958 (location unknown)
DEBUSSY Prelude Bk. 1 No. 12, Minstrels
Recorded c. February/March 1958 (location unknown)
KABALEVSKY Sonata No. 3 in F Major Op. 46
Recorded Melbourne, c. May/June 1962
Jascha Spivakovsky, piano
Private recordings were made in Jascha Spivakovsky's music room in Melbourne, Australia by Michael Spivakovsky
Transfers by Crystal Mastering, Melbourne, Australia
Restoration and XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio
DETAILED PROGRAMME NOTES
Bach-Liszt - The Great Organ Fantasy & Fugue in G Minor BWV 542
featured prominently in Spivakovsky's recitals throughout his career.
After the Great War he performed a monumental series of historical
concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Maestro Wilhelm
Furtwängler, tracing the development of the concerto through the
stylistic periods by all major composers from Bach to Brahms. This
fifteen-concerto tour de force continued the tradition established by
his musical forefather Anton Rubinstein, who was renowned for his
gargantuan historical solo recitals. The series was a stellar success
and Spivakovsky was hailed as a master of all musical styles, an
exceptional exponent of the Three Bs, and the finest living interpreter
He continually expanded this reputation with majestic performances of the most difficult Bach compositions and arrangements in the piano literature, often opening his concert seasons with this Bach-Liszt work. From The Brisbane Courier during his whirlwind-success inaugural tour of Australia in 1922: "His opening number was Liszt's transcription of J.S.Bach’s colossal Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor … The composition is one of the very greatest and richest of the master's manifestations of his genius. It is characterised by all the elements of bravura, the weightiest and most surprising progressions of harmony, variety, volume of tone, and contrast of feeling, all infused with the fullest interest of detail. Only a great artist could do justice to its majesty. M. Spivakovsky invested it with the qualities which have already been particularised as indicative of his marvellous power, and by the magnificence of his playing literally brought down the house."
From the Auckland Star during his equally successful inaugural tour of New Zealand the same year: "… a remarkable pianist, and specially successful in Bach, Brahms and Chopin. Everything he does is marked with true earnestness and sincerity, and he never tries to attract those in front by a display of his virtuosity ... Spivakovsky opened with the Bach-Liszt Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor … the initial Grave was given with strength of tone in the majestic chordal parts, whilst the embellishments and figuration of demi-semiquavers were executed with neatness and facility, and the marcatissimo passages received just the requisite weight of tone to exhibit the parts. The Fugue was rendered in a concise and clearly expressed manner, delightfully displaying the intrinsic value of its melodious character and classic design." And a Delhi newspaper during his inaugural tour of India in the 1950s: "The grand introduction of the Fantasia and the deliciously clear rhythm of the Fugue were rendered with superb artistry and musicianship."
Beethoven - Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op. 53 (Waldstein)
reputation as a master exponent of Beethoven grew rapidly after Bach to
Brahms. Chief amongst his admirers in this regard was his friend and
colleague Artur Schnabel, who gave him a photographic portrait in 1938
with the inscription "in old admiration and warmest comradeship."
Spivakovsky had huge respect for Schnabel as an interpreter of Beethoven
and the two often discussed the Beethoven piano sonatas when they lived
around the corner from each other in Berlin’s Golden Twenties. During
one of these discussions, Spivakovsky showed Schnabel a fingering he had
developed for the coda of the Waldstein sonata (which later appeared as
a footnote to the Schnabel edition of the Beethoven sonatas, which were
first published in 1924 and mentioned “the fingerings and pedal
indications are almost without exception by the editor”). To quote
Wikipedia: "the coda's glissando octaves, written in dialogue between
the hands, compel even advanced performers to play in a simplified
version." The generally employed alternative, playing slower staccato
octaves, forces exponents to artificially reduce the tempo of the whole
movement in order to preserve the contrast between the allegretto rondo
and the prestissimo coda. However the fingering developed by Spivakovsky
enables every note of the coda to be played prestissimo, as written by
Spivakovsky became recognised as unsurpassable in Beethoven, his playing described by legendary British critic Sir Neville Cardus as "An experience of mind and spirit and a sincere artist’s submergence of self and technical awareness into the world of Beethoven." His postwar interpretations in particular astounded the most discerning critics. John Sinclair, chief critic at The Herald (and one of the chief reasons William Kapell furiously declared at the end of his 1953 tour of Australia "This is goodbye forever – I shall never return"), wrote after an all-Beethoven concert in 1947: "From whatever angle one viewed the performance it was stamped with unmistakeable signs of rarity and greatness … I have never seen an artist sit at the keyboard with less apparent concern for its existence other than as a medium for the realisation of a long-matured imaginative conception. So inflexible is Spivakovsky’s mental control that not a bravura passage in all the four sonatas escaped its relationship to the interpretive whole. Recalling the performance today, I have the choice between futile and inadequate language and silence."
Chopin - Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op. 23
infuses this famous Ballade with all the fire and poetry which made him
"King in the realm of Chopin." From reviews during his wildly
successful inaugural tour of Australia in 1922, the Sydney Morning
Herald: "Mr Spivakovsky played the Ballade in G Minor with subtle
feeling for its underlying melancholy, followed by a powerful grasp of
the climax at the close." The Argus: “The G minor Ballade … ranked with
the best of the pianist's Chopin interpretations in its fine blend of
poetry and elevation." And The Mail: "The breadth of interpretation of
the various themes were wrought out with artistic emphasis. The approval
of the audience was electrical, and an encore irresistible." From
Allgemeine Musikzeitung after a Berlin recital in 1925: "an expansive
program placing extraordinary physical and mental demands on the
resilience of the pianist, ranging from Bach and Beethoven through
Chopin and Liszt to Debussy, Reger and Palmgren … established that this
unusually gifted piano virtuoso, whose beginnings already drew all
attention to him, is on a continually upwards trajectory with both
technical as well as spiritual-musical development. His musical
temperament is intuitively instinctive, rather than thoughtfully
reflexive ... his interpretation of the Chopin Ballades was particularly
From his equally successful second tour of Australia in 1929, The Sunday Times: "Ballade in G Minor represents one of the most appealing of Chopin's various moods. The pianist exhibited all the poetic charm and dramatic power of the brilliant writing.” And from his third tour of Australia in 1933, The Argus: "He is the dynamic personality, a pianist of brilliant technical attainments, a virile, compelling artist. His personality and playing are entirely masculine. After his performance of Chopin's Ballade in G Minor, nobody would have questioned the stature of this dominating pianist." And The Advertiser: "Jascha Spivakovsky gave us a new interpretation of Chopin's G Minor Ballade, one that mattered. It was maturely conceived – not Spivakovsky at the expense of Chopin. He inspires a great feeling of confidence. Here is a technique to be envied and a discriminating brain to put it to the best use, as the coda showed."
Brahms - Romanze in F Major Op. 118 No. 5
In this exquisite and highly romantic work, Spivakovsky channels the uniquely expressive German Romanticism which won him the reputation "the finest living interpreter of Brahms." In the front row of his admirers in this regard were his friends and colleagues Pierre Monteux and Artur Rubinstein. Maestro Monteux inscribed a photographic portrait which he presented to Spivakovsky: "With my true admiration and great desire to play with him a Brahms concerto," heavily underlining the final two words. An awestruck Rubinstein greeted Spivakovsky after one concert with: "Your BRAHMS, Jascha … your BRAHMS!!!" and later presented him with a photographic portrait, inscribed "Your old admirer." From a review in The Mail after a 1922 performance in Australia: "… another gem was Brahms’ Romanze, given as an encore, and nothing that Spivakovsky does exceeds the wonderful excellence and delicacy of his interpretation of this class of music."
Debussy - Prelude Bk. 1 No. 7 (What the West Wind Saw)
Debussy - Prelude Bk. 1 No. 12 (Minstrels)
These two preludes, which Spivakovsky often played as a pair, highlight his mastery of Impressionism and also his elemental energy. As The Manchester Guardian remarked after a 1948 concert in Great Britain: "The fire and power of his playing were astonishing … Mr Spivakovsky turned the west wind into a cyclone … a musician of the masterly order, and the possessor of a most sensitive style as well as a brilliant one."
Kabalevsky — Sonata No. 3 in F Major Op. 46
Unlike many of his contemporaries who specialised in a single composer or period, Spivakovsky was a master interpreter of all musical styles. More unique still, he was able to transition from the Romantic to the modern percussive style without losing the expressive qualities of the music. He championed many modern works, including this dramatic war sonata by Dmitry Kabalevsky. From a review in The Auckland Star after a 1957 performance in New Zealand: "Mr Spivakovsky has a warm sincerity which seems to make every work a personal experience for each member of the audience. He has, too, a superlative and powerful technique which displays a very broad range of expression. His inner feeling for the music emerges most noticeably in slow movements where each bar – and every note – is played with illuminating care. His interpretation of more passionate pieces was undeniably exciting and made his treatment of Kabalevsky's Op. 46 Sonata a memorable experience." And The Age after a 1960 performance in Australia: "He proved himself a master pianist of the first order, with an authoritative and effortless command of the keyboard, and an approach to style in the grand manner … the Kabalevsky sonata is an exhilarating piece, full of vitality ... Mr Spivakovsky’s interpretation shows great insight and understanding of the score."
This central movement is a mere five minutes, yet under Spivakovsky’s fingers seems to speak of whole worlds
Jascha Spivakovsky (1896–1970) is quite a find. His teacher, Moritz Maher-Marr, studied with Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, and this is one instance where a heritage being passed down is audible. His series of concerts with Furtwängler is possibly his most famous endeavor, although he was chosen by Richard Strauss to play the solo in that composer’s Burleske. His brother was the famous violinist Tossy Spivakovsky.
The recordings here were made in Spivakovsky’s own music room at his home in Melbourne, Australia by the pianist’s son, Michael Spivakovsky, who also oversaw the transfers in Melbourne before they were sent to France for Pristine to restore and remaster, and, in fact, to acoustically “rehouse.”
The Bach/Liszt is awe-inspiring in its breadth of touch and its perfectly judged dimunuendos. Lines are clear throughout, and the whole exudes a tremendous sense of an awareness of the work’s structure. The “Waldstein” first movement is fast but precise, the staccato and accuracy clearly the result of fingers of steel. One thing that sings throughout this performance is a sense of rightness, of knowing. The Adagio molto is simply stunning, a perfect pocket of Beethovenian stillness where silences speak with Webernian potency. The finale creeps in with real magic and golden tone. Beauty is important here, and so is pedal technique. Spivakovsky is not afraid to use the pedal, but he does not shy away from the pedal-free, either. The result is terrifically exciting, imaginative, and true to the spirit of Beethoven.
The same clarity characterizes Spivakovsky’s Chopin. Any blurrings are clearly intentional and have a clear point relating to the composer’s ongoing narration. This is thought through, an object lesson in how to pedal in Chopin. The 6/4 section becomes the ghost of a waltz; the coda is astonishing because, without losing any of its excitement, it is both intelligent and accurate. The crepuscular side of Brahms (op. 118/5) emerges from the strong chords of this Romanze’s opening. Spivakovsky apparently often paired the two particular Debussy Préludes on offer here. Perhaps some detail is blurred by the recording in the “West Wind” here, but it remains an impressive, elemental, and explosive reading; there is no such problem in “Minstrels,” given in a performance of great, almost cartoony, character.
Perhaps the greatest treasure of all is Kabalevsky’s Sonata No. 3. He gives the piece more backbone than does Moiseiwitsch in his famous October 1946 HMV account. A link to Prokofiev in the Andante cantabile seems clear, and Spivakovsky seems equally clear that Kabalevsky can plumb just as great depths as that better-known composer This central movement is a mere five minutes, yet under Spivakovsky’s fingers seems to speak of whole worlds. Similarly the finale, which seems on the surface to make reference to the same spirit as does Shostakovich in circus mode, is here a sparkling piece of wit, yet one that fits the sonata’s overall concerns perfectly.
Just one thing, and I am probably being remarkably stupid, but why is it called “Bach to Bloch”? There is no Bloch here (apart from perhaps a mental “Bloch” on my part), alphabetically it goes further than “B” and it goes further than Bloch chronologically, too (Kabalevsky died in 1987). Anyway, this is wonderful.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.