Jascha Spivakovsky: Second splendid volume from the brilliant pianist
More unreleased recordings from the Spivakovsky family archive, XR remastered by Andrew Rose
Following on from the well-received first volume, this second release by Jascha Spivakovsky continues to concentrate on his solo work. The present recordings were made by Jascha during rehearsals for concerts and broadcasts in Australia in the 1950s and 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.
Bach-Busoni-Spivakovsky Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor BWV 903
Mozart Sonata No 12 in F Major K332
Beethoven-d'Albert Ecossaises in E Flat Wo 083
Recorded February 1967
Beethoven Rondo in G Major Op 51 No 2
Recorded February 1967
Chopin Fantaisie Impromptu in C sharp Minor, Op Posth 66
Chopin Sonata No 2 in B Flat Minor (The Funeral March Sonata)
Recorded November, 1963
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-Busoni-Spivakovsky — Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor BWV 903
Resuming his career after being interned as an enemy alien during the Great War, Spivakovsky proceeded from triumph to triumph and was hailed as a master interpreter of all musical styles. He was acclaimed in particular as an exceptional exponent of The Three Bs (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), after performing a monumental series of historical concerts with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the moniker Bach to Brahms. Thereafter he often opened recitals with major Bach works, including his own signature variation of the dramatic Busoni transcription of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.
Critics around the world highlighted the brilliance of these performances. From Aftenposten in Oslo: "The Russian pianist who, yesterday, gave his first concert in the Aula, has a musical perception and technique of the highest perfection. This was already evident in the first number, Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue where the complicated polyphony was expressed with the greatest clarity." The Argus in Melbourne: "There was an imposing display of technical skill at the beginning of the evening in the Bach Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue. It was a revelation of rhythmic vitality, with great power and intensity in the climax. Technique can be either the letter that deadens or the spirit which vivifies. Spivakovsky, in his Bach playing, shows that with him the spirit is the thing." And the Sydney Morning Herald: "… beautifully interpreted … the arpeggio passages excited … an awed anticipation as if the curtains before the future life were about to be lifted; and the vivacious charm and leaping grace of the fugue once more delighted the ear, as must ever be the case at the hands of truly accomplished artists."
Critics also appreciated the signature stamp Spivakovsky put on this mighty work. The Neue Preußische Zeitung in Berlin: "On a pedestal stands pianist Jascha Spiwakowski ... he filled Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with vital substance." The Telegraph in Sydney: "He opened with the brilliant Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue in D Minor of Bach … The fantasie is like a noble recitative embroidered with rich cadenzas, and then the fugue enters stately in its calm first utterance, and passing through ingenious elaborations that call for the highest executive skill. Spivakovsky gave it more than this; he added touches of romance and reflectiveness that bespoke the musician. The audience was wildly delighted with the performance and brought the player back half a dozen times.” And the Sunday Times in Perth: "As his opening number the artist selected the Bach Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, which he invested with a rare charm. Delicacy of expression, a full appreciation of tonal effects, and a pleasing display of the figures of the composition marked the performer as a worthy exponent of this master, a position which only the highly gifted can hope to reach. The fine declamation of the massive climax in the fugue revealed the extraordinary technique as well as penetrating perception of the artist."
Mozart — Sonata No 12 in F Major K332
From his earliest performances, critics noted the distinctive Spivakovsky sound signature, however they struggled to translate it into words. During his wildly successful return tour of the United Kingdom in 1921, a leading London critic printed: "Of all the pianists I have heard in recent years, no one seems to have more temperamental affinity with the very greatest than Jascha Spivakovsky. There is in his art something personal and exclusive, rare and imaginative, that cannot be defined in English, liberal as it is in words of fine meaning. I can only sit back after hearing him and badly express my appreciation by calling him a genius."
The following year, The New Zealand Times: "GENIUS OF HIGHEST RANK: Players come and players go, but there are very few artists in the world whom one would care to say are real geniuses. Of these few one has not the least hesitation in saying that Spivakovsky is one of the rarest. He has to be heard before he can be understood. Mere wealth of verbiage gives little real idea of the man as the artist, the genius, the virtuoso." And the Brisbane Courier: "A virtuoso gifted by shining genius. His distinguishing characteristics are difficult to describe, because he combines the best qualities of several different schools. A superb technique – one may say, a perfected technique – extraordinary brilliancy, great power of tone, and remarkable delicacy of touch, combine to make his playing a delight to the ear, while his sense of rhythm and the delicious felicity of his phrasing are equally conspicuous. All these traits are embellished with a rare faculty which enables him to pass from one stupendous composition to another, or from lightest shades to darkest gloom, investing each with the composer's individuality, and at the same time preserving his own strong personality." Then the next year, the Breslauer Morgen-Zeitung: "Who will explain this wonder-genius?"
Eventually the legendary British critic Sir Neville Cardus coined the descriptor crystal piano-playing to characterise the Spivakovsky sound signature, after hearing a positively radiant performance of the Mozart piano concerto in A Major. His wife, Lady Edith, had telegrammed Spivakovsky her own summation after hearing him perform the same work a few years earlier: "Hearty congratulations on the best Mozart playing have ever heard."
Crystal piano-playing shines through this equally radiant performance of the Sonata in F. From reviews of Australian performances, The Sun in Sydney: "There was crystal sparkle in the recitalist's performance of Mozart's F major Sonata, his pausation as well as swiftness in descending runs of the last movement being a feature." And The Age in Melbourne: "With so many pianists essaying sonatas on Mozart, it was a rare pleasure to hear the recitalist declare the master's excellence free from blemish and with the charm associated with his name."
Beethoven-d'Albert — Ecossaises in E Flat Wo 083
Beethoven — Rondo in G Major Op 51 No 2
These gems set the stage for the four pivotal Beethoven sonatas on Volume Three. From the New Zealand Herald in 1922: "The pianoforte recital by Jascha Spivakovsky at the Town Hall last night must assuredly take rank as one of those red-letter occasions in the musical annals of this city which leave behind an unforgettable memory … In lighter vein, though demanding the fleetest use of the fingers, were Beethoven's Rondo in G and the Rondo entitled The Rage over a Lost Penny. Here the utmost accuracy and clearness necessitated by the style of the music was never in doubt." And The Mail in Adelaide, during the same Australasian tour: "Nothing more deliciously exquisite has been heard at any of these recitals than Beethoven's wonderfully graceful Rondo in G Major. Not all the superb florature work of the Chaconne or the Rage over the Lost Penny, in which the sounding boards of the piano are shaken by the sledgehammer assault upon the notes, could compare with the marvellous delicacy of the rippling liquid cadences of this unrivalled miniature. The sounds were produced without any perceptible evidence of percussion, and they seemed more like the product of the human voice."
Chopin — Fantaisie Impromptu in C sharp Minor, Op Posth 66
Spivakovsky first became world famous for performing Romantic repertoire as a child prodigy. The Dominion reported excitedly to the New Zealand public in 1916: "A Young Genius: for several seasons the Berlin critics and public have watched with unusual interest the development of Jascha Spiwakowski, a youthful Russian pianist, who astonished the musical world as a prodigy. He has now outgrown the prodigy phase and appears as a fully-fledged artist. It is doubtful if his teacher, Moritz Meyer-Mahr, has ever had another such talent in his twenty-five years’ experience as a pedagogue. It makes no difference whether he plays Brahms, Chopin or Liszt, he always surprises with the maturity and depth of his conception and the finish and brilliancy of his execution." His repertoire then expanded rapidly during his youth prodigy years, however he remained best known for the Romantics until the Great War. Walter Niemann declared in his 1919 book Meister des Klaviers: "Jascha Spiwakowski has achieved capital G Greatness in Berlin … the child prodigy has now become a youth prodigy: spirited, full-blooded, potent, with greatly sensitive and instinctive musicality, supreme technical talent and an especially fine appreciation of Chopin, Schumann and the Romantics."
By the time he was a young man, his repertoire encompassed Baroque to the most modern and he was ranked one of the greatest performers in the world. After 3,000 clamouring Londoners had to be turned away from a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, the Daily Mail: "One of the greatest pianists of our time." During his Bach to Brahms tour de force across Germany, the Hamburgischer Correspondent: "The strongest piano talent I have encountered in the course of the last decade." And during his phenomenonally successful inaugural tour of Australia in 1922, Table Talk: "Jascha Spivakovsky, young as he is, ranks above any of the pianists we have heard in recent years and is probably the most satisfying, all-round performer this generation has heard. His interpretations have soul, that greatest asset, and a glorious mellow beauty of song-like tone which is enthralling."
Spivakovsky performed many Chopin works during this Australian tour and electrified audiences with the fire and poetry of his interpretations. Reviews from The Brisbane Courier: "Mr Spivakovsky left no doubt in the minds of his admiring hearers that he was king in the realm of Chopin." And The Argus in Melbourne: "…extraordinary command over multitudinous shades of dynamic tone and colour, from a cankling fortissimo to a pianissimo of melting softness … Chopin's adorable Fantasie Impromptu, not too often played nowadays, was invested with the most delightful grace." The great Australian coloratura soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, penned Spivakovsky her own review after his first Melbourne concert: "I consider you one of the greatest pianists in the world."
Chopin — Sonata No 2 in B Flat Minor (The Funeral March Sonata)
Spivakovsky delivers this stunning performance with the hallmarks of his immortal musical grandfathers, combining the bravura technique and pithy expression of Liszt with the golden tone and overwhelming passion of Anton Rubinstein. These elements he expertly marshalls according to his own powerful interpretive vision, in order to capture the full gravitas and beauty of this work. In the Funeral March movement for example, he takes the standpoint of Chopin as observer, midway between the church and the gravesite, building a dramatic crescendo as the procession approaches. This culminates in a magnificent key-change from minor to major as the procession passes the composer. A diminuendo marks the approach of the procession to the gravesite, followed by the beautiful cantilena of the singing over the grave. Then the crescendo and diminuendo are repeated as the procession returns to the church. In the final movement, Chopin looks to the lonely gravesite and visualises what Spivakovsky referred to as "the wind mixing the souls of the departed."
After astounding performances of this work in 1933, The News in Adelaide declared: "We have heard many performances of the Chopin Funeral March Sonata, but that by Jascha Spivakovsky was on a pinnacle apart. His manipulation of the scherzo was amazing, and he plumbed the very depths of emotional playing. The final presto was ephemeral, fleeting and eerie." The Advertiser echoed: "I have never heard a reading to touch it, often as it is played. Technical equipment and conception of the first and last movement were what we have been waiting for. Beyond even these dizzy heights soared his Scherzo and his Funeral March … The Scherzo was never so strong and compelling and he roamed at will through the sunlit fields of its trio. From the march, the minor section of which is terrific in its hopelessness, the cantilena shone like a pure star. The song and the background were the limit of beauty."
In the postwar period, Spivakovsky mentored younger pianists including William Kapell, Julius Katchen and Shura Cherkassky and guided many others such as Simon Barere, Joseph Seiger and Paul Badura-Skoda. During his tours of Australia in the late Forties and early Fifties, Kapell often visited Spivakovsky at his riverside mansion in Melbourne and they developed a strong rapport. Kapell would practise on the pianos, paint on the riverbank and ask the maestro all manner of questions regarding musical interpretation and performance. During his tour in 1953, he also sought advice on how to handle the Australian critics, some of whom had been shockingly critical of his performances.
After a particularly stinging review by the chief music critic for a leading Australian newspaper, Spivakovsky telephoned the author to offer his opinion that Kapell was a very fine artist and the critiques were overly harsh. However the author was adamant in his views, leading Spivakovsky to recommend a different strategy. He advised Kapell that because it was well known that this critic would often quietly leave concerts during the interval, he should change one of the pieces in the second half of the programme at his next Sydney concert, informing the audience of the change after the interval. Kapell initially protested "But Jascha, you can’t do that!" however became convinced after Spivakovsky calmly explained how to proceed. After the concert, a furore erupted in Australian musical circles, when it emerged the critic had unfavourably reviewed the piece Kapell substituted out of the programme.
Kapell spent the last day of this tour with the Spivakovsky family, at one point surprising Jascha's son by displaying his palm and prophetically stating: "See my life-line stops halfway. I shouldn't be here." Then through the night until daybreak, Kapell and Spivakovsky took turns playing different works and discussing music. When the maestro played the third movement of Chopin's Funeral March sonata, his young American companion stated with reverence: "Aww Jascha, that's beautiful! You're a poet." Prior to boarding his tragically ill-fated return flight to San Francisco, Kapell voiced his displeasure with Australian critics to a throng of press reporters at the airport: "Much of what is written here is uninformed, false and malicious … This is goodbye forever. I shall never return. I mean what I say."
There is wonderful stuff here, including a magisterial reading of the Bach-Busoni, grandly paced, and glowing with that “golden age” sonority
Pristine’s reissues of these recordings of this Russian-born pianist (volume three, featuring Beethoven sonatas, is on the way) are creating a bit of a stir among pianophiles, especially those with an interest in historic performances. More than a few respected critics are hailing Spivakovsky as a heretofore unknown giant of the keyboard, taking his place alongside Horowitz, Richter, Argerich, and so on. Fanfare critics Colin Clarke and Jim Svejda both offered high praise, with qualifications, for Volume 1.
As both of my colleagues have pointed out, these are not commercial recordings, but rather homemade ones by his son, in post-World War II Australia, where Spivakovsky spent most of life. His biography is tragic in many ways, but also heroic in a made-for-Hollywood kind of way. He was born in 1896 in Kiev to a legendary family of Jewish musicians, and barely survived the Odessa pogrom of 1905. Despite his early fame as a prodigy, his family decided to flee the virulent anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia and landed in Berlin, where Spivakovsky continued his education at the highest level. As a mature soloist, he performed with such podium masters as Furtwängler, Strauss, Knappertsbusch, Szell, and Monteux. In 1937, for the second time in his life, he escaped persecution with bullets flying over his head. He became a proud Australian citizen in 1938, where he died in 1970.
Here’s the rub; for reasons unknown, he did not make recordings. These three CDs may constitute his only legacy. It’s puzzling; it is true that Australia did not have much of a recording industry at the time, but he continued to concertize regularly after the war, with visits to Europe and America, including a Carnegie Hall recital. One would assume that as a major performer he had some kind of agent representing him. Was he afraid of the microphone? We may never know.
Svejda concludes that we cannot judge Spivakovsky’s place in piano history on the basis of these handful of amateur recordings, and I have to agree. There is wonderful stuff here, including a magisterial reading of the Bach-Busoni, grandly paced, and glowing with that “golden age” sonority (kudos to Pristine restoration maestro Andrew Rose for extracting that from the original tapes). The Mozart is buoyant and brilliant, the Beethoven confident and richly voiced. I was not bowled over by this Chopin, however, beginning with an overly brusque Fantaisie-Impromptu. The sonata opens oddly, with an overly broad tempo and lurching rhythms. Once he settles down, this is very strong, recalling the freedom and imagination of Rachmaninoff’s fabled recording.
So, we have here a glimmer of artistic greatness, and an incredible story. Maybe Spivakovsky was one of the greatest pianists in history, but unless a new trove of undiscovered recordings comes to light, there is simply not enough evidence here to substantiate such a grandiose claim. I would certainly look forward to the movie biography, however.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:5 (May/June 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.