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Pianos and Pianists - Consultant Editor Ates Orga

The First American Pianist




Part 2



circa 1967

A Busoni, the intellectual-virtuoso type of artist, could do justice to works like [Liszt's] B minor Sonata, the Transcendental Studies or the Norma Fantasy ... but judging by a few surviving recordings, even he failed in the Hungarian Rhapsodies [an acoustic London Columbia of No 13, abridged, dates from February 27th 1922 (L 1456)]. Here eloquence, red-hot intensity, go hand in hand with a looseness, a making-it-up-as-you-go-along style that perhaps only Gypsies from Hungary (and probably Liszt himself) could so elegantly beguile our ears with, and which is within the powers of only very few living musicians. Fiery temperament, a deadly rhythmic urge, and above all, animal warmth - these things cannot be learned, one must be born with them.

The German language has a subtle distinction unknown to English: a 'Musiker' is simply a musician (he could be a composer, conductor, instrumentalist or singer); a 'Musikant', however, is one who is not, strictly speaking, a concert artist but more like an entertainer mainly concerned with the lighter kind of music, a player in a band, a Gypsy fiddler, a bar pianist - all these come under the heading 'Musikant'. Not using the term in any pejorative sense, it could mean a musician not spoilt by too much erudition (or too little knowledge), ardent, instinctive, earthy, untamed, a savage with savage rhythm still in his blood, and a natural-born aptitude for his instrument - the Hungarian Gypsy or the Negro jazz player for instant - the naturalistic yet sophisticate 'Musikant'. Now, if all Musiker had a little of the Musikant in their make-up, the world of music would be a better place to live in. Every serious musician should be able to turn himself into a Gypsy, if only the short time it takes to play a Hungarian rhapsody by Liszt. For this is the territory of the Gypsy par excellence. Then he will know intuitively what Liszt meant by 'tempo rubato' or 'quasi recitativo'; he will know that bar lines are not important events in the life of a piece of music to be triumphantly demonstrated by vicious and unnecessary accents, but merely facilities for reading, accents being a means of expression, only to be used as such (and very often in opposition to the beat); that 'fast' and 'slow' are relative terms dependent on musical judgement, not on the sporting standard of what is physically possible - all this and a lot more. The younger generation of talented pianists might be reminded that speed itself does not constitute virtuosity, and that sometimes it is more difficult to play slower rather than faster, as well as less boring to hear...

... Nothing, no amount of erudition or devotion to the cause, can compensate for the absence of instinct ['the bottom of creation [likewise] re-creation'].

- Louis Kentner, 'The Interpretation of Liszt's Piano Music' in Alan Walker (ed), Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music (London 1970)


Ediorial Note Original spellings have been retained throughout, including lower- and upper-case distinctions. In those portions of their accounts not quoted, Starkie and Kentner include useful musical transcriptions. Starkie's book - subtitled 'Adventures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania' - is a classic account (he succeeded Augustus John as President of the Gypsy Lore Society). For the matter of gypsy music, distinct from the manner of gypsy playing, see Béla Bártok Essays ed Benjamin Suchoff (Lincoln & London 1976), a copious source. A more general historical and sociological reference is Jean-Paul Clébert, The Gypsies (Paris 1961; English translation, London 1963), in particular Chapter 3. AO





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