Artist, intellect and consummate musician, Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) ranks as one of the titans in the history of pianism. Along with Ignaz Friedman, Ferruccio Busoni, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann, Rosenthal possessed an astonishing technique which remained subservient to his exquisite sense of taste and musical brilliance. Rosenthal's background is formidable; his having been a favored pupil of Liszt, friend and colleague of Brahms, Johann Strauss, Anton Rubinstein, von B¸low, Saint Saens, Massenet and Albeniz is in part responsible for these musically profound recordings. That such an historic figure could be so irresponsibly overlooked and ignored by musicologists and scholars both of his time and ours is shocking when one considers that a sizeable part of his invaluable recollections have become irretrievably lost, all thanks to the miniscule priorities of numerous great academicians.
Rather than embark on an analysis of his playing, priority is given to Rosenthal's own writing, including an attempted autobiography (unpublished). Readers will soon note his gift for writing and how regrettable it is that this project was unfinished (the ms. is in the library of the Mannes College of Music, New York.)
The occasional interviews he gave further document his extraordinary life. Rosenthal described his two years with Chopin's pupil Mikuli, the origin of the unique legato heard on these discs, a genuine link to Chopin's own playing.
"Mikuli had the Chopin traditions of touch and legato playing, of phrasing and of interpretation as far as a talent can understand a genius. Chopin, in his teaching, insisted on a perfect legato. We know that a pure legato is one of the touchstones of all legitimate piano technic and is something that every good pianist should try to acquire. Mikuli was very careful, very thorough in giving me a good foundation and in requiring me to cultivate the pure legato touch. I worked very industriously at my musical studies and was able to make my debut as a youthful pianist in Chopin's Rondo for Two Pianos in which Mikuli played with me.
"In the meantime, I heard Joseffy and was fascinated by his playing." The autobiographical manuscript tells of his desire to study with Joseffy:
"To get to know Joseffy, to play for him despite the threatening anger of my teacher Mikuli, to ask him for instruction or even some fingering seemed to me and my father a highly risky affair. Fortunately, we were acquainted with a wealthy violin dilettante named Diamant. He knew how to act in this situation in that he invited Joseffy and us to a festive lunch. He let me drink a glass of champagne and then asked me jokingly whether I would still risk playing the first C major Fugue of the Well Tempered Clavier by heart. I offered to try at once. Joseffy listened intensely and seemed surprised. . . He tested my ear, let me read at sight and finally told my father: 'Send me the youngster for six months to Vienna and the Viennese will fall over backwards.' The thought however of Mikuli as well as the painful separation from home held us back for the time being from this step of great consequences."
Mikuli's summer vacation provided the chance for Rosenthal's father to send him on to Vienna. The 22 year old Joseffy was about to leave for holiday himself, when he suggested they rush over to the one available teacher left in Vienna, Joseph Dachs, a Tausig pupil who had taught de Pachmann. Dachs "agreed with Joseffy concerning my talent but said that in scales I'm not at the desired level. As an essential remedy he prescribed for me four hours of them daily and then as a diversion, one hour of Louis Plaidy's finger exercises. Brahms once told me ironically as he spoke of his own fingering exercises: 'I'm swimming in melodies' and surely they were compared with my Plaidy." Rosenthal called this task a "scales inferno . . . that highly paid off in my case" but warned about "the 'usefulness' of a lifelong study of scales. To overdo scales is actually damaging to the pianist."
At this time Rosenthal's intellectual development began: "Heine and Byron were the spiritual nourishments which I drew from the library of my lodgings. Less satisfying was the physical nourishment which I got there. But despite these powerful awakenings of interest in a number of subjects- music and the piano always came to the surface of one's awareness and hammered more and more urgently at one's brain and heart."
Joseffy finally returned. "On a wonderful autumn day, October 4th, 1875" Rosenthal knocked in vain on Joseffy's door. A bribed concierge revealed that the Professor was playing billiards, a twenty minute walk away. "I got there just at the time to watch the exceedingly artistic masses of shots which my future teacher executed above the green billiard felt. I looked proudly after each shot at the kibitzers and on one such occasion he discovered me, the forgotten pupil and champion of Hummel's F sharp minor Sonata. His first words were 'So you're interested in billiards? Then you may watch, but sit down.' Now it was a puzzle to me how I should sit down when all the seats were occupied by fanatic kibitzers but I was speechless from amazement when Joseffy aggressively called to a young man 'Don't you know that the boy is my best student - get up and give him your place you jackass!' "
Lessons began that evening: "Joseffy told me that I should feel proud to be permitted to play the F sharp minor of Hummel. Tausig, whom Joseffy revered and with whom he studied with for two years, only permitted his students on the highest level to play the very difficult piece." After a few months, "the idea of a recital before the Viennese public came up. The program Joseffy chose for me was daring enough! The evening began with Chopin's F minor Concerto with Joseffy at the second piano, then followed by Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor. . . [Afterwards] the artists room hummed like a beehive. Joseffy entered, saw me in a very comfortable position on a sofa and called to me 'Well, you want to rest now for a couple of years from concertizing?' "
How did Mikuli and Joseffy compare? Rosenthal observed: " Whereas Mikuli had always insisted on the closest legato, the most exact connection of tones, Joseffy taught a half-staccato touch, which was quite the opposite. The former was smooth and flowing, the latter more scintillating and brilliant. Naturally this new manner of touch added a new aspect to my style of playing. Not that I entirely gave up my legato manner of playing, but I endeavored to cultivate also the detached, brilliant, delicate style of which my new teacher was such a master."
Getting up off the couch, the fourteen year old Rosenthal made his first tour in neighboring Romania, which, in his own words, "proved to be successful." Rosenthal was appointed court pianist by the Queen.
"My teachers, Karl Mikuli and later Rafael Joseffy, delighted my ear with their almost infinite dynamic range from piano to "pianissimo" and "pianississimo", but they left my thirst for big orchestral effects unquenched, which I sought, found and learned first when I was fourteen years old from the old thunderer in Weimar and Rome, Franz Liszt. But I learned more from him than mere piano playing. In spite of a sometimes surprising pedantry as to pianistic cleanness and accuracy, he saw all with the eye of the composer and made us feel the same way. These were unforgettable days at Weimar and Rome and we drank deeply from the intoxicating draughts the old wizard and alluring composer brewed for us."
During the hundredth anniversary of Liszt's birth in 1911, Rosenthal contributed an article "Franz Liszt, Memories and Reflections" to Die Musik in which he recalled his studies:
"In October of 1876, as a youngster of thirteen, I played for Franz Liszt during one of his frequent visits to the Schottenhof in Vienna, and I was admitted to his much envied entourage as perhaps the youngest of his disciples. At that time his highly promising evaluation sounded like words of magic which seemed to open wide the gates of the future and art, and I followed him, the great magician, to Weimar, Rome, and Tivoli, where he stayed at the Villa d'Este as a guest of Cardinal Hohenlohe." Among those with Liszt at the time and in the following years were, as Rosenthal listed them: Ansorge, Friedheim, Lutter, Reisenauer, Sauer, Siloti, Weingartner. "They were later joined by Lamond [Pearl CD 9911], Stavenhagen, and Thoman.
"In Tivoli, near Rome. . . I was fortunate to be his only student and to receive daily instruction in the fall of 1878. Every afternoon I appeared at the Villa d'Este, where I found the master composing either in his study or sometimes on the terrace, where he was gazing forlornly into the blue. The glowing Roman autumn, the picturesque beauty of the area, the Master's noble instruction - all these things blended into an ecstasy which I still feel today. "
Despite his youth, Rosenthal mastered the Paganini Variations of Brahms, one of his most celebrated interpretations. To the young Rosenthal, Liszt described Brahms as "not exciting and very hygienic." Rosenthal told an interviewer that Liszt "did not think that Brahms had much freshness of invention. He thought it was elaborate and artificial. He once told me he missed a certain excitement in the music of Brahms. He used the Latin word saluber - healthy, gesund - to describe it. He said ' It does not make you ill, it does not make you excited, it does not give you a fever.' To Liszt it was music of bourgeois contentment. Nevertheless, when I brought the Paganini variations to him soon afterwards, he praised their polyrhythm and said: 'They are better than my Paganini etudes; however, they were written much later and after knowing mine.'"
While Liszt's master classes had eager opportunists and mediocre talents, his private teaching was far from casual. "Liszt was great. There is no question about that. He could stir you up - in German we say anregen . Besides, he would interrupt you at any moment with a remark like this: 'Now look at this kind of bass, it is the first time that Chopin uses it.' Liszt would explain it all on an historical basis. He always showed what was going on in the music."
Even Liszt did not fully satisfy Rosenthal's curiosity: ". . . in spite of all these splendors I grew weary after seven years, like Tannhauser at the Venusberg. A new desire, a new thirst tormented me! I had heard Anton Rubinstein." The two met on a train bound for Pressburg (Bratislava) where Rubinstein was about to perform. Rosenthal had been tipped off by "my friend and guardian Ludwig Bosendorfer the Piano Mogul, as B¸low called him. Overjoyed, I . . . hurried home to rummage in the drawers of old desks until I found a letter of introduction addressed (in Cyrillic characters) 'To Anton Grigorievitch Rubinstein' and signed 'Ivan Turgenev'. I had met Turgenev, together with Saint SaÎns and Gounod, at the Paris home of that most musical of all singers, Mme. Pauline Viardot-Garcia, when I played for her as a so-called child- prodigy and brought her the compliments of Franz Liszt."
After retiring in his twenties to take a degree in philosophy from the University of Vienna, Rosenthal began a career lasting nearly six decades. His final years were spent in New York, as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna. Rosenthal lived at the Great Northern Hotel ("more Northern than Great!") and taught extensively. Among his pupils are Charles Rosen and the late Poldi Mildner and Robert Goldsand. Rosenthal suffered from Parkinson's disease in his last years, and passed away in 1946. A Polish critic writing on his centenary recalled Rosenthal's last recital in Poland: "one walked out of his concert spellbound, after hearing these things one could die." Referring to his own Strauss paraphrase, he adds "after him, no one would dare to play it in public. These interpretations would be lost with the death of the artist."
Fortunately, they and his historically vital Chopin playing were preserved. When Rosenthal began recording, his technique had diminished: no longer was he able to thunder in the manner of a young Horowitz. He instead focused on nuance and infinitesimal dynamic shadings. While we are unable to hear his playing from the early period, what has survived is astonishingly musical and unsurpassed. (A third CD is now in preparation, which will include some unpublished recordings by Rosenthal and excerpts from his unpublished writings on meetings with Brahms and Busoni.)
Equally hard to top was his wit. Rosenthal heard Horowitz's Vienna debut, playing Tchaikowsky's First Piano Concerto, in which he blazed through the octave passages: "He is an Octavian, but not Caesar." A colleague once played Rosenthal's arrangement of the Minute Waltz in thirds at a recital. The author later thanked the pianist "for the most enjoyable quarter of an hour of my life". A parting shot comes right from Rosenthal's typewriter, with his spelling unaltered: "Lampenfieber [stagefright] - the only lucid intervall in the artistic life."
© Allan Evans, 1996