Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman

Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Emanuel Ax and Bronfman

Eugene Istomin devoted the first episode of the Great Conversations in Music which he hosted at the Library of Congress to the pianists. In December 2001, he brought together the most prestigious panel of American pianists whom one could ever dream of: three musicians of his generation, his old friends Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, as well as Charles Rosen – not only a respected pianist but also an eminent musicologist; and two outstanding musicians of the next generation, to whom he had given some lessons: Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman.
Their very friendly conversation dwelt on the eternal great questions: vocation, roots, the relationship with the composer, the passing down of knowledge, interpretation, tone…
This conversation is available on the Library of Congress website. The following is a summary, as accurate as possible, of what was said in the very friendly but intense conversations.

To stimulate the discussion, Eugene Istomin brought the manuscripts of the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto and the Beethoven Sonata Opus 109, which are carefully preserved by the Library of Congress.

The Early Years

Leon Fleisher at 7 or 8

Istomin : What made you begin to play the piano? What made you determined to make this your life?

Rosen: You become a pianist if there is nothing else that interests you more!

Fleisher: I am amazed to realize that most pianists start playing the piano at four or five. It is probably a matter of neuromuscular connections that need to be developed at that age. So did I, and I kept going because I loved it. Anyway, I had a limited choice: I had to be either the first Jewish president of the United States or a great pianist!

Graffman: I started as a violinist at the age of three, but my father found that I had no talent for the violin, so I took up an easier instrument (as string players consider the piano). I was four years old.

Ax: I was a very late starter- I was seven! It may be the reason why I still have a lot of problems playing the piano! I have a question in return: How can pianists start so young, at four years old, with such small hands? String instrumentalists start with instruments of their own size. Not the pianists! How could you do it?

Fleisher: We look a little bit like chimpanzees!

Yefim Bronfman

Bronfman: I also started quite late, at seven, and I didn’t choose the piano. I was living in the Soviet Union and I was doing what I was told to do. My mother was my first teacher. Our big challenge was to get recordings from the West, we were fascinated.

Istomin: I was lulled by my parents’ singing. I disagreed when my father played the guitar badly. My ear was protesting. One day, we got an upright piano. I was obsessed with the instrument and the desire to find the right accompaniment for my parents’ songs. Very quickly, I had no doubt that I would become a musician.

Ax: For very young pianists, the fact to be good at it compels them and makes them think that they love it, and they do not really make the decision to become a pianist.

Istomin: Yes, but music must hit you in the stomach, and it doesn’t happen to everyone, even the very gifted! Music is a language that does not speak to everyone. Some people hear it and understand the meaning of the combination of notes. People who don’t have talent can’t.


Gary Graffman taking a lesson with Isabelle Vengerova at the Curtis

Istomin: Everybody has roots, through his parents or teachers, either Russian, German or French, or whatever… What about each of you?

Graffman: We would not have come here if there had not been the Russian revolution and Adolf Hitler.

Istomin: At first, it was inconceivable to American critics, and to others as well, that American pianists could have the refinement and musical depth of European pianists. The technique, yes! But not the musicality. Is there a style, an American piano school? For me, it is the school of excellence and the synthesis of the influence of the greatest performers of the first half of the 20th century – Toscanini, Casals, Rachmaninoff, Heifetz…

Charles Rosen

Ax: Today, it is very difficult to talk about national schools! The world is getting smaller and smaller. The emigrations of the 1920s and 1930s completely changed the geography of the musical world! Because, in fact, the young Americans who studied from WW II are the ones who were able to really be in touch with the highest tradition.

Rosen: In our time, it was rewarding for emigrants to succeed in music. The transference from Europe to America of intellectuals in the 1930s happened not only in music, but also in science! In music, it is necessary to add musicology and composition. Even today, America still attracts young talents and teachers from Europe, whereas before it was the opposite. And many Koreans and Chinese come to us to absorb this tradition.


Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher

Istomin: What are the obligations of performers in relation to composers?

Fleisher: There’s been an amazing evolution. In the 19th century, the composer and the performer were one. At the end of the 19th century, and for much of the 20th century, this was no longer the case. At that time, the performers shamelessly used the composers as a vehicle of their success. Today, we have returned to integrity to the composer. Toscanini and Schnabel are the main ones who were responsible for restoring compliance with the text. Their influence on all of us is inestimable!

Arthur Rubinstein ca 1945

Debate between Istomin and Ax: Was Rubinstein a performer who respected the text and the spirit of the works? Istomin doubts it. Ax points out that before him Chopin was played with such excesses of freedom that Rubinstein revolutionized Chopin’s interpretation by his respect for the score. Istomin then sits down at the piano to clarify this point. He confides that Rubinstein was his first love. He identified with him, pretended to play while listening to his 78-rpm records, and tried to imitate his rubato and fioritures in Chopin’s Concerto in E minor. Istomin goes to the piano and plays the beginning of the Appassionata the way Rubinstein played it and says: “It sounded like the beginning of a Polonaise by Chopin, and that is really not respecting the integrity of a composer.”

Artur Schnabel

Rosen: Yes, Schnabel played an important role, but there are others. Hoffman made very few rubatos and was very faithful to the text. In a way, it started with Liszt who indulged in arranging and appropriating other people’s music, changing tempos and text, even in the Hammerklavier. I remember playing the Brahms Handel Variations for Moritz Rosenthal who had known Brahms well. He asked me why I was playing a certain variation faster. I replied, “It’s noted poco piu mosso”. Rosenthal looked at it and said: “Brahms let me play his music any way I liked, but you’re right, I probably abused that privilege. Let’s return to the text!”

Fleisher: Schnabel believed that the performer is often a barrier between the work and the listener. The interpreter believes that the more intentions he adds to his playing, the more the listener will be touched, but that is not true at all.

Istomin: Many pianists give more to see their interpretation than to hear it: “Look how deeply I feel the emotions of this work!” And often there’s not much going on in their playing.

Emanuel Ax as a young pianist

Ax: Despite everything, when I was young and heard Horowitz or Serkin live, the visual effect was important. I was struck when I went to listen to Serkin, by the way he showed, almost unintentionally, his emotions. By contrast, when I saw Horowitz, with his unbelievable range of color and dynamics, what was very striking is that he did not move. When he returned to the stage, which I never dared to expect, I could attend his recital at Carnegie Hall. In the Bach-Busoni Toccata in C, he went from pianissimo to fortissimo without showing anything through his attitude or movements. And that was also a great visual excitement!

Ax takes up the triangle of composer-performer-listener: We definitely underplay what listeners can bring to the concert. Of course, some are more educated and better prepared to enjoy the concert. But let’s not forget that the whole audience brings a lot of receptivity, energy, and imagination.


Rachmaninoff at the time he began writing his Fourth Concerto

Istomin presents the original handwritten version of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto, composed in the early 1920s and premiered in Berlin in 1928. He then shows the revised version, published by Editions Taira in Paris, his own publishing house named after the first letters of his two daughters’ names, Tatiana and Irina.

Istomin: No one wanted to publish this concerto, and RCA didn’t want to record it. Charles O’ Connell, the director of RCA Victor, refused, and finally proposed to record a run through of the concerto, without any rehearsal! Just a run through! A fantastic achievement for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy. O’ Connell also refused to record Rachmaninoff’s works for two pianos performed by Horowitz and Rachmaninoff!

Istomin asks all the participants, particularly Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, because they are very well-known teachers: “What do you want to do with your pupils? »

Graffman: Teaching must be done on a one-to-one basis. We receive students with very different qualities and must adapt to them. When I played for Horowitz (and I played a lot for him!), he never sat down at the piano to show me how he would do what I was doing. He imagined what I was looking for and couldn’t achieve, and he discussed that with me. Then he played a lot for me, and, of course, I tried to do things a little like him, but with the awareness that there is not only one right way to play.

Gary Graffman and Emanuel Ax

Bronfman: The best thing a teacher can give is the desire to play that music in the future. I attended some master classes with famous pianists. The classes were brilliant, but I came out discouraged, thinking that I would never play this sonata, that I would never be able to meet the requirements of this work.

Ax (looking at the original manuscript of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 109): It is such an emotion to touch a Beethoven manuscript! It’s fantastic for a pianist. String players play instruments steeped in history, not us! For us, the question is how from this manuscript, we can make the music emerge as it should sound.

Fleisher: I still remember Schnabel, playing the slow movement of the Mozart Concerto K. 467 during a rehearsal in Chicago. It was an incredible emotion, a mystical experience, the discovery of the very essence of music. It has guided my whole life.

Ax: Yes, but when the music really doesn’t come out as it should, what do we do? What do we work on?

Fleisher: Making music is something extraordinary. We have to be three people at the same time. There is A who before playing, can hear what to do. There is B who plays, and who is perfectly aware of what comes out of the piano. And there is C, who knows what A would like, what B is doing, and therefore tells B what to change. A good musician is necessarily schizophrenic. When it works, it’s ecstasy… Otherwise it’s very unsatisfactory!


Eugene Istomin

Ax: There is often a misconception. Some people think that there are pianists who just play what is written, and others who “interpret” and do not follow exactly the text.

Istomin: I only wanted to play works I was totally in love with. The composer and I were going to be one! And then, the idea of doing something in this piece that contradicts what the composer had wanted seemed inconceivable to me. I felt responsible for the work and it is a very stressful feeling, even after you have performed the work many times.

Rosen: Actually, we start by putting our fingers on it and then we react to what the fingers propose. What is fascinating is that we have to stick to the score and make it into something very imaginative. Sometimes it sounds completely new, and we do things that are not written. My greatest mystical listening experience was hearing Solomon play a prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier (the one in C minor in the 2nd Book) with absolute clarity and legibility. He didn’t underline the voices or the entries. There was just the readability, the perfect transparency. I worked like hell to try to do the same.

Fleisher: Looking at the page is already an interpretation. The way you read what is written, what is important or not, the relationships between the notes. The great challenge of written music is that all the notes are in black! We have choices and decisions to make all the time.

Graffman: My guide is the score; every time we look at it again, we find new information! And then, when Schnabel or Serkin saw pianissimo or appassionato indications, they each wanted to follow them rigorously, but the result could be very different.

Rosen: Beethoven had demanded that his publisher correct the printing errors on the Scherzo of the Hammerklavier Sonata. And then two days later, Beethoven apologized, and said that he had thought about it and that he had to keep what was printed. In fact it was probably badly printed, but when he played, he realized that it was better like that! The first person who wanted his music to really be played exactly as it was written was Beethoven. His predecessors didn’t care.


Istomin playing Rachmaninoff for his colleagues

Istomin: For me, the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto is an extremely moving work. Of course, it is underrated, wrongly! I have a special affection for it because it describes the transition from an ancient world to a new one, a tragic journey.

Bronfman: Why isn’t it more popular?

Istomin: People say that it’s cocktail music. It is true, but it’s so sublime. Its harmonic richness is infinitely subtle. (He goes to the piano and plays an excerpt from the Concerto).

Istomin: What is tone? Actually it says everything about the value of a player.

Fleisher: Isn’t tone dictated by the piece you’re playing? Is there an abstract tone?

Gary Graffman

Istomin: It is sometimes said that pianists have a beautiful tone, as one might say about a singer that he has a beautiful timbre! Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubinstein, each had a very recognizable tone.

Fleisher in discussion with Ax about Horowitz’s flat fingers: You have to think that when you keep your fingers flat, you can play much faster because there is no time for flexing then extending your fingers.

Graffman: We try to play the piano as if it were not a percussion instrument. There are pianos that can keep the sound longer, and that’s what interests me when I choose a piano. It is an accident in the construction of the instrument. What interests us is the passage from one note to another, in its resonance…

Rosen: That’s the secret to a great sound. The attack of the note is essential. For most people, having a beautiful tone means bringing out the melody and using the pedal. This is true for some composers, but when you play different composers, you need different sounds, otherwise it makes no sense.

Fleisher: Music, by definition, is horizontal, and the piano is an instrument that is played absolutely vertically!

Istomin: The substitution of fingers on the note to keep it resonating and give the illusion of legato, is this useful?

Rosen, Fleisher, Graffman, Ax and Istomin in Conversation 

Graffman: Horowitz told me: “Think of the human voice! Imagine how you could sing that.” And a few months later, Serkin told me in Marlboro: “Think of a wind instrument! »

Fleisher: It’s like string instruments. When you play with the bow going up or down, there shouldn’t be any difference, but in fact there is one!

Rosen: In fact, it’s the impression of legato that is important, you don’t need to really do it with the fingers. It must happen in the head of the one who plays and in the one who listens.


This conversation can be downloaded for free on the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200031106