I wrote earlier about seeing Gregor Piatigorsky perform in 1975 at Carnegie Hall, when I witnessed an artist technically on the far side of his peak but with a command of the music that only comes from a lifetime of study. When you see him in the short film he made in the early ’50s, when you get beyond its goofy plot about a dizzy-blonde TV hostess trying to discover the “real” Piatigorsky, you see a charismatic artist in total command of his instrument.
In his prime, he was considered second only to Pablo Casals in terms of talent and appeal. Although both would be considered romantic players today, Casals was a throwback to 19th-century romanticism, while Piatigorsky’s playing is tuned to the new angularities of 20th-century sounds.
He urged both a concerto and a sonata from Hindemith, himself a violist. The concerto’s 1941 premiere took place at Tanglewood to great acclaim, but Piatigorsky never commercially recorded the piece.
And therein lies one of the legacy problems. As memories like mine fade away, all we have left are the recordings. “Piatigorsky was never in love with the recording studio,” writes his biographer (and former student), Terry King, in the notes to an important six-CD (and one-DVD) collection on the West Hill label. “(He) preferred playing to live audiences. It is therefore fortunate that air check recordings of some of his concerts have survived.”
Among the works included in this set are broadcast performances of concertos by Schumann, Elgar and, thankfully, Hindemith, the last-named with the composer conducting. Each of them burns with spark of live performances.
There’s also a 1955 aircheck of Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote” with former Toscanini cellist Alfred Wallenstein conducting the LA Philharmonic. This was a work Piatigorsky played with all his soul, and to the best possible acclaim. He was scheduled to play the piece in 1931 with an orchestra in Frankfurt-am-Main. When he arrived for rehearsal, he was shocked to see Strauss himself on the podium. “He was the last person I expected to be the conductor,” the cellist wrote in his autobiography. “I was very nervous. I had played (‘Quixote’) before, but was it the way the composer wanted it to be? After the big solo variation in D minor there was a heavy silence. I didn't dare to look up at Strauss. ‘Why doesn't he go on into the next variation?’ I thought anxiously. Finally he said, ‘I have heard my “Don Quixote” as I thought him to be.’”
Piatigorsky’s commercial recordings with orchestra include two Dvořáks (with Ormandy and with Munch), two Brahms Doubles (Milstein, Heifetz), Walton, Bloch, Strauss, Saint-Saëns, and not much more. Before moving to the U.S., he made some recordings for HMV that included sonatas by Brahms and Beethoven (both included in this set); his first stateside label was Columbia, for which he recorded sporadically and unhappily for a decade, and then RCA.
He kicked off his association with that label with the “Million-Dollar Trio” recordings of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Ravel with Rubinstein and Heifetz (or, as the latter would have preferred, Heifetz and Rubinstein). He went on to record sonatas by Bach, Prokofiev, Barber, Hindemith, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Prokofiev, Strauss, and others, none of which remain in print on that label, if they even were released at all. Testament, in the U.K., has put out a handful of them – and it also released the set of all five Beethoven sonatas Piatigorsky recorded in England with Solomon in 1954, another recent rediscovery of mine.
These really should set the standard for the Beethoven sonatas. The partnership is stunning, revealing piece by piece a wealth of detail even as the artists put a stamp on the pieces free of the current fad of over-interpretation. (Also included is the Brahms Sonata No. 1 with Rubinstein from 1936, which finds both artists in a more agitated place than in their 1966 remake, which included the Sonata No.2 – now only available as part of a complete Rubinstein set.)
Where we find the majority of in-print Piatigorsky recordings are in his collaborations with Heifetz. As the far end of the hyphen in the Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts, he sometimes seemed like a second fiddle. It used to be fashionable to denigrate Heifetz’s performances as cold and mechanical, a lot of faddish nonsense inadvertently provoked by an Alexander Woollcott article in the 1930s and promoted by that most self-important and snotty of critics, Virgil Thomson.
You can argue with Heifetz’s interpretive approach, but you can’t fault his tone or emotion. Very much in print is the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Brahms Double, with Wallenstein conducting, a burn-ass version that makes, for me, the definitive statement.
They recorded all of Beethoven’s works for string trio with William Primrose and two of the piano trios. Avoiding what was then the mainstream chamber repertory, they gave us the Franck Quintet and the Schubert Cello Quintet, the Mendelssohn’s Octet and both piano trios, a Francaix Trio, a Martinu duo, a cranky divertimento by Toch, and works by Mozart, Dvořák, Brahms, Stravinsky – the list goes on and on.
With the release last year of the Heifetz Complete Album Collection (now out of print but not hard to find, for a price), Piatigorsky’s arrangement and recording of a suite of movements from Haydn’s barytone trios made its CD debut, with Heifetz as concertmaster – a favor Piatigorsky returned when he helmed the cello section for a conductorless Heifetz recording of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.
All of which is a wonderful record of Piatigorsky as collaborator – and he collaborated with all of the best over the years – but to appreciate his peerless approach to the instrument, you need to dig for (and pay a premium for) his recordings. The West Hill set isn’t for sale in the U.S., not that that need dismay anyone in the internet age.
Piatigorsky retains a core of enthusiastic fans, as an annual festival in his name attests. To return his name and reputation to the general classical-music public, whatever that entity entails, probably requires a comprehensive CD set that would fall under Sony’s purview: they own the Columbia and RCA recordings, among which is a treasure-trove of unreleased stuff. But I’m sure they’d argue that there aren’t enough potential buyers out there to warrant the work on what might be the only vehicle to inspire those potentials to buy.
But let’s finish on a lighter note, again excerpted from Piatigorsky’s autobiography, Cellist.
NERVOUSNESS experienced on facing an audience has many names. In German it is Lampenfieber, in Russian volnenie, trac in French, and in English stage fright. ... (It) can be contagious. Maestro Toscanini, one night before we appeared together, paced the dressing room in which I practiced, warming up for the concert. His quick steps, his grunting and swearing to himself did little for my morale. I tried not to pay attention to him and to concentrate on my fingers and cello, but who could ignore Maestro? For a moment I stopped playing. Toscanini stopped too. He looked at me and said, “You are no good; I am no good” took a deep breath, and began pacing again. I practiced, repeating passages frantically, and wished that I had died as a baby. After a while there was his terrible verdict again.
“Please, Maestro,” I begged. “I will be a complete wreck.” He was called to begin the concert and after the short overture he said to me in the wings just before we walked on-stage, “We are no good, but the others are worse. Come on, caro, let's go.”