Blast from the Past: Benno Moiseiwitsch

It has been said that the past is like a foreign country -- they do things differently there. I guess one reason I love dipping into the past is because they made music differently there, too.

The hard-to-define concept called style can be heard instantly and affectingly in so many artists from the old days; music becomes a whole new experience in their hands or vocies. Contemporary performers would do well to explore the legacy of all that style, a legacy that is readily available on disc and, often, video. (I think the coolest thing about YouTube is how much of this prized classical trove gets posted there. Such treasures may not be as easy to find as that Adam Lambert video everyone is -- yawn -- talking about, but they're sure worth hunting.)

For this week's blast from the musical past, I thought of Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963). You don't hear his name too much nowadays, outside of the most ardent piano buffs, yet he was undeniably one of the true greats.

He had an amazing artistry, nowhere more evident than in his recording of Rachmaninoff's transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Even Rachmaninoff was said to be greatly impressed with Moiseiwitsch's performance of the piece, and no wonder. The articulation, miraculously, achieves nearly as much of an the elfin quality as an orchestra's strings can in the Mendelssohn original. But it's not just a demonstration of technical control. Moiseiwitsch adds irresisitible charm, elegance, coloring, atmosphere -- in a word, style.

As an extra treat, I've also included a video clip of the pianist in his late years playing a Rachmaninoff prelude with typical, understated eloquence:

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