May 5, 2000
For the first time, I felt confronted by the fact that we do indeed live in another century. One has to cope with this, but always try not to lose contact with the values of the past. Otherwise, one had better commit suicide.
A piano recital by the Czech pianist Ivan Moravec at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall provoked these thoughts, even if this evening - an unforgettable musical experience - will be with me for the rest of my life. Sadly, the hall was half empty and I suddenly realised, more than ever before, how fragile a broad acceptance of artistic truth has become: the money oriented advertising machinery of the big recording companies now dictates whom we have to hear. On the other hand, I feel that audiences are often not capable of listening any more; instead, they want to be entertained, want to watch and be excited. Nowadays, the more extrovert, noisy and virtuoso (for its own sake) a pianist mistreats his instrument and the music, all the more the audience will adore his appearance and will follow him in the future.
The 70 year old Ivan Moravec has consciously avoided stardom and marketing with the result that he is virtually unknown to the public and to many critics. But with Michelangeli or Richter, Gilels or Arrau, Serkin or Cherkassky no longer with us, one would have thought that the Philips edition, Great Pianists of the 20th Century, where he is rightly included, should have changed the picture. Moravec, who also studied with Michelangeli, remains not only the last pianist of the great tradition of the past century, but his “compelling concentration on the poetic essence of the music” fulfils its culmination. He belongs to a dying breed of pianists, who devote their entire life to their instrument as well as to teaching. His self-criticism is well known and it can take years until he presents his interpretation of a specific work to an audience. The result is ultimate perfection, whereby technique is only one tool for the many facets of his insight into a composition. I have never experienced such pedalling - sustaining specific important harmonies, while a new theme already develops. “Whenever I can combine sound to achieve tremendously long sonorities, I do it. It is hard to put into words, what I try to achieve with piano colour. Perhaps, I could say that a certain sound medium provokes a feeling of different space”, Moravec explained in an interview with Joseph Horovitz. His inner ear is developed to the highest possible degree; to quote from the excellent article by Donald Manildi in the booklet of the Philips Edition: “If one hears the music inwardly with a clear, intense(aural) image, the pianist can compel his hand to produce the appropriate sound. Generally, I produce the tone by using the weight of my arm. The tone does not come out as I want if I use only the fingers.” Like Maxim Vengerov's violin sound, Moravec's piano sound is unsurpassed.
Contrary to the Mozart as advertised, Moravec started the first half of his recital with Haydn (Hob XVI:37), followed by Janácek (1.X.1905 Z ulice (From the street) and V mlhách (In the Mists). The way he entered the stage, bowing friendlily, and with a distinguished restraint to the audience, far away from the grand, he distanced himself as a person from the instrument and showed one characteristic difference between him and most other pianists.
The moment he had crossed the border between himself and the grand he sat down and started playing Haydn immediately without any kind of inner preparation. He showed no body movement - his fingers hardly moved, nor his arms - but out of the grand the sound emerged in the most refined, even singing, way. One got the feeling that it was not Moravec at all who played. Again, I have to quote an interview sentence from the Philips booklet, which exactly describes my observation. “The ideal mental or inner position of a player is to play as somebody else would play for you. You must always float in the music, where the technique, the instrument and your own mistakes don´t disturb you. I believe, in this sense, that something very valuable can happen occasionally on the platform, if everything goes freely, with no obstacles and without too much forcing of your will, because if the will aspect is felt too much, it´s a little bit in the way of - let´s say the word - a free inspiration. If a player is well prepared and has no physical aches, and if there aren´t too many coughs from the public, something which had never occurred to him can come as a small lightning in the evening. Every player craves for that.”
Sadly, the whole evening brought far too many disturbing coughs from the audience, but the lightning had already started with Haydn. The brilliant echo effects at the beginning of the first movement, the sonority of the chords in the Largo and the bubbling innocentemente of the Finale: Presto, ma non troppo - this was pure, crystal clear music without the slightest hint about the pianist. Janácek´s From the street, a programmatic work based on the death of a young student while demonstrating for a Czech University in Janácek´s home town Brno, has never moved me more deeply. Moravec wrote in his program introduction: “It is Janácek´s most dramatic and tragic Premonition and Death. Death is written in such a highly individual way that in most performances the listener gets confused about Janácek´s rhythmical structure. It is a piece that has to be played with meticulous respect to Janácek´s timing. Expression can be achieved only by variations of tone and intensity of feeling.” The five tone motive of the death movement in its constant variations felt like a warning to be aware of the danger of political interference. Nor have I ever heard In the mists played with such clarity and utmost sensibility.
After the interval, the audience witnessed the most honest and breathtaking reading of Chopin´s 24 Preludes, op 28. Twenty Four diamonds, small and beautifully cut, or bigger and roughly cut, left an eternal impression, a constant lightning of beauty and magnetism. Two recordings (Connoisseur Society and Supraphon) and a lifelong analysis not only of those diamonds, but of Chopin´s entire oeuvre, made this totally unexpected musical wonder happen. Moravec´s fortissimo never sounds noisy or brutal - more like a fulfilled forte without any force - while his pianissimo seems to come from another planet - pure and distant. To be able to try to come close to Chopin´s intentions one has to know about belcanto - Moravec´s first love had been Caruso - but one also has to dig deep into a lost world of style and sensitive emotions. It is not without reason that Ivan Moravec is considered one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of the 20th - and now the 21st century.