Classical Music Guide Forum - Saturday, July 20, 2013 - Written by Donald Isler

Jed Distler Lecture

Jed Distler is an impressive and versatile composer and pianist. Also a highly regarded critic whose articles appear in Gramophone and, he is very knowledgeable about historic recordings of pianists, and the connection between composers and pianists is something he's thought about from at least several points of view.

For instance, he spoke of a work for toy piano which he wrote for Margaret Leng Tan, and which she recorded. At a later time he was to perform it himself, and took along her recording to rehearsals, to keep certain things in mind. Then, at one point, he said to himself "Wait a minute! I wrote that!" And he realized he was, of course, not bound by her way of playing it. (He also told a story of Rachmaninoff, in 1939, preparing to record his own D Minor Piano Concerto and asking what tempi Horowitz had used for his recording!)

In a very entertaining and easy-going manner Mr. Distler played excerpts of many recordings, and took some questions. To the question "Does a composer necessarily play his own music the best?" the answer seemed to be: Not necessarily. (This listener would quickly agree, preferring the Horowitz interpretation of one of Medtner's Fairy Tales to that of the composer.)

Naturally, Rachmaninoff, of whom Mr. Distler said "his creative and recreative gifts performed on a high level of equality" had to be part of such a program. He was heard performing his own Etude-Tableaux in E-Flat Major, Op. 33, No. 7, and in the C-Sharp Minor Waltz of Chopin, the latter played with nobility and elegance throughout, displaying a remarkable combination of freedom and discipline.

The longest ago born composer heard on this program was Camille Saint-Saens (born 1835), playing, at the age of 84, the beginning of his Second Piano Concerto with an ease, and technique that would be impressive at any age.

But the oldest recording played was a 1903 reading of Edvard Grieg (born 1843)playing the Minuet movement of his E Minor Piano Sonata. The 110 year old performance had a real feeling of spontaneity, a very free use of rhythm and a grand ending.

Two composers were heard playing parts of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Nicolai Medtner and Frederic Rzewski, the latter of whom inserted an improvisation on an Italian resistance song into the middle of his performance. (Mr. Distler cautioned students that this is NOT a good idea to imitate at auditions!)

The 27 year old Leonard Bernstein was heard in his first recording, as piano soloist and conductor in a very spirited reading of the Ravel G Major Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Three performances not yet mentioned particularly impressed this listener.

We heard the C Minor and then the C Major Three-Part Inventions of Bach played with great clarity, warmth and beauty of sound. Mr. Distler asked the audience to guess which composer was the artist. The correct answer was Lukas Foss.

A wonderful though incomplete recording of Chopin's C-Sharp Minor Nocturne was played, in 1939, by Bela Bartok, whom Charles Rosen described as "a 20th century composer and a 19th century pianist." Achingly slow and expressive at the beginning, with such 19th century habits as hands not always played together, it was all but spell-binding through to the unfortunate moment where it ended, because of lack of space on the disc on which it was made.

One thinks of the Godowsky transcriptions of the Chopin etudes as super-brilliant showpieces, which they are. But the last recording Mr. Distler played was more than that. We heard Robert Helps' performance of the Godowsky Study No. 45, based on one of the Nouvelles Etudes, transposed to E Major. In addition to bringing out fascinating inner voices this work, in the middle, became amazingly spacious and expressive, and, one would even say, deep.

It was a most enjoyable, and educational session.

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