IN: Reviews

Halim: The Last Horowitz Pupil*


by Stephen Wigler

This writer began to attend concerts in the 1960s with the express intent to hear every important pianist who performed in the New York metropolitan area. Performances of Beethoven’s Hammerkavier Sonata were then exceedingly rare. In those 10 years, I can recall only five pianists who performed it: Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yakov Zak and John Ogdon. In the decades since that time, performances of this piano sonata ― with a duration of approximately 45 minutes, it is the composer’s longest and most difficult ― the number of performances has increased. In the last 12 months, for example, in Boston ― a city that is a much less frequented destination for touring pianists than New York ― I have heard three pianists undertake the task: Beatrice Rana, Daniil Trifonov and, most recently, Eduardus Halim (April 23rd, Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall).

Pianists once avoided performing it, as Charles Rosen noted, because the Hammerklavier was traditionally viewed more as a monument to be admired than a work to be enjoyed.” The resistance to performing it, Rosen continued, “was the distress caused by Beethoven’s metronome marking of 138,” a tempo challenging enough on the lighter and faster action of the pianos of Beethoven’s day, but even more difficult to achieve on the much heavier and slower action of its Industrial-Age successors.

In the 1930s when Artur Schnabel, who always tried to adhere as closely as possible to Beethoven’s instructions, recorded the first set of all 32 of 32 sonatas, his record of the first movement was littered with so many wrong notes that it had led to the widely held belief that the movement was unplayable at the indicated tempo.

But as Claudio Arrau once told me, in a 1979 interview, the mistakes were not caused by the tempo, but by the fact that Schnabel, whose concerts Arrau had attended faithfully throughout the 1920s, had stopped practicing years before he began to record the sonatas.

“It’s possible to play the first movement accurately,” Arrau said, adding that he himself did not perform the music at the indicated tempo, because he did not believe it authentically represented what Beethoven actually intended. “It robs the music of its beauty and grandeur,” Arrau said.

But Beethoven’s “Allegro” marking always means uncompromisingly fast. And many younger pianists in the last 25 years of the 20th century began to suggest that the opening movement of the piece ― contrary to the beliefs of Arrau and other older pianists ― was not intended to sound majestic and beautiful, but (in Rosen’s words) “[like] an explosion of energy.” Trifonov, in his November performance, while not quite attaining Beethoven’s marked tempo, came close enough to express the movement’s sheer energy, but otherwise failed to express the architecture of the whole sonata. The young Russian treated the second movement merely as an extension of the first and sometimes seemed confused not only about shaping the slow movement, but also about navigating the Byzantine intricacies of the counterpoint in the final movement’s fugue.

Rana superbly accomplished all that Trifonov failed achieve, and, while playing the outer movements with a somewhat more measured pace, still took them quickly enough to capture their energy. Halim’s shaped his interpretation almost as beautifully as Rana’s, and it succeeded, more than any performance I’d previously heard, in conveying the energy. As Rana did, Halim clarified that the second movement’s molto vivace was no mere extension of the opening movement’s Allegro, but rather a Scherzo, whose sardonic lightness of mood parodied the previous movement’s seriousness.

Eduardus Halim

Though Halim’s slow movement ― slow as any I’ve heard ― spanned more than 22 minutes, it did not feel ponderous. His line in the Adagio sostenato possessed a note-to-note tensile strength that the comparably slow traversals of many other pianists ― Barenboim, for example ― rarely possess. The indication at the beginning is Appasionato e con sentimento and Halim played it that way throughout. He essayed rises and falls in emotional intensity, but his intimacy of expression never faltered. Halim’s controlled sound infallibly ― the movement’s half-whispers of profound sadness were as remarkable in their way as the tremendous eruptions of sound elsewhere in the sonata. The concluding fugue could not be as majestic, but it was mighty in its momentum. Its complex and unceasing counterpoint unfolded with confidence and mastery. Its inexorable march to the Hammerklavier’s triumphal conclusion constituted Halim’s triumph as well.

The pianist has always played Chopin with authority, accuracy and insight and his performance of the composer’s 12 Etudes Op. 25 was no exception. The daunting etudes explore every technique known in Chopin’s time, and very little has been added since the publication of his op. 25. Each number explores a specific technical problem. Op. 25 No. 1 (the so-called “Æolian Harp”), for example, demands quiet arpeggios in both hands, while the melody is brought out by the little finger of the right hand, and sometimes by the thumb of the left. In addition to all this, it requires translucent textures through the subsequent 11. Halim captured the diversity of moods and executed the variety of technical of problems as naturally as breathing.

He had opened the program with Brahms’s Ballad No. 4 Op.10, which could not have been more different than the Herculean tasks of Beethoven’s Op. 106 and Chopin’s Op. 25. In the score of his Four Ballads, Brahms instructs the pianist “to play with intimate sentiment but without marking the melody too strongly.” In other words, to create delicate and subtle nuances suitable to the music. Halim could, and he did.

Stephen Wigler has a peculiarly geekish interest in the piano and in pianists. He has served over the years as a staff music critic in Orlando and Baltimore.

* When Harold C. Schonberg, chief music critic of The New York Times and author of The Great Pianists, heard Mr. Halim, he was struck by the pianist’s bold interpretations of the Romantic repertoire. Mr. Schonberg wrote a letter about the young man’s unusual potential to Vladimir Horowitz. Music author/broadcaster David Dubal, a member of Juilliard’s faculty, took Mr. Halim to meet the great virtuoso. The result: forty lessons of crucial importance – at a key time in the pianist’s development. The chapter entitled “Last Pupil” in the Schonberg biography, Horowitz, His Life and Music, is devoted to this extraordinary relationship between mentor and pupil.

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