Notes and Editorial Reviews
LEONARD SHURE • Leonard Shure, Karl Ulrich Schnabel7 (pn); Izler Solomon1, Richard Burgin2, Leonard Bernstein9, cond; Aspen Festival O;1 Boston SO;2 New York PO3 • DOREMI 8017-9 (3 CDs: 175:21) Live: Aspen
8/21/60;1 New York 3/24/563-6,10, 3/26/60;9 Boston 2/29/362
BEETHOVEN 1Piano Concerto No. 3. 2Piano Concerto No. 5 Excerpt. 3Piano Sonata No. 30, op. 109. SCHUBERT 4Piano Sonata in c, D 958. Moments Musicaux: 5No. 6. CHOPIN 6Piano Sonata No. 2. 7Rondo for Two Pianos, op. 73. 8Prelude op. 28/22. BRAHMS 9Piano Concerto No.1. 10Capriccio, op. 116/1
The Leonard Shure authority Daniel Gorgolione prefaces Doremi’s extensive booklet notes with a bold claim by Leon Fleisher: “Leonard Shure and William Kapell were the greatest American pianists of the 20th Century.” While the legend of the short-lived Kapell is kept alive by his recordings, Shure is primarily known among musicians who had some connection to him. An important teacher, his greatest playing may have taken the form of demonstrating passages in lessons, master classes, and chamber music coaching. A purist with a prickly personality, his “refusal to play the artist-managers’ game” (Eugene Istomin’s phrase, in another quote), meant that he had to forgo the performing career that he deserved, according to a statement by Gary Graffman.
Doremi’s treasure trove of archival material joins two other recent recordings that may serve to acquaint a larger audience with Shure’s playing. A 2011 collection, In Concert at Jordan Hall on Bridge, featured performances from 1977–80, late in his career, and there’s a live set of the Beethoven violin sonatas with Henri Temianka on Doremi. This new release combines two wonderful documents of his early years: a movement from the “Emperor” Concerto from 1936, and a transcendent two-piano performance, with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, of the Chopin Rondo, op. 73 from 1931. Otherwise, it provides an opportunity to hear Shure in live recordings from his prime.
For biographical background and an appreciation of Shure’s art, I refer readers to a web site and YouTube channel maintained in his honor, and also to Lynn René Bayley’s and my reviews of In Concert at Jordan Hall in Fanfare 36:3. To encapsulate: He was born in Chicago in 1910, traveled to Berlin at age 14 to study with Arthur Schnabel, whose first and only teaching assistant he became, and remained in Germany until 1933. For the next 55 years, Shure toured in North America, performing concertos with major orchestras, solo recitals, and chamber music, but starting in 1960, he limited his performing in order to focus more on teaching, holding positions at many major music schools. His playing is notable for its carefully worked out delineation of structure and form, the persuasiveness of its phrase direction, the vitality of its tone, and forceful interpretations that derive, not from the wish to put a personal “stamp” on what he played, but from total identification with the music.
For his 1956 Carnegie Hall recital, Shure, whose solo repertoire contained a selection of only the deepest, most consequential pieces composed between Beethoven and Brahms, programmed three profound piano sonatas that don’t particularly complement each other. (As with Schnabel, a Shure recital had little to do with providing stylistic variety, or catering to the audience or presenters’ tastes. It was an occasion to present whichever of his lifelong specialties he was revisiting at the time.)
His nuanced performance of the Beethoven Sonata, op. 109, ranks with Schnabel’s studio recording as one of the most complete realizations of that sublime work that I know. Shure integrates all of Beethoven’s indications of changes of tone and tempo in the mercurial first movement into a meaningful whole. The second movement goes like the wind, but with no sacrifice of clarity, and there’s a feeling of organic development in his pacing of the third movement’s variations, in a reading that showcases their variety, with perfectly gauged tempo relationships that cohere with great logic.
The Schubert C-Minor Sonata’s dark mood is closely related to Winterreise, a work that Shure performed and coached throughout his career. He takes a strict, Beethovenian approach to the sonata, knowingly elucidating its structure, though leaving out the first movement’s exposition repeat. Aside from a particularly eloquent reading of the slow movement, the rest of the performance occasionally sounds a bit hurried, and doesn’t allow for much flexibility in places where relaxing the tempo can allow the music to breathe, such as in the first movement’s second theme. The third movement seems unnecessarily hasty, and while the finale is well controlled and steady, I find the pacing too relentless in episodes that might relax slightly. This live performance is similar in concept to his 1984 studio recording of the work on Audiophon, though the later performance has an unruly, almost brutal sound in louder chords, a characteristic of his playing in later years.
The Chopin Second Sonata is a work that Shure understood and played as well as any pianist, though as in the Schubert, its structure feels shortchanged here, shorn of its first movement’s exposition repeat. Shure plays excitingly throughout the whole sonata, letting the first movement’s noble second theme unfold at an expansive pace, meeting all of the work’s technical challenges, and working up to incredible, controlled fury, with meticulously restrained use of the pedal, as the movement ends. In the cantabile lines of the second and third movements, his reluctance to employ beautiful tone for its own sake, instead creating a drained kind of simulated singing, makes many other pianists’ versions seem emotionally shallow by comparison. Shure’s solution to the fourth movement’s conundrum—what to bring out in its unison whirlwind—is uniquely convincing. His later Jordan Hall performance of the work on Bridge is similar in concept, almost as well executed, and has the bonus of less restricted recorded sound.
That Shure was the least frivolous or sentimental artist imaginable is reflected in his encores, two of which are essentially angry outbursts that offer no relief from the program’s intensity: the D-Minor Capriccio from Brahms’s op. 116 Fantasien and the Chopin Prelude in G Minor. The Third of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, unpretentiously played, provides a bit of a breather.
Disc 2 offers a bracing account of the Beethoven Third Concerto from 1960 with Shure in top form. It’s not badly recorded, with the piano prominently miked. The playing of the Aspen Festival Orchestra is scrappy, but I wouldn’t trade their energy and commitment for any number of other, more refined orchestral accompaniments. Izler Solomon is well attuned to Shure’s interpretation, and as one listens to the first movement’s cadenza, Leon Fleisher’s high praise makes perfect sense. The sound is explosive, Beethoven’s musical gestures are projected forward with rocket-like propulsion, but all is governed by intelligent control of sequences, shape, and timing. Only a small number of great pianists communicate the feeling that Shure, at his best, creates here: that there is no more powerfully important music than what he is playing at the moment.
Following the Beethoven Third is an almost complete performance of the third movement, minus the very beginning and end, of the “Emperor” Concerto, from a 1936 Boston Symphony concert conducted by Richard Burgin. The orchestra’s contribution is tremendously vital, and Shure’s brilliant, straightforward playing shows what a technical powerhouse he was in his early years. There’s an exciting, live recording on Audiophon of Shure playing the complete Beethoven Fifth Concerto from 1982 in a Boston concert honoring Schnabel, with Fleisher conducting.
Disc 3’s live broadcast of the Brahms D-Minor from a 1960 New York Philharmonic concert with Bernstein conducting is perhaps the set’s most significant offering. The murky but listenable sound seems to immerse the piano within the orchestra and brings out, unintentionally, the music’s symphonic nature. Shure gives a fervent reading of the opening movement, technically unfazed by the double trills, with a striking sense of the music’s counterpoint. His bass lines make their presence felt in a notable way, not with fussy highlighting, but as amplification and enhancement of Brahms’s rich, contrapuntal texture. Shure’s magnificent energy and complete technical control makes the movement’s coda tremendously rousing, eliciting enthusiastic applause. The reverential Adagio is taken at as slow a tempo as can be sustained, with success. Here, in some passages, Shure plays with the softest, most disembodied sound possible, its intimacy demanding special attention, and in the cadenza, his trills are magical in their sound and poetic evocation. (The expressive power of playing trills at different speeds is something that he must have learned from Schnabel).
Shure’s 1931 studio recording of the Chopin Rondo for two pianos reminded me that the revered curmudgeon whom I passed in the hallways at the New England Conservatory in the late 1970s, whose teaching occasionally tormented, but usually ended up inspiring, many of my pianist friends for life, had inhabited, earlier in his career, another world: Berlin in the 1920s, where he crossed paths with the legendary dramatis personae of an artistic Golden Age. This classic performance, with uncannily perfect ensemble, has the nonchalant sparkle of the greatest Chopin playing of the past—I’m thinking of Busoni, Corot, and the like—with speed and polish to spare, a kind of delicacy that I associate with Schnabel, and, surprisingly, great charm that I wouldn’t have expected from Shure.
Obviously, I recommend this release as an essential purchase for anyone interested in what might be considered a secret chapter in the history of great 20th-century piano playing: the career of the Zelig-like Leonard Shure. I suspect that there are quite a few more concert recordings of his out there, and hope that they will be made available. If so, it will no doubt be thanks to Daniel Gorgolione, whose planned book on Leonard Shure I eagerly await.
FANFARE: Paul Orgel
Although Leonard Shure (1910-1995) was highly regarded by his peers for his forthright pianism and fierce musical integrity, his artistry is all but unknown today. There are at least two reasons for this. One is that Shure considerably reduced his performing schedule in the early 1960s to concentrate more fully on teaching. Two is that Shure’s few commercial studio recordings are out-of-print. The Bridge label rectified the situation somewhat by issuing selections from the pianist’s 1977-80 faculty recitals at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. In 2011 Doremi brought out a live, unreleased Beethoven Violin Sonata cycle from 1946 Library of Congress concerts featuring Shure and violinist Henri Temianka in an intensely inspired collaboration. The live solo and concerto performances assembled for Doremi’s present three-disc set reveal Shure at the height of his powers, starting with a February 24, 1956 Carnegie Hall Recital preserved in quite decent archival sound.
The opening work, Beethoven’s Op. 109, evokes both the impetuosity and repose distinguishing Shure’s teacher Artur Schnabel, but with a leaner sonority and more forceful passagework in gnarly places like the third movement’s fifth variation. While Shure left two excellent studio traversals of Schubert’s C minor sonata (for Epic and Audiofon), his live Carnegie Hall version is even more communicative and involving. The finale’s dramatic pauses pack quite a wallop, while the galloping left-hand ostinatos are steady yet subtly inflected. The Menuetto and Trio’s dynamic surges address the music’s rarely acknowledged darker undercurrents, while the Adagio is a model of eloquent simplicity.
In his New York Times review of the concert, Harold C. Schonberg cited the Chopin B-flat minor sonata performance’s “jagged accents, great washes of tone, and big structure”. You can hear this in Shure’s expansive first-movement transitions, clear-cut repeated notes in the Scherzo, and sustained long lines that make the Funeral March sound shorter than its nine-minute duration. And in an age where Schubert’s F minor Moment Musical often receives inflated, micromanaged, and contrived interpretations, we should not take Shure’s clarity, discreet phrasing, and total lack of artifice for granted!
Two 1960 concerto performances significantly enhance Shure’s tiny discography. His Aspen Festival Beethoven C minor stands out for its stylish brio and understated lyricism, even though Shure’s marcato articulation in the Rondo comes off a bit spiky and insistent for my taste—the close-up microphone placement, perhaps. Shure’s kinetic power and forward sweep in the Brahms D minor’s outer movements contrast to the slightly heavy impression that Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic convey. Again, that might be due to the air-check recording’s diffuse detailing and blasting at loud moments. However, the Adagio represents a happier meeting of minds. Here the Philharmonic’s strings sing out resplendently in the sustained opening pages, while Shure builds his long phrases from the bottom up and unleashes a sonorous, texturally rich climax. Co-producer Daniel Gorgolione’s extensive annotations discuss this performance in the context of Bernstein’s infamous collaboration with Glenn Gould in the same work with the same orchestra two years later.
Shure’s two earliest-known recordings fill out the release. One contains most of the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto’s Rondo, all that survives of a 1936 Boston Symphony concert. It’s interesting how the 25-year-old pianist already differs from his 19th-century-trained predecessors in his refusal to sentimentalize the second theme. He also imitates Schnabel’s tendency to angularize passagework by rushing ahead for harmonic or structural emphasis. While the winged and effortless Chopin Rondo with Karl Ulrich Schnabel still stands as this work’s most delicious recorded interpretation, I find Doremi’s restoration overly filtered and drab next to the far more vivid and detailed transfer produced by Lincoln Mayorga on Town Hall, despite its additional shellac surface noise. In sum, this specially-priced package (three discs for the cost of two) constitutes a labor of love and an important contribution to Leonard Shure’s recorded legacy.
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano in C minor, D 958 by Franz Schubert
Leonard Shure (Piano)
Written: 1828; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 03/24/1956
Venue: Carnegie Hall
Length: 25 Minutes 43 Secs.
Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15 by Johannes Brahms
Leonard Shure (Piano)
Written: 1854-1858; Germany
Date of Recording: 03/26/1960
Venue: Carnegie Hall
Length: 49 Minutes 24 Secs.
Rondo for 2 Pianos in C major, B 27/Op. 73 by Frédéric Chopin
Leonard Shure (Piano),
Karl Ulrich Schnabel (Piano)
Written: 1828; Poland
Date of Recording: 1931
Length: 8 Minutes 24 Secs.
Sonata for Piano no 30 in E major, Op. 109 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonard Shure (Piano)
Written: 1820; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 03/24/1956
Venue: Carnegie Hall
Length: 19 Minutes 16 Secs.
Concerto for Piano no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Leonard Shure (Piano)
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 08/21/1960
Venue: Aspen, CO
Length: 35 Minutes 39 Secs.
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