Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonata No. 2.
Ballade No. 1.
Leonard Shure (pn)
BRIDGE 9374A/B (2 CDs: 98: 11) Live: Boston
This disc, titled
Leonard Shure in Concert at Jordan Hall
and representing first-ever issues of this material, is an homage to an American pianist who many believe was one of the greatest of his era, yet who recorded very little. He was a pupil of Artur Schnabel who, unlike many other Schnabel pupils, really seemed to absorb the master’s message. The liner notes describe his legacy as 78-rpm recordings of the Brahms Fantasien and Schumann Sonata No. 3 for Vox in the mid 1940s, an Epic LP version of Schumann’s Fantasy in the mid 1950s, and a series of albums for Audiofon in the late 1970s, none of which have ever come out on CD. But solely by accident, I discovered that Shure also recorded Chopin’s Rondo for Two Pianos with Artur Schnabel’s son Karl Ulrich in 1931, and that recording
issued on a two-CD set (Town Hall THCD-58). There were also an Epic recording of Beethoven’s
Vox and Epic LP versions of Schubert’s
and Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D 958, on the other side of the Epic
LP (LC 3289). The Epic
received very high praise in a
review published in January 1957.
My first impression of Shure, from the Chopin sonata that leads off this recital, is of a musician who really studied these scores, played with them in his mind, made distinctive artistic choices, and then worked to bring them out and make them coherent. He had a deep-in-the-keys sound, which made his tone somewhat resemble that of Alfred Cortot. His interpretation, too, is a bit like Cortot, with certain phrases made to stand out without sounding too rhetorical, and a forward momentum that encompasses moodiness and drama. In the first movement, particularly, I found that he excelled over Rexa Han (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) in his ability to bring out the drama in the music while still being able to color his tone. Note, also, the sensitive but dark color with which he plays the soft central section of the second movement. It is unique in my experience, and when Shure returns to the martial-sounding opening strain, there is a bit more “give” in the rhythm, more sensitivity in the repeat of the opening material, which invites the listener to think about how the composer envisioned this movement. Following this, Shure plays the famous funeral march with a completely steady beat, but does so at a tempo just a shade slower than anyone else I’ve heard. He also manages to project more world-weariness than anyone else. Even the louder second theme has absolutely no energy or drive about it—it still sounds as if one is plodding along in grief—and the same feeling permeates the central theme in the Major, played so softly that it almost sounds like distant church bells. By doing so he brings one’s attention to the occasional and subtle harmonic changes in the left hand.
Needless to say, Shure brings a ton of imagination to the Brahms Fantasien—so much so that one is left speechless in trying to describe the way in which his shifts of mood and touch not only illuminate each piece but also somehow knit the entire cycle together—not an easy task in this complicated, diffuse music. Not even such excellent pianists as Imogen Cooper (Ottavo), Mieczys?aw Horszowski (Music & Arts), or Dmitri Alexeev (EMI) have penetrated this music as successfully as Shure does here.
It was almost a foregone conclusion, then, that Shure would do an excellent job with the Schumann Fantasy, but I was taken aback yet again, this time by the sheer kinetic energy he pours into its three movements. Annotator Richard Dyer compares this live performance to the Epic LP, which he “must have heard . . . more than 100 times as an impressionable adolescent,” but claims that the 1950s sonics “did not begin to capture the range and depth of the colors Shure could draw out of the piano in live performance.” I agree—and again, I would have to place this performance at the top of the list of recorded versions of this piece. He obviously relished playing the second movement, and does so with tremendous élan. The audience obviously enjoyed it too, because they burst out with applause even though this is only the second movement! In the third, “Langsam getragen,” Shure plays with such delicacy and finesse that one holds one’s breath waiting for the spell to break. It never does. In fact, the audience is so wrapped up in it that there’s almost a half-minute of silence before they applaud. No one plays it like this—not Curzon, Biret, Kempff, Schiff, nor even Daniel Gortler on Roméo, whose performance I gave such high praise (and well he deserved it). It’s just that Shure goes deeper and deeper still until one feels that there is nothing more one can draw out of this music.
Shure’s performance of the Chopin Ballade is one of his finest achievements, but suffers as a result of his advancing age. (Apparently, he didn’t play in concert from sheet music but memorized all his pieces, and in this case it cost him.) At the end he accidentally omits four bars “and a keyboard-sweeping scale,” to quote Dyer, thus his final rush of octaves becomes a downward tumble. But no mind, because Shure makes the music sing in a way that I’ve heard no one else do—in this case, not even Cortot or Cherkassky. And just listen to the way Shure plays that fast, nervous passage in the middle—it has more forward momentum than anything else in the composer’s entire output the way he performs it.
The closing pieces on this set are the two Chopin preludes. The D Minor is played with a smoldering intensity that almost beggars belief, while the F Major floats ethereally above one’s head. If I have any complaint about this set, it is only that it’s too short! Playing this great simply doesn’t get issued on CDs every day (or year, or decade, or generation). According to ArkivMusic, the only other performances available on CD by Shure are the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Henri Temianka, a musician I know nothing about, and these are not studio recordings but live performances given at the Smithsonian Institution between January 28 and February 1, 1946. On YouTube you can also hear Shure playing Beethoven’s great A?-Sonata, No. 31 from Jordan Hall, the same composer’s Sonata No. 30 and op. 34 Variations in Austin, Texas, the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Schubert “Trout” Quintet from Boston, and the 1956 Epic recording of the Schubert
. All are worth pursuing.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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