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Jascha Spivakovksy: Rediscovered Romantic

1929-Jascha-at-piano

Our appreciation of pianists of the past is based primarily on their recordings. How amazing it is that in this age of digital technology we can listen to the actual playing of pianists born and trained in the nineteenth century—including pupils of Liszt and pianists who studied with Chopin's students—hearing with our own ears pianism from an era that produced timeless musical masterpieces. While the names of some legendary artists who did not make recordings are remembered beyond their lifetimes, many who had great careers are forgotten because there are no recordings, biographies, or published testimonials for later generations to reference.

One fascinating case is that of Jascha Spivakovsky, a Russian-born pianist trained in the nineteenth-century Romantic tradition. Despite having a glorious international career spanning six decades, he never made a solo commercial record before his death in 1970. In 2015, piano connoisseurs were intrigued when recordings made in Spivakovsky's home were released for the first time, revealing mesmerizing playing: a magnificent singing sonority, exquisitely shaped phrasing, and probing interpretations, with an approach that paradoxically fused nineteenth-century Romantic freedom with the post-War ideal of fidelity to the score. Who was this pianist, and how could a talent of this magnitude have been forgotten? 

Jascha Spivakovsky giving an impromptu performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto for the press, after they were alerted to his presence by a savy restaurant owner in Melbourne. Photo by Alexi Kuzentoff.


"A rare talent"

Jascha Spivakovsky was born near Kiev on August 18, 1896, and gravitated to the piano at the age of three. He studied with his father for a few years before the family moved to Odessa so that Jascha could receive professional training. The director of the Moscow Conservatory was extremely impressed with the child, whom he deemed "a rare, outstanding talent," but restrictions on Jews entering Moscow meant that the family could not relocate there for the young pianist's studies.

After their home was destroyed during mob attacks on Odessa's Jewish community in 1905 (Jascha narrowly missed being shot in the head), the Spivakovskys fled to Berlin, and the young pianist was admitted to the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatorium, where the faculty included pupils of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein. Spivakovsky was placed under the watchful eye of Moritz Mayer-Mahr, whose book The Technique of Pianoforte Playing was endorsed by Busoni and Liszt pupils d'Albert, Rosenthal, and von Sauer. Mayer-Mahr declared Jascha "without doubt one of the greatest talents of our time."

Jascha won the 1910 Blüthner Prize at the age of thirteen (judges Busoni, Godowsky, and Gabrilowitsch sat behind a screen so as not to have any bias due to Spivakovsky's youth), which awarded him a gold-engraved piano that he kept his entire life. International critics pronounced the teen "the new Anton Rubinstein" and "reminiscent of Paderewski and Carreño." But his career suffered a setback in World War I, when he was held as a Russian enemy alien in the Ruhleben internment camp. A petition signed by the Klindworth-Scharwenka faculty secured his release, and though he was paroled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, he was barred from performing until the war was nearing its end. 


Escape

Jascha Spivakovsky in 1909

New tours brought continued success, and Jascha began performing with his younger brother Tossy, an outstanding violinist who would be chosen by Furtwängler to be the youngest ever concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic; the brothers would form a very succesful trio with cellist Edmund Kurtz. In 1926, Jascha eloped with Leonore Krantz, whom he had met on his 1922 tour of Australia, but their honeymoon was interrupted when Richard Strauss himself engaged Jascha on short notice to perform his Burleske with the Vienna Philharmonic. Their friendship may have saved Spivakovsky's life: when the composer found out in 1933 that Jascha's name was on a Nazi hit list, he wrote him a note with a musical passage from William Tell, a coded warning that he should escape. Jascha quickly arranged a seventy-concert tour of Australasia and left by ship just three days before Hitler became Chancellor.

Spivakovsky settled in Australia and became an important figure for classical music there. He had already made a huge impression in 1922, when he made the country's first live broadcast of a musical performance. In Australia he was mobbed by appreciative crowds, and his stately Melbourne home became a hub for visiting musicians. Spivakovsky's 1910 Blüthner and 1922 New York Steinway still bear the signatures of the musical luminaries who visited him over the course of decades: legendary pianists Barere, Bolet, Kapell, Malcuzynski, Moiseiwitsch, Munz, and Schnabel; violinists Elman and Huberman; singers Forrester, Galli-Curci, and Kipnis; and conductors Galliera and Szell. The thirty-one-year-old pianist William Kapell, a friend since the young American's first visit in 1945, spent the last night of his life in Jascha's music room prior to boarding his ill-fated flight after his three-month Australian tour in 1953. 


Missed opportunities

Spivakovsky spent the better part of the period between 1933 and 1945 helping other Jews escape Germany, and he proceeded to rebuild his career after the war. He received rave reviews from top critics on his international tours—legendary British critic Neville Cardus wrote to Spivakovsky with the most effusive praise for his performance of Beethoven's Op. 111. Having turned down offers of recording in the 1920s (he didn't like the sound quality), the pianist seems not to have been offered another contract until the 1950s, when a radio broadcast of a Beethoven Concerto caught the attention of some producers. Two labels hoped to release that particular performance, but the BBC quashed the idea. One compay that engaged him for studio recordings folded a year later (the recording had been postponed due to Jascha's touring and teaching schedule), and then a health crisis in 1960 restricted his travel and ability to follow through on a second offer. Another potential deal arose in 1969, when Tossy, who lived in New York, was offered a contract to record the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas and he proposed doing so with Jascha at the piano. Alas, this too was not to be: Jascha Spivakovsky died on March 23, 1970, at the age of 73.  


Private recordings

How private recordings of Spivakovsky came to be made is a remarkable story. Jascha's son Michael used to listen to his father practice daily, often while doing his homework in their home's spacious music room. When he got a portable reel-to-reel tape machine in the 1950s, he decided to record his father so that he could listen to his playing when the pianist was away touring for months at a time. While he never expected that the performances would be published, he did have an inkling that there was something important about these tapes—particularly given that his father had made no commercial solo recordings.

The tapes came perilously close to being destroyed: when the widow of the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin posthumously released private recordings that didn't show the singer at his best, Jascha angrily threw Michael's tapes into the furnace, which was fortunately not on at the time! When the pianist went back to his salon to practice, Michael scooped them out and hid them in a hallway armoire. After Jascha's death, Michael regularly pondered whether to release the tapes or not; though his father had stated that he could play better than he did in these performances, he said so at a time when he might still have been offered a recording contract. But Jascha died without leaving a formal recorded legacy, and eventually Michael's own son Eden convinced him that Jascha's brilliant playing needed to be made available. Finally, in 2015 they began releasing them on the Pristine Classical label in a series entitled Bach to Bloch that features an array of repertoire as varied as the title suggests. 


A crystalline, singing sound

Spivakovsky at ABC's Rippon Lee Studio, 1966.

Whatever Jascha may have thought about these recorded performances, they are musically and pianistically remarkable. Spivakovsky's highly individual readings featuring multifaceted pianism of the highest order: a crystalline, singing sound at every level of his broad dynamic range; elegantly shaped phrasing with a clearly defined melodic line; rubato that breathes and defies bar lines while serving the musical phrase; voicing that highlights motifs with astounding lucidity; impressive digital dexterity, with precise, consistent articulation and dazzling speed when required; thorough mastery of the pedal, which is used judiciously for color and atmosphere without ever sacrificing clarity; and an overall sense of structural cohesiveness. Spivakovsky focuses on the minutest details—the connection between phrases, the subtlest nuance in conjunction with rubato, the decay of a note or pedaled chord—while also revealing both the entire musical structure and the emotional content of the work, a micro-macro approach that lends his interpretations a sense of authority and conviction.

That Spivakovsky could play with such finesse is due not only to his profound musical intelligence and training but also to an effective and disciplined practice regime. The pianist would generally work eight to ten hours a day, sometimes up to fourteen before concerts, yet he never suffered any physical strain because he played in a relaxed manner. He eschewed playing scales himself, believing that purely technical exercises took time away from practicing interpretative and tonal nuancing. While he would initially assign students scales and Hanon (the first six studies), once their proficiency improved he moved them on to Chopin and Liszt Etudes. He believed that attentive practice of these works helps students overcome myriad challenges beyond scales and arpeggios while also refining interpretation, musical expression, and tone production. 


Approach

Like his musical grandfather Anton Rubinstein, Jascha sat slightly high at the piano so that he could lean in to apply shoulder weight and "grip" the notes for power without hardness, not needing to resort to "slapping" at them, which can produce a hard, often metallic sound. Jascha agreed with Rubinstein that there are "a hundred ways" to play a note. Many believed that his lovely golden tone was due in large part to his thick fingers, a physical characteristic he shared with Rubinstein, but he explained that anyone can have a fine tone by carefully balancing the hands.

Bringing out the melody was of prime importance to Spivakovsky, but he abhored hearing it "banged out." He would suggest that rather than play the melody louder, one should soften the other parts as if accompanying a singer or instrumentalist. He described projection as the difference in note strengths between the melodic line and the harmony, stating that the melodic line should be two levels above the harmony for clear projection. However, in Bach Fugues, each line requires a dynamic level in accordance with its musical importance, requiring of the pianist great hand and finger balance and a superior legato facility to maintain clarity; Spivakovsky cautioned that the use of the sustaining pedal would blur lines and result in a "muddy" sound. He was always careful to highlight the melodic line, stressing the importance of emphasizing the note in chords that preserves the continuity of melody so that the line is not lost or submerged in the fabric of the work. He was also careful to make a smooth transition from one phrase to the next, often saying that any reasonable pianist can begin a phrase well, but it takes a fine pianist to end one well. 


Seeking the work of art

Jascha was always concerned with seeking the "work of art behind the printed notes," and he was critical of pianists who focused on the text without truly understanding the music. He accused them of playing "fly dirt," meaning that if a fly had landed on the music and left a dot on the staff, these pianists wouldn't know the music well enough not to play the dot. He felt that there was a world of difference between the indication of the artwork as outlined by the printed notes and the fully fleshed-out work of art that is the finished piece. He abhorred hearing pianism with little or no expression as much as he loathed emotive posturing at the piano, explaining that those who did so had insufficient understanding of the music to be able to express it without resorting to fake external emotion.

Spivakovsky analyzed the architecture of compositions to find their climactic points, working back from these to see how to create a sensible progression to the climax. He used several methods—accents, broken chords, tenutos, subtle changes in tempo or dynamics—to highlight these key points and make the listener aware of the musical structure. If a passage was repeated immediately, he would often play it as an "echo"—softer, slower, or both, depending upon the context—whereas just before the restatement of the main theme in a sonata, he would often make a slight ritardando to indicate that something important was about to happen. He explained that the listener is always able to discern even the slightest adjustment in tempo or dynamics, so a subtle change impels them to pay attention to what comes next.

In addition to deepening his understanding of a work through the score, Spivakovsky listened to great pianists in concert and on record and he encouraged his son and students to listen to the masters as well—not to imitate them, but to "seek what they sought." Now that we can at last hear the remarkable playing of this amazing pianist and understand more about his approach to practice and interpretation, Jascha Spivakovsky can himself continue to inspire future generations to seek what he and other master musicians sought. 


 All photos © The Spivakovsky Music Collection. Used with permission. All rights reserved. For more information on the life and work of Jascha Spivakovsky, please visit jascha.com.

To view videos of Jascha Spivakovksy, please visit our digital edition at www.claviercompanion.com.

Mark Ainley and Clavier Companion would like to thank Michael and Eden Spivakovksy with their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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