Who doesn’t love a pianist in winter? They are among our favorite creatures. We think of Artur Rubinstein, who was never more himself than when he climbed into his eighties, giving those memorable recitals. We think of Shura Cherkassky, who seemed to come alive after his seventy-fifth birthday—or did we simply notice then? Pianists like Wilhelm Backhaus and Rudolf Serkin took on a spiritual glow in their senior years. They became angels of the piano, leaving behind some of the fire of previous decades, but seeing more and expressing more.

We often say of these elder statesmen that they are “links to the past”—and so they are. They reflect former, in some cases antiquated, teaching traditions, and with the works of the piano literature, they are old, intimate friends. Vladimir Horowitz was billed as “The Last Romantic.” Then again, we have had a steady succession of “Last Romantics.”

Earl Wild is one. Hard as it is to believe, this Pittsburgh-born “supervirtuoso” (to use more publicist’s language) is now eighty-five years old. He celebrated that landmark with a recital in Carnegie Hall at the end of November.[1] Few can remember a time without Earl Wild. He began to play in public when Coolidge and Hoover were in the White House. (Wild played for Hoover.) Care for a little fun with numbers? When Wild was born, Rachmaninoff had twenty-eight more years to live. Paderewski was in mid-career. Prokofiev—in his early twenties —had barely gotten started. One of Wild’s teachers, Selmar Johnson, had studied with Eugen d’Albert, who had studied with Liszt. Another of Wild’s teachers was Egon Petri, who had learned from Busoni.

Do we hear this in Wild’s playing? Yes, sure: but we also hear this strain in the playing of, oh, Krystian Zimerman, born in 1956—and in the playing of Arcadi Volodos, born practically yesterday. Pianistic romanticism will never die out, but Earl Wild may be the last roaring student-of-a-student-of-a-student of Liszt: that much we can say.

Let’s ponder a few more links to the past. As a teenager, Wild played the piano with his hometown orchestra under Otto Klemperer. He also played in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini. Wild partnered the violinist Mischa Elman, who now seems as distant as Joachim. During World War II, Wild was—get this—a flutist with the Navy Band. He pioneered the music of Gershwin. He also worked on television with Sid Caesar (yes). And all along the way, he transcribed and composed and conducted, and concertized and did pretty much everything under the musical sun. Wild has also spent a fair portion of his life in the recording studio. He cut his first album in 1934; in the last few years, he has been as prolific as ever. An awfully eventful career, Wild’s— and an intensely American one. Could there be, by the way, a more American name than “Earl Wild”? With those two, clean syllables, it might as well be “Jack Smith.” In the world of music, this pianist’s name has been utterly distinctive.

The Carnegie Hall recital proved one thing right off the bat: Wild certainly looks as he always did, at least since his hair turned impressively white. A tall man with long arms and huge hands, he strides quickly across the stage. On his birthday night, he began with a set of Brahms pieces, which he must have learned as a boy. (Brahms—more fun with numbers—died only eighteen years before Wild’s birth.) The first of the group was the Ballade No. 3 in G minor, Op. 118, which Wild played rather prosaically and unmusically. The tone was weak, the fingers sluggish. Shortly after came the Intermezzo No. 3 in C major, Op. 119, which was shockingly bad: It was rushed, unfeeling, slapped at, slopped through. Shocking. And, oh, how the sensitive pianists have loved this little gem! It was a special piece for Backhaus and Myra Hess, for example. In the Intermezzo No. 2 in E minor (also from the Op. 119) Wild was choppy, unpoetic, inaccurate. Inner voices were smothered. He concluded the set with the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, Op. 79, for which Wild fashioned his own ending— which is typical of his generation, who were never fetishists about the score.

Wild duly moved on to Liszt, his bread and butter: “Schlocky music for a schlocky pianist,” his worst critics have sneered. But Wild plays this music wonderfully—still. And Liszt, please note, is not old man’s music, as Wild’s recital was not an old man’s recital. (What constitutes such an evening? Well, Backhaus—to return to him once more—would program such musing lovelies as Schumann’s “Warum?”) In the famous Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, Wild did some things very well, including some remarkably smooth thirds. In the Concert Etude called Un sospiro, he was graceful and limpid, displaying an astonishing legato. Here was the Wild of his highest reputation. The great, sprawling piece seemed small in his hands. The inner voices came through. Everything was commandingly and movingly related.

So it was in another Concert Etude, Gnomenreigen: impish, clear, and lightning fast. Wild played with loose arms, and there was not a trace of tightness in his playing. With the fearlessness and poise of a twenty-year old, he made the piano dance. On the final note, the audience, unable to contain itself, burst into applause, though there was still a piece to go in the Liszt group. Yet Wild stood and bowed—a further indication that here is a pianist who does exactly what he likes. After the Ballade No. 2 in B minor, the audience rose to its feet. This ovation was, in all probability, for age (and perhaps for the improved playing after the Brahms). But Wild doesn’t need that sort of ovation: he can still earn them. He is not just a lion in winter, but a lion. (It was touching to note, incidentally, the presence in the hall of another lion: Gyorgy Sandor. He must have come to salute his peer: Sandor was born in 1912.)

After intermission, Wild turned to Chopin, starting with the Ballade No. 1 in G minor. Its opening bars—technically simple but musically difficult—were sensitive, introspective, and fresh: an achievement in music so familiar. In all, however, the work was feebly and unaffectingly played. Far better was the Nocturne in C minor, one of the most ingenious pieces Chopin ever wrote. This, too, is musically difficult, and most pianists—even good ones—botch it, particularly the unwieldy C-major section. But Wild handled it all with mastery. He has the invaluable ability of tamping down bravura, not allowing it to overwhelm the arc, or inner logic, of a piece. In the Fantaisie Impromptu, the limpidity and grace of Un sospiro returned. Here is one advantage of the large-handed “supervirtuoso”: no struggle. Freedom. Relaxation. Because the notes are not an issue, all that is left is the music. Wild sounded perfectly natural in this piece—breathing naturally, pedaling shrewdly, lending a sheen. At the very end, he gave us a superb pianissimo, as gratifying as anything he did all night.

What a weirdly uneven recital! The Grande Polonaise brilliante in E-flat major, which closed the Chopin set, was halfheartedly dispatched: perfunctory, dutiful, cloddish. The Fauré Barcarolle No. 3 in G-flat major is another of the pieces that Wild fairly owns: a song, basically, surrounded by technical flourishes (in the case of the Barcarolle, waves). In Ravel’s Jeux d’eaux, speaking of the water, Wild had a memory lapse—two, actually. After the second, he turned to the audience and said matter-of-factly “I’ve forgotten it,” going promptly— without embarrassment, without panic—to the next piece. Wild is an old pro; he knows not to sweat the small stuff. The printed program ended with Debussy’s Tarantelle Styrienne, which was poor: slapped at, gotten through.

But Wild offered a charming encore, his own transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “After the Ball.” Then a ten-year-old boy came out and played “Happy Birthday” for him. To say it again: a weird evening.

Earl Wild has always been an uneven pianist, and his many recordings reflect this inconsistency. We usually get clarity, good sense, and oodles of fingers. What we often fail to get is imagination and spark and inspiration. A persistent Wild fault is that he is overly blunt; occasionally, he is even something of a bludgeoner. Yet in certain repertory he is nonpareil. He is found in top form in an album of transcriptions, recorded in 1995 (when Wild was a kid of eighty).[2] This disc features mainly his own transcriptions, but also those of great transcribers of the past, including Carl Tausig and Rachmaninoff. Perhaps the most unusual offering here is Wild’s “Hommage à Poulenc,” which is the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, rendered in the style of that French composer—a nice experiment, if a tad disorienting.

The pianist’s most recent album~dash\mar- keted as an “85th Birthday Tribute”—is called Earl Wild: 20th and 21st Century Piano Sonatas.[3] Twenty-first? In the past year, Wild wrote a sonata of his own, allowing the record company, Ivory Classics, to use that novel and eye-catching title. The other sonatas are those of Barber, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, all of whom Wild knew personally.

Of his own creation, Wild writes, “My exasperation with the twelve-tone movement has led me to think in a more popular vein”; the sonata is “purely an expression of a few moments in my long life.” The first movement, “Allegro (March),” is strongly American: bluesy, jazzy—with a Russian inflection thrown in. (These two have often gone together, in music by both American and Russian composers.) The middle movement, which incorporates popular songs from the 1920s, is a bit tedious. It has an improvisatory, picking-my-way-through feel, almost as if the pianist were simply fooling around at the keyboard. This is the compositional equivalent of doodling. The final movement is a toccata, laced with Latin rhythms and a Latin thrust. In fact, Wild labels it “a la Ricky Martin,” in tribute to the current pop sensation. The movement is highly chromatic and amusing—it even carries faint echoes of Debussy’s Isle Joyeuse. The Wild Sonata will not enter the permanent repertory. But it is certainly worth listening to, which is not as slight a compliment as it may sound.

As for Wild the performer, we can expect to be listening to him for many years to come. He has hardly taken on an angelic glow, but he is still Earl Wild—which is enough. And the man is going so strong, who are we to say that he is even in winter? He remains a supervirtuoso—and the only thing truly wintry about him is his hair. Earl Wild: Virtuoso Piano Transcriptions (Ivory Classics 64405-70907).

 

Notes
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  1. Earl Wild appeared at Carnegie Hall on November 29, 2000. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 5, on page 59
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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