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Born in Kansas City, composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) created piano portraits of his social circle and wrote his Third Piano Sonata on the white keys for Gertrude Stein, because those were the ‘only keys she plays’. Yet, for all his indulgence of famous friends, he could be waspish about famous pianists. He considered Vladimir Horowitz a ‘master of distortion and exaggeration’. Granting his technical skill, Thomson added: ‘Horowitz’s playing is monotonous and, more often than not, musically false.’

Thompson charged Claudio Arrau with ‘musical irresponsibility’, noting, ‘One does not always realise right off how shallow is the musical thought behind all the brilliance (and solidity, even) of the execution’. He accused Artur Schnabel of creating a ‘form of bombast that makes Beethoven’s early sonatas … sound empty of meaning and the later ones … sound like the improvisations of a talented youth’. Meanwhile, Rudolf Firkušný had a ‘musical temperament of … banal violence’, his playing ‘deformed by speed and pounding’.

By contrast, Arthur Rubinstein was a ‘great musician and a grand executant … king of his profession … few can dazzle so dependably, and none can match him for power and refinement … There has not been his like since Busoni’. Unlike Busoni, however, Rubinstein neither composed nor arranged works, so this degree of praise may baffle even his fans. Still more puzzling is the giddy cheering for ‘one of the most delightful pianists of them all’, George Chavchavadze, a rich, glamorous Russian noble and ex-lover of James Lees-Milne, mostly remembered for society doings.

While showing taste in praising Mieczysław Horszowski, Thomson seems like a snappish ibbertigibbet on some other pianists.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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