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Some books about the piano bring us unexpected insights, while others confirm our existing intuitions. Depending upon repertoire, recordings by the Dutch pianist Egon Petri (1881–1962) can sound stern and monumental, but this affectionate memoir by his pupil Kanwischer, a professor emeritus at San José State University and author of From Bach’s Goldberg to Beethoven’s Diabelli (Rowman and Littlefield), show Petri to have been an endearing fellow after all. Petri’s pupils included Earl Wild, John Ogdon, Grant Johannesen, Victor Borge, Eugene Istomin, and other celebrated performers. To them he would react with candid horror, as he did with Kanwischer’s future wife, when she arrived at a lesson with Artur Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven sonatas, insisting that she immediately replace it with the Tovey edition. There was unsuspected joviality in Petri, an avid reader of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and orchestral scores of Haydn symphonies, which made him ‘laugh at loud’.

Son of a violinist, Petri began his musical training early on, learning the violin, horn, organ and piano. For the last-mentioned, he confided: ‘I had very bad teachers,’ albeit famous ones. They included Teresa Carreño, who demanded motionless playing, so that in principle, pupils could balance glasses of water on the backs of their hands while performing. Of the equally famous pianist Eugen d’Albert, Petri observed: ‘All I remember of my lessons with d’Albert is that I would look at the clock, and he would look at his watch.’

Petri’s lifelong association with Ferrucio Busoni was a mixed blessing: ‘Busoni was not interested in the pupil. Not ever! ... We were only a kind of mirror in which he reflected himself and admired himself … Busoni was not a teacher … I certainly never ‘studied’ with Busoni. All he would say was that I played “beautifully”. And from Busoni, that was no compliment.’

Since Petri had played beautifully for the maestro fewer than a dozen times, he preferred to call Busoni a mentor rather than a teacher. Rejecting Busoni’s motto, ‘I’m not interested in playing a piece unless I can change it,’ Petri decided not ‘to be original like Busoni. It’s one of the worst things [pianists] can do. Just be the humble servant of the composer.’

At home, he encountered many musically gifted visitors, not least 11-year-old Wilhelm Backhaus, who played a duet with Petri, two years older: ‘[Backhaus] never watched the keys, scales were like a row of pearls, trills like electric bells, and I said to myself, “Well, I will never be able to do that…” This is where my inferiority complex as a pianist comes from, which I have always had from that time.’

The Russian pianist Alexander Siloti, famed pupil of Nikolai Rubinstein, was less impressive: ‘[Siloti] had the idea that Liszt was always standing as a ghost directing his playing and telling him exactly what to do. He really believed that! He was a kind of spiritualist. I heard him play several times, and I thought him very sloppy.’

Petri springs to life ebulliently from these recollections and his recordings, but the posterity of Pierre Boulez’s piano compositions fortunately does not depend on his personal charm. Maurizio Pollini’s passionately lyrical renditions, followed by Ran Dank, Paavali Jumppanen and other dauntless younger pianists, ensure they will be heard in concert. O’Hagan, an interpreter of music by Boulez and other modernists, and co-editor of Pierre Boulez Studies (Cambridge University Press), is an insightful analyst and this paperback edition of a book that appeared in 2017 is most welcome. Clearly an admirer of the composer, O’Hagan readily admits the costive nature of Boulez’s pianistic inspiration. After composing two sonatas in his early 20s, Boulez did not finish another keyboard work for four decades. All the while, as was his wont, an unstinting flow of verbiage explained his efforts, even the abortive ones. So it is a real accomplishment that in an informed 2013 interview with Boulez reprinted here, O’Hagan manages to map out new ground. Politely describing as ‘working with objets trouvés’ Boulez’s habit of cannibalising his early works when creating new ones, O’Hagan does not entirely succeed in chasing the image of Boulez as a Pecksniffof modern music, whose hate-filled conducting of Mozart piano concertos on a recording with Yvonne Loriod is almost a crime against humanity.

Unlike the open-minded Petri, who would remind students, ‘Don’t believe anything I tell you. You must convince yourself,’ Boulez was nothing if not doctrinaire. The Frenchman’s death at age 90 in 2016 has freed pianophiles from his decrees imposed from on high, which may provide an opportunity to experience his compositions at some distance from the officially authorised, yet sometimes icily unengaging, Parisian school of Boulez interpretation at the keyboard. For bold future performers, O’Hagan’s book will prove an ideal guide.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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