Saturday, March 16, 2013

Charles Rosen: An Intellectual Pianist

Thoughtful Music



Charles Rosen [1927-2012] at his home in 2007; although Rosen wrote extensively, he consideed himself a painist first; writing for him was, as he stated, "a hobby."
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Source: NY Times

An article, by Norman Lebrecht, in Stanpoint defends the pianist Charles Rosen, who was known to air his intellectual ideas forcefully, enjoying a good argument, as any intellectual ought to. Lebrecht writes:
Charles was, first off, a pianist. Steeped in the grand tradition by the Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal, and drawn to the  Russian fantasy by the playing of Josef Hofmann, he imposed an incontrovertible immediacy on whatever he played, be it Bach's Goldberg Variations or the constipated chordal sequences of middle-period Elliott Carter. His manner of playing made you believe that this piece could go no other way.
A friend who heard him play on ill-tuned Oxford college pianos observes that, of all modern pianists, only Sviatoslav Richter possessed that monumental rightness in performance — that sense of having received the truth from source and, simultaneously, asserting that it would never sound the same again, that its centre of gravity would shift as the earth turns. If you can afford the ICA Classics release of Richter's Festival Hall Beethoven recital of June 18, 1975 you will hear exactly what is meant by this rightness. I would love to recommend a Rosen recital by way of further validation, but his label, in idiot hands, has let the entire oeuvre lapse out of print so you will have to make do with less edifying YouTube uploads.
Rosen, unlike Richter, was fond of making grand statements. Bach, he declared, was the only first-rate composer. Chopin wrote the best piano sonatas. Schoenberg was not an atonal theorist but a creator in whom "the emotion is so violent and so consistently tense that for a great many people he is a non-emotional composer". He issued these pronouncements with the intention to provoke an argument, and seldom failed. Like every hard-working intellectual, he could pick a fight in an empty room and regarded contrariness as being part of life's purpose.
We once quarrelled in a BBC studio about declining attendances at classical concerts. "On occasion," intoned Charles with lofty disdain, "I have played for as few as 15 people in a recital. Of course, 12 of them held Nobel prizes . . ."
His intellectualism arose (as it does in most) from a fear of boredom — in particular, I suspect, from an awful anxiety that music itself would fail to satisfy his personal need for meaning. While rehearsing for his concert debut at 23 years old, he completed a PhD in French literature at Princeton, adding further credits in mathematics and philosophy.
Boredom can ideed induce a need in the high-minded to discuss and defend ideas in a forceful and animated fashion; that Rosen was both a musician and a thinker is a good thing; that he provoked arguments is also understandable. Who doesn't enjoy a good argument now and then, an argument of ideas, that is.

Rosen is likely best known for his book, The Classical Style (1971), which won the U.S. National Book Award for nonfiction in 1972. In this work, Rosen examined three of the greatest classical composers: Haydyn, Mozart and Beethoven, and did painstaking research on what it was that made this classical trio so great. It came down to musical structure, and as Margalit Fox wrote in The New York Times: "It was precisely this structure that his book, through a painstaking unraveling of Haydn’s string quartets, Mozart’s comic operas, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and other seminal works, sought to make plain." 

Charles Rosen died of cancer in New York City on December 9, 2012, leaving no immediate survivors; he was 85. [A NY Times obituray can be found here].

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You can read the rest of the article at [Standpoint]