Temporary gloom has engulfed our home – the CD player is broken. The loss has sent me back to some of my remaining L.P.’s, and I have been listening in particular to recordings by the legendry pianist, Solomon (professionally he never used his family name). He was the seventh son of an East End master-tailor. In flight from his ambitious teacher, Mathilde Verne (his first public performance taking place when he was only eight years old), he studied in Paris and rebuilt his confidence. He toured Europe before and after the war, making annual visits to the U.S.A. in the 40’s and 50’s. He gave the first performance of Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto (Adrian Boult conducting) in New York.
I saw him perform only once. At my school! Like all the artists who appeared there the poor man had to play on the school grand piano. I recall his characteristic look into the middle distance as if he was communing with the music, his head slightly to one side. In this case the delight in his expression was mixed with the distaste he obviously felt at the imperfections of the instrument he was presented with.
My L.P.’s include Mozart concertos and sonatas together with Beethoven and Brahms concertos. He was a beautifully poised and refined pianist, with a virtuoso’s technique, totally at the service of the composer. The critic William Hadley says his playing was ‘serious, understated, refined, purposeful.’ Some people found him cool, even detached and although marvelling at his total control, the delicacy and certainty of his art, I have had sympathy with that view. Until now. For I have been listening again to his performance of the Brahms second piano concerto.
It is absolutely stunning and I have been bowled over by it. Everything about it. The newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Issay Dobrowen plays with brilliance and precision on a 1947 mono recording, the strings harsh but the total sound amazing for its age with enormous presence; a real sense of being there.
One critic suggests – and I agree- that this is a performance against which all other recordings should be judged, including the famed Emil Gilels recording.
Solomon was commissioned to record all the Beethoven piano sonatas. Half way through the project he became aware that his fingers were slipping and a few months later he suffered a massive stroke which paralyzed the whole of one side of his body. He was 57 and never played in public again. Tragic for him, for he was at the peak of his powers, it was an immeasurable loss to music. But we still have his recordings, and they help us to share his unique insight into the works of the great composers, of whom he was both brilliant interpreter and faithful servant.