Sunday, March 8, 2009

Think of England

Reading Gramophone is an adventure, I will say that! But it is not what I had expected it to be when I rhapsodized about it yesterday. These Brits and their music criticism! And their colons, and their semicolons!

Don't get me wrong. I love the British. My good friend Alenka from church is British. She is the one who wrote the biography of Leonard Cheshire ...

... and we have a lot of fun comparing and contrasting our respective Leonards, mine being the pianist Leonard Pennario, pictured above.

But there is something about these British critics that makes it almost excruciating to follow Pennario through the years, which is what I was using the Gramophone site to do seeing that I am writing this book about him.

My journey begins in 1952 when Pennario gave a debut recital at London's Wigmore Hall, a debut that knocked people's socks off, in particular the critic Andrew Porter's. That was when Porter wrote that famous ecstatic review with the line: "No one today plays the piano better than Pennario."

Which is nice. That is is all well and good! But then we go from there. A little while after the Wigmore Hall recital, Porter writes:

I may have been hypnotised when I heard Leonard Pennario's only recital in this country so far, in the Wigmore Hall on June 20th, 1952; but in that case so, independently, were the two people whose opinions on piano playing I most value, who happened to be at the concert too. It may be that Pennario on that evening was particularly inspired. This, his latest record, leaves me in the ungraceful position of trying to wriggle from the position of extreme enthusiasm in which that recital left me. These are two of the pieces he played: Mephisto and the Barcarolle. Neither, it must be said, is remarkable. The Barcarolle should surely start with veiled tone: an embarkation in the halflight. So Dinu Lipatti played it, in a wonderful performance preserved on Columbia LX1437; so Claudio Arrau plays it, in Volume i of his Chopin just issued. But Pennario sets out in everyday light; blah blah blah...

That "blah blah blah" is mine. I guess Andrew Porter will not be talking to me for my book after that. But I could not help it. Anyway, let's continue. A little while later, a new Pennario record comes out. I was glad to see it gave A.P. reason to get back his old enthusiasm:

I first heard Leonard Pennario in the Wigmore Hall last June, when he moved me to write what an American correspondent described as "incontinent ravings." Pennario's new record, more successful than any of his previous ones, should show why I raved. To find comparisons with Pennario one casts for the name of the greatest pianistic giants...

Even the complimentary reviews Pennario gets, there is something funny about them. He was such an unfussy pianist -- we were just talking about that in yesterday's post -- and here he is being dissected in the most detailed, scientific terms. It is as if these British critics are fascinated by him, this unusual American, so absurdly full of life, but they aren't sure what to make of him.

This is part of a glowing review in Feb. 1959 of Pennario's record of the Grieg Piano Concerto:

Pennario sometimes seems to be the sort of pianist who is happiest when the music is really difficult, and a little at a loss when it is easy. In the slow movement of the Grieg he misses much of the poetry of the piano entry, yet elsewhere he cheerfully adds to his technical problems by playing some of the hardest passages faster than is either usual or really necessary. This is an extremely brilliant and glittering performance. The orchestra too is very much on its toes, and the result is vitality and a good deal of excitement.

But the Chopin preludes, a record I find glorious, gets this from a critic signing himself S.P.

I was disappointed with this. Much as I admired the agility and above all the clarity of the playing, I couldn't help feeling that time and time again Chopin had passed Pennario by. Not, be it noted, the other way round — for Pennario makes a show of espressivo playing when he feels he should and is anxious not to skimp anything: but his rubato invariably succeeds only in laming the music, never in elevating it. ... I made fairly full notes about this performance as I listened but detailed criticism is hardly necessary when other recorded performances by Rubinstein, Arrau, Askenase and Moura Lympany exist that deserve it far more.

And now for my favorite. This is a critic dissecting Pennario's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Pennario comes close to achieving the impossible; his performance is brilliant in the highest degree. To call it also soulless is not, I hope, so damaging as it sounds; the music does not set out much to exercise the soul in the first place. And the brilliance does lend a great deal of point to many passages which are apt to sound not so startling in the original as in the arrangements...

Here is a picture of Pennario's beautiful Ravel record featuring "Le Tombeau de Couperin."

About this, another initialed critic pontificates:

The impressionist label can't really be made to stick on Ravel's music; it has a nervous grace and clarity that is far removed from the sort of tonal fog that word conjures up. It is no coincidence that Ravel chose to pay homage to Couperin, and I cannot help feeling that a course of playing French harpsichord music would work wonders for Mr. Pennario's understanding of Ravel — at the very least it might persuade him not to ignore the spiky articulation Ravel prescribes for the subject of the fugue in Le Tombeau de Couperin...

OK, I'll stop now. And tomorrow I'll go back to writing about other stuff besides Leonard Pennario. But here is what killed me. In the middle of all this the Gramophone search engine tossed up the obituary the magazine ran last June. "The American pianist Leonard Pennario has died, age 83..."

As if they had nitpicked him to death!

You just picture all these critics, A.P., J.N., R.F. and the rest, all gathered around his body, pecking away at him. I am sorry, that is the image I have.

No one told me being a biographer would be like this.

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