Monday, April 27, 2009

Noel, Noel

Today I was thinking about Noel Straus who was this long-ago music reviewer for the New York Times.

Noel Straus used to have kind of the young-pianist beat. He entered the orbit of my research because he used to pick apart Leonard Pennario, whom I am writing my book about, and William Kapell, Leonard's friend and fellow pianist.

The folks on this William Kapell Web site write that Kapell's teacher, Olga Samaroff, got so mad at a review Straus wrote about Kapell that she threatened to call him out on it and make him explain himself publicly point by point.

Definitely do not do that, I was thinking. Not a good idea! And she did not.

Luckily she let off her steam by playing the Ride of the Valkyries which, you can hear her doing that here.

I do not blame Madame Samaroff, I have to say that. This Noel Straus, his criticism just seems to me humorless, annoying and uninspiring.

“All his performances were technically glib and fluent," Straus wrote of Kapell. “But the tone employed had grown percussive, and was invariably brash and metallic. … Rhythms were restless and unsteady, while energy and brilliance, rather than imagination, insight and inner life, characterized the series of readings."

I think that was the critique that sent Samaroff over the edge.

But four years later, when Kapell was 25, things had not improved. “He had not even become acquainted with the proper manner of playing the ornaments in the Mozart work, and was as much at sea as to the composer’s intentions from the start to the finish of the masterpiece,” Noel wrote.

Now everyone talks about Kapell as if he is like this god and it is funny to think that he and Pennario got beat up like this. Kapell was two years older than Pennario but they seemed to be catching the same criticisms at about the same time.

I decided I wanted to see what this Straus was about so I went online and that is where I found the picture above. Straus is the finicky little guy in the background sitting on a couch and talking to a woman with her hair in a bun. Not the guy in the kind-of foreground, immediately to the right of the guy in the front with the beard. That is Virgil Thomson. The guy with the beard is Leo Lerman.

"It seemed difficult to believe that his interpretative gifts, meager as they proved, or even his technical abilities, were superior to those of Dussek, Moscheles, Dreyschock or Stradal, to mention the first Czech pianists who come to mind." That is Straus crabbing over Rudolf Firkusny, who was recklessly billed in 1938 as the greatest Czech pianist.

Wow, the power critics used to wield! I was just on the New York Times' Web site searching for Straus' name and all these obituaries come up, quoting Straus and his oh-so-faint praise.

But I could find no obituary for Straus himself.

Perhaps he is still among us!

Anyone out there want to invite him to your piano recital?


  1. Paradox: I question criticism as a profession, but I've learned SO MUCH from reading critics. Harold Schonberg knew Straus and wrote about him in his (Schonberg's) book "Facing The Music". Perhaps Beethoven would have called him an "elende schuft", as he did a critic who panned the Battle Symphony. Beethoven went on to write (in the margin of the printed article) "what I defecate (Beethoven's word was shorter and earthier) is better than anything you ever thought of."

    Which was true, but which leads to another paradox: The critic was right. He triggered Beethoven's angry reaction by saying the Battle Symphony was unworthy of such a great composer.

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