Music Educators Association of New Jersey

Serving teachers and students since 1927

January 2019


Jed Distler Brings Piano Gold


MEA Programs Chair Sophia Agranovich introduced us to the warm and wonderful Jed Distler ( this brisk January morn. We first met Jed in 2014 when he spoke about “Composers at the Keyboard: A Fresh Look at an Old Tradition.” Today we again dove into his collection of 78 RPM albums as he presented “The Golden Age of Pianism on Record.” Jed kept us engaged and intrigued with his ever-fascinating collection of some of the best (and one of the worst) golden age recordings. Jed eschewed the podium this morning, preferring a more face-to-face experience. He felt our gathering here in the Madison Library was “more like a party” and invited back row guests to join the folks up front in the “expensive seats.”

Jed has always been fascinated by performance/practice pianism of the Romantic Era/ Golden Age. These 78s provide a wealth of information and evidence about the Romantic style. He hoped that they would provide us with musical pleasure as well. In the musical zeitgeist of today, he commented, musicians concern themselves more than ever with playing “the correct way” for a particular era. They are obsessed with authenticity, from finding the correct original instrument, to researching ornamentation, to determining a real Mozart adagio or Beethoven allegro, to questioning the metronome markings. For authentic Romantic music interpretation closer to our time, we can glean information directly from old recordings. Ironically, not many young performers know about this material or have shown a real interest in it as far as performance practice. Curious minds may find some answers to their questions in these recordings.

Jed led us on a journey including 14 curated recordings from his extensive library, highlighting various performers, and demonstrating ways in which numerous artists played a variety of Romantic music. Away we go!

Who’s the Romantic? Jed played two recordings of Chopin’s F# Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 back to back, and asked us to guess which player was the Romantic pianist. The big reveal? The 1970’s recording heard first was Russian Pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who brought a very linguistic quality to his performance. The much faster paced second recording was by Polish-American pianist Josef Hofmann, a pupil of Anton Rubinstein. Jed noted this 1935 recording highlights Chopin’s decorative writing, taken pretty much in steady tempo. In this comparison, the Romantic Hofmann sounded relatively Classic and restrained.

Sveda and de Pachmann play the Chopin Mazurka in A flat, Op. 50 No. 2. Jed described pianist John Mark Louise Sveda (b. 1949) as musically ‘taking a swan dive’ at one point in this recording. Then we heard a 112-yearold recording of Vladimir de Pachmann playing this Mazurka “straight as a tack.” He noted that a lot of the best romantic pianists who were trained in the later part of the 19th century display a reserve and a sense of proportion in their playing. They were trained to project a singing tone at all times, and had a keen awareness of polyphonic voices.

Moiseiwitsch plays Lizst. Jed marveled that Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) recorded the Lizst Concert Etude No. 2, La Leggierezzo, in 1941 in one take. Amazing! We heard the feathery lightness with which he played the righthand filigree, and listened for his baselines and inner voicings. Jed noted the final cadenza Moiseiwitsch played was written by Leschetizky, which is different from the Lizst ending. “I know it’s heresy, but I actually prefer the Leschetizky ending!” Guest lecturer Harold Schonberg said in one of Jed’s college classes, “I would give anything to hear this piece again for the first time!” Such is the beauty of the Moiseiwitsch recording.

For Moriz Rosenthal recording began later in life. Rosenthal (1862-1946) began a recording career in his mid-sixties. Jed noted his wonderful degrees of tonal shading and very personalized rubato. “I think this (Chopin’s Nouvelle Etude in A flat Major) is better experienced than talked about. Let’s listen.” We did, with quiet reflection.

Well-Tempered Busoni. This 1922 recording of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major (WTC I) was by Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Busoni left an indelible impression on almost everyone that heard him. His original compositions were on the edge of the repertoire, but he always had his champions. Jed noted in this recording, “He does things that you would not like – if he did this at a lesson you would rake him over the coals.” He then asked,” Could we check our assumptions and our stylistic superiority at the door, and let’s try to listen to other things?”

The Austere vs. Mad Scientist approach. Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff tended to be very straightforward and austere in recordings of his own works, but became a “mad scientist” when recording the music of other composers. In this recording of Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor Op. 64 No. 2, he gives each section a very different character. We listened for his phrasing over the bar lines, his careful balancing of chords, and the thumb counterline when the second theme returns, “…kind of a neat effect.”

Rubinstein plays a Jed favorite. Now on to three recordings of Chopin’s B Major Mazurka Op. 41 by Arthur Rubinstein. These recordings, from the 1930’s, 50’s and 60’s, give us some insight into his evolution as a pianist. He had a very long career, recording first in 1928 at the age of 41, continuing until he was almost 90. The contrasts in the three recordings were fascinating. Rubinstein’s evolution as a player over the course of four decades was quite evident, and we were captivated to hear him change over time.

We’ve heard the best, now, perhaps the worst! At the behest of an audience member a few years ago, Jed chose Mark Hamburg’s 1931 recording of the Chopin’s A flat Waltz Op. 42 as one of the worse of the 78s. He described Hamburg as ‘kind of the Ed Ward of the piano.’ In conclusion, “Needless to say, this recording has never been reissued.”

The Antidote to Mark Hamburg. Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948) played Chopin’s E flat Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 2. Jed noted “I have always loved this recording.” Freeman was a Leschetizky student and quite famous for his recordings of the Chopin Mazurkas. Jed referred to Vladimir de Pachmann’s comment that this recording “was probably the most beautiful singing and proportioned performance ever recorded of a Chopin Nocturne.”

A South Carolinian plays Von Weber. We had heard many pianists from Russia and Poland but the finale was a brilliant performance by a pianist from South Carolina, Sidney Foster (1917-1977) of “Perpetuum Mobile,” the 4th movement of Carl Maria von Weber’s Piano Sonata No.1. Jed mentioned that this showcase piece had been a very popular encore piece for pianists in the past. We could hear why! After a warm and enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, Jed asked for any questions or comments.

Q- How have these recordings influenced your playing?
A- They give you options and ideas." When listening, “Don’t make a judgment, just make observations of the playing.

Q –Can you talk about your radio show?
A – Jed’s monthly program “Kids on the Keys” can be heard on WWFM radio. “Kids on the Keys” showcases live performances of young keyboard talents mostly from Southern and Central New Jersey. Jed encouraged the MEA audience to send broadcast-quality student recordings to him for consideration.

Q - The 78 recordings often seem fast. Is that due to limited recording time and/or the technology of the time?
A – Not necessarily. We can hear Gershwin live recordings, and notice that he is playing just as fast! Jed noted earlier that these ‘Shellac Era’ recordings were virtually live, as there was no technology to digitally edit after the players made the recordings.

Thanks to Hospitality Chair Karen Dann Sundquist and Past Hospitality Chair Rebecca Eng for the wonderful treats and beverages served after Jed’s presentation. This provides a time for members to socialize and chat with guest speakers and colleagues: very enjoyable! After sharing this musical morning with our esteemed guest and talented members, I felt, as Comden and Greene wrote, “So lucky to be me.”