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Charles Rosen: He could pick a fight in an empty room

Days after Charles Rosen's death in December, videos began to appear in which the master pianist was seen holding forth in accent-free French on the music of Pierre Boulez, in Italian on the problems of music criticism and in robust Upper West Side English on practically every topic known to man, at irrepressible length and with irrefutable authority. Charles was the epitome of the philosopher-pianist, a hybrid species that risks extinction with his passing and which deserves more concentrated attention than he himself accorded it, and in much shorter sentences. So there.

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 . . ."

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Cliff K.
March 17th, 2013
12:03 PM
A most enjoyable article. But as Amar pointed out, "a fusion of piano and cerebellum" is not so unusual; indeed, the cerebellum is the part of your brain responsible for motor coordination, so I would think all pianists would require one in excellent working order!

March 11th, 2013
9:03 PM
Yes, but the next next great philosopher-pianist is Paavali Jumppanen.

Sir Huddleston Fuddleston
March 11th, 2013
7:03 PM
Albert Schweitzer was an organist. Shame on you.

March 11th, 2013
6:03 PM
Charles Rosen never, to my knowledge, addressed the question of the pianos' temperament, remaining in the straight-jacket of equal temperament and completely missing the real reasons that composers chose the keys for their compositions that they did.

March 11th, 2013
1:03 PM
Pardon me for asking, did you mean cerebrum instead?

Larry Janowski
March 11th, 2013
12:03 PM
Thank you for that last paragraph. I was waiting for Stephen Hough's name to be mentioned. After hearing him perform in Chicago last year, I would have left the hall enthralled. After hearing him speak in a post-concert conversation, I was doubly impressed, much in the way Lebrecht is in this essay on Rosen.

March 5th, 2013
6:03 PM
And you, Norman Lebrecht, are no slouch as a musician/philosopher yourself!

March 4th, 2013
5:03 PM
I was also thinking of Denk! He writes lyrically and yet accessibly, if sometimes less academically. I just checked his bio, and it turns out he majored in chemistry as an undergrad.

February 28th, 2013
7:02 PM
The next great philosopher-pianist is Jeremy Denk.

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