It is the same in almost every field of endeavor: the big stars shine so brightly they blot out many others whose efforts are also worthwhile. Over the past century of recordings, we have had many famous and excellent pianists who have made major recording careers: Sviatoslav Richter, Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Wilhelm Backhaus, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and many others. But record-collecting pianophiles know that there are also many major pianists who are forgotten by all but a handful of specialists. Here are a few of my favorites.
A hardcore pianophile friend of mine once told me that he was listening to my radio program, "The Grand Piano," and heard me doing a preview for the next show. I referred to "the greatest pianist you've never heard of," and he thought immediately of Rosita Renard (1894-1949). And he was right.
Renard has one of the sparsest discographies of any major pianist. Although she played several times in the United States and Europe, she spent most of her career in Chile, where she recorded a handful of 78 rpms for Victor and Brunswick. During World War II she was discovered by the conductor Erich Kleiber, and in 1949 she performed in New York, at Carnegie Hall, for the first time in more than two decades. Her concert was a great success, and she returned to Chile to prepare for a United States tour. But she contracted encephalitis, and died at the age of fifty-five.
Fortunately, Renard's Carnegie Hall recital was recorded. It was originally issued in a limited LP edition by the Society of Friends of Music of Bogota (perhaps a bogus organization, since the LPs were only issued in the United States), then reissued by International Piano Archives (IPA 120/121, 1977). Its current edition on compact disc (VAI Audio VAIA/IPA 1028-2) is supplemented by a generous selection of Renard's 78s.
The recital shows a great pianist at the very highest level. She plays Bach's Partita no. 1, BWV 825, and Mozart's Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, very swiftly and cleanly, and with tremendous drama. Her Chopin etudes are breathtaking. This is, frankly, one of the greatest recorded live piano recitals ever issued. While the material from the 78s is not as exciting, lacking the stimulus of the live audience, it is still consistent with the level of pianism and musicianship heard in the live concert.
There are a few more Renard 78s not part of this collection, including a set of the same Mozart sonata. Some Renard Beethoven performances, from 78s and airchecks, were included on a private LP so obscure that it does not have a label name. Until some enterprising label picks up these items for another compact disc, they will be inaccessible to nearly everyone. But the VAL set is enough to convince us of Renard's greatness.
Buhlig (1880-1952) was an American pianist and teacher. He made no commercial recordings at all, only a few piano rolls. At his home in Los Angeles in 1938, he made some private acetates, playing in his living room, which reveal him to have been a titan. Unfortunately, a serious memory slip mars the fugue in Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, no. 29, but otherwise (and throughout the Sonata no. 30 as well) the playing is engrossing and mesmerising, as it is in Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and an excerpt from book 2 of his Well-Tempered Clavier. The sound quality of these old home recordings is quite listenable. All of this material was issued as Dante HPC 015, but the recording has now disappeared from the catalogs with the collapse of the company in 2001. It is well worth searching for.
This Romanian Jewish pianist (her religion is relevant due to her obscurity during the Second World War) was born in 1895 and died in 1980. In the 1920s, she had a substantial career, including associations with numerous composers and such highlights as performing the cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas with Joseph Szigeti. …