Piano Man

Charles Rosen
Charles Rosen; drawing by David Levine

I first heard Charles Rosen performing around 1970 at Symphony Hall in Chicago. If my memory is correct, he substituted at the last minute for a more widely known pianist. What good fortune for the nearly packed house. For me it was my first exposure to the intoxicating world of Liszt’s transcriptions and paraphrases (free arrangements rather than literal renditions) of other composers. His playing was singular—muscular yet poetic, hedonistic yet deeply spiritual, spontaneous yet meticulously thought out. Only a few years later, I found in a bookstore his equally virtuosic exploration, The Classical Style.

If Rosen harbors even a slight regret about his remarkable career, it might be that in many quarters he is better known as the author of Schoenberg, Sonata Forms, and The Romantic Generation, in addition to The Classical Style, and as the main musical voice of The New York Review, than as one of the major pianists of his time. He would probably be better known as a pianist if he had not published a single word about music. That he has not belonged to the most visible group of concert pianists that includes Murray Perahia, Emmanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, and Richard Goode is a circumstance with multiple causes (including his decision to play Boulez rather than Brahms, Schoenberg and Carter rather than Schubert and Copland).

Piano Notes, then, is more than just another musical study; it is the author’s attempt to make sense of and reconcile the twin facets of a career that many have viewed as separate. Rosen announces at the beginning that his short book is

about the experience of playing the piano…. What has interested me most of all is the relation of the physical act of playing to those aspects of music generally considered more intellectual, spiritual, and emotional….

Along the way he exhibits the gift abundantly present in his writings over the last three decades: the apt choice of a musical example to illustrate a point we have probably not even considered. Hence we have the “arpeggiated tenth” in Brahms’s Op. 118/2 which imitates “a singer trying to reach a high note”; the right-hand canon in Chopin’s last mazurka, “as if the sense that a single melody was producing two voices could be magnified when it was achieved by a single hand”; or the piling up of resonant third intervals in Brahms’s Op. 119/1, where “the chord vibrates more and more as the arpeggiation proceeds.”

Indeed, no one, to my knowledge, is more qualified than Rosen to present the “experience” of playing the piano. His generation (and no other member of it combines the talent of pianist and critic1 ) represents the last living link with the golden age of pianism. When the seventy-six-year-old former pupil of Liszt (and of Chopin’s assistant, Karol Mikuli), Moriz Rosenthal, settled in New York in 1938, he took on the…

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