Versatile, Fearless Charles Rosen at the Piano

Charles Rosen: The Complete Columbia and Epic Album Collection

Sony Classical, 21 CDs, $60.00
Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991
Dominique Nabokov
Charles Rosen, New York City, 1991

Record companies are rarely confused with charitable organizations. How then to explain the recent release in a boxed set of twenty-one CDs corresponding to the twenty-one LPs that the pianist and writer Charles Rosen recorded for the Columbia and Epic labels between 1959 and 1972 (around eighteen and a half hours of music), at a price unthinkable even a decade ago? Tokyo-based Sony—now the keeper of grand old labels that include former behemoths CBS and RCA—has released this collection from an artist whose sales at the time of his death in 2012 were modest at best.

What changed? Transitions from one technology to another are inevitably laced with ironies, and the shift in musical circles from analog to digital is no exception. Sales of classical music recordings surged for a decade with the introduction of commercial CDs in 1982 (first irony); CD sales have declined steadily for at least fifteen years as more and more recordings moved to digital formats. The very technology that produced the surge eventually laid waste to it (second irony). Whether you subscribe to the notion that interest in Beethoven and other famous composers has also waned depends on where you sit and whether you have a stake in the answer.

To put the matter bluntly, declining CD sales have forced struggling labels to invent new strategies for moving inventory. The new calculus looks like this: the purchase rate of a boxed set of Rosen’s recordings by those who admire his considerable achievements will approach 100 percent. CDs today cost pennies to manufacture; stiff paper packaging is cheap. If single CDs no longer sell, then even modest sales of boxed sets no longer encumbered by plastic jewel cases (or, in many cases, royalties) are winners.

Berlin-based Deutsche Grammophon (since 1999 a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) lays claim to launching the boxed set craze in 1995. However, those sets were largely based on repertoire: Bach cantatas, Beethoven quartets, Mahler symphonies. In 1999, when a major American label (RCA) released a ninety-four-CD box of Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings, it demanded $1,300 and got few takers.

Sony learned its lesson. Acquiescing to the shift in interest from repertoire to performers and the downward pressure on prices, the super-label embarked on an orgy of inexpensive performer-based boxed sets. In 2012 it repackaged Rubinstein’s ninety-four CDs into 142 (paralleling their original LP albums) for 30 percent of the 1999 price. Between 2012 and 2014 Sony released boxes averaging two dozen CDs each from pianists William Kapell, Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, Van Cliburn, and Murray Perahia, as well as the Rosen set. The Perahia box took the discount prize: sixty-seven CDs plus five DVDs for under $150—just over $2 a disk.

Sony shows no signs of slowing down. In 2015 it released the Russian pianist Sviatislav Richter’s complete American recordings (CBS and RCA formerly fought bitterly over the rights). Sony’s most enduringly recyclable CBS packages are those for the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who gets released in successively larger boxes, the most recent consisting of eighty-one discs for $169 (even these apparently do not yet exhaust what lies in the vault).

The Europeans had little choice but to join in: in 2013 a fifty-CD set from Decca of Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (one disc for each year of his association with the label), in 2015 a twenty-five-CD collection of Itzhak Perlman, and others. With a single track on iTunes going for an average of $.99, a $2.50 disc with ten tracks you can copy as many times as you wish sounds mighty attractive. In a final irony, as new recordings are increasingly downloaded from online sites, this very deluge signals the end of the CD era.

The question of consequence that these economically driven boxes raises is obvious enough: Does an industrial-strength serving of recordings change our view of an artist’s achievements or historical significance? In almost all cases that answer would be: only around the margins. For example, Perahia’s first fifty-two CDs contain a steady diet of music from Mozart to Brahms, with an occasional side dish of Bartók. On the fifty-third CD he discovered the keyboard music of Bach, with which he has been much involved ever since. Rubinstein aficionados may discover hidden gems in the mammoth Sony set but our general view of his pianism remains largely unaltered.

Charles Rosen provides a singular exception. To understand why this is so requires comparison to the three most important American-born pianists of his generation—Byron Janis, Leon Fleisher, and Gary Graffman—all born a year after Rosen. Two attended elite conservatories (Janis at Juilliard, Graffman at Curtis), while Fleisher came from San Francisco to study with Artur Schnabel and his pupil Maria Curcio—the two most in-demand, most modern teachers in New York City. Two entered (and won) major piano competitions (Graffman the Leventritt in 1949, Fleisher the Queen Elisabeth in 1952).

All three followed the route that offered the best shot at celebrity: playing late Romantic piano concertos, especially those of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. All three suffered physical ailments (arthritis for Janis, focal dystonia for Fleisher and Grafmann) that forced them to cut back prematurely or even withdraw from live performance. All three published anecdotally driven autobiographies (Graffman in 1982, Janis and Fleisher in 2010).

Rosen took the road less traveled. After five years in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division he left at age eleven to study with Moriz Rosenthal, a pupil of Liszt. He never enrolled at a music institution again. He never entered a major competition. He was uninterested in late Romantic concertos. A lifetime of playing never led to physical impairments. His book Piano Notes (2002) remained conspicuously silent about his own career. A mind of insatiable curiosity produced one of the greatest writers about music from any era. No surprise that his pianism was both misunderstood and undervalued.

Now that he is gone we realize that with all the justified admiration flowing in his direction, Rosen turns out to have been a poor (and uninterested) self-promoter. Though he described himself as a pianist for whom writing was an occasional hobby, where is the official website carefully cultivated to shape our views? (Go to danielbarenboim.com or itzhakperlman.com or jeremydenk.com and you will find professional websites that also sell their CDs.) Where are the YouTube videos or live-performance DVDs for sale? (Surf YouTube and you will come upon more than three dozen videos of Alfred Brendel. You will even discover more than a dozen by the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, who was born in 1903, a full generation before Rosen.)

For someone with his long life in Manhattan and travel to almost every corner of the globe, the documentation of Rosen’s career is dishearteningly sparse. Not a single video of a concert or studio performance survives (we must content ourselves with the brief examples from Bach and Handel in a 1997 BBC documentary of Bach’s life). In addition to a sprinkling of audio recordings on YouTube there are a trio of WNCN audio interviews from the 1980s (where Rosen deftly sidesteps his host’s fawning style to praise pianists from Walter Gieseking to Arrau to Brendel) and a quartet of dreamlike clips somewhere between Ionesco and Visconti in which he gives an interview in Italian, comments wittily at a symposium in French, delivers as a very alert mind in a dying body the inaugural lecture on music in twenty-first-century society at the CUNY Graduate Center, and—in the most bizarre exchange of all—interacts briefly with a youthful audio editor at an Emory University recording session for the Brahms Handel Variations.*

As she announces they are finished, Rosen segues with a childlike innocence into glissandi (difficult, continuous sweeps across the white keys carried out with the fingertips of each hand) from the Carl Tausig arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Man lebt nur einmal (You Only Live Once). His last recorded words as he limps offstage are: “You know, I have a special trick for that…” The voice trails away—we will never know the trick.

Rosen’s life straddled cultural developments decades apart. The boy who grew up idolizing Josef Hofmann’s annual recitals at Carnegie Hall (a few recordings of which survive; they sound different if you imagine a young Rosen on the edge of his seat) lived into the era when the piano recital had become an endangered species. The youngster who grew up to the warm crackle of 78 rpm records lived into the cool, disembodied sounds of the digital world. The prodigy (which he was in spite of public protestations) who at age eleven crossed paths with the septuagenarian Rosenthal lived into the era when you could pull up almost instantly on YouTube a hundred different recordings of the same Chopin nocturne.

Rosen negotiated some of these gulfs by remaining steadfastly (some might say eccentrically) in the past. The yellow legal pads on which he famously drafted The Classical Style are the same format as the single page he fidgets with throughout his ninety-minute 2012 CUNY presentation. It also worked the other way around: rather than gear up for international competitions he instead earned a Ph.D. in French literature at Princeton, where he practiced the Debussy Études in his dorm lobby.

Critical opinions about Rosen the pianist were from the beginning at odds. Of his 1953 Town Hall recital, the respected composer/critic Virgil Thomson heard “a musical mind of great strength…. Everywhere the tone was beautiful, the rhythm powerful, the singing line plangent and commanding…. He will be the pianist of all our dreams. His gift and mastery are that good.” Of an earlier recital an unnamed critic for The New York Times opined:

The total impression Mr. Rosen left was that his talents, both as a musician and as a technician, are not yet very well integrated. The playing from selection to selection was uneven. Often in the same composition there were some parts that were lovely and some that just seemed to be deftly fingered.

This disagreement seems to have followed Rosen throughout his career.

For this reason alone the reissue of the Columbia/Odyssey recordings assumes far greater significance than if he were a pianist about whom there is consensus. It is virtually impossible today to lay your hands on most of the half-dozen recordings Rosen made before 1959 for small labels long since gone. Most of those he made between 1977 and 1997 are out of print. The Sony set bears solitary witness to Rosen in his prime.

One indisputable fact emerges immediately: Charles Rosen was among the most versatile and fearless pianists of the twentieth century. (His successor in that role is Gilbert Kalish, another New York City born-and-bred pianist eight years Rosen’s junior.) It is not simply the repertoire that sets him apart but the specific programs that Rosen convinced Columbia to record. He championed precisely the works feared most by pianists.

In January 1959 the thirty-one-year-old Rosen stepped for the first time into CBS’s legendary 30th Street Studio (a converted church), auspiciously to record Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), viewed even among pianists as nearly unplayable. Ravel had openly intended to surpass the then title-holder for the world’s most impossible piano piece, Mily Balakirev’s Islamey (1869, revised in 1902). Gaspard had been recorded only twice: on Columbia 78s by Walter Gieseking in 1937 and on 33s in 1952 on the West Coast Capitol label by the twenty-eight-year-old, Los Angeles–based Leonard Pennario.

If Rosen knew either recording, his reading shows no signs that he did. In place of Gieseking’s characteristic wash of sound, Rosen’s lines emerge in Lisztian sharp relief. Pennario hears Gaspard as pretty and treats the daunting passages gingerly; Rosen embraces the ghoulish sentiments of Aloysius Bertrand’s poetry and throws off the glittery opening right-hand notes of Ondine (the first movement) and the blisteringly fast repeated notes in Scarbo (the third and final movement) with an ease that allows both the seductiveness and the fright of Gaspard to shine through.

Of his live performances of French music John Gruen in the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “In Debussy [Mr. Rosen] produce[s] a veritable spectrum of sound that vibrates and burgeons with incredible beauty…. When Mr. Rosen plays French music, he is unquestionably a master.” All the more unfortunate, then, that for his first seven albums he was treated to the Columbia “house sound”—close miking with almost no reverb. That sound, through no fault of Rosen’s, is often thin and pinched—inexcusable in a room with hundred-foot ceilings.

For albums eight through ten (from the end of 1963 through 1965), though, the recording was supervised by the legendary Fred Plaut—credited with engineering virtually every major orchestral, Broadway musical, and jazz recording (not to mention hundreds of artist photos) in the heyday of the label. These Rosen–Plaut pairings—one of Liszt and Bartók, followed by two late Beethoven sonatas, and a third appropriately titled Virtuoso!—rank among the finest piano recordings of the twentieth century.

Charles Rosen
Charles Rosen; drawing by David Levine

The Liszt/Bartók album opens with a hair-raising account of Liszt’s most (in)famous operatic paraphrase: the Grande Fantasie on themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. None of Rosen’s contemporaries recorded it. Liszt limited himself to three dramatic moments: the Commendatore’s foreboding judgment music, with which the opera opens and ends, and, from the third scene of Act I, the flagrantly erotic love duet between the Don and the peasant girl Zerlina and the Don’s “Champagne aria.” Although Liszt offers a nod in the final bars to the Don’s fate, it is the Don’s brashness and libido to which he pays tribute.

In a 1980 radio interview Rosen remarks tellingly that “Liszt is the first composer who thought about music as pure sound…very modern.” Rosen’s performance captures and connects all three sections in Liszt’s piece. Unlike listening to today’s self-indulgent high-speed races, you find yourself both appropriately frightened and singing along with Rosen; the murderous accuracy of his passagework makes it sound faster than the damper-pedal smears now fashionable.

One of only two works that Rosen recorded twice for Columbia was Beethoven’s monumental Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (known universally as the “Hammerklavier”)—a work fastidiously avoided by many pianists. Though he later claimed to change his mind—especially slowing the tempos of the first and last movements—the earlier (1964) reading counts as perhaps the most committed and penetrating of the numerous recordings made since Artur Schnabel proved in 1935 that he could not handle Op. 106.

It is not just that Rosen does justice to Beethoven’s impossibly fast metronome markings but that he captures the elemental energy implied by them. We plummet down twisting mountain roads minus guardrails yet never lose control. This makes the few places where Rosen lingers jaw-dropping. His marathon slow movement evokes a deep spirituality without ever sliding into sentimentality.

Rosen’s structural sense is everywhere evident though nowhere more so than in the unyielding fugal finale. He accomplishes this with a greatly heightened dynamic palette—especially at the barely audible end—that never allows interest to flag. He embraces the granitic, even ugly contrapuntal passages, which renders the serene presentation of the intermediate chorale all the more affecting.

Yet it is worth purchasing the entire Columbia set just for the final album in the Plaut tryptich. In Virtuoso! (unlikely to be his title) Rosen showcases all that he picked up from Rosenthal—himself a dazzling arranger. Curiously, the appeal of this album lies not in the pyrotechnics but in its irresistible charm. Rosen alludes directly to this in his understated note:

Today, the style of the great pianists of the first quarter of this century and the air of casual elegance cannot be recaptured…. Their technical mastery may still be found, but their ease of manner and their sense of high style have been lost forever: they played like gentlemen.

Indeed. His rendition of the Rachmaninoff arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid captures as memorably the celebrated Wiener Takt—in which the second beat comes slightly early and the third beat slightly late—as any recording of Johann Strauss Jr. with the late conductor Willi Boskovsky, the twentieth century’s keeper of his flame.

Any pianist in the 1960s who tackled Bach did so under the long shadow of Glenn Gould—especially Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” Gould took an esoteric work recorded by a few harpsichordists (including Wanda Landowska and Ralph Kirkpatrick) and turned it overnight into a pianistic best seller. Listeners were electrified by Gould’s intensity and the almost machine-like way in which he could reel off running passagework.

Rosen could easily have done the same (both recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio). But he was doubtless aware of Gould’s shortcomings: the omission of all sixty-four repeats that distorted the work’s scale and denied essential opportunities for embellishment, the percussive tone and delivery that robbed the piano of nuances, and the extreme tempos that shifted attention from the work to the performer.

Rosen’s singular “Goldbergs”—an instant cult classic upon its release in 1967 and one of his few recordings to stay continuously in print—inhabit a world less sensuous than that of either Murray Perahia or András Schiff (both of whom tackled this monument more than two decades later). Yet no reading before or since combines an uncanny spirituality with such a heightened sense of architecture. One utterly forgets the performer and hears only Bach.

The same spirit inhabits Bach’s The Art of the Fugue (several of its fourteen fugues required that Rosen overdub himself) and the great six-voiced Ricercar from Bach’s A Musical Offering that in 1999 Rosen called provocatively “the most significant piano work of the millennium.” (It was composed in 1747 for the king of Prussia, who owned more than a dozen early Silbermann fortepianos.) Collectively these three disks rank high among landmark Bach recordings.

In his mid-twenties Rosen became the first to record all twelve Debussy Études, which Virgil Thomson declared to be “the definitive recording of these works for many years to come.” Playing them again in his Columbia series (calling them “one of the monuments of our century”), Rosen replaced the veiled, heavily pedaled sonorities of Gieseking (who recorded the Études in his old age, the year after Rosen) with a clarity and transparency that have influenced two subsequent generations of pianists.

None of Rosen’s contemporaries can claim to have been asked specifically by three (then) living composers of the stature of Igor Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, and Pierre Boulez to record their works. At the time Rosen made these albums, few pianists gave a thought to tackling their steep learning curves. He brings the same commitment and musicality that he does to Haydn (just as undiscovered), Beethoven, and Liszt. Rosen’s abiding belief in Carter’s greatness led many to give this music a second hearing.

The mix of Columbia (the parent label) and Epic (founded in 1953 as both a boutique and sometimes budget arm) albums was recorded under the tape-editing system adopted by virtually all labels in the post–World War II era. Recording sessions were spread out over several days, often including a pickup session weeks or even months later. The high modernist quest for mistake-free perfection meant that aggressive edits down to a single note were routine.

The result for many artists was a cautious dullness. Yet most of the time Rosen maintains an air of spontaneity linked to a remarkable musicianship. On a Phi Beta Kappa tour he characteristically showed up without having prepared a lecture. About fifteen minutes before the start Rosen announced he would talk about late Beethoven quartets. Without recourse to a single score he delivered a spellbinding address that involved going repeatedly to the piano and playing (often while standing) sizable chunks from these elusive works without missing a beat.

Rosen provided his own program notes for most of the LPs—something no other pianist of his caliber was capable of doing at his level. In a radio interview he embellishes his own mythology by relating that he began to do so only upon seeing the treacly prose of James Huneker in the notes for Rosen’s 1960 Chopin album. It makes a good story, though the reality is that Rosen had written notes previously. We are much the better off for it. His album manner is at once intimate yet informative, chatty yet probing. (Inexplicably, the Bach disks include no notes; it is inconceivable that Rosen provided nothing for these groundbreaking releases.)

Just as liberal selections of the more than eighty essays he contributed to these pages have been reprinted in book form (in, for example, Critical Entertainments, 2000), it is a shame that Sony did not take the opportunity to reprint Rosen’s notes in readable form. The “original album” format touted by both Sony and its European counterparts is a euphemism for their cheapest possible reproduction. If you wish to read the notes you have two choices: a very powerful magnifying glass or scanning them and blowing them up on your computer.

A few albums expose Rosen’s vulnerabilities. Schubert’s late A-Major Sonata would benefit from more variety of color and sharper characterizations. Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major (one of the few warhorses that Rosen recorded) cries out for even more unhinged bravura—a surrender of control that he seems unwilling to make. Yet scarcely a single one of the 269 tracks lacks an “aha!” moment.

It seems fitting that Rosen’s thirteen-year Columbia series concluded with albums of music by Boulez and Anton Webern—two pillars of the twentieth-century avant-garde. In the mid-1950s a fanatically devoted group of young musicians had rallied around conductor Robert Craft to record Webern’s complete works. These premiere recordings made up for in enthusiasm and commitment what they lacked in finesse and, occasionally, comprehension.

The Rosen album (in which he was joined by soprano Heather Harper, violinist Isaac Stern, and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) demonstrated for the first time on recordings just what a major figure Webern was. In twenty songs totaling barely twenty-seven minutes Rosen shows himself to be a world-class collaborator, sensitive but prepared to go for the jugular. The disk concludes with the Variations for Piano, Op. 27 (Webern’s six-minute magnum opus for piano). Its faintly audible ppp conclusion evaporates along with Rosen’s only relationship to an established label. CBS then turned its attentions to younger artists like Murray Perahia and André Watts, who played music that the dwindling audience for classical recordings still bought. RCA longed for another Van Cliburn. Rosen never spoke publicly about the end of his remarkably productive and historic run.

There remains the haunting question of how and why Rosen lost his performing edge over the last two decades of an illustrious career. A painful (though partial) bootleg on YouTube of a 2010 Chopin recital in Irvine, California, includes a rushed, dynamically flat performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1—a far cry from the nuanced, silvery recording made for Columbia a half-century earlier. Rosen deserves to be remembered for that—and for the totality of an extraordinary legacy. We shall neither see nor hear the likes of him again soon.

Letters

On the Works and Notes of Charles Rosen March 31, 2016

  1. *

    There is also a New York Review podcast in which he plays and discusses the music of Chopin, available at nybooks.com/daily/2010/07/01/charles-rosen-plays-chopin/