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November 28, 2009

Blast from the Past: Benno Moiseiwitsch

It has been said that the past is like a foreign country -- they do things differently there. I guess one reason I love dipping into the past is because they made music differently there, too.

The hard-to-define concept called style can be heard instantly and affectingly in so many artists from the old days; music becomes a whole new experience in their hands or vocies. Contemporary performers would do well to explore the legacy of all that style, a legacy that is readily available on disc and, often, video. (I think the coolest thing about YouTube is how much of this prized classical trove gets posted there. Such treasures may not be as easy to find as that Adam Lambert video everyone is -- yawn -- talking about, but they're sure worth hunting.)

For this week's blast from the musical past, I thought of Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963). You don't hear his name too much nowadays, outside of the most ardent piano buffs, yet he was undeniably one of the true greats.

He had an amazing artistry, nowhere more evident than in his recording of Rachmaninoff's transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Even Rachmaninoff was said to be greatly impressed with Moiseiwitsch's performance of the piece, and no wonder. The articulation, miraculously, achieves nearly as much of an the elfin quality as an orchestra's strings can in the Mendelssohn original. But it's not just a demonstration of technical control. Moiseiwitsch adds irresisitible charm, elegance, coloring, atmosphere -- in a word, style.

As an extra treat, I've also included a video clip of the pianist in his late years playing a Rachmaninoff prelude with typical, understated eloquence:

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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