Some piano music is simply about glitter and elegance. The de Schlözer étude in A-flat, Op. 1 no. 2, was published in 1875. An Eileen Joyce 78 from 1933 is treasured by pianophiles, there is also an early roll from Vera Timonova; much later Jorge Bolet played it an as an encore and recorded a studio version in the 1980s. The figuration is a delightful treat to the ear but is quite unforgiving to the hand; Rachmaninoff may have liked to warm up with it.
The first one of the pair, an E-flat thicket of double notes and octaves, is rarely played.
According to a rumor that has spread everywhere in the internet era, Moritz Moszkowski lost the two études to de Schlözer in a card game. This memorable story is backed up by a certain basic similarity of style between the two composers, plus the fact that de Schlözer never published anything else after his Op. 1. Historian Matthew Guerrieri told me: “I can’t think of another composer who put out a couple of deep, highly-polished pieces while leaving virtually no other musical or biographical trace.”
Two contemporary giants, Marc-André Hamelin and Stephen Hough, both play Op. 1 no. 2. There are also both active on Twitter; last week I drank from the bottle labeled “chutzpah” before tagging the two great composer-pianists in a query.
Both heavyweights responded; both think that the de Schlözer attribution is genuine.
So, that’s that. Case closed.
All of Moszkowski’s music is well-made but not all of it is inspired. The comparatively few pieces kept alive in the repertoire are indeed his best work. In my twenties I went on a big search to find lesser-known Moszkowski of genius and returned empty-handed, which is another reason to think the de Schlözer attribution is accurate: If those études were actually by Moszkowski, they’d be two of his most significant pieces.
The only truly substantial Moszkowski composition that gets a regular hearing is the glamorous E Major piano concerto, which offers a serious virtuoso a charming playground for fancy display, although the passagework repeats in conventional patterns and the tunes don’t exactly linger in the mind. Indeed, many of Moszkowski’s lyric melodies are a shade square and predictable. An exception is the set of five Spanish Dances for four hands, which was an exotic hit at the time of publication and remain fairly fresh today, especially when performers are willing to undo the recurring 8-bar phrases with “Spanish” rubato.
The best Moszkowski is comprised of drawing room and encore pieces, usually of an étude nature. Vladimir Horowitz’s repertoire included three, the études in F and A-Flat and “Etincelles.” In the movie The Last Romantic, Horowitz describes a Moszkowski etude as, “…an after-dinner mint.”
While modern omnivores like Hamelin and Hough play a few Moszkowski things at the highest level, there’s nothing better than assorted early 78s from “Golden Age” pianists playing Moszkowski fluff. Josef Hofmann in “Caprice Espagnol,” Sergei Rachmaninoff in “La Jongleuse,” Ossip Gabrilowitsch in “En Automne” — these scratchy-sounding but still wildly charismatic performances all blend transcendental pianism with Moszkowski’s chaste figuration in a way that recalls Evelyn Waugh’s comment about P.G. Wodehouse, “Eden before the Fall.”
One of Moszkowski’s finest melodies graces “Guitarre,” published in 1888 to vast acclaim and recorded many times in the early years; a particularly gorgeous rendition was tracked by Guiomar Novaes in 1920. As far as I know, this is the first time a Count Basie-style tonic sixth chord appears in the notated piano repertoire, as least in a dance or rhythmic context with a percussive attitude. Moszkowski is obviously imitating the open strings of a guitar. Is that part of where jazz harmony comes from, the Spanish guitar? Via Moszkowski?!
One of Jorge Bolet’s famous records is a double-LP from Carnegie Hall in 1974. He played the de Schlözer etude that night but it didn’t make the original issue, it became available only as a bonus track in the digital era. Bolet’s studio recording from the ’80s on an anthology of encores might have been the first de Schlözer on LP, and is at a fairly slow and safe tempo compared to a decade earlier at Carnegie Hall.
Many (including myself) first heard the de Schlözer etude on the initial volume of Stephen Hough’s anthology The Piano Album from 1988, a key document from the emerging generation of virtuosos who could play anything from ancient to modern. Hough rescued several encores from obscurity on this significant disc, which closes with a smoking rendition of Moszkowski’s “Caprice Espagnol.”
The track listing on the streaming release of The Piano Album prints the legend, giving Moszkowski credit for de Schlözer.
On his own anthology Kaleidoscope, Marc-André Hamelin recorded something by Moszkowski that almost nobody else plays as a standalone, the double-note étude in A-flat minor from Op. 72, 15 Etudes de Virtuosité. This set is where Vladimir Horowitz found his two etudes and can be heard in its entirety from the brilliant Ilana Vered and others. In my opinion op. 72 has inspired and uninspired pieces side by side. Naturally, Hamelin makes a strong case for his unexpected selection.
Horowitz’s famous set of virtuoso variations on the gypsy dance from Bizet’s Carmen is indebted to Moszkowski’s own variations on the same theme, an attribution that was a bit obscure in Horowitz’s lifetime.
My own comments above on the Moszkowski concerto are sharply at odds with the reception given to a splendid performance on YouTube by Markus Pawlik, which boasts over a million views and over a thousand adoring comments. (“….One of the few concertos, or few pieces of music even, that I have encountered of which all the movements are (equally) spectacular…” etc.) H’mm! Maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps Moszkowski is simply a “gateway drug” for these comparatively novice listeners, just the way he was a hundred and thirty years ago. Ars longa, vita brevis.