Simon Pure and Impure



The other day I came across the pianist Simon Barere on YouTube, and I was glad to see him there—the recognition he has received is certainly deserved, though it is hard to know what would be the appropriate reward to a performer who never got his due.  And just when he seemed to be getting his reward on April 2, 1951, while playing the Grieg Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, he collapsed at the keyboard and soon died offstage in Carnegie Hall: He was gone at age 54.

Simon Barere was born in Odessa in 1896 and later studied with Felix Blumenfeld, as did Vladimir Horowitz, born in 1903.  Barere had a hard time establishing himself and emigrating from country to country.  He seems to have been mismanaged and unlucky on many occasions, but he was also a man who could shock and attract audiences with his virtuosity.  He was a good musician in spite of a temperament that sometimes led him to musical excesses, overdoing it just because he could.

Seeing the name took me back to at least three times that recordings—and memories—of Simon Barere were central to episodes in my musical and human experience.  And so before I relate those matters, I must insist that YouTube has put paid to any thought of Barere’s recordings being elusive collector’s items.  Therefore, he who has ears, let him hear.  Or in the new lingo, they who got ears, listen up!  There—it’s such an achievement that I’m so hip—I’m cool with the new usages.

But sometimes things, even music, can get out of hand.  Once it happened to me, or so it seemed, 58 years ago.  A friend of mine and I had driven 30 miles to a neighboring city in order to visit a music store in search of interesting recordings.  I distinctly remember some of the nuances: At age 16, I was a licensed driver and a registered voter—I even had a Social Security number.  But I also knew I was still young, so I was mostly cautious, as for example on the road, except when I wasn’t.

People went to the store for sheet music, but we weren’t on that trail.  We had been listening to recordings of pianists like Horowitz and Casadesus and others, and were interested in what came next, if that could be identified.

Behind the desk that day was a middle-aged man who, though he suffered from some kind of paralysis of his left hand, said he was a piano teacher in a local college.  And hearing of our interest in piano performances, he invited us to his nearby apartment so we could hear his prized recordings by Simon Barere, of whom we had never heard, and of obscure repertory as well.  The sound images were arresting or even startling, as with the chromatic thirds in the Liszt Réminiscences de Don Juan, and the experience was rather overwhelming, when our host’s excessive indulgence and solicitude combined to suggest an exit was in order.  We later supposed that we had been led on by a fellow with some sort of exploitative agenda, and forgot him.  But I did not forget Simon Barere.  I had never heard anything like it, for one thing; and it had been used as a come-on, for another.  Had we in effect been invited up to see the fellow’s etchings?  If so, I didn’t hold it against the etchings—and some etchings they were.

So let’s skip forward.  Eight years later, the first Wednesday after Labor Day, I attended my first faculty meeting at the college at which I had been appointed.  I was learning something about the administration and faculty just by being there.  But as the meeting broke up, I noticed a certain gentleman, Carlo Lombardi, who was the professor of music and a concert pianist.  He was the one person I accosted at the meeting, and I had a question.  I asked him about Simon Barere, and he lit up.  Yes, he had attended two of Barere’s recitals in Carnegie Hall in the late 40’s, and he remembered them vividly.  He told me that the audience was divided between those who were passionate fans and others who cried out, “Do you know ‘Night and Day’?” or “Play ‘Melancholy Baby’!”  So for me, that was a most positive encounter, one that led to decades of friendship and collegiality and my listening with great pleasure to Carlo’s playing.  As far as Barere was concerned, Carlo was impressed, and he liked the free approach to the material.  But he later laughed loudly at Barere’s recorded version of Schumann’s Toccata—the speed was outrageous but musically ruinous.  As for Carlo’s own playing, he didn’t take a back seat to anyone: He was a gifted pianist; and he was, in addition, the best sight-reader whom I had ever seen.

So if Simon Barere introduced me to Carlo, I was in his debt again—but who was Simon Barere, after all?  Not long after, I was in New York City at Music Masters, 25 West 43rd Street, where Will Lerner held court.  I distinctly remember the impossible, as I related the incident the same day it happened.  I entered the store, and a man said, “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Tate.  Are you piano or voice?”  I said I was piano, and as far as Simon Barere was concerned, well, that was no problem: Music Masters had its own privately printed two-record album of the original Remington discs.  So that was my third rare Barere episode, but this time I had the goods in my hands—all that could be retrieved, at least then, of that particular pianistic legacy.  That was it for me, but it wasn’t my last visit to the intuitive Music Masters.  Later on, hearing a blaze of notes ripped in beautiful sequence, I had to ask what sensation I was hearing.  “Maria Tipo playing Scarlatti.  She’s better than Horowitz.”  And damned if she wasn’t.

I won’t say much about Barere’s recordings, for they only need to be heard, but I will note what seem to me the best ones.  Of large-scale pieces, one of the best is Liszt’s Sonata in B minor.  This is a convincing exposition and a demonstration of his mastery of sound.  The Carnegie Hall 1947 performance is unsurpassed.  The question is: Is it equalled by any?  Perhaps not long ago, by Claudio Arrau, in a different spirit; and further back, Cortot and Horowitz in opposed but arresting statements.  Quite possibly Barere wins the beauty contest, even with such giants as those.

Another major Liszt work is the so-called Don Juan Fantasy After Mozart, which is more properly referred to as the Réminiscences de Don Juan.  (And a memo to my younger self: It would help next time when you hear a certain operatic fantasy after Mozart, that you arrange to have already heard Don Giovanni at least once.)  This is a stunning performance of the seemingly impossible.  Earl Wild in later days seems to have owned the work, but back in the 19th century, Moriz Rosenthal played it often as a trump card.

Is Balakirev’s Islamey a major work?  I say it is.  After all, Ravel wrote Gaspard de la nuit explicitly to create a more difficult challenge than this “Oriental Fantasy.”  Islamey is a tone poem of medium size and exotic character.  So how difficult is this knuckle-buster?  The formidable Russian Mikhail Pletnev played it as an encore at his Carnegie Hall debut, and it didn’t play so well.  But for Barere, the Balakirev was an opportunity to do what no one else could.

There are two small pieces that I think are particularly remarkable, even from Barere.  One of them is Liszt’s étude de concert, La Leggierezza.  The A sections of this piece are rather ordinary, but the middle section and Barere’s response are unforgettable.  I like nothing better by Barere than his chromatic scale passages and his thirds.  The effect is electric—in other performances by respected players, there is no such magic.  You will sense that this is more than a matter of physical dexterity, but rather a matter of pianistic imagination.

And in Blumenfeld’s Etude for the Left Hand Alone, we have another performance that provokes our incredulity, as Barere is all over the keyboard, but with the one hand to touch the low, middle, and high registers simultaneously, as it seems.

There are many other works to be enjoyed for their merits, as presented by the formidable, even unbelievable prestidigitator.  Such access as we enjoy today is largely owing to Bryan Crimp of APR and to Barere’s son, Boris.  But as previously indicated, for one of these works—Schumann’s Toccata—there are no blue ribbons for this player.  Josef Lhévinne, Vladimir Horo witz, and Sviatoslav Richter have left perhaps the best performances of this great work in double notes—one that is written in sonata form with a development section, and though exceptional, it is representative of Schumann altogether.  After all, the Russians have always had a special feeling for Schumann—as have the French.  For Barere as for the others, music is an international language; and for Barere as for the others, technical accomplishment has to be adjusted to musical ends.  What Barere did is phenomenal, but also self-defeating, for Schumann’s piece is an idiomatic work of the idiosyncratic composer, and it must sing.

So much, then, for my account of learning something about music in one particular instance—I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.  And if I spread the word about the singular Barere, and if new listeners see or hear the point, then as Horowitz said when he was introduced to Herbert Hoover in the White House, “I am delightful.”


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