Charles Rosen: He could pick a fight in an empty room
Days after Charles Rosen's death in December, videos began to appear in which the master pianist was seen holding forth in accent-free French on the music of Pierre Boulez, in Italian on the problems of music criticism and in robust Upper West Side English on practically every topic known to man, at irrepressible length and with irrefutable authority. Charles was the epitome of the philosopher-pianist, a hybrid species that risks extinction with his passing and which deserves more concentrated attention than he himself accorded it, and in much shorter sentences. So there.
Charles was, first off, a pianist. Steeped in the grand tradition by the Liszt pupil Moriz Rosenthal, and drawn to the Russian fantasy by the playing of Josef Hofmann, he imposed an incontrovertible immediacy on whatever he played, be it Bach's Goldberg Variations or the constipated chordal sequences of middle-period Elliott Carter. His manner of playing made you believe that this piece could go no other way.
A friend who heard him play on ill-tuned Oxford college pianos observes that, of all modern pianists, only Sviatoslav Richter possessed that monumental rightness in performanceÂ â€”Â that sense of having received the truth from source and, simultaneously, asserting that it would never sound the same again, that its centre of gravity would shift as the earth turns. If you can afford the ICA Classics release of Richter's Festival Hall Beethoven recital of June 18, 1975 you will hear exactly what is meant by this rightness. I would love to recommend a Rosen recital by way of further validation, but his label, in idiot hands, has let the entire oeuvre lapse out of print so you will have to make do with less edifying YouTube uploads.
Rosen, unlike Richter, was fond of making grand statements. Bach, he declared, was the only first-rate composer. Chopin wrote the best piano sonatas. Schoenberg was not an atonal theorist but a creator in whom "the emotion is so violent and so consistently tense that for a great many people he is a non-emotional composer". He issued these pronouncements with the intention to provoke an argument, and seldom failed. Like every hard-working intellectual, he could pick a fight in an empty room and regarded contrariness as being part of life's purpose.
We once quarrelled in a BBC studio about declining attendances at classical concerts. "On occasion," intoned Charles with lofty disdain, "I have played for as few as 15 people in a recital. Of course, 12 of them held Nobel prizes . . ."