Ignaz Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist. Allan Evans.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 399 pp. ISBN 978-0-253-35310-8

Ignaz FriedmanReviewed by Jonathan D. Bellman

Familiar phrases like “Romantic Master Pianist” or the “Golden Age” of Romantic pianism (cf. an excellent recent book by Kenneth Hamilton[1]) are problematic, because they imply the existence of a single tradition shared by the giants of bygone eras.  Rather, the greatest pianists of the past made their names by individuality, their independent artistic personalities and personal, often subjective interpretations of musical works that are now often normalized, more or less, into “the way this piece is played.”  Foremost among these fiercely independent superpianists was Ignaz Friedman, a Polish-born Jewish virtuoso whose memory and recordings are revered by pianists but whose reputation has, unavoidably, faded somewhat.  Although Friedman’s father was a peripatetic musician with limited skills at providing for his family, and his mother did most of the earning via needlework, their son’s prodigious musical gifts, which showed themselves early, were nonetheless never exploited commercially in his childhood.  His family’s search for favorable circumstances meant that he would live in Poland, America, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Germany before going to Vienna for a university education and to complete his piano training with the renowned Theodor Leschetizky, who also trained a variety of other virtuosi.  What all this meant was that Friedman would be among the best educated and most culturally well rounded of artists.

Allan Evans’s meticulously researched biography lies somewhere between labor of love and obsession.  It is not consistently paced, inasmuch as he has to integrate cultural background, chronology, discography, bibliography, repertoire lists, performance criticism, the testimony of students and friends, and other disparate kinds of information.  What is more, Evans takes a thirty-page detour to chronicle Friedman’s somewhat shadowy and mysterious prized pupil Ignace Tiegerman, another Polish Jew who spent most of his professional life in Cairo.  Although the Tiegerman subplot especially makes the book a bit oddly proportioned, the nature of the project makes it necessary: it is unlikely that another book of this scope will ever be devoted to Friedman and his students, and so Evans clearly felt a responsibility to include as much in the way of supporting documentation as is humanly possible, including a full translation of a 1914 review of Friedman’s edition of Chopin’s works.  Evans researched this book for decades, making connections with Friedman’s family, friends, and his and Tiegerman’s students, and the result is a monumental work that should be of interest to all serious students of the piano’s history.

A slightly dissonant counterpoint to Friedman’s musical activities, as is the case with many such musicians, is the matter of his Judaism.  A Jewish milieu in urban Kraków was a long way from the shtetl, certainly, and in the course of his youthful travels Friedman learned Polish, German, and French; later he learned other languages, and was educated at both gymnasium and university.  He seems to have subscribed to the mythology about Slavic-Jewish pianists (the non-Jewish Leschetizky supposedly believed that Slavic and Jewish origins and being a child prodigy were requirements for a virtuoso career); one auditioner, twelve years old when he played for Friedman in 1924, later recalled the master’s evaluation: “As a Jewish boy, he should have played better” (110).   A student in Australia, where Friedman settled after escaping the Nazi takeover of Europe, recalled his teacher speaking Yiddish to him.  For all that, though, Friedman married a Russian Orthodox pupil, Maria (Manya) von Schidlowsky, and Evans recounts that when his daughter Lydia once addressed him as tate-leben (Yiddish, “father dear”), “he icily withdrew” (9–10).  As with so many Jews born and raised in Eastern Europe, Friedman had deeply mixed feelings about his background and nation of origin.  There was of course a substantial Jewish population in Poland, but Jewish culture itself constantly faced the challenges of both anti-Semitism or, especially for better-educated and more cosmopolitan Jews, tendencies toward cultural assimilation.  Kogut Goldman, a friend of Friedman’s from Kraków, told Lydia, “You can’t imagine what a miserable surrounding we grew up in and how happy we were to come out of this” (9).  It is hard to imagine that survivors of that kind of upbringing would not have mixed feelings about Judaism as well.  In order to marry, Friedman converted to Protestantism, and while there is no indication that he ever had any Christian sympathies, he would not have been the first Jew to register discomfort on hearing his own daughter use the language of a world from which he had hoped to keep her separate, and that resonated with a suppressed part of his past.

Biographies of musicians must strike difficult balances between amusing anecdote and personal history on the one hand and technical musical information—why the person was famous, in other words—on the other.  Evans negotiates these waters admirably, glossing the correspondence with additional musical context, and offering more detail than is typical of this genre in his discussions of the pianist’s many recordings.  Friedman’s touch and rhythmic flexibility are among the aspects of his playing for which he was most famous; but they are better heard, even through the surface noise of old recordings, than described, and it is Evans’s pianist-readers who are best prepared to understand his discussions of such matters.  The author’s strategy is to devote an entire chapter, composed of excerpted student testimonies and accounts, to “The Piano According to Friedman,” with a cognate chapter devoted to Tiegerman.  This is where the pianists can go to hang out, so to speak, when shoptalk is more promising and inviting than the detailed account of his travels and performance engagements.

Allan Evans’s Friedman biography is monumental—a book deserving of a legitimate permanent place in libraries both public and personal.  As a work seeking to engage the widest possible spectrum of readers, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice flow and pacing to thoroughness and documentary verification.  This is to the good, in my opinion; as this work is likely to be the central source on Friedman’s life for a long time to come, it must serve as a beginning for the reader’s experience: both a guide with which one approaches the recordings and an opening discussion of performance practices that need to be better understood. Evans’s inclusive—rather than streamlined—approach to the presentation of his voluminous research means that the book can be read from beginning to end, but also, for certain readers, can be dipped into and repeatedly mined for information.  Beyond being a great read, then, it is also an archival gold mine, destined to become well worn by serious students, musicians, and musical aficionados among us. Highest recommendation.

[1] Kenneth Hamilton, After the Golden Age:  Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Jonathan D. Bellman, University of Northern Colorado