Classical Reissue Reviews

Leonard Shure, piano = Works of BRAHMS, BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, SCHUBERT – with Leonard Bernstein, Izler Solomon & others – Doremi (3 cDs)

“A pianist of the first rank” served as the epithet for many a review of American virtuoso Leonard Shure, and this collection from Doremi confirms his status in the piano pantheon.

Published on November 11, 2013

Leonard Shure, piano = Works of BRAHMS, BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, SCHUBERT – with Leonard Bernstein, Izler Solomon & others – Doremi (3 cDs)

Leonard Shure, piano = BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15; Capriccio in D Minor, Op. 116, No. 1; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35; Prelude in G Minor, Op. 28, No. 22; Rondo for 2 Pianos in C Major, Op. 73; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958; Moment Musical in F Minor, D. 780, No. 3; BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73: Rondo – excerpt – Leonard Shure, p./ Karl Ulrich Schnabel, p./ New York Philharmonic/ Leonard Bernstein/ Aspen Festival Orch./ Izler Solomon (Beethoven)/ Boston Sym. Orch./ Richard Burgin (Beethoven, Op. 73) – Doremi DHR-8017-9 (3 CDs), 73:20, 45:00, 57:40 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Leonard Shure (1910-1995) has by now come into his own as a revered pianist and pedagogue, and so this new collation of recorded works, 1931-1960, from Doremi should attract connoisseurs of masterly keyboard playing. Shure studied with legend Artur Schnabel from age fourteen, then served as Schnabel’s only American assistant for six years (1927-1933), achieving what Rudolf Serkin called “integrity and mastery.” That he did not enjoy a more distinguished – popular and commercially successful – career likely occurred because Shure distanced himself after 1960 from “the business of music” and its various games, which he considered “such a swindle.”

The program on Disc 1 derives from the Carnegie Hall recital 24 March 1956. The opening Beethoven E Major Sonata, taken at a gripping series of tempos, quite compels our attention. Having moved brilliantly through the first two movements, a grand leisure imposes itself on the theme and variations, sensitive to the harmonic motion that the original melody provides.  The continuity of lyric design never falters, the arietta beneath any permutation, whether curlicue or contrapuntal colossus. The wash of colors, which will soon dominate the Chopin on the same program, enjoys both polish and nuance.  The subtlety of the last page gave the Carnegie Hall audience pause, as it does us.

Schubert big C Minor Sonata conveys its own Beethoven-like fire, but in its own way. To point out Schubert’s reliance on Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80 has become commonplace.  Shure departs from any attempt to sound Schubert into Beethoven, delving instead into the surpassing intricacies of harmonic movement and polyphonic transformation the first movement proffers in multifarious colors. A combination of devotion and romantic ardor marks the second movement Adagio, played – as put by contemporary critic Allen Hughes – “in the hope that we would love it too.”  The drama of the slow movement, mixed with an austere and heartfelt weltschmerz, attains the level of a lyric poem, communicated without undue flair or guile. The Menuetto proves more volatile than its courtly indication might have us assume. The Trio permits some degree of relaxation, albeit nervous in the bass. Shure’s edgy performance has our ears alerted to Schubert’s mercurial, even explosive temperament. The accumulated impetus moves directly into the galloping perpetuo of the last movement, Allegro, which Shure has tumbling in a series of brilliant colors and variegated dynamics. The secondary subject elastically sings a lively, sweet lied of the first order. Shure’s mastery of Schubert’s infinite sense of “unity in variety” invest this realization with an elan vital not to be denied, and the solemnity of the occasion has not been lost on the gratified audience.

The last of the major works on the Carnegie Hall program, Chopin’s mighty “Funeral March” Sonata, exerts gravity and voluptuousness from the first measures. Frenetic and passionate without any loss of formal design, the Grave – Doppio movimento proceeds with a blistering authority, romantic agony in its consummate struggle. We might well be watching a Shakespearean tragedy unfolding before our ears. Attacca to the Scherzo, another ferocious Manichean battlefield of light and dark forces. The first period concludes authoritatively, only to yield to the secondary motive, a moment of pure haunted nostalgia. Note the balanced chords in the left hand and deftly passing trill. The da capo returns to the sturm und drang so personal to Chopin that he may well have invented the Romantic rebellion himself. Shure intones the grave Funeral March, avoiding the usual clichés of expression by adapting a most literal, plain-spoken series of breathed phrases. A granite formality reigns, only to yield to impulse to poetry and its desire for the ethereal. Shure’s velvet degrees of  pianissimo warrant a course to themselves. The da capo reminds us not to send for whom the bell tolls. How could there be a dry eye in the house?  The chill winds of the Finale ask for no commentary, only the nod of utter resignation.

Three encores follow, revealing Shure an arbiter of the miniature as intense as his large works. The demonic Brahms Capriccio takes no prisoners. Shure maintained a deep reverence for the set of Fantasien, Op. 116. The Schubert F Minor Moment Musical enjoys a Viennese ingenuousness of the manner born. The sound suffers a metallic ping. Compressed passionate incarnate, the G Minor Prelude of Chopin packs a hurricane in a bottle. Dorian Gray could have played this one, had he known it.

The Beethoven C Minor Concerto (21 August 1960) with Izler Solomon from the Aspen Music Festival – Shure having served as artist-in-residence 1957-1960 – long remained a Shure staple, a direct result of his Schnabel apprenticeship.  The intensely committed orchestra under Izler Solomon (1910-1987) increases the heat of the occasion, to which Shure responds with a focus that embraces both poetry and drama. The canny virility of the conception exudes excitement at every turn, the Aspen strings as fierce as Shure’s runs and roulades. The first movement cadenza should leave no listener unresolved as to Shure’s power in all matters musical. The second movement Largo has Shure’s pedaling as much as possible on a modern instrument to Beethoven’s transparently haunting specifications. The tensile flexibility of Shure’s line defines the pungent athleticism of the last movement, a revel in parlando and bravura playing and streamlined polyphony. The lithe trill Shure brandishes should win admirers, as it certainly did on this fine August day in the mountains of Colorado.

I recently had as my radio guest Diana Burgin, daughter of conductor Richard Burgin (1892-1981) and Ruth Posselt, and I had my eyes opened as to Burgin’s credentials as a conductor. From a recently discovered 10” disc we have a concert performance (29 February 1936) in good sound of the Rondo from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, rife with poetic fury and jarring tension. The Boston Symphony in 1936 had been honed into a resilient, slick instrument by Serge Koussevitzky, and the interplay between Shure and the orchestra under its Associate Conductor resounds with musical electricity. It ends much too suddenly.

The major selection from this important set remains the Brahms D Minor Concerto from the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (26 March 1960), preceding the “infamous” Glenn Gould collaboration by two years.  Jim Fassett introduces a performance that avoids anything like grotesque mannerism; in fact, we have from Shure a monolithic account that sings as well as grumbles and laments on a huge scale. If Bernstein favors romantic ritards, Shure insists on forward motion, the long elastic line that brooks no impediments. The passion of the interchange just prior to the “waltz” section of the first movement quite becomes a torrent, an avalanche of sound. At the coda, whatever “restraints” Bernstein had imposed Shure shucks off in a hurricane of notes, certainly reminiscent of the dynamism William Kapell and Dimitri Mitropoulos had achieved in their famed account in New York.

The Adagio has the benefit of Shure’s work against French horn James Chambers, and the entire movement proceeds as a poignant requiem in dark hues, interrupted by Shure’s delicate tracery in memories of times past.  The quicksilver Rondo seems to renew its own energy every few measures, and Bernstein now has become convinced of Shure’s tempestuous rightness. Even the contrapuntal orchestral episode achieves a Mendelssohn impishness before the music hurtles forward with the wonted Dionysian ferocity. The extensive coda combines a militant drama with ineluctable cascades of sound, a peroration as inevitable as it remains totally convincing.

The set concludes with Shure’s earliest inscription, the C Major Rondo for Two Pianos by Chopin (rec. RCA Victor, 1931). Paired with his teacher’s son, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, the youthful glitter of the composition held in charming tension, exuberant and witty. The momentary explosions of velocity adumbrate the volcanic heights composer and at least one of the pianists would maintain through their respective musical evolutions.

—Gary Lemco




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