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The organization of this page is a little unorthodox. As I searched through my archives, I realized that the best essay that I had about Solomon was written by someone else -- a fellow contributor to the classical newsgroups named Neil Tingley, who has his own web page. I have obtained his permission to reproduce his essay in full, and will preface it with a few brief biographical and musical notes of my own.
For more information:
It seems strange that Solomon only passed away a few years ago, dying of a stroke in 1988. His name inevitably makes most recording devotees think of a giant long past. And he was, indeed, like a number of prominent musicians (classical and pop) whose careers were cut tragically short in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Only in Solomon's case, it wasn't a drug overdose or a plane accident (more on this later). More's the pity -- had he continued recording, he would probably have become one of the mainstays of modern piano recording.
Solomon (he was known professionally only by his first name, sort of like "Madonna") was born in London in 1902. He showed a remarkable talent for the piano even among this list of master pianists who were mostly child prodigies, playing titanic works like the first piano concertos of Brahms and Tchaikovsky at the age of 12! He retired briefly from the concert stage as a teenager, and emerged as a remarkably sensitive, accomplished pianist as an adult.
He had no particular stylistic "niche" -- he played romantics like Liszt, Chopin and Tchiakovsky alongside classicists like Mozart and Brahms, but ultimately Beethoven became the keystone of his repertoire. In the 1950's, EMI's legendary producer Walter Legge planned to re-record the Beethoven piano sonatas on LP, to provide a sonically superior alternative to Artur Schnabel's landmark series. Legge ultimately settled on Solomon as the pianist, and the two started working together on the cycle.
Unfortunately, midway through the cycle, trouble started. He was getting inexplicable fingerslips in his recordings, and his rock-solid technique was starting to show holes, but unpredictably. It turns out that those unpredictable technique lapses were probably transient ischemic attacks (a.k.a. TIA's or "mini-strokes"). They were harbingers for the Big One, a stroke that paralyzed a whole side of his body in 1956. He continued teaching and writing, but never played in public or recorded again.
I personally only know about one very isolated chunk of Solomon's recorded repertoire -- EMI 7 64708 2, a two-disc collection of the last six sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. The set isn't perfect -- the finger lapses and stiffness mar recordings of the Op. 109 and 110 in particular -- but there's still enough that is masterly that it sits on my desert island list.
Solomon was never a flashy, histrionic pianist. Some dislike his work, calling it cold and distant. I personally prefer to think of his work as unintrusive. He had a luminous piano tone, with an uncanny ability to weight out the notes of a chord in wonderfully sonorous fashion. He prepared extensively for performances and paid meticulous attention to tiny details in the score, and he refused to indulge in cheap-trick special effects. All this could come across as cooly, distantly patrician, but he also had an ability to bring out details along with structural elements in such a way that it seemed like you gained direct, unfettered access to the mind of the composer himself. And I hate it when people say that some performer plays Beethoven the way Beethoven intended, but I think Solomon was one of the few who could do this.
Don't believe me? Well, maybe my taste is suspect, but I had always had problems with the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata. I'd heard a few great recordings in the past (Gilels, Schnabel, Serkin, Petri before; Richter after) but each of them seemed to get lost in the sheer scale of each slow variation. Now, Solomon actually seems to take a slower tempo than any of these (some 20 minutes to traverse the whole thing), but the logic and inevitability of the piece struck me in a way that it never had before. I think it's something about his knack for maintaining the pulse at funereal speed, or keeping the pulse the same through different variations, but the design finally becomes clear -- here augmentation, here a sublime arioso, with more than enough heartbreak for my ears. He may come up a bit short finger-wise in the dense counterpoint of the fugue, but there are enough other moments where he achieves that sense of inevitability that the set has skyrocketed to the top of my list and stayed there. And if there's any great regret, it's that we don't have the remainder of the cycle to hear (not to mention that EMI has been slow to reissue what else remains!).
According to Bryan Crimp's biography, the evidence seems clear cut: Solomon was most definitely exploited by his teacher, Mathilde Verne as a youth. She was a Clara Schumann pupil who had founded a new school and saw Solomon both a the boy to make the school's name and a source of income. Legend has it he was found in an East End Ghetto - however his Father was a master tailor and hardly suffering, An application to a Jewish charity brought about the boy's entering the MV school (Lessons and schooling paid for - it was expensive even in those days). Solomon was playing the Tchaikovsky and Brahms D minor at the age of twelve !! (move over Kissin). Solomon had had enough by the age of fifteen; he began to loathe playing the piano and resented Verne's exploitation to such a degree that he could rarely bring himself to talk about, so painful an experience was it.
He then went to Paris to study with a Leschetizky pupil whose name escapes me and someone else (Levy ? sorry this is a bit hopeless). But the point is he rebuilt his technique slowly and painstakingly during this time whilst maturing as an artist. He played again in London when he was 21 and through the twenties and thirties rebuilt his career. By the time of the war he had achieved a considerable repututation once more in the UK and to some extent in Europe (arguably a poor and greedy manager curtailed his overseas touring and the growth of his international reputution - he later went to the legendary Ibbs and Tillet). It was not till after the war that he became feted in America (consecutive sold out Carnegie Hall recitals etc.) and the rest of the world. It was during the war that Walter Legge decided that Solomon was to be the mainstay in the classical piano repetoire for HMV's new LP catalogue. Hence the Beethoven cycle as a successor to Schnabel's and a slow assimilation of his repetoire on disc. It may come as a surprise to hear that before the war Solomon's Chopin was hailed as the equal of Rubinstein's and Cortot's; he shared many a piano subscription series with them at the Wigmore Hall in London. (His interpretations of the 2nd and 3rd sonatas were particularly famous - not recorded alas.)
Gradually Solomon's interpretations of Beethoven became more central to his musical thinking and as such he began to be seen as THE ideal Beethoven interpreter. He gave an all Beethoven recital Carnegie Hall for instance, to much acclaim. Solomon's stroke in December 1956 deprived the musical world of his Art; and surely ranks as one of the great tragedies in musical life - he was at the time at the height of his powers and fame.
I was going to comment on his [Beethoven piano concerto] recordings with Andre Cluytens, but suffice it to say I enjoy their interpretation of the Beethoven 2nd more than any other. He recorded the Mozart 15th concerto with Otto Ackermann which is surely a classic recording; perfect phrasing, wit and pacing. This is really a treasurable recording, and the last movement theme has never recieved such beguiling treatment.
When listening to Solomon, don't expect too much point making of bravura. His style was reticent, in that you hear the composer and not Solomon's style imposed on a score. For some people this may come as a slight disapointment but repeated listening pays felicitous dividends.
I rank Solomon as one of the greats. I suggest everyone makes an attempt to listen to this very unique artist. You can learn something about piano playing, but more importantly you hear the music, unadulterated by caprice or personality.
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