Paul Badura-Skoda – 75th-Birthday Tribute

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CD 1 “Young and Curious” [1941-1946]
Bach, Beethoven & Chopin

CD 2 “Great Concerts I” [1962-1965]
Bach, Mozart & Chopin

CD 3 “On Period Instruments” [1965-2001]
Mozart & Haydn

CD 4 “Great Concerts II” [1978/1992]
Schubert & Beethoven

CD 5 “With Piano & Baton” [1956/2000]
Mozart & Beethoven

CD 6 “Miscellaneous” [1964-2003]
Bach, Chopin, Berg, Liszt & Martin

CD 7 “75th Birthday Concert” [2002]
Schubert, Brahms & Ravel

Paul Badura-Skoda (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: May 2005
KL 5117 (7 CDs)
Duration: 8 hours 25 minutes

Paul Badura-Skoda is a great pianist. To my mind he is the most compelling player of Beethoven alive. He has recently celebrated his 75th-birthday with a tour covering Western Europe, the USA and South America. London was not on his itinerary, though: “no-one asked me”, he said. His last London recital was over 25 years ago. I was there.

Badura-Skoda grew up in Vienna, expecting to take up either engineering or science. Two factors impelled him towards music: World War II and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The war thrust upon him “spiritual shock, the daily threat of death and brutality”, while music “provided spiritual values that transcend the lifetime of a human being. I owe this awareness … to Wilhelm Furtwängler in particular”.

Badura-Skoda’s career breakthrough came in his early ‘20s (1949 –1952), when he performed Mozart with Furtwängler, Franck with Karajan and Brahms with Schneiderhan and Mainardi (when substituting for Edwin Fischer, his teacher).
He recorded several Mozart piano concertos in the 1950s and 1960s in a manner too robust for the taste of most English critics. He played Bach’s Partitas equally robustly – in performances that were grand, austere and thrilling, with brazen ornamentation and sudden swoops of delicacy and tenderness – magnificent and quite out of the present fashion. Austria awarded him several distinguished prizes for his playing of Schubert – emotionally tough, with a serious beauty and crediting the music’s adventure. He has recorded at least two Beethoven sonata cycles – one on a Bösendorfer Imperial in the 1970s (currently obtainable in Germany and Austria but not the UK) and the other on several ‘period’ instruments (now deleted). Alas there is no Diabelli Variations, to my knowledge.

What sort of pianist is Paul Badura-Skoda, then? He is dangerous. He is not afraid to be controversial – so he sometimes ruffles feathers. Yet, make no mistake, he is a musician to his fingertips, and is driven by respect for the composers he admires.His playing is dynamic and tempestuous, with energy of astounding force – breathtaking, almost literally. Badura-Skoda takes few breaths; yet, he is never out of puff. He plays with tremendous drive and unconstrained thrust – often in great, long, surging phrases: in the manner of Furtwängler.

How does he assess himself? One clue is in the qualities he himself prizes elsewhere. He reveres Furtwängler’s “crazy, almost demonic strength”, as well as, of course, his “musicality”. He pays tribute to his own piano, a 1923 Bösendorfer Imperial, described by a Viennese critic after the 2002 75th-birthday concert (included in this set) as “the Stradivarius among pianos”. “It has a velvety tone”, Badura-Skoda writes, ‘but nevertheless sounds as powerful as an organ, and it sings”. It has “an unbelievable bass register with a rather soft tone, but when it becomes excited, it can become a roaring lion”.

These phrases are apt to Badura-Skoda himself. The London recital I mentioned, over 25 years ago, was in the Wigmore Hall, played on a Bösendorfer; a Haydn Sonata, Schubert’s Sonata in D, and Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’. Hearing the Beethoven sonata was an extraordinary experience. The playing was wildly dramatic, akin to standing right beside the flames blazing around Siegfried’s funeral pyre (though Badura-Skoda’s playing was not Wagnerian). At the end of this tempestuous performance, the piano was, metaphorically, a pile of sticks on the floor, so mighty had been Beethoven’s onslaught on the instrument through the medium of Badura-Skoda’s playing. It was as if the very forces of nature had been unleashed for the occasion. The first movement of the ‘Waldstein’, from 1943, is included on CD 1.Under review here is a 7-CD box (produced by Helicon Records) that celebrates Paul Badura-Skoda; recordings of his own choice from 1941-2003 drawn from his personal archive of live performances. Each disc ends with a spoken reminiscence and commentary.

On CD 1, we encounter the teenager, playing not only the piano but also the accordion. On CD 7, we encounter the septuagenarian playing in the Brahms-Saal, Vienna; his 75th-birthday recital consisted of Schubert, Brahms and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. There are memorable concerts in venues on both sides of the Atlantic, explorations of fortepianos and ventures into conducting Mozart (interesting) and Beethoven (less memorable).

There are fascinating glimpses of him playing Beethoven when aged 16 (1943) and 65 (1992); Bach when aged 16 and 35, Chopin when aged 15, 17, 35, 55 and 58 – and so on. Badura-Skoda’s Chopin is something of an acquired taste – Austro-Hungarian rather than Franco-Polish perhaps. If so, it’s a taste worth acquiring; this is not Chopin the melodist plying for mass approval: Badura-Skoda reveals the splendour of the Opus 25 Études through flamboyant playing, grand in thrust and onward pressing. Cascades of notes traverse the keyboard in majestic flurries. There is no languor – and none of the mannered rubato that sometimes seeks to serve it. Badura-Skoda does not eschew sentiment, although tender moments are the more effective for being occasional and tellingly appropriate. The C sharp minor Étude (Opus 25/7) is melting; and the Polonaise in A flat (Opus 53) has rarely sounded so extrovert and grand.

The ‘Appassionata’ of 1992 needs to be visited and re-visited. Few performances, even from highly distinguished sources, have the emotional intensity and singing coherence of this one.There is an all-important sweep and scale to this performance. Some familiar subtleties, refinements and delicacies are passed over; this is Beethoven whose power bursts the boudoir wide-open. Listen to Badura-Skoda’s masterful, authoritative urgency – to Beethoven’s urgency, indeed. Listen to the suspense and build-up of tension in the long phrases. Listen to the silences: they are electric. Listen to those fingers adroitly altering the tone – suddenly soft and tender, suddenly hard and commanding. In the second movement, listen to the startling differences in style between one variation and another. Listen also to the vibrant, life-asserting attack of the last movement. How often have you heard an ‘Appassionata’ as virile and thrilling as this?

There are many further delights among these discs. The humour in Mozart’s Variations on “Unser dummer Pobel meint” (K455) and the dramatic sonority of the Fantasy in C minor (K475); the insouciance in Schubert’s Rondo in D (a duet with Jörg Demus); the panache in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and the dark silk of Brahms’s A minor Intermezzo (Opus 118/1). Then turn to Alban Berg’s Sonata or the compelling Gaspard de la nuit.

In the very act of listening to Paul Badura-Skoda, you take a risk – as you hurtle, climb, swoop and dip on his roller coaster of a musical journey. He is his own man. Like Beethoven, he is a maverick who blazes lyrically with driving, restless command.

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