Making Hay whilst the sun shines …Tyler Hay plays Kalkbrenner


In my day it was Raymond Lewenthal that lit the way for a revival of the Golden Age of Piano Playing …….today the light is shining brightly for Tyler Hay and Mark Viner.


“On a foggy London night in January 1968,a tall Mephistophelian figure in top-hat and ground- length cape ,looking like a legendary personage out of the romantic past,stepped out of a limousine belonging to one of the peers of the realm,and swept through the stage door past the crowds gathered around it.Out in front of the Hall ,queues of people hoping to get tickets for the evening’s concert,were stretched around the block into Wimpole Street.””The Unique Lewenthal ” read the headlines of one of the reviews next morning of the first of his three all-Liszt recitals in London.

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It is interesting to read his obituary in the New York Times:

Raymond Lewenthal, a colourful and imaginative explorer of forgotten Romantic piano repertory, died of a heart attack Monday night. He was 62 years old and lived in Hudson, N.Y.Mr. Lewenthal is especially remembered for helping to revive the difficult and arcane piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan, but his restorative efforts were also devoted to other 19th-century composers – Busoni, Reinecke, Field, Henselt, Scharwenka, Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein. The pianist was known for his strong technique and grand manner – crowd-pleasing qualities he applied often to his public performances of Liszt. Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times, wrote of a 1976 performance of Alkan’s ”Funeral March for a Parrot” that when Mr. Lewenthal, ”cadaverous, tall and saturnine, came out wearing black and a black silk topper decorated with a mourning band, and led a procession of four singers and four desperately squealing oboists . . . that was the Romantic revival.” A critic for The Times of London considered Mr. Lewenthal’s Liszt performances ”in the big Romantic manner such as we now associate with a vanished age.”Mr. Lewenthal was born in San Antonio of Russian-French parentage and grew up in Hollywood where he was a child actor in films until the age of 15. His piano education was both bicoastal and international, including stops in New York and Paris under teachers like Alfred Cortot, Lydia Cherkassky, Olga Samaroff and Guido Agosti. His career was interrupted and nearly ended in 1953 when he was assaulted in Central Park and suffered broken arms and hands. He stopped playing, traveled to Europe, studied there for three years and subsequently went to South America where he lived, often hand-to-mouth, for seven years. In 1964, he returned to the United States and resumed his career.Mr. Lewenthal’s last major appearances were his concerts – five in five days – with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 1982. He was troubled by heart problems in later years and devoted much of his time to finishing and seeking a publisher for a large biography of his hero, Alkan. It is said to have occupied him for 25 years, and remains unpublished.

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All this to introduce  the two extraordinary figures  of Mark Viner and Tyler Hay who have appeared recently on the concert scene with the same curiosity for a bygone age.

“The Golden Age of the Piano Virtuosi”was a programme late at night on the radio in which the newly discovered piano rolls of the great virtuosi of the past were shared with an enthusiastic audience of which I was one in a late night programme on the BBC introduced by Deryck Cooke .They had been found in the Brentford Piano Museum created by a charmingly eccentric personality, Frank Holland .His unique collection of player pianos and such like( he was an engineer and not a musician at all) were housed in a derelict church overlooking the Thames.We listened unbelievingly to feats of virtuosity from pianists we had only read about.Moritz Rosenthal,Leopold Godowsky,Mischa Levitzki.The seed was sown for me .

My old piano professor Sidney Harrison was chairman of the Museum and we would make regular visits to see Frank and his instruments.We even played some pieces in a benefit concert for sixteen hands on eight pianos.Irene Kohler,Eric Harrison,Sidney Harrison,Graham Johnson,Linn Hendry,Katherine Still and me all took part as we marvelled at this  Alladin’s cave.

I even wrote to Cziffra and had a long correspondence with him about his piano transcriptions.I sought out the Chopin Studies by Godowsky in the Library at Senate House. Then out of nowhere appeard this romantic figure of Raymond Lewenthal who took London by storm with his performances of Liszt and Alkan.

I remember in particular his performance of the Hexameron.Princess Belgiojoso conceived the piece in 1837 and persuaded Franz Liszt to assemble a set of variations of the march along with five of his pianist-friends. Liszt composed the introduction, second variation, connecting sections and finale, and integrated the piece into an artistic unity. Five well-known composer-performers each contributed one variation:  Chopin,Czerny,Herz,Pixis and Thalberg.

Princess Belgiojoso commissioned Hexaméron for a benefit concert for the poor on 31 March 1837 at the princess’s salon in Paris. The musicians did not complete the piece on time, but the concert was held as scheduled. The concert’s highlight was a piano “duel” between Thalberg and Liszt for the title of “greatest pianist in the world.” Princess Belgiojoso announced her diplomatic judgment: “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world–Liszt is unique.”

This winter I ventured to Naples to visit the tomb of Thalberg who had amassed vast wealth from his piano tours in America  and elsewhere and had practically taken over a large part of Naples in his retirement.

 It is a fascinating world of a bygone age and it is Mark Viner with  already seven CD’s of Alkan,Thalberg,Chaminade together with Tyler Hay who are bringing this world back to life.

These works were written by virtuoso pianists for their own performances.To astonish,ravish and seduce.Their model was of course Paganini.But they are works that need a transcendental technique together with a sense of style colour and the stamina to sustain the truly diabolical demands that are required to bring these works back to life.Both Tyler Hay and Mark Viner have these qualities in abundance thanks to their early training with Tessa Nicholson at the Purcell School  and later with Niel Immelman at the Royal College.

I have written many times about their performances but am glad now in this time of confinement to receive Tyler’s latest CD of an almost completely forgotten piano virtuoso.A contemporary of Chopin and Liszt of whom Chopin wrote on his arrival in Paris:”Herz,Liszt and Hiller are all zeros next to Kalkbrenner”He dedicated his Concerto op 11 to him and wanted lessons but the arrogant Kalkbrenner would not teach him for less than three years!

So it is with great trepidation that I await to discover who is Kalkbrenner from the  hands of Tyler Hay.

This is what I wrote in my appraisal a few months ago “Kitten on the Keys” when Tyler played the’ Variations Brillantes sur une Mazourka de Chopin’  op 120 at St James’s Piccadilly:

“The Kalkbrenner Variations based on the B flat mazurka of Chopin I had heard from Tyler on a period instrument that lacked the luminosity and grandeur that today we were treated to on a fine modern day Fazioli concert grand.The sheer beauty of the cantabile and the delicious fiortiori that cascaded like drops of water around the sumptuous melodic line was something to marvel at indeed.He made the piano sound like a truly‘Grand’ piano with such a wonderfully warm and rich sonority from which emerged the Chopin mazurka as never before.The different variations of transcendental difficulty were played with a charm and ease that was quite ravishing.”
There is even more to marvel at on the CD that prefaces the variations with a breathtaking performance of the ’25 Grande Etudes de Style et de Perfectionnement op 120.’
Even more astonishing is the fact that all this was accomplished in one day at Jaques Samuel Pianos in London on the 19th April 2019.I have heard Hamelin,Perahia(Chopin 24 studies),Aimard and Volodos perform similar feats but doubt if that could have been achieved in just one day.
This is quite extraordinary playing by any standard.
And a sumptuous Bechstein piano, the preferred piano of many past masters, that has all the range of sound in the hands of this true master.
His total  technical mastery allied to a sense of style that immediately makes one unaware that these studies are like the Gradus ad Parnassum that we all know from our struggles in early piano lessons.A pupil of Scaramuzza tells me that he used to play much Kalkbrenner in his lessons and indeed these pieces  belong to the great Neapolitan school of piano playing which via Scaramuzza was exported to Argentina.
These 25 studies show all the extraordinary qualities that had Chopin writing to his friend Titus Woyciechowski:”Kalkbrenner’s fascinating touch,the quietness and equality of his playing are indescribable,every note proclaims the master.He is truly a giant,who dwarfs all other artists”
Well that could easily sum up what I heard on this CD today.If it slightly misses the absolute perfection of a Rosenthal or Godowsky I doubt that any pianist could match this today ….with the exception of course of his close colleague Mark Viner!(Just listen to his Alkan studies and the Grand Sonata op 33).
This is born out of a passion for a lost age and the desire to throw themselves into the fray on an absolute mission with burning commitment and mastery.
Not only were there amazing octaves from the very first study or the repeated notes alla Beethoven of the 22nd.There was also the amazing dexterity of the 25th , Bachian with its knotty twine that never gets twisted in Tylers hands.Not like “Grave pour Mmme Langois” that  Kalkbrenner writes in the score where presumably Mmme Langois’s fingers got a little stiff!
The 15th that even Tyler admits is one of the most arduous is thrown off with a great sense of style.The precision of the trills shaped so magically in the 20th and the  tempestuous octaves of the 17th or the swirling arpeggios in a perpetuum mobile of the 8th.
Not only technical feats but also musical treats as well.
The beautiful cantabile and legato playing with  superb sense of balance in the 4th is as touching as anything that Mendelssohn could have written.Or the “Schumanneque ” 21st as  passionate  as any of the Novelettes.The almost Waldteufelian melodic line of the 24th was matched with the “painfully” expressive 16th of almost Bach- Siloti proportions. The beautiful Intermezzo at half time in the 11th played with a heartrending simplicity but where Kalkbrenner manages to slip in a glissando in sixths so as not to allow for  any unwelcomed complacency.
An amazing CD that will take your breath away as you enjoy the sheer musical joy and the ease with which the music is allowed to reach deep down inside you where others rarely reach.
I know Mark Viner has  a Blumenfeld CD lined up and wonder what Tyler has up his sleeve as they take us on their magic tour to a past age of giants.
Hats off indeed as Schumann would have said!
Maybe Kalkbrenner was right when he suggested that Chopin should study with him for three years to acquire a true technique!He was after all Chopin’s favourite pianist that he dedicated his Concerto in E minor op 11 to.
Such were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I was seduced and ravished by this young man’s performance as I had been years ago by Bolet and Cherkassky.The precision of the repeated notes in an explosion of fireworks that brought us to the conclusion was quite breathtaking.

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