So it was obvious that parents of talented children all wanted their offspring to study with the man who was as famous as Eamon Andrews of This is your Life.( By coincidence he lived next door to the Sidneys in Hartington Road)
How many young musicians had fallen under his spell and played on his beautiful inlaid Steinway?Enjoying endless cups of coffee prepared by his wife and very much partner in crime- she too a Sydney- whilst he enthralled us with the magic sounds he could draw from the piano.
He became our friend and accomplice with his expert no nonsense common sense knowledge of the piano but above all he shared his love for music with us .
He took me to the opera and to the Proms as I am sure he did Norma too.
I remember meeting the 15 year old Ian Hobson in the house too before he went on to win the Leeds Piano Competition.
Angela Hewitt, who although never his pupil, was befriended by him when she too came to live in Chiswick to further her studies in Europe.She had been discovered by Sidney as he had her fellow countryman Glenn Gould on his adjudication rounds of the festivals in Canada.
Norma was playing a recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1969 for the London Pianoforte Series and I was bowled over in particular by her performances of the Brahms Handel Variations and Chopin Berceuse.
Sidney took this rather shy fresher, now studying with him at the Royal Academy, to meet her.
‘Meet the winner of the Liszt Open Scholarship’ was his way of introducing me to her!
He was always very proud and generous of his students accomplishments.
He had often talked about Norma and how he had suggested to her as a fifteen year student of his to go and listen to great women pianists like Gina Bachauer.
Passing by the Royal Albert Hall one day she saw the name on the bill board.
Bought a ticket and went backstage to meet her.
‘My teacher says I play like you’ was her opening gambit .
‘Oh’ said Miss Bachauer ‘you had better come and play me something.’
She took her Brahms second piano concerto!
Although she did not have time to teach she introduced her to her own mentor Ilona Kabos ,the wife of Louis Kentner the great exponent of Liszt and Bartok.
Sidney with his great humility and wish for the advancement of his students was only too happy to place Norma into such illustrious hands as he had done for me with Gordon Green a few years later.
I went to many of her concerts in the 70’s and an occasional Prom during the summer months when I could spend more time in London.
During the 80’s my music had taken me to Siena in Italy.
A life long love affair in every sense was born!
I built and ran a theatre in Rome with my Italian actress wife Ileana Ghione and so I had not realised that Norma in the meantime had been forced to retire from the concert platform with focal dystonia in her right arm.
She came once to Rome,of course with Barry her husband, to play Rachmaninov second piano concerto in a summer open air venue in the courtyard of one of Bernini’s most famous churches.I regret that time did not permit her to come to my home and meet my wife or see our theatre that we had created with such love and passion in a happy life together.
The Sidney’s had come especially to Rome to see the theatre in 1984 and to my marriage on Kew Green in the same year.(Sidney was best man at Norma and Barry’s wedding)
I remember how proud he was to know that yet another of the promising youngsters he had helped had created such a venue and where such artists as Annie Fischer,Rosalyn Tureck,Shura Cherkassky and many many other young and old had found a welcoming home in the Eternal city that had been denied them until we came along.
He listened to Victor San Giorgio ,a student of Noretta Conci,and was very impressed with the way we promoted also young aspiring musicians.
It was a great treat to find that in wishing Norma birthday greetings she had sent me quite unexpectedly her two new recordings from the BBC archive .
Ever generous she added :’Hope you enjoy them,Chris they are YOUR birthday present!’
Enjoy is not the word .I have spent two days enthralled to hear the pianist that I remembered.
As Tortelier said to me once …you know what I mean by weight?
It means playing into each note not with violence or harshness but clinging onto every note like a limpet.
Giving the sound a rich and pure quality that is never hard (we used to describe many of the pianists making their debut in London as having the trans atlantic percussive sound .It seemed at that time to be so much part of the so called virtuoso bagage of a whole generation of pianists seeking glory and fortune in London).
This was long before the arrival of Richter or Gilels in the west where we were not aware until then of how quietly and with what variety of sound the real word virtuoso implied.
It is interesting to note that the pianists who most influenced Norma were in fact Emil Gilels and Annie Fischer.Gina Bachauer too who had that extraordinary sound as does Lilya Zilberstein and Sofya Gulyak today.
And of course Martha Argerich is a unique example to us all.
It is exactly these qualities that I had noticed in a film that Norma’s son had prepared with such loving care for this very special occasion.
At the closing sequence the middle section of the ‘Gondoliera’ from ‘Venezia e Napoli’ by Liszt is heard in the background.Just a few short phrases but played with a unique sound and sense of line .With the same shaping as the human voice but with a flexibility without ever loosing the inner energy that lies within the very notes.
It was of course Norma and wishing her greetings and thanking her for the wonderful hour I had spent with all her friends,students and admirers but I just wish I could have heard more of that Liszt.
Hence the surprise packet from the postman!
Straight to that Liszt.
But first a Mephisto Waltz with a twittering of bird calls that was quite sensational.I have never heard such clarity and sound allied to such precision in pianissimo since Gilels.And it followed on from such sumptuous full sounds contrasted with such delicacy and clarity too.A limpet type belonging to the keys that seems to extract such energy from each note .The build up to the climax was of sound upon sound just as I remember Gilels in the Spanish Rhapsody in a rare appearance at the RFH.The sort of playing that grips you by the scruff of the neck and does not let go .Not the usual barnstorming or tear on the sleeve Liszt but a Liszt restored to the heights where it truly belongs.
A sound that glistens like gold even on these recordings.
They have been salvaged from the few BBC archive recordings not deleted in their inexplicable blitz on an archive of inestimable value. Luckily Norma had some recordings taken from the broadcasts and it is thanks to Tomoyuki Sawado,the producer, that a miracle has been performed here.
A exemplary presentation by Bryce Morrison who knows more about pianists and piano playing than anyone on the planet makes this a gem indeed.
And so to that ‘Venezia e Napoli’.
A ‘Gondoliera’ with the magical shimmering sound of water everywhere (the magic of Visconti in Death in Venice springs to mind) and the simplicity of the Gondoliers song with drops of water that seem to cascade from Norma’s fingers as at the Villa D’Este.
The pure opera of ‘Canzone’ in true Italian style with all the rhetoric and drama, all the more movingly powerful for that.An oh so subtle submissive duet that leads to a Tarantella of such lightweight virtuosity belonging to another age.
No empty note-spinning but clouds of sound with a forward impulse that is so hypnotically compelling.
The extreme beauty of the embellishments adding to the sumptuous sounds of the melodic line like diamonds glittering in the crown.
A luminosity of sound and gradual build up to its ultimate goal and furious conclusion in a maze of pyrotechnics.
And pyrotechnics abounded indeed in the two transcendental studies included here.
The F minor study was played surprisingly delicately.For here was a true musician who had seen this piece not as the usual barnstorming study but as a tone poem of passionate emotions.
The accompanying figures were played with such finesse where waves of sound were created on which the most noble of melodies could float and let its heart beat so searingly.Leading to a frenzied build up played with aristocratic control before the animal like excitement of the coda.
Like an animal finally let out of the cage and on the rampage!
Mazeppa too was emersed in swirls of sound that climbed to the top of the mountain where the well known Mazeppa was revealed in all its glory.The sumptuous cantabile of the middle section was encapsulated in magical cascades of sound.
A Danse Macabre full of infectious dance rhythms and a wonderful sound from the tenor register full of melancholy and nostalgia.The wailing of the wind in this seemingly Icelandic landscape disappearing to a mere whisper.
Leaving a simple lied by Schubert in its wake closing this first CD dedicated to Liszt with his arrangement of Standchen.
A melodic line played with such luminosity and with a filigree accompaniment of subtle finesse becoming ever more delicate and luminous glittering like jewels in the sun.
The sumptuous final chords were of poignant artistry and a fitting end to these revelatory performances of Liszt.