Piero Rattalino 1931-2023

Pianist, Pianofile, Musicologist, Critic, Teacher, Sage

Fossano 18 March 1931

Imola 6 April 2023

'He was more interested in the style and quality of notes rather than the quantity'

~ Christopher Axworthy ~

Following a conference on Beethoven’s Pathétique at the Piano Academy in Imola, the death of Piero Rattalino - piano chair at the Milan Conservatory 1965-96, Artistic Director of the Teatro Regio Torino 1981-91, professor at Imola since 1987 - closes a chapter in European history. I never met him. But his words … his words I treasured. Along with Max Graf, Muriel Draper, Arthur Symons, Conrad Aiken, Neville Cardus, others of their ilk, he was an inspiring, formative influence. I could never read him, never absorb his grasp of musicians and performance, without being taken down roads and lanes of perspicacious insight, imagery and passion. His one-liners were other people’s chapters. He loved ... lived ... his art.

Listening to Guglielmo

I was born in the provinces1, and lived there for many years. As a young boy, the only music I had a chance to hear was the occasional opera the impresarios brought around under certain - rare - circumstances. Playing the boondocks [backwoods], as one would say today. But since it was during fascism, the expression “playing the boondocks” was entirely positive and honorable, and had no negative connotation. And then, for me and for the public, the important thing was the show itself, not its quality: we had a great time. I began to realize that there was more to opera than what the impresarios presented at the country fair in my home town (the so-called Carro di Tespi), when I saw Aida and Andrea Chenier. These were exciting occasions for me, because, in addition to the pleasures of the opera, I could also see the Royal Family, there to attend Aida. The whole Royal Family, including Boris III of Bulgaria2, which for me was like seeing the Queen of Sheba. Many years later, in Sofia, I was shown the paving of certain streets and was told they were gifts from Italian Royalty for the [1930] wedding of Giovanna di Savoia and Boris. And I clearly recalled Boris III, dark, covered with medals and ribbons – he had come in uniform - after an Aida.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered radio. Back then, there was lots of music on the radio, much more than now. And I listened to loads of music on the radio for at least ten years. Certain things I remember, others no; but my knowledge of the symphonic repertory was based on what I heard on the radio, long before I learned to read scores. As I said, certain things I remember, others no. For example, I clearly remember the first time I happened upon a con-certo for piano and orchestra. I don’t remember the year, so I don’t know how old I was, but I knew how to manage the knobs on the radio all by myself. It wasn’t a public concert; it was a discographic transmission (or rather, phonographic: 'discographic' was a taboo word, and using it showed your ignorance). This phono-graphic transmission, chanced upon while turning the knobs, was of the Concerto Op 16 of Grieg, and I fell into an ecstasy that lasted several days.

The pianist was Wilhelm (but back then we said Guglielmo) Backhaus, the conductor John (but back then we said Giovanni) Barbirolli3. Backhaus and Barbirolli were famous individually and were also famous as a pair. They had worked together a great deal in England, where Backhaus was at home since the beginning of the century4. I knew nothing about either of them, and knew very little about Grieg. But that didn’t matter to me: the Concerto sent me into ecstasy, and those two names, Guglielmo Backhaus and Giovanni Barbirolli, stuck in my mind. And they never left.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the Grieg Concerto got bad press. I found this out when I read Alfredo Casella’s Pianoforte5 and when | met others who knew better than the teachers with whom I had studied up to then. Nowadays I think their negative opinion on the Grieg Concerto was a mistake. But basically I couldn't care less. I'd continue to love the Grieg Concerto even if you were to show me mathematically that it’s disgusting, and even if you showed me that Backhaus wasn’t its best interpreter I’d continue to prefer his performance: first loves are sacred.

1940 Canadian release

During the war, in addition to listening to the radio, I attended many opera performances that no were longer in the boondocks category. The large theatres worked on a hit-and- miss basis, there was the [Allied] Landing in Sicily6, and orchestras and singers of a certain fame hit the provinces, where, among other things, food rationing wasn’t as drastic as it was in the cities. But instrumentalists didn’t venture into the provinces, because the provinces loved opera, and so I didn’t have the chance to hear great instrumentalists in live performance until after the war, when I was about fifteen.

The first one I heard, needless to say, was Wilhelm Backhaus. I still lived in the provin- ces, and couldn't go into the city at night because there was no train for the trip back. Chamber music concerts were given at night. But …

When Backhaus returned to Italy he played the Third and Fifth Concertos of Beethoven. I think it was a Monday or Tuesday: I listened to the performances on the radio. That Friday he played the Third in Torino, and I listened to this on the radio as well. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, he gave a Beethoven recital in Torino, in the concert hall of the 'G[iuseppe] Verdi' Conservatory. And I was there.

Backhaus played the Sonatas Op 10 No 2, Op 31 No 2, Op 78, Op 81a, and Op 111. I knew all of them, but especially Op 10 No 2, which I had prepared for my graduation exam7. And he opened the recital with precisely this Sonata.

1st edition, Vienna September 1798  ~  Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Back then, he was rather thin. He dressed in a dark blue double-breasted suit that displayed his powerful bone structure and slim physique. He was just over sixty, looked ten years younger, and was not yet the patriarchal figure that was to become so familiar later on, when he was a real living legend. He was severe and distant - he looked like an engineer. But when he began that Sonata Op 10 No 2 that I knew so well, he immediately revealed to me - the pauses were enough - the difference between Academic and Artistic. A difference that I sensed but didn’t understand. To understand it required many years of error and frustration. To sense it I only needed to listen to Backhaus - to listen while seeing him, because I had already heard him without seeing him - play just a few bars of a Beethoven Sonata. And that evening, as I nibbled on a brioche while waiting for my train, I wasn’t in ecstasy. Backhaus hadn’t excited me: he had frightened me. I had never known that Art could be so overwhelming.

Decca, Victoria Hall Genève, March 1951

I listened to Backhaus very often after that Sunday afternoon in Torino, for more than twenty years. I remember his last appearance in the Large Hall of the Milan Conservatory. He must have been 83 or 848, and didn’t look ten years younger: he was exactly what you’d imagine when you say 'an ancient oak', and walked on stage - slowly, but not too slowly - with a slightly crooked gait. I don’t remember that recital too well, as opposed to the first time I heard him, because I probably confuse it with others. But I do recall that he played the Appassionata with an ancient, priestly gravity that made a tremendous impression on me, because I had recently discovered the frenetic, dazzling Appassionata of Richter9, and it had wreaked havoc with all of my ideas about Beethoven. Backhaus, in a certain sense, re-balanced them, and for that I was very grateful. A year or so later I read in the papers of the sudden illness that had struck him during a concert in Carinthia and, a week after, of his death10. It would be inadequate to say that I felt great sadness. Even though I had never known him personally, never heard his voice, a piece of my life was gone.

The Concerto No 5 by Beethoven that Backhaus performed in Lugano, at the age of 77 brought back an aspect of his playing that I had noticed very early: he played differently in public than for recordings. Only his very last studio recordings, with their visionary interpretations, completely bound to the moment, truly recall Backhaus the concert artist. Previously, the recording was a moment of conversation with History, from which he had banned all existential humours. But in public he was always fascinating, because even if the structure of his interpretation never changed, was never even upset, and even though his technique was always rock solid, there were always many details that seemed to be created right then and there. Backhaus spoke with grand gestures, and absorbed emotional stimuli from the place and from the audience that he immediately transformed into artistic fact. But you had to see him, because his gesture, that going with or opposing the force of gravity, that relationship between receding and advancing that explained the emotional dynamic to the public, was crucial. I can see him perfectly, and I can see Schuricht too, even if I saw him in live performance only once. I see them synchronizing the piano chords and orchestra chords in the cadenza that opens the Concerto; I see them as they look at each other and breathe together; I see them later, wrinkling their faces in a smile of satisfaction. Because that’s how Backhaus and Schuricht were: artists who thought in the grand manner, and did all they could to avoid getting bogged down in details.

In the Fifth Concerto, as in the Fourth, the pianist sits still for a few minutes after his first entrance while the orchestra presents the themes of the first movement. Minutes of hell for the conscientious pianist if his entrance didn’t go so well: regret for what happened and a desire for revenge create a dangerous situation that can negatively affect the whole performance. After a majestic cadenza, Backhaus and Schuricht proceed like two lions and, at least in the pianist, we sense the physical pleasure - physiological, really - of one who goes out early on a beautiful morning, his face tickled by sparkling air, his eyes filled with sunlight, feeling full of life even though he’s 77 years old11 and has sixty years of strain and hard work behind him. 

Kursaal Teatro Apollo Lugano, Swiss-Italian Radio Orchestra

recorded by Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana/Rete2

The Lugano weather department could probably tell me what kind of day it was on 27 April 1961. From the way Backhaus plays, I’d say the day was splendid, with the lake shimmering and the hillsides covered in fresh springtime green. Happy with life were Backhaus and Schuricht, and happy was the public. And on that day, I believe, Backhaus sensed that born in Beethoven, at the very moment that Austria was defeated and humiliated by France, was the utopia of Joy, a transcendental hope in which all men could trust. I’ve heard thousands of performances of the Concerto No 5, but I was never aware that the utopia of Joy, present in the Fantasy Op 80, written, as was the Concerto, between 1808 and 1809, permeated the Concerto as well. I’ve discovered it now and, once again, I’m grateful to Backhaus, to whom I owe many moments of illumination in my life as a musician.

After having listened to the Fifth Concerto of Beethoven, I went and got out my recording of the Grieg Concerto and listened to Guglielmo Backhaus and Giovanni Barbirolli once again. And a great tenderness came over me, sweet as a caress, and I was back beside a 1930s radio, my fingers on the knob, numb because the emotion I felt made them contract spasmodically. It’s not like that for my readers. For them, Backhaus was just one of many great pianists, here on a magical evening. That’s how it has to be for me, when I’m a critic. But my readers will forgive me - and I won't say 'I hope', because I’m sure - if for once I’ve exchanged the critic’s clothes for those of the diarist.

Piero Rattalino translated Eric Siegel

© 1994 Ermitage srl, Bologna

annotated AO 12 April 2023

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4 ~ Bösendorfer Imperial

Wilhelm Backhaus, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wiener Philharmoniker, leader Willy Boskowsky

Wiener Festwochen, Theater an der Wien, 31 May 1962

ORF film, colourised

1 'Almost in the center of Piedmont and in a beautiful position rises the city of Fossano placed on an easy hillock. Gently it looks to the east at a delightful scene of scattered and very varied hills and a vast plain. The view extends over a large area of land up to the most remote Swiss Alps having, on the left, the snowy crags of the Saluzzo area with the Re di Pietra Monviso and, on the right, the fertile slopes of the Apennines'. Pietro Paserio, Notizie storiche della città di Fossano, Torino 1865.

2 Tsar, 1918-43.

3      Studio 1 Abbey Road, London 23 October 1933. HMV DB2074-76, three 12" shellac discs, six sides, 78rpm.

4 In 1904 Alexander Brodsky offered Backhaus the post of Professor of Piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

5 Milan 1954, dedicated to Cortot. https://petruccimusiclibrary.ca/files/imglnks/caimg/e/ea/IMSLP468162-PMLP760263-                      Casella_Alfredo_-_Il_Pianoforte_-_RICORDI_MILANO_1956.pdf

6 July-August 1943.

7 Parma Conservatory, 1948.

8 circa 1967/68.

9 RCA, New York 29-30 November 1960, released 1961.

10 Villach, Austria, 5 July 1969.

11 Schuricht was 80.