Only yesterday, and now. Paul Badura-Skoda in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Tokyo (Ibaraki Prefecture), Japan, 15 June 2014
Last evening, blessed by the Gods of fortunate timing, I found myself in attendance at a singular, memorable, musical event: the last piano recital in Japan given by Paul Badura-Skoda. The venerable Austrian master is still keyboard-spry at 86 years of age, but both he and his wife Elizabeth spoke to me of the increasing hardships of travel, road diet and jet lag. They were anticipating their flight home later today with satisfaction. No wonder, for their “Final Concert Tour” has brought them to seven concert halls across the country in the past two weeks.
Just two evenings ago I heard Mr. Badura-Skoda’s penultimate recital on this tour, in Nagoya. At Munetsugu Hall, a lucky audience of some 400 people heard the Austrian master in top form, playing a long and demanding program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (Variations and Sonatas of stil patetico nature) with probity, drive and confrontational abandon. It was thrilling, in fact unforgettable. Backstage afterwards, the pianist casually suggested to me, why don’t I come up to Ibaraki (north of Tokyo) to hear his other program? — an invitation that I took up in a heartbeat.
It proved a harder challenge to meet than expected. The Bando Civic Concert Hall in Ibaraki Prefecture is difficult to reach, without a car. My spouse Kayoko and I ended up taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, and then a long bus connection to the rural suburb of Mitsukaido, where we stayed overnight. From Mitsukaido we had to take a half-hour taxi ride to Bando. The Badura-Skodas were driven some two hours back and forth there, from their Tokyo hotel, on concert day — no wonder Elizabeth remarked to me, “cette voyage, ah, nous sommes fatigués…”
Yet it hardly sounded so, last evening. An overflow crowd of some 600 people (of all ages! — I am astounded at how young Japanese children sit so quietly through such concerts) heard Badura-Skoda in a valedictory evening of Chopin — four Waltzes, four Mazurkas and the Barcarolle — and Schubert — the last Sonata in B flat major — plus a helping of five delectable encores.
Last year in Shanghai I heard Badura-Skoda give a gripping account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491 with his own cadenzas. Subsequently I caught up with him in Madison, Wisconsin, where I enjoyed a delightful afternoon of musical consultation on one of his favorite subjects, the Piano Sonatas of Mozart. And this past week in Japan, I found myself in the unusual position of being a groupie — in Japanese, one could say “otaku” — as my admiration of the pianist as both performer and scholar has only grown over the decades. His Mozart recordings profoundly influenced me as a young student, and his writings on performance practice enabled me to craft my own cadenzas to the Concertos of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Now, some three decades after first encountering his name, to get better-acquainted with him has been a rich and delightful blessing.
It would have been hard to top the Nagoya recital, where I felt I had never heard Haydn in particular played with more insight, sympathy, and emotive power. And indeed, Badura-Skoda was burdened with the weight of unimaginable expectation last evening. But one thing manifested itself from the opening note of the Chopin Waltz in A minor op. 34 no. 2 — the rich cantabile tone of a master’s touch, a sound one simply does not hear very often from pianists these days. That tone informed all the pieces on the program, of course, and the grateful Japanese audience (startling to say, I was the only gaijin in attendance) simply could not have enough of it.
In an interview given on his 75th birthday (in 2002) for the Österreich-Journal, Badura-Skoda referred to a central truth which is critical to the sound of his own pianism:
“The notes are important, firstly because of the silence that lies between them, and secondly the sound within them — what may be expressed, and must be. For the notes are like the words of a language; and if I speak a foreign language correctly but do not know the meaning of the words, then neither can my audience understand the meaning of the unfolding drama.” [translation from the German].
The evening’s acme was, of course, a breathtaking traversal of the langorous Schubert Sonata, which Badura-Skoda took directly and at times in a tempo quicker than is often experienced. In addition to his tonal command, the Austrian pianist brought one of his greatest strengths to this performance, which is an architectural clarity coupled to forward momentum that has cumulative, shattering impact. In the midst of the last movement, I found myself in tears, amidst one of the songful episodes, savoring a tender phrase that would soon give way to the inevitable driving climax. All around me were other faces flecked with teardrops as well, and for the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that Schubert’s 40-minute masterpiece had another movement or two to go.
When the Schubert did come to its close, there was a rainshower of applause, bravos from all corners of the house, a flower bouquet brought on stage by an adorable child who was squeezed delightedly by the pianist, and then a growing procession of encores — Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major op. 90 no. 3; Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor; Otto Schulhof’s tender music-box mélange of Strauss Waltzes; and Schubert’s popular Moment Musical in F minor, whose rhythmic intro was accompanied by enthusiastic clapping (the pianist smiled at his assemblage in birthday boy approval). It would have been an ideal conclusion to a brilliant evening, but the Japanese audience would not let the moment go — the clapping continued, cascading into louder bursts with each reappearance of the maestro. Finally he consented to play a final Chopin Waltz (a short, posthumous one in B minor), after which the crowd was happy simply to cheer and clap fortissimo as Badura-Skoda stood to gaze upon them, hands folded across his chest in gratitude. Appreciation for a lifetime of concerts in this most poetic of countries, it is a scene I never expect to re-encounter. And it was then, too, that I fully felt the magnitude of the moment.
As Kayoko and I made our way through the exiting throngs to the backstage entrance, I reflected on other farewell piano recitals in Japan — by cigar-chomping Leonid Kreutzer; beloved Viennese pedagogue Max Eggers; Busoni disciple Leo Sirota — and it hit me hard, that I had witnessed something of the passing of pianistic history. Indeed, I wonder if we have simply come to the end of the Era of Keyboard Aristocracy. As a student in New York, I had been privileged to hear incredible piano recitals by Claudio Arrau, Magda Tagliaferro, Annie Fischer, and by my own count about 40 concerts of my own teacher Rudolf Firkušný; later in life I came to know Gunnar Johansen in Madison, Kiyoko Tanaka in Tokyo, Anthony di Bonaventura in Boston and Reah Sadowsky in San Francisco. Many speak nostalgically of such artists as people of great personality, but of course every age has its great personalities. For me, these towering pianists all possessed a European-inflected style and elegance as well, which encompassed a sincere humility and deference to the composer’s message on stage — a reverential, devotional obligation. It is that commitment, that sense of integral artistic approach — call it an awareness of God in the calling of music, if you will — that I fear is now lost, or all but so.
Thanks to the sensitive, well-worked hands of Paul Badura-Skoda, I could experience that majesty once more, for a couple of unforgettable Japanese evenings. The sound of that haunting beauty on stage in the Land of the Rising Sun, will forever linger in my ear, my mind, and in my musical core.