The Corner

Culture

Rolling Your Own (and an Evening Chez Buckley)

I’ve done a new Jaywalking podcast, which gives you a little music, a little politics, and a little more. I say that I like a performer who “rolls his own” — that is, who writes his own music, in addition to performing it. Daniil Trifonov does this. (I lead the podcast with his piano concerto.) So do a handful of others, most of them pianists.

In the past, there was no great division between composers and performers. Think of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Think of Chopin, Paganini, and Rachmaninoff. But then, in the first part of the 20th century, there came this split.

You know who was a helluva pianist, a big virtuoso (apart from the fact that he was a sublime musician, and a genius)? Bartók. That is how he made his living for a long time. The piano music he wrote, he wrote for himself to concertize with — including his Concerto No. 2, one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. (This comes up in my new Jaywalking.)

On the subject of Hungarian pianists: WFB once invited to dinner a remarkable man, Balint Vázsonyi. He studied at the Liszt Academy and escaped Hungary in ’56, when he was 20. In America, he got involved in politics. Indeed, he ran for mayor of Bloomington, Ind. He also spent some time in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Mich.

So did György Sándor, another Hungarian pianist, who comes up in this new Jaywalking. (I both talk about him and play a brief recording of his.) Sándor was a protégé of Bartók, and it was he, actually, not the composer, who gave the premiere of Bartók’s Concerto No. 3.

I don’t know about Sándor’s politics. I can guess. Most of those guys were deeply freedom-loving. Balint Vázsonyi was a conservative of the Reagan stripe. He prized the liberalism — the classical liberalism — that allows high culture and other good things to flourish.

After dinner, WFB asked Vázsonyi to play something. Vázsonyi demurred a bit, pointing out that he had drunk wine, but he went to the piano and played some Schumann — the Arabeske in C. WFB loved it, as he did civilization at large.

I end the new Jaywalking with the playing of Myra Hess — Dame Myra Hess, the British pianist — who was one of Vázsonyi’s teachers, along with other greats (e.g., Dohnányi).

I’m sorry that Vázsonyi and all the others were run out of their native lands, needless to say. And, of course, many did not reach exile: They were imprisoned or murdered where they were. But I was awfully glad to meet these refugees and exiles, and they enriched the lands to which they went, chiefly ours. I kid about Ann Arbor as a left-wing citadel. But it was also stocked with people who had fled tyranny, and knew the value of liberal democracy, and I profited from them immensely.

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