Ignaz Friedman: Great Jewish Pianist

The Polish Jewish pianist Ignaz Friedman may not be a household name, but his majestic artistry, honored by a brilliantly researched new biography by Allan Evans, “Ignaz Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist,” just published by Indiana University Press, makes him of urgent interest to anyone who loves piano music.

A Naxos CD reissue series , establishes Friedman as an interpreter of sovereign moods with the improvisatory freedom of an action painter .

“Poland evoked poverty and antisemitism in Friedman’s mind,” Evans tells us, but he fortunately found a philosemitic teacher in Vienna, the Polish Catholic Theodor Leschetizky, who famously said that “three indispensables” were needed for a virtuoso, to be Slavic, Jewish and a child prodigy. A Viennese nobleman offered to pay for Friedman’s studies if the youngster converted to Catholicism, to which Friedman’s mother replied: “My son is not for sale.”

This staunch independence continued throughout his lifetime, in heroic performances of Chopin and in adopting his teacher Leschetizky’s esthetic criteria. In 1924, when a Jewish child prodigy played for Friedman, his reaction was: “As a Jewish boy, he should have played better.” As fascism conquered Europe, Friedman pleaded with a fellow Polish Jew, star pianist Josef Hofmann, long established in America, for help, and Hofmann abjectly did not lift a finger. Instead, Friedman eventually fled to Australia, where, as a chain smoker since age ten (!) he developed health problems and died in 1948.

Although not religiously observant, he asked a student to recite the Kaddish for him. Whether in bewitching versions of Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words” or dazzlingly free and virtuosic Chopin and Hummel , Friedman is a pianist to be permanently treasured.

Listen here to Ignaz Friedman discuss Chopin on Australian radio.

Watch a brief, silent home movie of Friedman toddling along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan below.

Written by

Benjamin Ivry

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Ignaz Friedman: Great Jewish Pianist

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