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Culture

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.

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