Sunday, January 24, 2010

Earl Wild 1915-2010

Earl Wild, one of America’s pre-eminent pianists. died on January 23, at the age of 94.

Wild died at his home in Palm Springs, California. For many years, he had been a resident of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1942, he gave a performance of Rhapsody in Blue with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini that remains legendary. During World War II, he played a recital in the White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and accompanied Mrs. Roosevelt in many of her speaking tours, playing the Star Spangled Banner prior to her speeches.

Wild, who gave his first radio recital in 1927 at the age of 12, was a trailblazer. He was the first pianist to give a recital in television, in 1939. In 1997, he gave the first piano recital to be live-streamed over the Internet. Over the course of his long career, Wild played nearly everywhere. He remained active until his final recitals and recordings in 2005.

That same spirit of adventure applied to his repertoire. Wild’s extensive discography (among many other labels, he recorded for RCA, Columbia/Sony, and founded Ivory Classics) contains remarkably little “beaten path” music. He was the champion of piano transcriptions in the late-20th Century. He not only played them but he prepared many of his own. (His arrangements of Gershwin’s songs are considered the ne plus ultra of Gershwin song transcriptions.) He also did a great deal of composing, including his Piano Sonata (2000), which featured a finale dedicated to Ricky Martin. When he did play standard repertoire, he was successful. His version of Chopin’s complete Nocturnes was released in 1997, and New York Times critic Harold Schonberg was unequivocal, calling them “the best version of the Nocturnes ever recorded."

Wild’s playing was known for its technical command (noteworthy even in a field crowded by super technicians like Hofmann, Horowitz, and Bolet), tonal beauty, and the pianist’s relaxed, unruffled approach. Wild was often referred to as a Grand Romantic pianist, but in truth he stayed pretty close to the score and was more Classical in his approach.

Wild refused to compromise his principles for the sake of easy success. He was openly gay in a business which has not been known for its progressiveness. (Michael Rolland Davis, his companion since 1972, survives him.) He refused to endorse Steinway pianos, despite the virtual chokehold that company has long had over the piano industry, and Steinway punished him for it. For decades, Wild was Baldwin’s most noteworthy classical artist. When the quality of Baldwin’s pianos began to decline, he switched to Kawai. Perhaps for these reasons, Wild’s career never reached the stratospheric height that was warranted by his talent and hard work. His was not a household name like Van Cliburn. Wild was appreciated primarily among connoisseurs. Yet he career was more enduring than Cliburn’s.

Enough talk. It’s the music that counts:

1 comment:

michael r. brown said...

a beautiful and well-learned account as ever, hank. thank you.