Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My review of Earl Wild's memoirs

Here's my review of Earl Wild's autobiography, A Walk on the Wild Side. As it's not exactly a rave, I'm sure it will earn me brickbats from Wild's coterie.

Not so much Wild as rambling & bitchy

Earl Wild (1914-2010) had one of the longest careers in the performing arts. He was a pianist of remarkable technique who made everything he played look easy. He'd been claiming - or "threatening" if one had ever heard him in interviews - to be working on his memoirs for decades before his death.

Early in A Walk on the Wild Side, the author complains that Arthur Rubinstein's two-volume memoirs contained too much recounting of social events, meals, and love affairs - and not enough about music. Reading that complaint, I became hopeful that Wild's book would be largely centred on music. Sadly, it is not. Wild's early years are dispensed with quickly enough - he claims his family was not close knit, to the extent that Wild once didn't recognize his own brother who came backstage to see him after a concert. He recounts his years as staff pianist for NBC, which he left when he entered the Armed Services during World War II. Wild recalls the various dignitaries he met over the years, including Eleanor Roosevelt and various Presidents (he describes Franklin Roosevelt as an "intelligent and sensitive" man who would sit close to the keyboard to watch Wild's hands, but writes that JFK wanted to be elsewhere than the post-Inaugural concert). Wild also relates how he met Michael Rolland Davis, who became his life partner from the early 1970s until Wild's death. Wild's unapologetic candor in describing his relationship with Davis - while refusing to use it as an excuse to plead for "tolerance" - is refreshing at a time when some people still feel the need to justify love. It is what it is and if you don't like it - too bad for you.

Neither editing nor fact checking appears to have been done. Wild's prose style is of the kind that would be discouraged by any decent high school English teacher. He seems to finish every third sentence with an exclamation point! Some of Wild's statements are impossible for anyone with musical knowledge to take seriously, such as his comment that Josef Hofmann played at the top of his form until the end of his career. Also, there are so many factual errors that everything Wild writes comes into question. For example, Wild relates that President Truman, upset by critic Paul Hume's review of Margaret Truman's concert, wrote Hume a letter in which he called Hume an unprintable name. In fact, Truman's letter was published and, although Truman's distaste for Hume is evident, there is no profanity. This story is well known and easily verifiable - yet no one seems to have bothered to check it.

There are a few musicians who earn Wild's praise, including Paderewski, Toscanini, Garrick Ohlsson and, of all people, Liberace! There are also moments of amusement, such as when Wild catches Wanda Toscanini Horowitz staring at his face, apparently looking for evidence of cosmetic surgery and a hairpiece (Wild maintained naturally full hair until his death).

But for the most part, the book is a diatribe against the classical music "business" and those who run it. A few - and there are many - targets of Wild's bile include: Isaac Stern, Virgil Thomson, and the Steinway company. In short, Wild claims that Isaac Stern blocked Carnegie Hall from presenting him - so that Wild had to finance his own concerts there; that Thomson gave him bad reviews after Wild spurned a sexual advance; and that Steinway loaned him poorly prepared pianos. From what I've learned over the years, these three examples are entirely plausible. But it doesn't end there. It seems that anyone, particularly pianists, who had what Wild perceives as greater success than he, is a valid target. So, Wild states that Claudio Arrau's career was entirely the product of publicity, and goes on to lambaste Alfred "Bren-dull", Vladimir Feltsman, and even Yehudi Menuin. In the end, it reads like Wild is whining that he didn't get what he deserved because others either conspired against him or ignored him. Even supposed friends, like Harold Schonberg, are not spared.

The best part of A Walk on the Wild Side is the chapter devoted solely to musical and pianistic matters. Wild's holistic advice on how to physically approach and play the piano should be memorized by every piano student - particularly in these days of swooning by the likes of Lang Lang - who Wild refers to as "the J-Lo of the piano". But one chapter does not make up for the air of bitterness that pervades the rest of Wild's book. Wild comes across not as charmingly egocentric, but as someone with scores to settle - and settle them he does. In the end, one wishes that the pianist had consulted a psychologist to deal with his lingering anger rather than subject the rest of us to it.

The book includes a discography which is very useful, because when Wild mentions any of his own recordings he makes it clear that he likes them better than anyone else's. No false modesty here! The book comes with a CD that includes a rambling interview with Wild (some anecdotes are recounted nearly word-for-word the same as the book) and selected recordings - none of which show Wild at his best.

I've never had any illusion that Wild was one of the deep thinkers in pianistic history, but his true pettiness was not revealed to me until reading this disappointing book. I recommend you skip this book (or at least try to find it at a library) and spend the $45 on some of Wild's better recordings - particularly Rhapsody in Blue, which is sui generis. They will bring more pleasure and less disillusionment.

[Note: As I predicted, my review of this book on Amazon resulted in many negative votes and comments. Several positive reviews of the book were immediately written from accounts which had never submitted a review before. Interestingly, many of my other reviews there have also earned negative votes - which indicates one or a few ax grinders are trolling my reviews. These people (or is it one person using multiple accounts?) seem obsessed with avenging Wild's memory which I have ruthlessly defamed. They seem uninterested in the positive reviews I've written for Ivory Classics recordings, such as that by Igor Lovchinsky. I have no control over what people write on Amazon, but I am not permitting comments on this entry of my blog. I have been harrassed enough already by Wild's groupies.]