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Finally, You Can Look Them Up

Influential pianists Grete Sultan and Richard Buhlig labored in obscurity, but a sample of their powerful work is now available on compact discs.

August 18, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

When Grete Sultan walked onto the stage of Merkin Hall in New York late last June to perform the "Goldberg" Variations, she looked her age. It may not be gallant to say so, but that surely was what was on the mind of every single person in the large and distinguished audience. Her age happened to be 90 years and four days. She was not well and, in fact, she would go into the hospital for surgery the next morning. But she was determined to play Bach's masterpiece in public once more.

Sultan walked with effort to the piano but became young again as soon as she seated herself on the bench. Her fingers weren't entirely at her command; she stumbled over a passage here and there. But each variation is in two parts with everything repeated (she took many but not all the repeats), and she never faltered at the same place twice. Nor did she ever lose the thread of the musical line. The performance was slow, lasting around 80 minutes, and her concentration was such that the 30 variations had an integrity that very few pianists have ever been able to maintain. Nothing in the Olympics came close, or even had the possibility of coming close to matching this kind of triumph of will.

So who is Grete Sultan?

Look her up in the standard references, including the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, and you won't find her. Look for her recordings in the 1996 Schwann Artist, the recording catalog, and you won't find any.

The last situation, at least, will change. Concord Concerto (a new classical offshoot of the Concord Jazz label) has just released "The Legacy of Grete Sultan, Vol. 1," a two-CD set of recordings of live performances of works by Schoenberg, Cage and Debussy, along with a studio performance of the "Goldberg" Variations. The Variations was recorded in 1959 in one take and played with all the inspiring nobility of the 90-year-old and all the technique of a fine pianist in her prime.

Sultan is a pianist with a remarkable story. She was born in Berlin in 1906. She came from a musical family; her aunt knew Clara Schumann. She made a harrowing escape from Nazi Germany in 1940, one of the last Jews to get out, and just barely. She settled in New York and became the quintessential Greenwich Village bohemian pianist. She worked with ultramodern dancers. She befriended the avant-garde and most notably John Cage, who wrote his monumental keyboard composition, "Etudes Australes," for her. (And her amazing recording of it is, in fact, available on a three-CD Wergo set, despite the Schwann gap.)

But Sultan also remained devoted to the classics, which she continued to perform and which she taught to several generations of pianists. She performed the "Goldberg" Variations in the early '50s in hip hangouts such as the Circle in the Square, and it was because of musicians like her that the early beats thought that Bach was cool. Her admirers included the pianist Claudio Arrau.

That Sultan so naturally lived in these very different artistic worlds may seem unusual. But she wasn't alone. In Berlin, she had studied with Richard Buhlig, who happened to have been doing exactly the same thing, a generation earlier.

So, now look up Buhlig in the references. All you will likely find is a small paragraph about a pianist who was born in Chicago in 1880 and who spent some time in Berlin early in the century. He ultimately settled in Los Angeles, where he became a noted piano teacher (Leonard Stein, John Cage, Earl Wild and the composer Leon Kirchner were among his pupils).

Buhlig appears to have made no commercial recordings and is pretty much forgotten these days. But a live recording of him playing Bach and Beethoven, made privately in Los Angeles in 1938, has surfaced on Dante, a small French label specializing in historic piano releases. And included on it is one of the most daredevil performances of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata to be found anywhere.

Buhlig was by all accounts an extraordinary pianist. He was a pupil of Theodore Leschetizky, a famous 19th century pedagogue (Artur Schnabel, one of Buhlig's good friends, studied with him as did many other of the early 20th century keyboard greats). Ferrucio Busoni was so impressed with Buhlig that he dedicated one of the versions of his keyboard masterpiece "Fantasia Contrappuntistica" to him.

Buhlig was the first pianist to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas as a cycle in Los Angeles (he did it twice in the '40s at the Evenings on the Roof series, the predecessor of the current Monday Evening Concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). He was a great proponent of Bach, who was not much played at the time. And he also took a lively interest in all the arts and especially in the most radical composers of his day.

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