At eighteen I took a couple of piano lessons from the great pianist Egon Petri, who lived then a few miles south of U.C. Berkeley, where I attended college. His recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas had been a great favorite of mine (here is a link to the cd Beethoven Sonatas: Egon Petri in Recital; see my earlier post on other great performances of those sonatas). In awe I visited his apartment and absorbed all I could. He already was suffering from his last illness, and he connected me to one of his best pupils, Julian White – a brilliant pianist and generous teacher like Petri, offering particularly keen insights into the structure of phrases, passages, and movements. I took lessons from White for three years.
At one of our lessons, he told me about his experiences as a student at Julliard and his friendship with Van Cliburn. When Cliburn was training” for the Levintritt competition, Julian told me to my amazement, their mutual teacher Rosina Lhevinne asked White to be a sort of all-day coach. I was nineteen when I heard this story, and I made an assumption about White’s help, which I now realize was false. I imagined that White had served to prompt musical passion and engagement in the great young pianist, as if he were a sort of blank tablet. Listening again to Cliburn’s recordings from the fifties through the seventies, I realize that can’t have been true, for what Van Cliburn possesses at his core is passion, even to the point of violence. What White probably provided was an auditor to help in pacing practice and a sense of occasion for the discipline involved – and perhaps also what he provided for me: insights into structure, shaping and controlling the beauty of phrases, the passion of passages.I’m prompted to think about all this because I’ve searched for a recorded performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano sonata which echoes the extraordinary poignancy of Alexander Ghindin’s Master Class performance of the slow second theme of the first movement, a few weeks ago. Only Cliburn’s recording comes close (a link to that performance on cd: Great Pianists 19).