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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Leonard Shure

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews a collection of performances by pianist Leonard Shure.

CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor. Op. 35. BRAHMS: Seven Piano Pieces (Phantasien), op. 116.  SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C, op. 17.  CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in g minor, op. 23; Preludes from op. 28: No. 24 in d minor and No. 23 in F. Leonard Shure, pianist (from concert recordings made between 1977 and 1980 in Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA).  Bridge 9374 (two CDs).

The realization of the full potential of any piece of music, whether it be by a soloist — instrumentalist or vocalist — or by an ensemble, is an indescribable joy.  Any piece of music, that is, whether it is a work of large proportions or a miniature.  Leonard Shure (1910-1995), an American pianist with Eurocentric sensibilities, was one musician who gave such experiences again and again. 

Shure was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Chicago.  He was about two years old when he reportedly sang coloratura arias in vaudeville shows with his mother at the piano; he played his first piano recital at five.  It is significant that a recital program dating from 1923 lists the Beethoven Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, op. 110, a specialty of his to the very end of his days.  In 1924, at the suggestion of pianist Misha Levitzki, his parents took him to Berlin to try to gain entrée to the studio of the formidable Artur Schnabel, who said he did not accept prodigies.  Thanks to the intervention of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an audition was arranged.  The result was that Shure studied with Schnabel for three years and served as his only assistant for the following six.  This may account for the trace of a German accent Shure seemed to have throughout his life.

Shure’s repertory was not unlike Schnabel’s—its emphasis was on Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, one or two introductions of new works and some Chopin and Liszt.  Like many performing musicians, he knew a great deal more music than he played in public.  Like many teachers, he taught many pieces which he himself never performed but knew inside out. His lessons and masterclasses showed him as a consummate illustrator, playing an astounding variety of repertoire from memory to drive home a point.  As a prodigy turned mature artist, Leonard Shure played concertos with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and many others.  His gravitation toward teaching coincided with his disillusionment with concert managers, limiting the scope of his public appearances and making him less well known than, say, Rubinstein or Horowitz.  His recordings were comparatively few, some dating from the late 78rpm era to the early days of the long-playing record and magnetic tape—almost all of his recordings from the 1950s are monaural LPs, now scarce collector’s items.  Toward the end of his active life, he made a superb all-Beethoven two-disc album for a specialty label called Audiofon, which vowed to stick to analog technology at the start of the digital age.  Generally (and most unusually), his commercial recordings from various stages of his career reflect the living musician who enthralled audiences with his staggering but never ostentatious musicianship and his ability to project music.  Those recordings of his which are of live performances are, of course, marginally better and more exciting than those played to an empty hall or to an antiseptic studio. 

The Chopin second sonata is very characteristic of Shure’s approach to performance—when these recordings were made, in a time span from 1977 to 1980, the pianist was at the point in his life and career when he had been living with a great deal of repertory for many years.  He had had the opportunity to look at pieces from many perspectives, and his extensive teaching experience, no doubt, taught him much and continually re-ignited his passion and innate musicality.  Shure is a performer who is not afraid to take risks, to go to the brink; this goes hand-in-hand with careful planning and thought and an unshakable sense of structure and balance.  From the somber opening of the first movement, one knows that an event is taking place.  Shure can be rhapsodic and effusive when he wants to, and when the music seems to demand it; he can also be arrestingly lyrical and introspective in the same sense.  He can go to the brink, for certain—but he never loses control.  His conception is beyond pianistic, a real re-creation of the music.  This is unsentimental, no-nonsense Chopin; devoid of feeling or color, absolutely not!

In the Scherzo, Shure’s mammoth dynamic range is even more apparent than in the multi-hued first movement.  The Trio to the Scherzo is almost like a different piece, a different sound-world.  His judicious use of pedal coloring in this movement is especially delectable. When the Trio returns in the coda, it is even more dreamlike than before.

The famous Funeral March is a piece full of interpretive and balance problems.  Shure goes into it in his customary recreative way, all his ability in the service of the music and the often too much taken for granted ability to make the piano sound almost like a sustained-tone instrument, which by nature it is not.  That is the genius, really, of all instrumental music-making: to take the medium where it isn’t supposed to go. Shure’s transition from the Funeral March proper into the Trio, which requires (and, here, gets in full measure) a completely different kind of touch, tone and atmosphere, is seamless and magical. The kind of right hand cantabile given this middle section is indescribable—the focus is on the melody line, which is pure Chopin, is unmistakable; but the linear clarity is something else. Everything can be distinctly heard.  “Rubens en musique“, as French composer Charles-Marie Widor once said of the largely three-voice development of a four-voice Bach organ fugue.  The impression of the return of the March when it returns after the Trio is that it is more lyrical and less menacing than before, but this is more the effect of hearing the Trio played as it ought to be played. There is an uncommon sense of completion about Shure’s unfolding of this utterly familiar but often elusive March.  The last movement, slightly less than two minutes long, full of arabesques and weirdly unmelodic, is begun immediately after the March.  The clarity and sense of phrasing achieved by Shure in this movement put even the best of his colleagues in the shade.  He savors the last fortissimo unison B-flat and minor chord that follows on its heels, and the audience savors them with him—waiting for the music to die away before expressing its gratitude.

Shure’s playing of the Polish composer’s g-minor Ballade is similarly evocative.  It is full of coloristic subtleties and sounds more like an improvisation than anything else.  He resists the temptations of sentimentality (which is alien to his nature) and bombast in favor of clarity.  He never resists passion and tenderness, but brings them to the fore.  The last two Preludes of Chopin’s op. 28, their order reversed in this set, are given similar treatment. No. 24 in d minor was an encore at a 1977 concert; No. 23 was recorded on the occasion of Shure’s 70th birthday.

The extraordinary 1977 performance of the Schumann Fantasy in C is another extraordinary musical re-creation, one which is beyond description.  The full potential of the music is miraculously laid bare, and the audience gives Shure a hearty hand at the end of the second movement, before he can launch into the somber beginning of the finale.  He pauses thoughtfully and plays its opening bars—out of the silence— as though he were improvising them. When the piece is finished, the audience gives resounding confirmation of the irrefutable fact that a major musical event has just taken place.  Shure does not aim for precision in his execution of this music, but for the fullest possible realization of what Schumann was about when he long ago set pen to paper.  He is willing to risk coming short of the mark, which miraculously never happens, in order to do this.

The Brahms op. 116 pieces (Brahms himself called them Fantasies) are full of the spirit of the 59-year-old composer who was writing big-scale miniatures.  One feels as though he is listening not to Leonard Shure performing, but to Johannes Brahms improvising.  All of the pianist’s virtues are abundantly in evidence.  The fourth of these seven pieces, an Intermezzo in E (marked Adagio) is an essay in various shadings of piano.  A continuous thread of the sheer adventure and unpredictability of improvisation runs throughout this whole set.