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LISZT | A highlight reel of famous pianists in Montreal’s history

Par Jennifer Liu le 26 août 2018

Silhouette of Glenn Gould. (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada)
Silhouette of Glenn Gould. (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

Montreal has welcomed a slew of high-profile pianists in recent years: Rafał Blechacz, Philip Glass, András Schiff, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Beatrice Rana and Martha Argerich number among many headliners with the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club (LMMC), the Orchestre Métropolitain, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM), the Fondation Arte Musica and the Société Pro Musica.

But who were the pianists that came through town in the 1900s? We scoured presenters’ records and paired them with anecdotes from Claude Gingras’s memoirs, Notes and Auditions.

Here are some tales that resonated with us:

Emil Gilels

Appearances include Feb. 1958, Jan. 1969 (OSM), Oct. 1970, Jan. 1971, Feb. 1973, Apr. 1983 (OSM)

Gilels was due to return to Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier to perform the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with his daughter after his 1983 performance, but heart problems prevented him from making the trip before his death in 1985.

Watch Gilels’ Montreal performance of the Bach-Busoni Prelude and Fugue in D Major from 1971 (not 1969 as indicated in the video).


Glenn Gould 

Silhouette of Glenn Gould. (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada)
Silhouette of Glenn Gould. (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

Appearances include: Nov. 1952 (LMMC), Dec. 1954 (LMMC), Nov. 1955, Oct. 1956, Apr. 1960

“Nothing will stand in the way of his brilliant career,” Eric McLean described Gould’s début recital in a concert review for the Montreal Star.

Caption for “LMMC Gould:” Glenn Gould performed at the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club in 1952. The programme comprised works by Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms and Orlando Gibbons. (Photo courtesy)
Caption for “LMMC Gould:” Glenn Gould performed at the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club in 1952. The programme comprised works by Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms and Orlando Gibbons. (Photo courtesy)

Vladimir Horowitz

Appearances include: Mar. 1930 (LMMC), 1934 (LMMC), 1946, 1951, Apr. 1976

Horowitz toured with his personal Steinway piano, a piano technician, a personal chef, a personal assistant, an air purifier, and his wife-cum-concert-manager Wanda Toscanini – daughter of the renowned conductor Arturo

His final Montreal concert was a logistical farce. Arriving for sound check at the recital hall, the stage was littered with large percussion instruments, leftover from a percussion troupe’s performance the night before.

An exasperated Wanda said to Horowitz in French: « Nous sommes tombés chez les sauvages. Nous rentrons à New York! »

On top of that, Horowitz’s payment cheque for $35,000 bounced. Maybe that’s why he returned afterwards to Toronto, but never to Montreal.

Marek Jablonski

Appearances include: Nov. 1961 (OSM), 1962 (LMMC), Mar. 1969, 1975, 1977, Nov. 1979

The Polish-Canadian pianist won the grand prize in the 1961 Jeunesses Musicales du Canada National Competition. Gilles Potvin from La Presse wrote of his Brahms Sonata No. 3, « Jablonski y révéla aussi une technique remarquable et un jeu capable d’une grande puissance. Avec cette exécution, Jablonski s’affirme de nouveau comme l’un des pianistes canadiens les plus talentueux. Voilà un artiste d’envergure, digne des grandes salles de concert du monde. »

A renowned pedagogue, Jablonski taught masterclasses throughout North America, notably in Quebec, Alberta, and at the Banff Centre for the Arts.


Watch: Marek Jablonski performs live at the 1964 Jeunesses Musicales du Canada Festival

Wilhelm Kempff

Appearances include: 1959, 1961, 1962 (OSM)

Wilhelm Kempff specialized in Beethoven’s piano music.

« C’est, de tous les compositeurs, celui qui a la plus forte personnalité, » he explained to Claude Gingras, his French tinged with a German colour. « Bach est certainement plus grand comme compositeur. Peut-être aussi Mozart. Mais Beethoven est le plus personnel de tous. Comme une force mystérieuse qui nous attire… »

Vis-à-vis modern music, his avoidance revealed an old soul:

« Oh! Non. Je n’ai pas le temps, Et puis, je suis trop vieux… J’ai passé ma vie à étudier Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin. Cette musique demande une interprétation. La musique contemporaine n’en demande pas : il suffit de jouer ce qui est écrit. Cette musique manque de soleil, elle manque de foi. »


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

Appearances include Sep. 1967, Feb. 1970

It wasn’t easy to bring Michelangeli to Canada from his sunny Italian homeland. During the Canadian leg of his North American tour in February 1970, he called off his performance in Trois-Rivières – jeopardizing the orchestra that was to accompany him in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Apparently, the cold Canadian air took a toll on his lungs.

According to Quebec City musicologist Bertrand Guay, Michelangeli would have his personal piano technician recalibrate the piano action before the concert. Afterwards, nobody except Michelangeli would be allowed to touch it – not even the concertmaster tuning the orchestra.

Michelangeli developed a reputation for cancelling concerts at the last minute. When he passed away in 1995, the headline « Michelangeli annule pour de bon » ran in France’s Libération newspape

Apart from his piano technician, Michelangeli’s touring baggage included his own Steinway piano and his piano bench.

Listen: Michelangeli performs at the World Festival at Place des Arts, Sep. 1967

Vlado Perlemuter

The Polish-French pianist taught at the Orford Arts Centre in the early 1960s. A student of Maurice Ravel, Perlemuter gave a number of open-air performances on Mount Royal in the mid-60s. La Presse wrote about his July 1966 concert under Montreal conductor Boris Brott.

Vlado Perlemuter and Boris Brott perform on Mount Royal, July 1966 (Courtesy BANQ)
Vlado Perlemuter and Boris Brott perform on Mount Royal, July 1966 (Courtesy BANQ)


Ivo Pogorelich

Appearances include: 1980 Montreal International Music Competition

Following his victory at the Montreal International Music Competition, the Serbian-Croatian pianist assured Claude Gingras he knew all along he was going to win.

“And what made you absolutely sure?”

“It’s a psychological phenomenon: you feel your power and this sensation gives you the necessary force. »

“For today’s pianist, the difficult composers are Beethoven and Chopin, because of the balance that must be found between tradition and a modern approach to their music. It’s no longer possible to play Beethoven in Schnabel’s style, or Chopin in Cortot’s style.”

Pogorelich would go on to steal the spotlight at that year’s Chopin Competition, when his early ouster saw Martha Argerich resign from the jury in protest.

Sergei Prokofiev

Appearances in Jan. and Feb. 1920, and 1930.

Stepping off the train in Montreal, Prokofiev says he was « aveuglé par le spectacle de la neige miroitant au soleil. »  He was promptly given boots, a scarf and a wool hat by his host.

During his week-long visit to Montreal and Quebec City, he gave formal concerts, played informally in a house on av. Beloeil in Outremont, and practised Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano concerto for upcoming concert dates. In Quebec, he saw sleighs for the first time since leaving his native Russia, and described that his hotel « ressemblait de l’extérieur à un château. »

Fluent in French, the composer made a return visit to Quebec in March 1930

Sviatoslav Richter

Appearances include: Dec. 1960, Sep. & Oct. 1964

In Europe as much as in Montreal, Richter had a penchant for leisurely strolls.

Claude Gingras tells of the time Richter was arrested on the McGill campus for vagrancy. The language barrier between him and police nearly prevented them from figuring out his identity – until his agent bailed him out in the middle of the night.

Due to popular demand, he added a second performance to his début visit to Montreal. In Grolier’s 1962 Le Livre de l’année, the first concert was described thus: « Ses admirateurs le félicitent surtout pour la facilité avec laquelle il communique l’intention même du compositeur. Il met son immense talent au service de la musique. »

Arthur Rubinstein

Appearances include 1940 (LMMC), Jan. 1967

Rubinstein (Courtesy Musée McCord)
Rubinstein (Courtesy Musée McCord)

The legendary pianist affirmed to Claude Gingras that he never practised, and that after millions of performances, pieces got seared into his being.

« Il y a des pianistes qui font des gammes plusieurs heures par jour. Moi, j’en suis incapable. Ça m’emmerderait d’entendre tout ce bruit. Je ne serais plus capable, après, de faire de la musique. »

And the secret to his energy levels?
« Vous savez, si j’en connaissais la formule, je la vendrais! »

Of note that the pianist goes by Arthur, and not Artur, a misprint from his agent.

Other Montreal appearances by pianists:

Daniel Barenboim: Dec. 1962 (OSM), 1963 (LMMC)

Dave Brubeck: 1987 (OSM)

Robert Casadesus: Aug. 1954 (OSM)

Aldo Ciccolini (OSM)

Van Cliburn (OSM)

Alicia de Larrocha: Mar. 1990 (OSM)

Duke Ellington (OSM)

Walter Gieseking: 1928 and 1933 (both LMMC)

Myra Hess: 1923 and 1932 (LMMC)

Pascal Rogé: 1974 (LMMC)

Charles Rosen: 1981 (LMMC)

Artur Schnabel: 1935 (LMMC)

Rosalyn Tureck: 1946, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1955 (all LMMC)




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