The Arty Semite

When Zayda Was Also a Great Polish Pianist

By Benjamin Ivry

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After 2009’s biography Ignaz Friedman: Romantic Master Pianist by Allan Evans from Indiana University Press, and CD reprints on such labels as Arbiter Records; Naxos USA; and Philips Classics, new attention is being paid to the splendid Polish Jewish pianist Friedman. A warmly affectionate biographical memoir, “Ignaz Friedman” by Nina Walder, the pianist’s granddaughter, appeared in November 2010 from Les Editions Slatkine in Geneva.

The pianist, born Salomon Isaac Freudman in Podgorze, outside Cracow, adopted his stage name only in 1905, at age 23. By then, his identity as a Jewish pianist was well established after studies with noted teacher Theodor Leschetizky, who famously proclaimed three requirements for any keyboard virtuoso: “Being Slavic, Jewish and a child prodigy.” Friedman fulfilled all three criteria. On perpetual tour to far-flung places as an adult, Friedman wrote home to his family in 1927 from Cairo, Egypt:

The region which can be seen from our boat is sandy, dry, and extremely dull. Now I understand why Jews never wound up here.

On a 1930 South African tour, he told The Zionist Record: “I’d like to be billed as a Jewish pianist, but that isn’t customary, since 80 percent of pianists are Jews, anyway.” Unlike many masters of Romantic music, Friedman did not shun contemporary works, offering the Prague world premiere in 1931 of the Piano Concerto in F Minor by Karl Weigl, a Viennese Jew who had been Gustav Mahler’s musical assistant.

Weigl’s concerto played by Friedman earned a rave review from critic Max Brod (Franz Kafka’s friend) who praised the work (“sonic beauty, strict sense of form, virile passion”) and Friedman for embracing it; although no recording of Friedman playing the Weigl concerto survives, a modern recording of this work would seem long overdue.

Living in Italy before the war as anti-Semitism grew rapidly, Friedman joked he should change his name to “Ignazio Pacifico” to sound less Jewish (in German, Frieden means “peace” while in Italian, pacifico means peaceful). In 1939, hearing that in Polish universities, Jewish students were now required to sit on the left-hand side of every lecture hall, Friedman replied to a concert invitation from Lvov, setting a “single condition: that the piano be placed neither on the left or right, but center-stage.” Eventually forced to flee to Australia, where he died in 1948 of complications from colon cancer at age 65, Friedman remains an exemplary pianist for the ages.

Listen to Ignaz Friedman play Mendelssohn.

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