In Memoriam: Earl Wild

The American pianist Earl Wild died Jan. 23 at the age of 94 at his home in Palm Springs, California. His career began in his native Pittsburgh, where he began giving radio recitals at the age of 12, and he had his debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony two years later. He was long associated with NBC, at a time when networks actually broadcast classical music. He gave the first televised recital in 1939, and he was associated as a soloist with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra. He also served as a rehearsal pianist with the Metropolitan Opera, where his ability to reduce operatic scores at sight was legendary. He served as staff pianist, composer, and conductor for ABC until 1968. His preferred career probably would have been as a conductor, but when advised that the leading American orchestras rarely hired American conductors, he concentrated on the piano.

Wild was a stupendous technician, for whom the term “super virtuoso” was not misplaced. His repertoire was vast, and fortunately he leaves us an extensive recorded legacy. His style was in the Romantic tradition of Liszt, Busoni, and Petri, and he excelled in the music of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. He was also known for his performance of his own and other composers’ transcriptions. His performances were criticized by some because his virtuosity was said to be too much in the forefront, but more sensitive listeners appreciated the poetry of his playing. Wild the artist was served by his astonishing fingers, not the other way around. Until near the end of his life, Wild’s artistry was undiminished. This writer attended his 85th birthday recital at Carnegie Hall, and he was, if anything, a more poetic artist than when Wild was first heard many years previously as a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. His singing tone and immaculate phrasing were matched by few other pianists and exceeded by none.

Where to begin appreciating his recorded legacy? Much of it has been issued or reissued on his own Ivory Classics label in superior audio fidelity. His recording of the Paderewski and Scharwenka concertos with Arthur Fiedler is a model of Romantic sensibility. His recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106, is unique in its magisterial phrasing and astonishing passage work. His own transcriptions of Rachmaninoff’s songs make us appreciate these lesser-known works even more. The technical facility, not to mention pure fun of Wild’s Virtuoso Piano Transcriptions must be heard to be believed. His long association with the music of Gershwin finds its ultimate expression in Wild’s own transcriptions of Gershwin’s popular songs. His recording of the complete Chopin Nocturnes is indispensable for any lover of the artistry of a great pianist. Although any of Wild’s Liszt is the equal if not superior to anyone else’s, a particular favorite is The Demonic Liszt. To hear Earl Wild–Living History at 90 is to be amazed at his enduring technical facility, not to mention his undiminished artistry.

The newer generation of pianists are all well schooled, and the technical flaws that are evident in the playing of some earlier artists have pretty much disappeared. Recording technology has advanced to the point where we have become accustomed to performances that are note-perfect, albeit bland. There are few pianists before the public today who bring anything new to the standard piano repertoire, and the big, outgoing, Romantic style that Wild typified has become obsolete. We are ever so fortunate that Earl Wild’s recorded legacy is so vast and so accomplished. When the role of great pianists of the 20th Century is assembled, Earl Wild will be in the forefront of the finest among them.

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