By Stephew Wigler, Sun Music Critic
Freedom a lovely sound
Pianist a rare blend
Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz,” an extravagant set of variations on the “Dies Irae,” warning of the Day of Judgement, requires a piano to shiver, shriek and moan as if it were a soul in torment.
Rare are the pianists who program this unusual piece; rarer still are those who do not wilt before the rush of its super-heated romanticism.
Number Eduardus Halim – who will perform the “Totentanz” (along with Liszt’s more familiar E-flat Concerto) with the Baltmore Symphony Orchestra tonight – among the elect.
“Romanticism requires rhythimic freedom and an emphasis upon beautiful sound, but it does not mean anarchy,” says Halim, 36. “Romantic music has its rules, and it requires the strictest discipline. But its ultimate rule is to let the notes speak for themselves from within you. Musical meaning must never be imposed from without.”
That Halim is very much his own man was evident last season when he performed Chopin’s F-minor Concerto – a reading with spontaneously shaped lines, a rich tone, vivid poetic passage work and a dreamy imagination.
“Halim’s musical ideas and his hand position at the piano – with the fingers often flat and the wrist below the keys – somewhat resemble those of Vladimir Horowitz. In fact, Halim was the last of the handful of students Horowitz invited to study with him.
Halim and Horowitz met at least once a week for several hours during the last year of the great pianist’s life. Halim was fascinated by the freedom of Horowitz’s playing. Horowitz, in turn, was astonished by the then-27-year-old pianist’s resemblance to his own younger self.
“When he was my age, we must have been almost exactly the same size – with very long necks and unusually long arms.” Halim says. “He made me gift of the shirts that had been made for him in the old days. They were beautiful – and they were the first shirts I ever owned that actually fit me.:
His romantic outlook is a legacy of his having grown up in Indonesia, which was isolated musically.
“Because I grew up in Indonesia, I never realized that transcriptions and the music of Liszt were out of fashion,” he says. “I love the keyboard music of Bach, but I must say that in many respects I love the Busoni transcriptions of Bach’s organ preludes and fugues and his chorales just as much. I didn’t flaunt these opinions at Juilliard, but I didn’t try to hide them, either. When other students discovered my interest in transcriptions and pieces such as the ‘Totentanz,’ they thought I was a moron.”
Halim’s remarkable talent brought him top prizes in a few international contests. But he was brought low at others because his free-wheeling independence was invariably anathema to musical literalists on juries.
But he was neither a musical moron nor a musical anarchist – he was just ahead of the curve. The transcriptions of the Romantic era are finally returning to favor, and the music of Liszt – which was undervalued and even derided in the recent past – is now more popular than at any time in the last 50 years.
If Halim does not possess the name recognition that most aficionados believe he deserves, he does not appear to be concerned.