The New York Times
Sunday, April 11, 1993

An Enigma Enters the Fast Lane

By David Daniel

It remains to be seen whether Eduardus Halim, Vladimir Horowitz's last pupil, will fulfill the prophecy of the maestro, who said he was "destined to become a legendary talent."  Since then, despite the endorsement, Mr. Halim's career has progressed slowly if steadily and solidly.  Only now, at 31, is he entering the fast lane.

On Saturday and Sunday, he will make his New York professional orchestral debut, playing Chopin's F-minor Concerto with Gerard Schwartz and the New York Chamber Symphony at the 92nd Street Y.  Next season, there will be concerto debuts in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Hong Kong and Chicago.  He is also currently playing two different recital programs, one consisting of the 24 Chopin ētudes.  (The virtuoso Josef Lhevinne played them all in one evening, but few other pianists have tried.)

The size, color, fleet brilliance, theatricality and rhythmic freedom of Mr. Halim's playing have made him a subject of controversy among critics and academicians and an object of wonderment to audiences.  He may be the most charismatic pianist to have come along since Van Cliburn appeared in 1958.  His combination of dramatic flair and transcendent technique inevitably raises the age-old question among musicians, the one that pursued Horowitz himself to the grave and beyond:  Is Mr. Halim an egocentric maniac or a truly original and poetic musician?  He laughs at the question.

"I am serious about music," he said recently in his apartment onWest 57th Street in Manhattan.  "But I am not a member of the Profound School of piano playing.  I only want to entertain."

Mr. Halim was born in Java, Indonesia, the fourth of six children.

He shows a poise seemingly born of utter confidence in his talent and the sheer pleasure he takes in it.  He is tall, slender and handsome as a movie star.  He is neither arrogant about his accomplishments nor falsely modest.

One reason his career has been slow together momentum is that he never won a major competition.  When he made the competition circuit, he was often eliminated as early as the second round.  In the rare instances when he was told why, he learned, for example, that his playing was too eccentric rhythmically, too personal, too emotive.

Mr. Halim is the type of performer that is often the hardest for musical insiders to evaluate.  His playing is eloquently voiced, poetic and possessed of a watery, crystalline sound.  He forces a listener to examine the intrinsic value of the performance itself – something that in this self-effacing, urtext-worshiping era few academicians and critics are willing or even able to do.

Mr. Halim does not approach a score objectively, but he does come to music with respect.  He tries to inhabit the music from the inside, to play with the freedom, ease, spontaneity and authority that the actual composer might.  A style as subjective as this requires nerve.  It also calls fro an infallible technique and a constant, searching humility.

"Halim is one of the few pianists of his generation, one of the few pianists of any generation for that matter, who has an instinctively authentic feeling for Romanticism," said Harold Schonberg, a former chief music critic of The Times.  "He understands that it is not an eccentric or overindulgent way of making music.  On the contrary, his playing is highly aristocratic, with all the elements under severe control.  He has all this plus the quality of sound that many, but not all, of the great Romantics had."

Christopher O'Riley, a young American pianist who has established a major career without winning a big prize, sat on the jury that named Mr. Halim a winner in the 1988 Young Concert Artists program, started to aid musicians who have not won major competitions.

"I had already heard of Halim," Mr. O'Riley said, "and wondered if he was just another Horowitz clone.  He wasn't.  Eduardus's playing was impeccable not just because it contained all the basics but because he begins so far beyond that, where the real musical questions are.  I could not tell what contribution Horowitz had made to his playing, whether he had drawn the blueprint for it or whether, in Eduardus, Horowitz had simply found a kindred spirit."

Mr. Halim said that he never heard Horowitz in concert.  Before he entered Juilliard in his late teens, about the only live piano playing he had come in contact with was by touring pianists not of the first rank.  Virtually the only recordings he had access to were by Maurizio Pollini, whose playing, he recalled, was "magisterial, clean, refined, grand – everything except beautiful.:

"I found nothing in it I wanted to emulated," he added.  His very personal way of playing grew instead out of his own imagination and the sonorities he found in the scores themselves.  "I had never heard of Romantic playing," he said.  "I just knew how I wanted the piano to sound."

At Juilliard, he studied with Sascha Gorodnitzki, a protēgē of Lhevinne.  "Gorodnitzki did nothing to try and change my approach to playing,"  Mr. Halim said.  "He gave me enormous discipline – sometimes making me work on a single piece for an entire year.  And he helped me with tone production."

Rudolf Firkusny, the esteemed pianist and teacher with whom Mr. Halim studied after Gorodnitzki's death, took a similar approach.  "I felt my job was to help him be himself," Mr. Firkusny said.  "I found him extremely sensitive and original musically.  He has a brilliant technique and an extraordinary sense of pianistic coloring.:

The engagement and discipline instilled by Gorodnitzki and Mr. Firkusny, Mr. Halim said made it possible for him to benefit from Horowitz's teaching.  In 1988 Horowitz asked friends if there were any young, interesting pianists he should hear.  During the next year, Mr. Halim played 40 times for Horowitz in teaching sessions that lasted up to five hours.

Mr. Halim said that besides his studies with Horowitz, an equally dramatic moment in his musical life occurred away from the piano.  "I heard a recording of Ignaz Friedman playing the Chopin E-flat Nocturne, Op. 55, No. 2," he said.  "I felt, and I still do, that this was the most beautiful sound ever produced on the piano, even though I was hearing it on old recordings.  The voicing, the rhythm, every detail was so impeccable, so free.  And while I did not try to imitate him, I knew then that it was permissible to play with even more freedom than I had already imagined.

Horowitz, Mr. Halim said, talked to him very little about technique.  "I already had my own sound.  He mainly taught me to work at a much higher level of discipline, to develop more and more gradations of color and sonority.  He basically gave me carte blanche to speak with my own voice, and helped me find ways to do it.  He always said 'More!  More! You can be even more free.'"

David Daniel writes about music for The New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair.