Grete Sultan, the Forgotten Pianist

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SCHOENBERG: Fünf Klavierstücke, Op. 23: I. Sehr langsam; II. Sehr rasch; III. Langsam; IV. Schwungvoll; V. Walzer. BEETHOVEN: Sechs Bagatellen, Op. 126 No. 4. COPLAND: Piano Sonata: I. Molto moderato; II. Vivace; III. Andante sostenuto. BEN WEBER: Episodes for Solo Piano: I, II, III. J.S. BACH: Goldberg Variations: Variatio 4. a 1 clav. WOLPE: Form for Piano. HOVHANESS: Yenovk, Partita for Piano: I. Fantasy; II. Gamelan; III. Canzona; IV. Pogh. CAGE: The Perilous Night, for Prepared Piano / Grete Sultan, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

Ask anyone you know who loves classical music to name as many famous women pianists of the 20th century that they can. The list is long, but will surely include such artists as Marguerite Long, Wanda Landowska (if they remember that she also played piano in addition to harpsichord), Dame Myra Hess, Ania Dorfmann, Annie Fischer, Clara Haskil, Nadia Reisenberg, Martha Argerich, Yvonne Loriod, Alicia de Larrocha, Joanna MacGregor, Simone Dinnerstein and, if they heard her in person (her recordings are far less impressive), Anne-Marie McDermott. Some wiseacres may also toss in Nadia Boulanger, who did indeed play piano and recorded on that instrument but was, of course, not a professional pianist.

Yet I’ll bet you that almost none of them will mention the name of Grete Sultan unless they heard her or studied with her, even though she played professionally for nearly 70 years and lived to be 99. I just learned about her a week ago when my friend Carol Lian, who studied with her, sent me a private video interview with her chronicling her career.

It’s always startling, to me, to discover an artist who had quite an interesting and even illustrious career who somehow fell through the cracks, and Sultan clearly qualifies on both counts. In her early years she counted Henry Cowell and Bela Bartók as friends; from the late 1940s onward, she knew Stefan Wolpe and John Cage, who dedicated pieces to her, and even though I consider Cage to be a “joke” composer (watch some of the inter views with him; he’s constantly laughing at his own music and making offhand comments like, “You can see the Cheshire Cat grin on my face!”, yet thousands of people actually take him seriously).

Listening to her recordings that are uploaded on YouTube, one understands why Sultan is underrated. Like many Germans—and she was indeed German, albeit a German Jew—she was a literalist of the keynoard and not a subjective player. Not for her the soft-grained, Romantic expressions of Long, Hess or de Larrocha; she attacked the keyboard fearlessly but, more important for our appreciation of her, she was a musical literalist. She didn’t believe in overlaying the music she played with interpretive digressions, and this is exactly why the modern composers listed above liked her. This approach to the keyboard also made her performance of the Bach Goldberg Variations and Beethoven Diabelli Variations sound remarkably like those of Glenn Gould. Like Gould, she used little or no pedal and played in a crisp, no-nonsense style. She did inflect her playing with changes in dynamics, but like many Germans her sense of rhythm was very precise. To Sultan, a quarter note was a quarter and an eighth note an eighth, not a millisecond more or less when struck. This gives her playing, like that of the famous German harpsichordist Edith Picht-Axelfeld, a somewhat metronomic quality, yet it was exactly this sense of precision that led famed conductor Arturo Toscanini to invite her to play Beethoven with his La Scala Orchestra in the late 1920s.

If you scour the internet, you’ll find that German listeners love her playing but that American and especially British reviewers hated her. They thought her metronomic and uninteresting. Metronomic she clearly was, but uninteresting she was not. I freely admit that the second movement of the Copland Piano Sonata could be, and perhaps should be, played with a bit of American swagger to the rhythm (Copland, after all, had come to admire jazz by this time), but Sultan’s reading is perfectly valid as well as very exciting. Yes, there are a few moments in her performances when I felt that she could have relaxed the beat a little or played a bit more softly, but to judge from the album cover you see at the top of this review, a lot of her recordings were made late in her career and she may very well have played with more nuance when younger.

I, for one, feel that she brings out the musical structure of the Schoenberg pieces better than anyone else I’ve ever heard play them. I can’t comment on her performances of the Ben Weber, Hovhaness, Wolpe or Cage pieces because I hadn’t heard them before, but these composers clearly trusted her to play their music to their satisfaction. In any case, she is clearly an artist worth investigating. I would much rather listen to Sultan’s direct, powerful playing than the wispy, spineless stylings of de Larrocha any day of the week.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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