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Moszkowski: the forgotten man of music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

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Moritz Moszkowski

Moritz Moszkowski

Moritz Moszkowski

Fauré and Grieg, Dvořák and Elgar, Puccini and Moszkowski. They're all men of music of the late Romantic era. The first five are manifestly familiar, but what of the sixth?

Moritz Moszkowski is one of those composers to whom history has been unkind. A direct contemporary of the others mentioned, his music simply fell out of fashion. It's funny how it works.

This Polish pianist wasn't long out of his teens when he was sharing a stage with Franz Liszt, at a matinée arranged in his honour.

His compositions were extremely popular. Early recordings were made by Rachmaninoff and Horowitz.

Paderewski, another contemporary Polish virtuoso who would go on to serve as his country's first prime minister after World War I, put him right up there with the best, saying "after Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique".

And yet, Moritz Moszkowski is a name scarcely heard these days.

He was born in Wrocław, then the German city of Breslau, in 1854. He studied in Berlin, where he first came to prominence as a performer.

He was no mean violinist either, and gained some prominence as a conductor, too, his fame spreading across Europe through both his music, and his personal appearances.

He'd married Henriette, the younger sister of the French musician Cécile Chaminade, the first female composer to be admitted to the Legion of Honour. They had a son and a daughter, but the marriage ended in divorce. In his 40s, by now very wealthy, Moszkowski moved to Paris, where he was much sought after as a teacher. Among his pupils was Thomas Beecham, the son and heir of the pharmaceutical family, who went to great fame as a conductor, and founder of not one but two prominent English orchestras, the London Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic.

The piano concerto that had attracted the attention of Liszt all those years before was never published and is lost, but there is a sizable body of Moszkowski's work that survives, as a quick visit to Spotify will confirm.

There's the set of Spanish Dances, originally for piano duet, that first brought him to the attention of a wider public. They feature at number six in the top 10 most played Moszkowski compositions on the online music site.

Heading the list is the slow movement from his piano concerto in E (you could almost be listening to Rachmaninoff's second), the work with which Moszkowski introduced himself to the English public in London in 1898.

Still awaiting discovery, by the look of it, is the wonderfully romantic Violin Concerto which features in a 2004 release by Tasmin Little with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion CDA67389), a disc that teams Moszkowski with the stunning concerto by another underrated Polish composer, Mieczysław Karłowicz.

There's a sad end to the story of Moritz Moszkowski. With his health failing, he lost his fortune. He'd invested heavily in German, Polish, and Russian bonds which were worthless after World War I.

He was "ill and penniless" in the words of The New York Times, reporting on a benefit concert his friends and former pupils put on in Carnegie Hall, which featured 15 of the finest pianists of the time.

It raised the equivalent of $200,000 in today's money, but Moritz Moszkowski didn't survive long enough to receive it.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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