Earl Wild

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I was deeply saddened by the death of Earl Wild on January 23, 2010. Often described as the “last Romantic,” Wild enjoyed a career that spanned fully eight decades before his death at age 94.

Wild was both the first pianist to perform on television (1939) and the first to stream a performance live over the internet (1997), and he had the distinction of playing for six US presidents in a row.

Earl Wild is one of the pianists I admire most. He was a fellow Pittsburgher (I went to high school in a Pittsburgh suburb) and held a professorship at Carnegie Mellon University. He was also a professor at Penn State, my alma mater, though long before I ever got there.

I had long wanted to play for him, and right before I moved to Vienna I contacted Carnegie Mellon on the off-chance that he might be in town that day. He was at his home in Columbus, but the CMU music department called me back, saying that Mr. Wild would like me to call him at home. (The fact that I was playing Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata at the time piqued his interest.)

I remember our conversation well. It turned out to be too late to meet before I took off, and he asked why I hadn’t called him earlier. The simple truth was that Earl Wild was one of my musical idols and I was an anxious kid.

“Who cares! Never be afraid to call anyone. Call the president!” was his response. That was a life lesson that’s stuck with me. (I didn’t call the president, in case anybody is wondering.)

He told me that he was working on a CD of 20th-century piano sonatas at the time, including those by Barber and Stravinsky, as well as his own sonata with a finale based on themes by Ricky Martin (!). He said it was an enormous amount of work.

“Even for you?” I asked.

“Of course.”

Another musical lesson that was to stick with me. Earl Wild was one of the great pianistic talents of the last century, and arguably America’s greatest pianist. Preparing great works of music to concert level is extremely hard work for piano students and concert hall veterans alike.

One of Penn State’s music librarians told me that Wild performed the “Moonlight” Sonata for the first time in the university’s recital hall. Earl Wild had confessed to the librarian that he was exceedingly nervous beforehand. Why would someone who regularly performs in the world’s most celebrated concert halls be anxious about playing a small recital for music students, with no critics in attendance? The take-home message was that no performance is too small, that each one requires the utmost in preparation.

I want to single out Wild’s interpretations of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff especially. I enormously admire his sense of counterpoint, how he traces musical strands throughout a long phrase even in very dense music. Earl Wild always played this music with nobility as well as his famously infallible technical equipment.

Wild was well-known for his sense of humor, which he brought to bear in his playing. He had an ability to play Liszt’s trashiest opera transcriptions in an appropriately trashy manner while somehow elevating them to greatness.

He recorded all the Chopin Etudes when he was 76, and they are models of musicianship. Soon thereafter he recorded a Rachmaninoff CD that included the Preludes and an absolutely thrilling, yet thoroughly aristocratic, performance of the Second Piano Sonata. The crystal clarity of his musical conceptions leaves me in wonderment every time I listen to these recordings.

It’s worth mentioning as well that Wild’s recordings for Chesky Records (and later his own label Ivory Classics) are sonically simply the best-sounding piano CDs I’ve yet heard. (If only the engineer would let us in on his secrets!)

Earl Wild, we shall miss you. You have touched countless lives… may your great legacy continue to touch future generations!

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