A Motley Crew, Including Said and Wieseltier, Unite To Find Chopin’s Great Lost Interpreter
The quest to rediscover the mysterious pianist Ignace Tiegerman led through Cairo, Italy, and the ghost of Bruno Schulz
His avatar was first sighted amidst gigantic cacti dotting metaphysical Coconino County, where flowerpots bore Coptic and Egyptian designs, and Ignaz Mouse’s bricks struck Krazy Kat’s head, impacting into joyous pangs of adoration. I became the target of another Ignaz in 1972 when radio producer James Irsay of New York City’s WBAI-FM aired a shellac disc he uncovered in a thrift shop’s record bin. Ignaz Friedman’s pianism emerged from crackling grooves to sweep aside a Chopin venerated as a fragile cultural tchotchke. Ignaz’s full-blooded A-flat Polonaise hurled rhythmic surges into Mannerist landscapes, permanently altering my inner landscape. Preceding the sonic cavalry’s final action, Chopin left his militaristic trappings to create an improvisatory dreamscape that Friedman captured in ways that surpassed mere pianism and exposed pre-War European secrets that survived in a few later-day writers such as W. G. Sebald, Gregor von Rezzori, Witold Gombrowicz, and the haunting Bruno Schulz, who mixed his Polish Drohobycz daily life into myth.
Chopin’s typecasting as a frail complacent aesthete was a masquerade of connoisseurship, one that smacked of cultural cowardice and provoked a desire for revenge and a corresponding need on my part to hunt down Friedman and anyone else like him who connected me to the composer’s lost essence. His art was over-the-top by modern standards, yet he gave more life to Chopin than any hosanna-ed musical fat cat.
Library sources coughed up little beyond repeating Friedman’s saga as a Polish-Jewish virtuoso trained in Vienna, ruler of European stages, resident in Berlin, Copenhagen, Italy, touring globally until fleeing the Nazis stranded him in Australia. No recordings were within reach until I stumbled into Manny’s in 1977, a vanished warren along Fourth Avenue’s Book Row. Manny, the shop’s proprietor and namesake, devoted every waking hour to a record collector’s underground where his clientele perpetually challenged one another, all holding unswervingly to their preferences and loyalties.
One day I was presented to Phil Stern, a hardcore Brooklynite whose cutting words easily put people off yet who also worshipped Friedman. I received conditional approval and an invite to his Foster Avenue digs. Passionate for historic recordings, Stern and his rivals fanatically amassed and salvaged endangered performances that had lain beyond the radar of mainstream scholars and less-persistent hobbyists. One of his greatest discoveries came when he turned up an unknown rejected test-pressing of Rachmaninoff playing Saint-Saens’ The Swan (now worth thousands) in a New Jersey Salvation Army 25-cent bin. Stern acted as my Virgil by generously allowing me to make copies of the discs he amassed through global trawling and ruthless strategies against similarly inclined shellacophiles. His competitors were barely tolerated or outright disdained as rapacious, pathological animals capable of committing any crime to get their records. Collector mania infected me, and I started out on a quest to recover all traces of Friedman’s existence from a void where no musicologist had ever ventured.
In 1980, Stern informed me that a clerk in Sam Goody’s, the long-gone chain of vinyl record shops, had once waited on Friedman’s daughter at their Midtown Manhattan branch. By phone, the employee recalled her disappointment at not finding her father’s records. “Is she still named Friedman?” I asked. “She was married. She left a card.” “Do you have it?” “Nah, I threw it out. She lives somewhere in Europe.”
A month later in Rome I heard the Russian-born pianist Nikita Magaloff play Chopin outdoors in the Capitoline hill’s piazza. His sounds left a sensation of incongruity heightened by a bare pedestal meant to support the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Magaloff couldn’t compete with the Fiats honking down below. When his music stopped I was left to wonder which old pianists he knew. Knocking at the locked entrance where Magaloff was last seen, an armed guard in Napoleonic livery came forth, clutching his carbine. “May I speak with the maestro?” I asked. He ordered me to beat it. As Michelangelo’s deserted piazza lapsed into the desolate de Chirico landscape, a warm tingling developed in the nape of my neck, sounding the alarm that in this point in time and space, all that mattered was finding Ignaz Friedman’s daughter. I scribbled on a torn program edge and banged at the door until the angry guard reappeared. The note made it to his reluctant hand. He slammed and locked the door, vanishing down a dark corridor.
I waited for an hour until the palace suddenly lit and a chatting posse swung open its doors, thronging about the pianist who held up and waved my scrap, calling out “Who wrote this?” A crowd of one answered: “I did.” “She lives in Geneva. Her husband is Walder, a doctor.”
So, in 1981 I stepped onto a teeming platform in Bolzano filled with vacationers heading to the Dolomites. Having never seen a photo of Lydia taken after 1920, I gravitated toward an elegant lady reminiscent of Garbo, who smiled knowingly.
“You know my daughter Nina ran into Magaloff at the Geneva airport and she asked him ‘When is someone going to do something for Grandpapá?’ and a week later you handed him the note,” she said. High above, in Siusi, we reached a gate opening onto the Villa Friedman.
After lunch, I crept into the dim attic while Lydia and the doctor napped and glimpsed the temptation of steamship trunks. To my timid inquiry, Lydia fired back “There’s nothing in them!” Nina arrived the following day and took me upstairs. All the house’s possessions had remained undisturbed since 1940, when Friedman had been endangered as a Jew, subjected to the racial decrees, risking arrest and lacking rights. In the trunks trunks lay his mother’s manuscript memoir of her only child’s youth, photos, music inscribed by Rachmaninoff, and stacks of letters.
One morning when Lydia and I walked arm in arm downhill to the village, she turned to me: “Do you know Tiegerman?” The name drew a blank. “He was Papá’s pupil, a tiny Polish Jew who lived in Cairo. Papá said he was the greatest talent he ever worked with.”
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