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
Ignace Tiegerman remained undetected until a 1987 House and Garden magazine article by Edward Said about his growing up in Cairo, in which Said referred to Tiegerman as his hometown piano teacher. Said’s secretary at Columbia University arranged a lunch appointment for me, during which he marveled at how splendid his teacher was and how three eminent pianists he later studied with in New York and Boston were a far lesser cut: “All rolled into one didn’t equal Tiegerman’s pinkie.” When confiding to Tiegerman that he hated Brahms, his mentor advised him to “play it as if it were the most beautiful music ever written.” Said offered to illustrate on the piano at his home but each time without fail, his secretary apologized with regret that the professor was busy.
Once again, I was hooked and eager to pursue Tiegerman. Marco Contini, an opera connoisseur and historian in Milan, wiggled his walrus moustache when asked about Tiegerman and told me of the many Euro-Egyptians who arrived after the 1956 war with Israel: Some 50,000 were Italian, as many Greeks, Jews, French. “I met Oreste Campisi. One night he came here for dinner and left me something that he conducted in Cairo.” A yellowed cassette turned up in a nearby drawer with Brahms Piano Concerto penciled in. While setting it up I mused: “Wouldn’t it be something if Tiegerman was the soloist.” Radio Egyptienne came on:
Campisi and Tiegerman ignited this overdressed work with their sweeping momentum.
Tiegerman’s fiery determination impulsively guided onward to extremes of emotional plateaus that unwound the music’s serpentine messages, stripping it down to its essence. He held his wild abandon in check as a shaping force that dragged Brahms away from the taxidermists’ good-intentioned clutches. His delivery of music was like Bruno Schulz in sound.
And with it all came a desperate urge to uncover Tiegerman’s Polish origins, an irrational obsession contrary to purposeful scholarly methodology. Nina turned up a holiday snapshot sent by “Tiger” in Kitzbuhel that prompted Lydia to reminded her of the time they met up in Cairo during the early 1960s when “he and mother were constantly roaring with laughter.” In Genova, Bice Costa, widow of the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, found a mention of Tiegerman in a letter written by Horszowksi’s mother to her husband. Theodore Leschetizky, her husband’s teacher, and also Friedman’s teacher, was a formidable pedagogue who personally knew Brahms, Liszt, and had been taught by Beethoven’s assistant Czerny. It turned out that the little Tiegerman had also distinguished himself.
Then, six years after our only meeting, came a call, in 1993, from Professor Said: “I just got back from Cairo, my first time over in ages. I have recordings of Tiegerman.” How are they? “Some are good, one has a bad orchestra in the Franck.” Would it be possible to hear them? “Not now. I’m sick.” Said’s leukemia appeared in its initial phase.
I first met the writer James Methuen-Campbell in 1980 after reading his pathbreaking Chopin Playing: from the Composer to the Present Day. During a decade’s absence he had left a London studio apartment to manage Corsham Court, his ailing cousin’s “house.”
“Tiegerman! An elderly Polish doctor living in Richmond, outside London, once mentioned him. Dr. Herschdoerfer must be quite old by now and he’s rather formal. I recommend you write him first.” Hours later I phoned and was asked by a shaky voice what reason had I to look for a husband who passed away years ago. “Tiegerman, yes, I knew him a little. He was from my town, Drohobycz.”
Said called to say that Henri Barda, a pianist, and the finest exponent of Tiegerman’s style, was heading over from Paris. He summoned me to appear at Barda’s concert at Columbia University, which he himself had organized. Barda gave Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and Chopin’s Barcarolle, the finest performances I had ever heard of these masterpieces. During intermission I approached Said and saw this academic who merged identity politics into literary criticism suddenly transform into his own Orientalist: “So, is anyone ever going to hear this Brahms tape that you’re keeping to yourself?” “Why don’t we trade for what turned up in Egypt?” With annoyance, he motioned to a man nearby: “Why don’t you go and bother him? He’s the one who gave me the tapes to Cairo. Selim Sednaoui is here for Barda’s concert.”
Henri Barda eagerly offered to help search for the musician whom he credited as having guided him to find his own musical language. Barda described Tiegerman’s piercing eyes, their gaze “went through you like knives.”
Stephen Papastephanou, a Greco-Egyptian surgeon, mentioned an occasion when Tiegerman returned the Tiegerman Conservatory after lunch accompanied by his pupil and friend Prince Hassan. One of King Farouk’s pashas had a daughter living in Connecticut, who provided Prince Hassan’s address.
Hassan’s tattered reply arrived from Cairo stuffed inside a transparent plastic U.S. Mail pouch, from which a glaring triangular wedge had been cut off. Unfolding the origami of Hassan’s words, I made out “not well” … “eyes make it difficult” … “around for long” … “most magnificent person in—.” Once his phone was tracked, he answered apologetically: “They always censor my mail.” I asked if we could meet up in about six months’ time: “You must come soon. I won’t be around much longer.”
On a flight one month later I wondered why on earth I was going to Cairo. As the plane started its descent a tense atmosphere gave way to elation as all the homecomers expressed joy to one another. I saw a busy metropolis with baby strollers everywhere and couples and families promenading on the boulevards well past midnight. I felt as if I hadn’t yet left New York. The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) accepted Tiegerman’s research as an archaeological mission and provided me with a room in a Garden City residence used by tomb explorers and a visiting scuba diver combing Alexandria’s harbor.
Shortly before arriving, Tiegerman appeared to me in a dream: “You will find my Chopin in Cairo.” A few days later a printed concert program surfaced. My first meeting with Prince Hassan took place in what still existed as the Royal Automobile Club. He poured out a spirited, tearful recollection of his mentor’s persona and pianism in such well-chosen words that I gained access to a recovered life. This continued at downtown cafés, and days later I was asked to visit him at his apartment, shared with a hateful brother-in-law and an aggressive niece who avoided him at all costs. I noted small canvases by the 17th-century master Claude Lorrain, and opposite them two rows of burnished scimitars dangled only inches above a black leather divan. Each month the antiquities police came to take inventory in case Hassan had sold any of his possessions, which had been nationalized but were allowed to remain in his home. An abstract painter and art lover, he rushed to my aid when I spoke of how confusing the Citadel and Old City seemed. Hassan guided me there with Henri Barda, who had unexpectedly turned up in Cairo, describing through gestures how geometric ripples defined a Mamluk façade, the same way he perceptively evoked Tiegerman’s art.
“Everyone played here before the Revolution: Furtwängler, Cortot, Bachauer, so we heard them all, but for me Tiegerman was always the finest.”
A Cordon Bleu chef, Tiegerman prepared his own meals. One pupil spoke of the tolerance and harmony among the various nationalities living in Cairo before the 1952 revolution: “No one gave any importance to religion. It was a different spirit. My cousin knocked [at the Conservatory's kitchen door] while he ate: “Tiegerman, you’re eating pork. You’re a bad Jew!’ ‘You’re right! Won’t you join me? … and now you’re a bad Muslim!’ ”
An impressive new biography looks at the original Jewish leftist—and shines light on the appeal of radical politics for Jews