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
For a week, Hassan and Laila Orabi spent 12 hours each at his bedside as Tiegerman lay dying from a botched prostate operation in 1968. Placing grapes one at a time onto his parched tongue, he murmured: “Look how Hassan is spoiling me!” Both Muslims, they stayed by him until his end. Right before he passed, word of his final days reached the government. Sarwat Okasha, minister of culture, loved European classical music and despite being in Nasser’s Cabinet, he protected Tiegerman as did his predecessor under King Farouk. Hassan recalled that Dr. Okasha’s office dispatched “an unimportant man, a low-level functionary who was an Egyptian Muslim and who knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about Tiegerman. He came into the hospital room, and upon seeing Tiegerman, immediately fell to his knees and, kneeling at his bedside, kissed his hand. In an instant, he understood who Tiegerman was.” Hassan mentioned a surviving niece as Tiegerman’s last relative, who had arrived from Czechoslovakia after he died.
I later traced Dr. Samir Kamel, who lived in Kuwait. He suspected that he may have stored recordings of his teacher in an old Cairo apartment. Three reels were fished out from his Geniza and Sedanoui kept them close. Two were the recordings Said flaunted, yet one was unmarked. The first notes bore Tiegerman’s inimitable touch, playing Chopin’s seventh prelude. After its lapse I hoped that if anything more of Chopin’s were to follow it might include the eighth prelude, the Barcarolle, the Fourth Ballade, a Scherzo, and hopefully a Nocturne. There they were, along with a radio broadcast of Chopin’s Third Sonata, all that I would have begged for had there been a time machine. After decades of seeking and listening to every great Chopin player within reach, I found that history’s pecking order was overturned as Tiegerman channeled Chopin better than anyone.
Hassan received the CD through the U.S. Embassy’s diplomatic pouch soon after I published it in 1997, and he sent a postcard: “My mind is now at rest.” Months later, his long-projected family memoir of their ruling Egypt since 1803 was ready: Hassan died in the morning, hours before its publication party.
The tremors continued: The New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier suggested calling an elderly piano teacher of his in Upper Manhattan. She knew of Tiegerman and suggested contacting an even older lady in her mid-nineties who might know more, cautioning that I first speak with her nephew, Dr. Leopold Lustig. The doctor apologized, as his aunt was senile: “Tiegerman! I was just on the phone with his niece yesterday. She lives in the Czech Republic, in Brno.”
Hedwiga Rivalova provided missing pieces from Tiegerman’s life. When she arrived to find the Tiegerman Conservatory sacked, she retrieved family photos from the debris-ridden floor. Again Bruno Schulz came into sight: Dr. Lustig mentioned that “Schulz was my art and shop teacher in high school. I buried him.” From an office in the Drohobycz ghetto, he heard the gunshot that felled Schulz, as a Gestapo officer sought revenge on a rival who had slept with his mistress; therefore he killed a colleague’s Jewish slave. Lustig waited until night and recovered the body with a friend, burying Schulz in secret, as documented in Henryk Grynberg’s Drohobycz, Drohobycz.
Tiegerman chafed whenever he was hailed as a maestro: “Don’t call me that! I am only a pianist. All I ever wished to do in my life was to play well!”
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