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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

Allan Evans
June 19, 2013
Ignace Tiegerman and Nanice Wassef in Cairo, 1966.(Bruce Hungerford, Courtesy of the author)
Ignace Tiegerman and Nanice Wassef in Cairo, 1966.(Bruce Hungerford, Courtesy of the author)

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.”

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!’ ”

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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Allan Evans began music studies with Rev. Gary Davis and developed Sound Archaeology, a new branch of musicology, which he teaches at the New School University.

Allan Evans began music studies with Rev. Gary Davis and developed Sound Archaeology, a new branch of musicology, which he teaches at the New School University.