A hero of our time

Ivan Moravec at the Metropolitan Museum
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 18, 2007

Ivan Moravec
Now 77, Ivan Moravec has been flying under the classical-music radar for nearly 50 years. A student of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, he made his London debut in 1959 and his American debut with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1964. Starting in 1962, E. Alan Silver’s hip but obscure Connoisseur Society label began releasing recordings. A four-disc Chopin set became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; the complete Chopin Nocturnes drew a rave review from Harris Goldsmith in High Fidelity; Village Voice jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote the liner notes for a 1967 Debussy disc, citing Moravec’s command, on previous releases, of “the inner imperatives of Beethoven and Chopin.”

A major, and major-label, career seemed in prospect. Forty years later, however, Moravec remains “the elegant, elusive Czech pianist,” as Michael Church calls him in an interview at Andante.com. His repertoire is limited: a good deal of Chopin and Debussy, some Mozart and Beethoven, less Haydn and Schumann and Grieg and Franck and Ravel. He appears infrequently in the world’s great concert halls. Along with the Connoisseur Society, his recordings (some 30 in all) have been released by Supraphon, Vox, Vai, Hänssler, Dorian, and Harmonia Mundi — hardly the who’s who of record labels. Apart from the eight months he spent in England in 1968, he’s lived quietly in Prague with his wife, Zuzana. He never joined the Communist Party, and that must have inhibited his touring. He hasn’t performed in Boston since his 1994 Celebrity Series recital in Jordan Hall, but last Saturday he made his seventh appearance for the PianoForte series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, just a short hop from Princeton University, where he’s the 2007–2008 Belknap Visitor in the Humanities. He’d be a perfect subject for the New Yorker (not least because of the piano tool kit he carries around with him); maybe Alex Ross will get round to him one of these days.

The hair is a little whiter, but it’s the same chubby, cheerful face (he looks a bit like veteran character actor J. Pat O’Malley) and stocky body, same shy smile, same little-boy walk, bent slightly forward, arms hanging straight down, as if his parents were about to present him to an important visitor. There was, as always, minimal fussing with the piano bench: within five seconds of sitting down, he’d launched himself into Haydn’s Sonata in D Hob. XVI:37. His trademarks — what have made him a cult figure (he doesn’t have a Web site, but his fans do: www.ivanmoravec.net) — are his heroic tone, the big structural arcs he creates, his dance pulse (no thumping on the beat), and phrasing that’s more like breathing. Sitting at the piano, he might remind you of Walter Gieseking. (He’s described Gieseking’s recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Brahms’s Intermezzi as his “first great experience”; they were mine also.) He’s very still, and his hands move along the keyboard like the spirit of God upon the face of the waters. He says that his tone comes from the weight in his arms, but when you watch him play, it seems to be coming from his very core.

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