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by Jacques Leiser

Pianist Simon Barere was a genius whose mastery of the keyboard cast a spell over audiences. He had the ability to convey his insights about a score with a variety of nuances, while keeping the musical image clean and clear. He was an extraordinary musician, interpreter, and teacher.

Barere was born in Odessa on September 1, 1896 and by age 16 studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Alexander Glazunov, the director of the conservatory, befriended the young Barere and protected him, as well as Horowitz, Heifetz, Milstein, Zimbalist, and others, from the anti-semitic regulations in Russia. Barere studied with Annette Essipova (1851-1914) and later with Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931), who taught Vladimir Horowitz and Heinrich Neuhaus.

After graduation he was a professor at the Kiev Conservatory. Although Barere was becoming a legend in Russia, the Stalin regime made it impossible for him to develop a career as a pianist abroad. Barere took his wife and son Boris to Berlin in the early 1930s, but the growing fascist climate in Germany and the adoption of the Nürenberg Laws in 1933 also curtailed his career. His life changed when he performed in Great Britain and signed a contract with HMV to record solo pieces. Later these were sold in the United States on the Victor label. His debut performance was in 1934 with Thomas Beecham, and two years later he first performed in the United States in Carnegie Hall.

Critics and colleagues, including Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Godowsky, and Lhévinne among others, soon regarded him as one of the great pianists of the century. Barere appeared 22 times at Carnegie Hall, and between 1936 and 1951 he performed 16 recitals there. He toured Australia, New Zealand and South America, and performed as soloist with the New York, Edinburgh, Berlin, London, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, and other orchestras. Barere acquired an outstanding reputation, especially in New York, and was close to international recognition when he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on stage at Carnegie Hall at age 54, while performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

The scarcity of information about Simon Barere and his career haunted me ever since I had the privilege of hearing his magical Carnegie Hall recital performance in 1947. It was hard to accept that such a magnificent artist could so quickly fade from memory. After one Carnegie Hall recital, Noel Straus, a critic for The New York Times, said Barere had left the audience enthralled by his overwhelming artistry, and years later Harold Schoenberg, also of The New York Times, wrote that Barere had "one of the fabulous mechanisms of all time."

I decided to track down Boris Barere, the 83-year-old son of Simon Barere, who was also a pianist and piano teacher, to interview him about his father. As it turned out, no one had thought to do this before. In February 2005 I traveled to New York from California to talk to this gentleman, who shared some memories of his father with me.

"I was born in a musical family," said Boris Barere. "My father and mother played the piano, and musicians frequently visited our home. My father and Godowsky were close friends who had tea together and of course played the piano together. Felix Blumenfeld introduced him to Godowsky’s transcriptions, such as Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus, and works of Lully, Rameau, and Corelli, which Godowsky transcribed.

"My father once played for passengers on a ship traveling from Europe to America and saw Rachmaninoff walking on deck. ‘Mr. Rachmaninoff, I knew you were on board this ship, but I was afraid to approach you,’ he said. Rachmaninoff asked, ‘Why? Am I so frightening?’ They became friendly after this meeting." Boris Barere remembers that his father often complained that practicing made him play worse. "He was a natural at the keyboard; things went well as long as he played rapidly and naturally, without trying to improve. He wanted to remain inspired and did not want to risk getting bored.

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      Listen to Samples

 1  Liszt - Gnomenreigen
     Simon Barere, piano

 2  Interview
     Jacques Leiser, Boris Barere

 3  Interview
     Jacques Leiser, Boris Barere

 4  Balakirev - Islamey
     Simon Barere, piano

 5  Interview
     Jacques Leiser, Boris Barere


The life and career of Simon Barere is illuminated in an audio interview with his son, Boris Barere, conducted by impresario and piano expert Jacques Leiser.

The result: a wealth of information about Barere as well as first hand recollections and anecdotes of the greatest musicians of the time who knew him and visited him at Barere's homes. This is no sentimental family memoir it is a deeply informative, highly colorful and uncommonly entertaining cameo of a unique figure in piano history as well as some of the most famous piano legends in memory. Interspersed are some of Simon Barere's most extraordinary recordings both from the studio and privately taken in the concert hall, made available by the APR company that has reissued on CD all known audio documents of Barere.

                         Copyright © 2008 Jacques Leiser