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Discovering the late Paul Badura-Skoda: Extraordinary artist—on modern and period instruments

Oct 27, 2020 05:45PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

Image from the Metropolitan Museum in NY

“Music is a reflection of life. There is always something new to discover. A life is much too short to know all these wonderful, poetic works!” —Paul Badura-Skoda (1927-2019) 

When I was studying piano performance in graduate school, I had the good fortune to work with a wonderful pianist and teacher named Seth Carlin. Next to the obligatory Steinway behemoth in his studio, Seth kept something special, more diminutive and delicate-sounding: a beautifully made replica of an 1820s Graf fortepiano. 

The original was made in Vienna around the time of Beethoven’s death. Thanks to this replica, I was able to perform half of my final recital on a period instrument, opening new musical modes of thinking that still resonate for me today.

 It was around that time that I learned about the Viennese pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, who had enhanced his already stellar reputation by performing on period instruments. Badura-Skoda had collected and restored several original instruments and featured them in his recordings of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. 

He was, in fact, the first pianist to record these three composers’ complete piano sonatas on both period and modern instruments. “There are many advantages of what we call ‘period pianos’ and I love to play them,” the pianist noted. He also liked to recount instances where he would demonstrate musical passages on both the modern and period pianos side-by-side. Then, to his surprise, the audience would inevitably prefer the original instruments over the modern.

In the 1950s, Badura-Skoda and his wife, Eva, a noted musicologist, became immersed in performance practice research. The results not only informed the pianist’s performances, but also led to books on the interpretation of Bach and Mozart, as well as scholarly editions of these and other composers’ works. 

With these contributions, the Badura-Skodas helped to displace the many faulty editions still in print and correct widespread errors wrongly representing composers’ intentions. “A good text has to be established,” the pianist logically pointed out.

Image from the Metropolitan Museum in NY

About becoming an acknowledged expert on Mozart interpretation, Badura-Skoda observed with a sense of humor, “This specialization just happened. Mozart comes most naturally to the young; I happened to be young one day and I enjoyed Mozart, so there was no problem.” 

On the subject of performing late Beethoven, Badura-Skoda adopted a more serious tone, describing a process of artistic maturation. “I didn't play Beethoven's last sonata in public until I was 35 years old, to give it time to find its place in me. Our art needs time, internal maturity, which can only be gained through the life course of each of us. 

“We start out with blind admiration, we learn, and then we have to unlearn, detach ourselves little by little from what we've received, in order to become ourselves.”

Badura-Skoda passed away in September of 2019 at the age of 91, giving his final recital just four months before his death. He was an inspiration for any pianist also desiring to be a well-rounded musician and scholar, but his mastery of every skill makes him a virtually impossible act to follow. With more than 200 recordings, numerous recitals around the globe over a span of decades, and shelves of books, articles and musical editions to his credit, Badura-Skoda somehow also found the time to conduct and compose, writing cadenzas for Mozart’s piano concerti and completing several unfinished early sonatas by Schubert, not to mention his own, modern-styled compositions.

With most concerts temporarily on hold, perhaps this is an ideal time to explore Badura-Skoda’s many benchmark recordings. If you are not already familiar with these, you will discover an artist of extraordinary accomplishment and integrity as you immerse yourself in the distinct sonic palettes of both modern and period instruments.

Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.