Mordecai Shehori: finding that special 'zing' in your piano

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.08.2014

Pianist Mordecai Shehori’s prodigious output of CDs over the past few years must be setting some kind of record. Almost every piece of the piano repertoire he has studied throughout his long career is being preserved for posterity, now amounting to 31 CDs. “A lot more beautiful music is still to come,” he says, “And much of it was never played well before.”

His criteria for choosing repertoire are strictly personal. “I only study pieces I have a deep connection with,” he says. “How many CDs will there be? I have big plans.” 

His next launch, due out this fall on his own Cembal d‘amour label, will include Book I, the first 12 sets of preludes and fugues, of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier. The remaining 36 will follow. 

Shehori’s fan base is on alert and so am I. He has sent me excerpts of the 12 and I can recommend them as a very fresh treatment based on his refined keyboard technique and his grasp of the material, absorbed by studying the “esthetically beautiful” Bach autograph scores. 

The Israeli-born Shehori is such an intriguing, personable and witty artist that I was driven to track him down by phone recently in Las Vegas, Nevada. We have spent the past month in lively telephone and email contact probing his approach to the piano, trading judgments on other players and exchanging gossip.

In some ways, the story of his career is not untypical of hundreds of talented performers who strive to make a living from the piano – hardscrabble and frustrating. In other ways, he is unique and highly productive.

After studying with Mindru Katz and winning competitions in Israel as a young pianist, he made his way to New York, with, he recalls, “a hundred dollars in my sock”. (Israel had strict controls on foreign currency at the time.) His Juilliard audition gained him acceptance and he went on to give annual concerts – 18 of them at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center -- for 27 years, amassing some impressive critiques and developing a “cult following”, according to The New York Times. He was a friend and collaborator of the late Vladimir Horowitz, and managed to acquire a 100-year-old Steinway grand that once belonged to Josef Hofmann.

But Shehori was also obliged to teach (“sometimes to children who didn’t practice and didn’t want to learn”) while supplementing his income by playing piano on the luxury sailboat Sea Cloud II in the Caribbean. 

Returning from a cruise to a snowy, icy New York winter, ten years ago, he made a decision to change his life. “Reasons for living in New York were diminished,” he says. “Why am I here?” he asked himself. And so he moved to the sunny clime of Las Vegas, Nevada, where he now spends his time in splendid isolation, developing his Cembal d’amour label while also teaching. A bonus, he says, is that “my piano loves this climate because the humidity never changes.”  He jokingly describes his home as “2500 feet above sea level – like Switzerland without the Nazis.”

“People often ask me, ‘What about culture?’ I say the culture is in my house. I have a huge library of books and music scores and a collection of rare records, plus a recording studio.”

He runs Cembal d’amour virtually alone. He has taught himself to take care of his piano, tuning it, voicing it and restringing it, and adjusting octave settings for specific compositions. He writes his own program notes and designs his own album covers. He also engineers and edits his work, free of the pressures of commercial studios. “Normally, pianists make their recordings in studios and the clock is ticking. The results cannot be good under these conditions.” 

“If I feel like recording, I only need to flip a few switches and I am ready. I can record in my underwear if I want to.”

His label specializes in great performers of the past, as well as his own output. “Since moving here, I have been able to read a lot and practice much better. It has been a very productive move, musically.” 

I have spent many hours digesting Shehori’s broader oeuvre available on CD. I normally need to listen to a recording four or five times before I know what to think of it. Such a concentrated diet of one player, however, produces a different effect. After a few hearings, one comes to know a style, its strengths and weaknesses.

Shehori’s tone, his super-sensitive pedaling and his use of silences, however short, set him apart from others. Silences are the key. He likes to say he has five kinds of rest:


-- DS, for deafening silence

-- PR, the pregnant rest  

-- ER, the edgy rest

-- NR, the nuclear rest  

-- FR, the free rest


Understandably, some of Shehori’s interpretations are more striking than others, but generally I found him to possess a singing quality (Horowitz said in his Russian accent that the piano must “zing”) as opposed to staccato bursts and percussive hammering that so many young pianists employ for effect today. His Scarlatti is crisp and clean, and his Liszt and Chopin are distinctive for their rich tone and emotional depth, grounded in his knowledge of the composers and their times. His Beethoven is perhaps his strongest suit and his Mozart is positively feline.

Critical reaction has been largely enthusiastic but he has also taken his lumps.

A recent performance in Palo Alto, California, prompted a critic to note “a display of dynamic and emotional extremes held in perfect balance by a master colorist of the keyboard, whose digital and pedal arsenal revealed a panoply of nuance … ”

But one New York Times reviewer wrote that his playing “may actually be a specialized taste”.  He does not aim for the gallery, the reviewer said, nor for the “exciting flourish”. “The results can be diffuse … but they can also be haunting… Shehori must always be listened to on his own terms.”

In a recent appearance in southern California, a reviewer praised his Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven. And as an aside, noted that he regaled “an appreciative audience with tales of musical friends, including a spot-on imitation of his mentor, the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz”.

One of his adult students, New York graphic artist Vickie Hamilton, says his teaching is “completely unique”. He concentrates on the physical aspects such as playing from the arm, she tells me, “and he has taught me to listen to myself.”

In an extended series of questions and answers, Shehori gave me a rare insight into the concerns of modern pianism, ranging from interpretation of the classics, to the art of recording, to piano maintenance. 

Digging into a composer’s mentality far back in time is essential to grasp and perform a piece, he believes. “I always try to understand the reason that a composer’s second note followed the first, and so on.”

Whenever possible, he tries to get beyond the Urtext score and goes straight to the original. “The autograph score can be a great asset,” he says. “It reveals elements not possible to see in print. But also one must read all the letters, all the books, the history and the politics of the times of the composer, and find out what he ate, whom he loved, and his opinions about musicians of his times.” 

Few pianists today, especially those in a hurry to make their mark, bother to explore the foundations of the major works. Often their “notes are empty” because of the missing background, Shehori says.

He recalls one instance that proves his point. In the Beethoven sonata in E major Opus 109, Beethoven writes in his own hand in heavy black ink, “FORTE” at bar 61. He finds this revealing, and applies a noticeably strong forte when he plays it. The Urtext version simply calls for “f”. “There is a lot of conscious and unconscious information lost when these works are printed,” he says.

The Lizst sonata Après une lecture de Dante (Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, its published title), prompted him to study the Divine Comedy and contemplate Liszt’s readings with Marie d’Agoult during their idyllic years together in the 1830s. Shehori says Dante’s description of passing through purgatory and hell to earthly paradise helped prepare him to plumb the depths of the composition.

At the other extreme, he recalls one well-known player, famous for his fast fingers, who chose Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata as an encore. It was so flat and uninteresting, he jokes, that “three people fell into a coma and had to be removed by ambulance”.

Shehori’s commitment to the singing potential of the piano is one of his strong points. He recalls that Toscanini “always screamed ‘Cantare, cantare’. And Horowitz insisted, “You have to zing on the piano.” 

Pianists and violinists spend years working on the singing sound – the foundation of the classics. “Bach relentlessly invented instruments and improved others to reach for this quality. But it is difficult to master, so now we think of the piano as a percussion instrument and that’s a green light to bang on it – and they all do.”

Shehori attributes much of his piano mastery to skills learned form his long-time teacher in Israel, Mindru Katz. “Only twice in my life,” he wrote in Record Collector magazine in 2008, “it happened that when I met a person for the first time it was apparent that I was in the company of an awe-inspiring genius.” Once was his initial encounter the Katz. The other was his meeting with Horowitz later in New York. 

Katz taught Shehori how to activate the last finger joints without creating tension in any other part of the arms; how to make the arms “float in the air, like a drop of oil in water,” by employing the large muscles in the back; “how to play the piano with these light and soft arms as flexible whips and not as rigid sticks”.

This method allows a wide range of tone – from whispering pianissimos to thundering fortissimos. No harsh sounds resulted, nor did injuries result. “Historically, most pianists who have a beautiful sonorous tone, especially in the higher registers of the piano, never develop carpal tunnel syndrome,” he wrote. 

“Music is a dangerous profession,” Shehori says. “It is like climbing a steep mountain – to get better is difficult but falling off is easy.”

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