A Music Critic Performs, Practices What He Preaches

One of the most characterful presences at musical events over the past several decades—once seen, never forgotten—is Harris Goldsmith, a stocky 70-year-old Brooklyn resident who takes the Manhattan-bound A or C train every day to reach the borough of his dreams. (He claims only to “sleep” in Brooklyn and to live his real life in Manhattan.) A pianist, teacher (at Mannes College of Music) and critic, Mr. Goldsmith has a wide, ample face that easily twists into an amiable grin when confronted by an old friend, a rapt reverie when transported by a finely accomplished musical phrase, or an acute grimace when offended by a performer’s faux pas. Recently, he’s been honored with a two-CD reprint (on the Dutch label Brilliant Classics) of his recordings of Beethoven sonatas and short works, originally made from 1970-1981.

The technical demands of virtuoso works like Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Sturm” sonatas, included in the Brilliant reissue, do not daunt Mr. Goldsmith, whose fingers, thick as sausages, deftly discover an eerie cosmic resonance in miniature pieces like “Für Elise” and “Allegretto für Piringer.” The pianist plays in a highly personal, self-contained world—like a passenger lost in thought on a subway train—but his playing is deeply informed by the style and substance of Beethoven’s imagination. Mr. Goldsmith has made equally accomplished recordings of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms over the years, which are still awaiting reprint on CD.

Also awaiting reprint are Mr. Goldsmith’s multitudinous articles for such now-defunct music magazines as High Fidelity and Opus, as well as CD-booklet notes for now-hard-to-find releases. His articles are well worth tracking down: Not since the days of Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), the British pianist, composer and paragon of musicological writing, has a pianist been such a pertinent and useful analytic writer about music.

The legendary Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) once confessed that hearing Mr. Goldsmith play Schubert and Schumann in a 1969 master class was “literally one of the most gratifyingly musical experiences I can remember … listening to him I had tears in my eyes with pleasure and happiness.” Musical luminaries such as the pianists András Schiff and Richard Goode are also longtime fans of Mr. Goldsmith’s acumen. What is the secret of his mastery?

Mr. Goldsmith studied at the Manhattan School of Music with Robert Goldsand (1911-1991), a Viennese-born student of Moriz Rosenthal, who himself studied with Franz Liszt. For decades, Mr. Goldsmith has concentrated an unwavering focus on musical ideals, as embodied by the conducting of Arturo Toscanini, an early hero. Defending Toscanini against persistent accusations of rushed tempos, Mr. Goldsmith points out in the notes to volume six of BMG’s Toscanini edition on CD: “In fact, many of the Maestro’s performances were slower than the norm, but the combination of firm rhythm, clear articulation and a stronger than customary architectural emphasis—in a word, a sometimes overwhelming authority—often created the illusion of implacable speed.”

Although willing to acknowledge flaws in the occasional misjudged Toscanini performance, Mr. Goldsmith uses the Italian conductor as a beacon from which musical enlightenment radiates. In a CD reissue of recordings by the Budapest String Quartet (SONY Classical MH2K 62870), Mr. Goldsmith points out that from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, this stellar ensemble shared with Toscanini “an easily recognizable (and then distinctly modern) technical brilliance, a certain streamlining of architecture, a pervasive rhythmic virility, unfussy phrasing and momentum. One heard, too, an analogous lean transparency and vertical clarity, and beautiful intensity and silkiness of tone.”

Encouraged by his arts-minded parents, Mr. Goldsmith attended scores of Toscanini concerts as a young music student. His father, preoccupied with the persecution of the Jews in prewar Europe, moved his family to Cuba in 1938 for a yearlong project to obtain visas allowing refugees to land in Havana. In 1939, Milton Goldsmith participated in the historic doomed effort to save the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis, sailing from Hamburg, Germany, who were rejected by the U.S. and Cuba and sent back to Nazi Europe. (This tragic episode spawned a number of books and Voyage of the Damned, a 1976 Hollywood film starring Faye Dunaway.) The Goldsmith family, which soon returned to Manhattan, may have emerged with an instinct for adamantly embracing lost causes, an invaluable trait if you’re contemplating a musical career.

Soon after the Second World War, Mr. Goldsmith discovered a young conducting prodigy, Guido Cantelli (1920-1956), who possessed all of the virtues and almost none of the flaws of his mentor, Toscanini. Mr. Goldsmith became an impassioned Cantelli fan and was thunderstruck when the young podium giant died in 1956 in an air crash near Orly airport in France on his way to conduct the New York Philharmonic. About this loss, Mr. Goldsmith admits: “The heartbreak remained forever for this admirer.” This statement of unique ardor appears in a moving—and mightily impressive—expression of posthumous devotion, The Art of Guido Cantelli: New York Concerts and Broadcasts, 1949-1952 (Music & Arts), a recent 12-CD box set presented and annotated by Mr. Goldsmith. (This beautiful and revelatory set, as well as two further CD’s from Music & Arts of live Cantelli concerts from 1953 introduced by Mr. Goldsmith, are not available in the U.S. for copyright reasons, but are essential purchases for any music fan traveling abroad.)

Mr. Goldsmith’s own performing career eventually faded, but he carries on with his teaching and writing. As a valued coach for generations of young pianists, including such talents as Cécile Licad, Jenny Lin and Klára Würtz, Mr. Goldsmith has relished the opportunity to encourage young talent with a self-abnegating didactic instinct that places the music itself first and foremost. Meanwhile, he’s produced unsurpassed descriptions of many great performing personalities. In notes to volume six of SONY/BMG’s Arthur Rubinstein Edition, Mr. Goldsmith relishes Rubinstein’s evolution from “impulsive firebrand” to “expansive, debonair sage,” while forgiving his “reckless fistfuls of wrong notes.”

With other famed performers of the past, Mr. Goldsmith is unforgiving—noted pianist Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), for example. Although he’s still treasured by some record collectors for his glitzy virtuosity, Hofmann’s 1938 concert recording of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata is dismissed by Mr. Goldsmith as “bizarre … alternately trivialized and pulverized” (a comment which appears in his notes to Artur Schnabel: The Complete Schubert Recordings 1932-1950). Unlike most critics, Harris Goldsmith has actually been able to preserve for posterity a praiseworthy version of how the “Waldstein” Sonata and other works should be played. His new Beethoven CD set is a welcome opportunity to appreciate the distinctive musical abilities of a fine appreciator of music.