Because his sense of humor is constantly on display, Earl Wild’s more serious statements can sometimes get lost in the persistent air of hilarity that any dialogue with him generates.
So when the veteran pianist reflects, in mid-interview and without any humorous intent, that “more lives have been ruined by Clara Schumann, Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg,” one sits up, and stops laughing.
“The virus of ‘good taste’ is Clara’s legacy,” Wild says, in an otherwise lighthearted conversation over lunch. He tells a story of Frau Schumann’s refusal to visit her husband, Robert, when he lay dying in an asylum.
Then, still serious, Wild reiterates the (recently documented) legend that Clara edited some of the individuality and genius out of Robert’s manuscripts.
“Everybody knows how Freud screwed up our century, as valuable as his work was,” Wild goes on, with a twinkle in his eye.
“And Schoenberg--well, we’re only now recovering from the period when his method took music away from melody and harmony.”
Immediately, this brief interlude ends, and Wild, who has spent part of the morning testing Baldwin pianos for his two-night engagement in Hollywood Bowl (tonight and Saturday), is back to sharing jokes and sometimes-ribald anecdotes.
Without dwelling on some of the famous names any visit with the pianist must touch upon--Toscanini, Paul Whiteman, Margarete Matzenauer and Maria Callas, among others of his colleagues and mentors--Wild paints a picture of himself as a musician who has never stopped practicing.
“When we go away for a week,” volunteers Michael Davis, Wild’s friend, traveling companion and record producer, “it’s not away from the piano, only away from the phone. Earl feels he must practice every day.”
Fast approaching his 70th birthday (Nov. 16), Wild admits, in a quiet moment during dessert, “My great fear, my only fear, actually, is of not being prepared when I walk out onto the stage. So, to compensate, I tend to overprepare.”
Whatever images of glamour and jet-setting other pianists may project, Wild says, his own life consists mostly of self-discipline and hard work.
“I used to have drinks before dinner,” he recalls. “But not any more. There’s too much to be done. And too little time. I found out it takes the body 24 hours to throw off the effects of one drink--so I don’t drink anymore.”
For 30 years one of the most-recorded pianists in the business, Wild has now recorded, for the 1986 centennial of the death of Franz Liszt, three sets of Liszt works--titled “Liszt the Virtuoso,” “Liszt the Poet” and “Liszt the Transcriber.”
Not coincidentally, each of these sets represents one evening’s program in a three-evening Liszt cycle that Wild will give this season in New York, London, Boston and Chicago. The recordings--totaling 320 minutes of music--were made last winter, between Dec. 17 and Jan. 3 at the Manhattan School of Music.
“We recorded from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., six hours a night,” Wild says. “Then we did our own editing. It took us from January to June, with time off only for a Japanese tour.”
Of course, that trip was not exactly a vacation, either. Among other concerts Wild gave during the tour (he says he goes to Japan every other year), one was a concerto program with the NHK Symphony in which he played three works in one evening: Liszt’s E-flat Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s B-flat-minor Concerto and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy (he plays both Liszt works in the Bowl this weekend).
“Tiring? Not really,” the white-haired, constantly bemused Wild says.
“Once you get started, you just do it.”