Charles Petzold

Remembering Paul Jacobs

September 25, 2008
Roscoe, N.Y.

I saw pianist Paul Jacobs perform many times, but two concerts in particular stand out in my feeble memories, both from the 1970s.

I remember Jacobs playing the solo piano version of Stravinsky's Petrushka, I believe at one of Pierre Boulez's "Prospective Encounters" in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, an electrifying, scintillating performance. It was only Petrushka — a piece of music everyone knew in its orchestral version — but under the full dramatic control of single performer.

Before a concert at the Museum of Modern Art (I believe), I was able to talk to Paul Jacobs briefly about the harpsichord he would be playing in what must have been Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras, or perhaps Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord. It was very long ago, but I still remember how riveting the performance was.

Paul Jacobs was most closely identified with music of the 20th century, but he could really play pretty much anything. He had been the principal pianist with the New York Philharmonic since 1961. That's normally not a very busy job because most of the classical repertoire does not require a piano, and for those works that do — piano concertos, for example — usually a headliner sits at the keys. But earlier in his career Paul Jacobs had worked with Pierre Boulez in Paris, and when Boulez came to New York City to be Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 through 1977, many more works of the 20th century were programmed, many required the piano, and Boulez and Jacobs were a perfect fit.

Jacobs was a particularly talented interpreter of Debussy, and he recorded Debussy's Preludes, Etudes, and Images for the Nonesuch label. (These are now available on CD and highly recommended.) Jacobs was a champion of the music of Ferruccio Busoni, and he recorded all of Schoenberg's piano music as well as works of Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, and Carter. The small label Arbiter has released CDs made from live recital tapes, including one concert where Jacobs discussed the influence of jazz on American and European composers, and interviews Aaron Copland. Perhaps most surprising, however, is a blisteringly fast live performance of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata.

In 1982 Paul Jacobs was diagnosed with a strange and rare illness. Although it sapped his strength, he continued to perform.

Sometimes epidemics, natural disasters, and other tragedies seem rather abstract until we're able to associate them with human faces. For many people, it was the death of Paul Jacobs — 25 years ago today on September 25, 1983 — that made AIDS very, very real.