Though among the greatest Bach pianists of our time, Edward Aldwell, who died Sunday at age 68 as the result of an automotive accident, was also among the least known.
While a fixture in Philadelphia concert life, thanks to his faculty position at the Curtis Institute of Music and his frequent recitals presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, he was known to a larger public only through a half-dozen prestigious recordings and occasional concerts in other major music capitals, such as New York and San Francisco.
Often described as an intellectual pianist (having coauthored the classic music-theory textbook Harmony and Voice Leading with Carl Schachter), Mr. Aldwell was anything but dry in his playing. “It was intellectual in the sense that there was great understanding in what he was doing, but it wasn’t detached,” said Anthony P. Checchia, founder of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. “I could always count on a wonderful level of insight in his performances.”
His death was the result of a freak accident on May 7. While at his weekend home in Westchester County, New York, he borrowed a neighbor’s all-terrain vehicle to search for his dog and was apparently thrown from it.
“Had he fallen a different way, he might have just broken an arm,” said Eric Wen, who cochaired Curtis’ musical studies department with Aldwell. “But the fall resulted in a fractured skull.” Mr. Aldwell was still conscious when found by a neighbor.
He was successfully treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma during the spring semester of 2005, and was planning a recital next season in Philadelphia as well as recordings of Bach’s English Suites, Wen said.
A native of Portland, Ore., Mr. Aldwell earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Juilliard School of Music, where he was a student of Adele Marcus’. Though mainly known as a music-theory teacher – his position at Curtis since 1971 – he had a select few piano students at the Mannes College of Music in New York and was increasingly recognized as a performer during the 1984-85 Bach tercentenary season.
Mr. Aldwell played other composers, such as Hindemith, Schubert and Fauré, but friends and associates say that Bach was so central to his life that they never thought to ask why. “It was a given,” said pianist Cynthia Raim, who first knew him at Curtis theory classes.
Bach specialists aren’t known to be big concert draws, and Raim believes Mr. Aldwell just wasn’t the sort to want a glamorous career. But he wanted more than he had. Though he had prestigious concerto engagements with New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, “there was a bit of unfulfillment,” Wen said.
The exception was his life in Philadelphia. Though based in New York, Aldwell commanded a small but knowledgeable audience at his recitals here, which occurred annually and sometimes more often in intimate venues such as the Curtis Institute’s Field Hall and the 135-seat Fleisher Art Memorial.
An energetic presence at the keyboard, Mr. Aldwell cut a slight, youthful figure, his facial expressions mirroring the emotion of the music but not unduly so. Though he was said to respect the famous Bach specialist Glenn Gould, his idols were Artur Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, and he seemed to seek a golden mean through moderate use of articulation and pedal, and in an organic rather than conceptual approach to the music.
As a result, his playing had none of Gould’s extremes and was also clean of immediately identifiable surface details. Mr. Aldwell knew the music on so many levels that he didn’t need to pry it apart to reveal what it meant. Most remarkably, his playing had a spiritual, finding-God-in-the-details aura that didn’t always translate to recordings but made his live performances a peak experience. His reading of the dark, G-minor section of the Goldberg Variations could go to the depths of existential anguish.
“It was always a profound experience hearing him make music – and a joyful one,” Raim said. “How often does that happen?”
He is survived by his wife, Jean; daughter, Elisabeth; and two grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Curtis at a date to be announced.
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