The renowned Russian-born, Jewish-American pianist, Simon Barere, was was the eleventh of thirteen children, and the death of his father found young Simon using his pianistic talents in cinemas and cafés, earning money to help support the large family. (His actual name was Barer but when in England an 'e' was added to avoid mispronunciation.) As a phenomenally gifted boy of 11 he was admitted to the Odessa Imperial Music Academy, but when he was 16 his mother died and he respected her wish for him to obtain the best possible musical education. He made his own way to St Petersburg where he played at the Conservatory for Alexander Glazunov, composer and director of the Conservatory (from 1905 till 1912 or 1917) and two formidable members of the piano staff, Annette Essipov and Isabella Vengerova: all were astounded at the talent of the young man. Glazunov took Barere under his wing, sparing him the formal entrance examinations. There must have been a natural affinity between the creative, individualistic and human Glazunov and the young, somewhat reserved, yet strong Barere. Glazunov wholeheartedly protected the young talent against the anti-Semitic regulations in the Russia of the Czars. He also ensured that Barere would stay seven years at the Conservatory and thus avoid conscription into the army. And as Barere's nature seemed to focus on precise detail in the first place, Glazunov's influence apparently was to let him see the greater concept, the synthesis. In St. Petersburg Barere studied for two years with pedagogue Anna Yesipova (Annette Essipoff) (1851-1914) until her death in 1914. From then on Felix Blumenfeld (1863-1931) was his teacher with whom he could share the same taste. Blumenfeld certainly taught him not only to keep his strength, precision and virtuosity, but also not to neglect refined feeling and to show vulnerability in the performance. Blumenfeld was the teacher of such other remarkable performers as Vladimir Horowitz, Heinrich Neuhaus, and another strong - and greatly underestimated and ignored - personality: Maria Grinberg, although Barere was Blumenfeld's preferred student.
Another pupil at the Conservatory at this time was Vladimir Sofronitsky, with whom Barere played two-piano recitals.
Upon graduation, Simon Barere won the prestigious Rubinstein Prize, returned to Kiev and started off as a professor himself at the Kiev Conservatory. Like many pianists leaving full-time education Barere proceeded to make a living as a touring virtuoso. In 1920 he married Helena Vlashek, who later became a celebrated piano pedagogue, teaching the great pianist Earl Wild, among others. Barere had a career fraught with bad luck and affected by unfortunate circumstances. After Lenin's death in 1924 liberalism made place for the restrictions of the regime of Josef Stalin and this made it even more difficult to build a career as a pianist and make a living in the world of music. The start of Barere’s career was hampered by the fact that he was not permitted to tour outside the Soviet Union. Despite the difficulties, Barere was able to move to Riga in 1928 to become a cultural ambassador for the Baltic countries and Scandinavia. Making Riga his base, he managed to gain the release from Soviet Russia of his wife and his young son, Boris. A decision to settle in Berlin was a big mistake as the Nazi regime was already persecuting Jews, and Barere had to make a living by playing in cafés and bars, just as he had done in his childhood. Fortunately the family was able to flee to Sweden, and from here Barere could pursue a European touring career. Simon Barere made his British recital debut in 1934 and his concerto debut, with the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, playing the Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Piano Concerto. This debut was such a success that His Master's Voice immediately asked him to record some solo pieces for them. These records spread his name across the Atlantic and led to his Carnegie Hall debut in 1936.
Two years later Simon Barere came to the USA and made his debut at Carnegie Hall on November 9, 1936, and immediately was recognized as one of the authoritative pianists of the period. He knew Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz and Leopold Godowsky. Barere was especially known for his legendary speed and finger dexterity; his rendition of Balakirev's Islamey and many other recordings were renowned for virtuosic brilliance. According to noted music critic Harold C. Schonberg, Barere was more than a scorching virtuoso: he produced a colourful piano tone and could also be highly musical. Just as his career was under way in Europe and the USA, World War II interrupted it. Barere decided to settle in the USA in 1939. In addition to the many Carnegie Hall recitals that followed, he toured after the war Australia, New Zealand, and South America, as well as the USA. Barere performed as a soloist with many orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Edinburgh Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and Stockholm Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, it was through his Carnegie Hall concerts during the 1940’s that his name was kept before audiences. The New York Times referred to a recital in 1949 as ‘…one of the most amazing feats of pianism heard in this city in many a year’. After World War II, Barere gave annual recitals at Carnegie Hall (1946, 1947 and 1948) which were often recorded by the pianist's son, Boris. The performances of 1947 were released by Don Gabor on the Remington label. In March 1951 Barere also made recordings in the studio for Remington. He and Donald H. Gabor had more sessions planned, but fate decided otherwise on that fatal day in Carnegie Hall.
On 2 April 1951, Simon Barere suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while performing the first bars of Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 in Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, had suddenly collapsed and died backstage shortly thereafter. The world had lost an extraordinary musician, interpreter and teacher, who was not always recognized as such because of restrictions and unfortunate circumstances he had encountered during his entire life. In his younger years he often had to keep his family alive by playing in cinema's and restaurants instead of being celebrated in the concert halls of the world's music capitals. And many times he had to flee a country because of discrimination and restrictive regulations.
Since his untimely death, Simon Barere’s name surfaces from time to time in every decade with a few phonographic releases of historic performances, and is subsequently forgotten. To the majority of music lovers of today Barere's name is quite new, notwithstanding his geniality. Barere put a spell over his audience through his mastery of the keyboard, his insight in the score, and the ability to convey this by displaying a great variety of tensions and of gradations in dynamics, while keeping the image perfectly clear, as if the recreation of the composer's work was almost non physical, abstraction, an entity on its own, a celestial body, like a moon which rotates around the planet to which it belongs.
The pianist Mordecai Shehori wrote: “Even now, more than fifty years later, the name Simon Barere inspires feelings of awe and admiration from countless music lovers and piano aficionados. Although his technique is the main source of this wonderment, Barere was much more than a superior technician; he was a great intuitive and improvisatory musician who always put his facility in the service of music. His pianissimo passages in fast tempos were formed brilliantly and evenly, like a string of perfect pearls made of sheer light. In spite of the often breakneck velocity of his playing, there was never a sense of rushing or exertion, but the impression of ease, joy, and elegance. Many pianists are capable of rendering lyrical passages with some degree of poetry especially in slow movements, but what Simon Barere was able to do is to play poetically in all passages, including bravura passages of immense difficulty. His lyrical phrases had tenderness and flexibility but always retained pulse and fluency. Barere's way of understating the romantic passages is particularly poignant.”
Despite the fact that Simon Barere was never offered a big contract - Victor released only four shellac discs originating from England - the Remington recordings, released in the 1950’s, are a testimony of his extraordinary art, thanks also to the efforts of his son Boris Barere. There are recordings of solo pieces by Franz Liszt, Chopin, L.v. Beethoven, Scriabin, J.S. Bach, Blumenfeld. Among the more famous performances recorded live in 1947 at Carnegie Hall is F. Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Funérailles. Other noteworthy performances include, but are not limited to, F. Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody, Reminiscences de Don Juan, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, Blumenfeld's Etude for the Left Hand Alone, and Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2. There is also a recording of F. Liszt's 1st Piano Concerto.
Barere made his first recordings in 1929 for Odéon when he went to Scandinavia. The four sides were of repertoire that he played throughout his career, by Chopin, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov. Perhaps the most important of Barere’s recordings are those he made for HMV between 1934 and 1936.
These astonishing discs show just why the critics were grasping for superlatives. The Times reported in January 1934, when he was known as Simon Barer: ‘Even in these days when good pianists are common, M. Simon Barer, who gave his first recital at Aeolian Hall on Tuesday, is exceptional.’ Of Barere’s performance of Blumenfeld’s Étude for the Left Hand the paper stated: ‘If the eye had not seen the right hand resting on the trouser-leg the ear would have declared that it was not possible to range over the whole compass of the keyboard with such consummate ease and unspoiled musical effect with the left hand alone. This was the measure of M. Barer’s technical accomplishment, which was at the service of a mature musical judgement.’
Barere excelled in the virtuoso repertoire, particularly Franz Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and his Réminiscences de Don Juan, Schumann’s Toccata Op. 7, and Balakirev’s Islamey. Fortunately HMV recorded all this repertoire as well as music by Scriabin, Leopold Godowsky, and Barere’s teachers Glazunov and Blumenfeld. The technique displayed in these recordings is breathtaking in all respects, especially as it is coupled with an astounding elegance in Blumenfeld’s Étude and an extraordinary power and drive in Islamey. In fact, Barere’s style was akin to that of his fellow-pupil Vladimir Horowitz in its clarity, rapidly articulated finger-work and explosive dynamics, yet Barere could also play with poetry and a tone colour that few with his effortless digital dexterity possess. Vladimir Horowitz himself said: ‘Barere had a tremendous technique. He played Professor Blumenfeld’s Étude for the Left Hand like a miracle.’
His son Boris had some of Barere’s Carnegie Hall concerts recorded during the late 1940’s and these precious documents have been released on compact disc by APR. These display Barere in large-scale works: Franz Liszt’s Sonata, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, as well as works by composers whom he did not record commercially, like J.S. Bach and L.v. Beethoven, and two works with orchestra (Franz Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 and Sergei Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 Op. 18).
Barere’s final recordings were made for the American company Remington, 15 years after his previous commercial recordings for HMV. The confidence of post-war America and the introduction of the long-playing microgroove record created seemingly ideal circumstances in which Barere could secure his place among the greatest of international pianists. In the event, Barere died only weeks after making these recordings, and the resulting LP was issued as a memorial album. The playing here is as wondrous as ever; as Glazunov was reported to say, ‘Barere is an Anton Rubinstein in one hand, and a Liszt in the other.’