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Barere was readily accepted for serious studies at the Odessa Imperial Music Academy, a few years behind another local lad who ‘made good’, Benno Moiseiwitsch. When he was sixteen, however, Barere’s mother died and, respecting her wishes that he should seek the best possible musical training, he placed his two younger sisters in the care of close friends, together with as large a sum of money for their upkeep as he could muster, and set out on his own for St Petersburg. Legend has it that when he arrived at the city’s Imperial Conservatory, unannounced and unheralded late one wet November evening, he was confronted by a stout, somewhat florid gentleman who demanded to know exactly what he thought he was up to. On completing his explanations, the interrogator demanded that he should play something. Barere’s party pieces, Liszt’s Rivoletto paraphrase and Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor, had an alarming effect. The stout gentleman—Glazunov, of course—hauled the boy off to the piano department and insisted there and then that the impromptu recital should be repeated, this time for the benefit of Annette Essipova and Isabella Vengerova, two of the Conservatory’s fiercely formidable and highly competitive piano professors. The legend concludes by suggesting that the two ladies almost came to blows as they sought possession of the young phenomenon.
Not for the first time, Glazunov, the Conservatory’s enlightened Director, sidestepped the many regulations that were intended to prevent Jews from gaining entrance. Indeed, throughout his years at St Petersburg, Barere enjoyed the benefit of Glazunov’s unstinting consideration and thoughtfulness. From the very outset he realised that Barere’s art was practically fully formed and so the boy was spared the Conservatory’s rigorous regime of theory and counterpoint, musical history and analysis. Furthermore, Glazunov ensured that Barere remained at the Conservatory for seven years, far longer than the norm, so protecting him from compulsory Army conscription and potential slaughter. Thus Barere graduated in 1919, after peace had been restored, inevitably taking with him the prestigious Rubinstein Prize. Some measure of Glazunov’s estimation of Barere’s gifts can be discerned from the composer’s telling pronouncement, ‘Barere is Franz Liszt in the one hand and Anton Rubinstein in the other’.
For his day-to-day tuition at the Conservatory Barere was assigned to Essipova. One of the most dazzling yet graceful pianists of her era, she, perhaps more magically than any other pianist of her time, combined a remarkable technical facility with a deeply poetic manner of expression. It was undoubtedly while under her influence that Barere developed his extraordinary gift to dispense supercharged virtuosity with the absolute minimum of effort. When Essipova’s death brought the partnership to an end in 1914 Barere completed his studies with Felix Blumenfeld, a versatile pianist who also cut an influential dash during the early years of Soviet music as conductor, composer and piano pedagogue. (Among Blumenfeld’s other pupils can be counted his nephew Heinrich Neuhaus, Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Grinberg and Alexander Gauk.) Blumenfeld, a most discerning musician, was undoubtedly instrumental in imposing upon Barere a style of playing that was both sensual and lyric, one that emanated from a technique of the utmost refinement and which lay particular stress upon clarity of finger work and a wide tonal palette.
On leaving St Petersburg Barere began a career as a travelling virtuoso while holding the post of Professor of Piano at Kiev Conservatory. In the following year (1920) he married a fellow St Petersburg pupil, Helen Vlashek. Predictable early success was soon soured by a protracted period of reversals, the most frustrating of which was a ban on his touring outside the Soviet Union. It was not until 1928, when the Soviet government sent him as a cultural ambassador to the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, that Barere had the opportunity to make Riga his base, from where he began the tortuous process of securing the release of his wife and young son, Boris. Eventually the family were reunited and in 1932 they moved to Berlin. Instantaneous triumph was again followed by disaster as Hitler’s persecution of the Jews intensified. Life was soon little more than survival as Barere was forced to play on vaudeville stages under an assumed name. In desperation the family fled to Sweden.
The first substantial success of Barere’s life in Europe came in January 1934 when his British debut as the Aeolian Hall created such a stir that he was immediately whisked into EMI’s recording studio. In the same year Barere made his British concerto début—the Tchaikovsky First Concerto at the Queen’s Hall, London conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham—and undertook an extensive tour of the British Isles. Gradually more and more invitations began to arrive including one from the Baldwin Piano Company which took Barere to America. The acclaim which greeted him after his Carnegie Hall debut on 9th November 1936 convinced him that his destiny lay in the New World.
If the United States’s involvement in the Second World War meant that the prevailing artistic conditions of the early- 1940s were less than ideal, Barere had at least established a firm foothold. The late- 1940s were to be his finest years. Concerts and recitals grew increasingly numerous—he toured Australia, New Zealand and South America—and his Carnegie Hall appearances were regarded by the cognoscenti arid critics alike as ‘events’. His final Carnegie Hall appearance was on the 2nd April 1951 when he was soloist in an all-Scandinavian concert given by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. As he played his first ever performance of the Grieg Concerto Simon Barere collapsed at the keyboard, the victim of a cerebral haemorrhage.
That there remains any evidence of Barere’s playing in concert and recital during his prime is due entirely to his son Boris who sporadically recorded his father’s performances, ‘just for the fun of it’, whenever he was in town and had the necessary funds. The recordings were made in a small studio, situated a few floors above the main stage, on just two 78rpm turntables. There was no visual contact with the stage: small wonder that parts of some works were missed.