The daughter of Mr W. T. Williams, Marie Novello was adopted by her piano teacher Clara Novello-Davies who was the mother of composer Ivor Novello. As a child Novello won the principal piano prize at the Welsh National Eisteddfod and made her first public appearance in Cardiff. At the age of ten she performed Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23 at a concert in the Wigmore (then Bechstein) Hall in London. Apparently, in 1912 Novello went to Vienna to study with Leschetizky but was rejected because she could not speak German. She returned after learning the language and became one of his last pupils.
During her teens Novello performed regularly in London, taking part in concerts which often presented a number of different soloists. From her early twenties she appeared at the Proms and Ballad Concerts and Sunday League Concerts, and she also participated at the Brighton and Cardiff Musical Festivals.
In December 1921 Novello arrived in New York on the RMS Olympic and in February of the following year made her debut at Town Hall playing works by Chopin, Scarlatti, Debussy, Palmgren and Poldini. When she played Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata at the Queen’s Hall in London the following year, her playing was described as ‘impulsive’. At another recital at the Aeolian Hall in London where she played Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in G major Op. 31 No. 1 her tone was described as ‘coarse’. It would appear that Novello was not always in control in public and that her playing could become exaggerated. One critic noted that she ‘…is a pianist of sufficient technical accomplishment to do really good work if only her impulsive style were under better control’. Novello excelled in virtuoso repertoire, playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Saint-Saëns’s Variations on a theme of Beethoven for two pianos, the other part being rendered by a Duo-Art piano roll in performance.
Novello’s repertoire was predominantly Romantic and in 1926 she played both the Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 by Grieg and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 by Tchaikovsky in one concert at the Queen’s Hall conducted by Bruno Walter. According to one critic, ‘Mr Bruno Walter…led out those two well-proved battle-horses… on which Miss Marie Novello rode the tempest of her own creation. Hers is curiously stormy playing, full of gusts of hard tone and smudged passage work, yet containing poetical moments and commanding attention by its sheer impetuosity.’ If Novello seemed to be playing as though her life depended on it, there was a good reason, since by now she was already suffering from ill health. She died less than two years later from throat cancer at the age of only thirty.
Novello recorded for Edison Bell who promoted her as ‘Britain’s Premier Pianiste’. Her discs appeared on the company’s Velvet Face and Winner labels which were relatively inexpensive at the time. In fact, it would appear that Novello made many provincial tours, often playing in music halls rather than concert halls and her discs were made for and sold to a somewhat musically less discerning public. This is unfair for she certainly had some talent. Novello made one concerto recording, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor Op. 25 by Mendelssohn, in which she was accompanied by the Royal Symphony Orchestra and Joseph Batten. Other acoustic recordings include a fine account of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat and his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in which Novello does not display the ‘impulsive’ or ‘coarse’ characteristics one may have expected from reading her concert reviews. A disc of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 arranged for piano by Tausig is impressive for its tonal qualities even though the acoustic recording is poor.
Novello made some early electrical recordings for HMV at Hayes at 1925 and January 1926. Apparently none of these was published, but another session on 1 March 1927 (just fifteen months before her death) at the Small Queen’s Hall produced two sides that were issued. Novello plays a gavotte by Rameau and gives a fluent performance of the Étude de Concert in F sharp Op. 36 No. 13 by Arensky.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist