, February 2009
Years ago I bought a Pearl LP of some Paderewski performances, all recorded in New York in 1930. I was not terribly impressed, finding it pallid beside another Pearl issue of Ignaz Friedman that I bought at the same time, and did not explore further. I now see that, while you have to be a little selective over your Paderewski, he still has things to tell us.
Between the Pearl LP and the present issue there is one common item, one that seems common but is actually a different take of basically the same performance, and two pieces that are heard here in earlier acoustic recordings. So I’ll start with the common item, the Wagner-Schelling transcription, to get a measure of the transfer techniques involved. As collectors of historical piano records will know, the Pearl philosophy is to put the recordings onto LP/CD straight, pretty well as you hear them on a standard gramophone of the 1950s and 1960s that allowed you to play both 78s and LPs. The hiss level is high but the piano is very present. We seem to be right up close to the pianist.
On the rare occasions that I have been able to hear a 78 played on older equipment with a fibre needle, I have noted that the hiss is less intrusive, the sound mellower. You can argue two ways about this. You can say that modern equipment is picking up signals that were captured but could not be reproduced by the gramophones of the day, or you can say that the producers and engineers of the time had musical ears and tried to work it so that what their listeners heard was as much like the original as was then possible. Ward Marston evidently takes the latter view. I imagine he works with careful filtering, not an original machine with fibre needles, but what we hear is a relatively gentle hiss and a piano that we seem to hear from a seat in the concert hall rather than close up. The heavier passages of this arrangement sounded a little clumpy and overbearing in the Pearl version; here they emerge as pleasantly full.
Much has been written, too, about Paderewski’s style being irrevocably old fashioned, with its free rubatos and tempo changes, its splitting of hands and chords. Certainly, if you listen to the heavy rallentando near the beginning of the Beethoven movement or to the sudden spurt of tempo before the return to the original key about two-thirds through, you will get the idea of a highly romanticized Beethoven. On the other hand, you may rarely have heard the persistent triplets played with such an independent life of their own, the melodic lines so beautifully drawn, even the long bass notes acquiring a mysterious beauty. Certainly, Paderewski seems to have no doubt that the piece is about moonlight. The title was not Beethoven’s, but he surely intended a thing of beauty and it certainly is so here.
Similarly the Schubert. True to his generation, he finds none of the suffering that post-war interpreters have drawn from this music, yet there is a speaking quality to his very free phrasing and he seems unhappy only with the minor-key variation.
The Chopin pieces all deserve careful study. It may be noted that Paderewski’s Chopin is generally elegant and refined. There is none of the fiery passion which is sometimes passed off as authentically “Polish”. Though in truth the filmed version of him playing the op. 53 Polonaise – available on DVD in “The Golden Age of the Piano” – shows that his patriotic fires burnt strongly when need be. What is remarkable is the independence, not just of his two hands, but of every single voice in the texture. The separation of the hands and chords in the voluptuous duet that is the op.25/7 Etude, for example, is of no account when every line soars freely. My only doubts concern the other two Etudes here, particularly op.25/8, which were not originally published and seem a little heavy.
The Mazurka op.59/2 offers a comparison with the 1930 version on Pearl. Differences are minimal – evidently he didn’t change his basic view much – but the later one sounds just a mite more heavy-handed. He was, after all, 70 years old by 1930 and I get the idea that the earlier recordings are in general the best. In spite of Jonathan Summers’s contention in his notes that the electrical recordings—from 1926—were “the first recordings truly to capture Paderewski’s range of tone” I had no difficulty in appreciating the earlier ones. Indeed, the 1914 Nocturne is an exquisitely drawn performance in sound that comes across remarkably well for the date, as does the even earlier Schumann “Warum”, its upper voices curling their question marks around each other.
Outside Chopin, results are variable. Compared with Rachmaninov’s humorous but amiably eccentric version of the Mendelssohn, Paderewski could almost pass for a Mendelssohn stylist with his neat, sparkling semiquavers. Chopin interpreters do not invariably make good Liszt interpreters and the Etude here perhaps lacks grandeur and sweep. The light semiquaver work is nevertheless scintillating. This begs the question that Paderewski trained in a world where pianos had a lighter touch than the Steinways of the 20th century and seems happiest in those pieces—which include most Chopin as he conceives it—where he can evoke the earlier instruments.
The “Spinning Chorus” from the “Flying Dutchman” is one case where the 1930 version is preferable. In 1924 he managed to get it all onto one longish side. The remake probably stemmed from a realization that the result was brilliant but breathless. In 1930, allowing himself a minute extra, he conveys more sense of enjoyment. Moreover, the interventions of the Dutchman’s leitmotiv, brushed over in 1924, are allowed considerable poetry in 1930.
The Rachmaninov Preludes are an odd case. Paderewski shaves almost a minute off the composer’s own recordings of the C sharp minor, sounding doggedly matter-of-fact in the outer sections. Many are the tales of Rachmaninov, who had come to hate the piece, finally conceding it as an encore at his recitals and approaching the piano with a face as black as doomsday. Yet his three recorded versions, at least, distil the utmost in poetic gloom, without a hint of staleness. The G sharp minor is also read by Paderewski as a minor salon trinket, a sort of autumnal companion to Sinding’s “Rustle of Spring”, which he would probably have played much better. Again, Rachmaninov himself inflects the opening with inimitable, wistful poetry. These recordings were not issued at the time, so presumably Rachmaninov was spared hearing them.
The Debussy is pretty cavalier over dynamics and some other oddities suggest he insisted on playing from memory a piece he didn’t know all that well. A strange pause—a memory lapse? —on the last page does not appear in the Pearl version and it was only here that I noted that Naxos offer, in fact, the second of four takes. The Pearl, dated two months later, was presumably the one chosen for issue, though it, too, has its quirks. The performance is lively but lacks impish glee and sarcasm—did Paderewski not have a sense of humour? I seem to recall that the three other Préludes recorded at these sessions were more successful. Debussy was certainly pleased – many years earlier of course – to have them played by such a famous pianist.
Paderewski’s own “Melody in B” finds him on obviously congenial terrain, with singing lines and limpid textures. The famous—or infamous—“Minuet in G” fuels the suspicion that he did not really have a sense of humour, since you would have to be fairly self-important not to see the funny side of such a piece. There is an element of the same in the platitudinous address that concludes the CD. This should, however, be judged against the standards of such speeches at the time. It may also conceal more art than it seems since his hope that his “beloved Poland” and the United States would continue to be great free nations implies, without actually saying it, a swingeing criticism of the current American politics. For Poland had been enslaved to the Nazis for over a year and the USA had as yet not lifted a finger to help.
The notes by Jonathan Summers are extremely informative and well-balanced. I began by referring to an LP issue of Paderewski recordings that did not encourage me to investigate further. I think this one will make you want to hear more.
--Review by Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International, February 13, 2009