, September 2007
The lives of the greats, both past and present, and a bewitching set of historic recordings
Most of us will at one time or another have encountered the compulsive "read" that won’t rest on the shelf until the last page has been turned. In the normal scheme of things one wouldn’t have expected even the most generous CD booklet to fall quite into that category but one that definitely does is Jonathan Summers’s superb "A-Z of Pianists" for Naxos. This is no ordinary CD annotation but a CD-size 861-page book boxed alongside a four-disc set of important and mostly rare historic piano recordings. Summers’s brief extends to an amazing 300 biographies which means that in addition to standard-fare "greats" such as Godowsky, Hofmann, Horowitz, Rachmaninov, Richter and the like, we’re treated to a plethora of present-day masters, people like Kissin, Pires, Thibaudet and Volodos. As well as the "biogs" (some of them very generous), Summers offers a thumbnail review of each career and a short list of selected recordings, particularly valuable with those many artists whose records are nowadays almost forgotten - names such as Alexander Borowsky, Robert Lortat, Alexander Michałowski, William Murdoch and Walter Rummel. The writing is fluent and concise, and the one questionable entry concerns the "enigmatic" CD legacy of Joyce Hatto: sad to relate the now notorious deception was rumbled too late for editorial change. Maybe for the next edition Summers will ensure that those pianists whose records were critically acclaimed as Hatto’s are included under their own names (some are in any case).
But for the purposes of "Replay" what matters most is the exceedingly well planned CD set, an absolute treasure trove. The alphabetically arranged contents open with Eugen d’Albert playing his own F sharp Scherzo in 1910 and end with Carlo Zecchi gliding through Liszt’s La legierrezza in 1928. Interesting that Claudio Arrau’s dizzyingly virtuoso Liszt Paganini Etude No 6 (1928 again) is followed by Wilhelm Backhaus in 1916 giving a bluff, largely unmannered sequence of Brahms Paganini Variations. Una Bourne and Vassily Sapellnikov play the same Tchaikovsky Humoresque (Op 10 No 2), just a year apart (1925, 1924), and while Bourne gives the more characterful performance, how wonderful to read Tchaikovsky’s effusive and generous comments on Sapellnikov’s playing while listening to one of his recordings. One of the major finds in the set is Monique de la Bruchollerie’s red-blooded and dramatic 1947 HNIV 78 of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, equalled only by Walter Rummel bringing Liszt’s Third Liebestraum to virtual boiling point in 1942 (the delicate melding of nuances in the coda is nothing short of miraculous). Robert Casadesus keeps Chopin’s First Ballade on a tight but active leash (1928), Samuel Feinberg focuses on exquisite detail in Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata (1950s) and there’s a devilish Ravel “Scarbo” from Samson François (1947). Only Horowitz compares with Emil Gilels in Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody (1940), a powerhouse rendition, and for sheer keyboard seductiveness, try Grigory Ginzburg in his own arrangement of the Waltz from Rozycki’s Cassanova (1940s-50s).
Myra Hess’s earlier recording of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring" (the one included by Naxos) was definitely her best and it’s interesting that even as early 1934 Clara Haskil’s playing - in this case of a brief Pescetti Sonata - displayed all the precision, control and subtle shading that charaterised her later records. A grand idea to represent that maverick keyboard wizard Mark Hambourg with a couple of heartwarming sea shanty arrangements (one of them "Shenandoah") and I’ve never heard the Glaswegian Liszt pupil Frederic Lamond sound more "on fire" or more technically assured than in the Auber- Liszt Tarantelle (all nine minutes of it, recorded in 1929). Listening to William Murdoch perform Chopin’s Third Ballade in 1927 made me momentarily crave a Murdoch Edition: the playing is so fluent and so utterly natural, though as I now recall not everything Murdoch recorded is quite as good as this. And while the prospect of hearing Raoul Pugno play Chopin’s F sharp Nocturne in 1903 wasn’t too enticing (the sound is pretty vague and watery), the performance itself is remarkable, the outer episodes uncommonly slow, the central section truly impassioned. Egon Petri is represented by a powerful 1951 Schubert-Liszt "Erlkönig", Francis Planté is heard as an octogenarian bringing audible authority to Redon’s arrangement of Berlioz’s “Mephisto’s Serenade” (Damnation of Faust) and that’s not the half of it. As to the rest - Szreter playing Chopin-Liszt, Solomon in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 15, Sirota in Petrushka’s"Russian Dance", Viñes in Debussy’s Poissons d’or (which was dedicated to him) and so on - there are so many memorable moments to savour, one hardly knows where to start.
The transfers (by Ward Marston) are firstrate; as historical anthologies go, this has to be among the best-planned and the best-annotated. No piano buff worth the label can possibly afford to be without it.