About this Recording
8.110680 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1/ CHOPIN: Etudes (Solomon) (1929-1930)

Great Pianists • Solomon (1902-1988)

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 • Solo works by Liszt and Chopin

Tchaikovsky dedicated his First Piano Concerto, Opus 23, to his friend Nikolay Rubinstein, the brother of the great pianist Anton Rubinstein. The brothers, both pianists, were instrumental in forming the musical education system in Russia. A family trait, however, seems to have been a lack of tact. Anton was known for his bluntness and so when Nikolay Rubinstein heavily criticized Tchaikovsky’s concerto, condemning it as unplayable, the composer changed the dedicatee to Hans von Bülow, who gave the first performance in Boston in 1875.

Although the story of Nikolay Rubinstein’s criticism of Tchaikovsky’s work is well known, it is worth remembering that he must have immediately realised the similarities between Tchaikovsky’s new concerto and that of his brother Anton’s Fourth Piano Concerto, written in 1864 but revised in 1872. It is also possible that he realised that Tchaikovsky’s work had the edge over his brother’s.

In the early days of the acoustic gramophone, before 1925, when the performers had to huddle around a recording horn, few large scale works were recorded in their entirety and often instruments like double basses, which could not be detected by the recording horn, were replaced by something far less subtle such as tubas. Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was the first piano concerto to be recorded complete in 1922 by Liszt’s pupil Frederic Lamond, but one of the most popular concertos, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, had to wait another four years before it was enshrined in wax. Leschetizky’s pupil Mark Hambourg made the first complete electrical recording of the concerto with Sir Landon Ronald conducting the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra for HMV on 6th September 1926, and this was released on their less expensive Black Label. An even cheaper ‘budget’ price version was recorded by the Broadcast Twelve label in 1929 with Maurice Cole and an unidentified symphony orchestra, conducted, although not credited, by house conductor Stanley Chapple. Chapple had already conducted a slightly abridged acoustic recording of the concerto with Vasily Sapelnikov, who had known Tchaikovsky and played the work many times under his bâton, in February 1926 for the parent company Vocalion. Of the Cole recording a reviewer in Gramophone magazine said, "One can perhaps scarcely expect subtlety for eight shillings. What we get is sensible work and passable orchestral tone, with the pianoforte’s part a good way the best of the bargain. Would it be better worth while to improve the orchestral tone, and charge a little more for the records — if that could be arranged? After all, we can scarcely expect a concerto for eight shillings. I am glad that interesting music is thus placed within the reach of poor people, but I am rather anxious about their getting, through the kind of orchestral work we can only expect for the money, wrong ideas of quality. Radio has already done much to spoil the ears; any music-lover must shudder at the reproduction of the majority of cheap loud-speakers, such as one hears being demonstrated in little side-street shops all over the country".

Solomon Cutner, who always used his first name for performing, was born in the East End of London in 1902 and had played the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto at his début when he was eight years old, the child prodigy’s career being steered and held firmly on course by his teacher Mathilde Verne, herself a pupil of Clara Schumann. During his prodigy years Solomon played a special piano constructed by Blüthner with keys that were narrower than normal in order to accommodate his child-sized hands. Not surprisingly, at around the age of fifteen he had had enough of being the sailor-suited prodigy, turned against the piano and asked Henry Wood what he should do. Wood’s advice was sound — that he should give up the piano for a time and retire from the stage. After two years of study in Paris with Marcel Dupré and Lazare-Lévy Solomon emerged in 1924 at the age of 22 and was hailed in Europe and America as a mature adult artist.

Solomon was only 27 when he made his first recordings for the Columbia company in 1929. These were not published but recorded again the following year. The Tchaikovsky Concerto was recorded at his second session on 30th November 1929 with the last three sides, which were unsatisfactory, being recorded again on 8th February 1930. Solomon, like his compatriot Clifford Curzon, was an English pianist with English sensibilities. Not for them was the barn-storming pianism of Rosenthal, Friedman or Horowitz. Their task was to serve the music and this they did whether it was Mozart or Brahms, Beethoven or Liszt. All of Solomon’s recordings show this appreciation for the music; the composer taking priority over the performer. A contemporary review of this recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto referred to Solomon’s ‘kindly skill’ stating that "I have often declared that for vulgar music a vulgar player is the only one to be considered; and Solomon is not vulgar." This is unfair, because the performance is deliberately not extrovert. One of the most interesting features of Solomon’s recording is the Prestissimo section of the second movement. The performing tradition of this section handed down to Mark Hambourg from his teacher Leschetizky, is to slow the tempo for the waltz section. Hambourg and Sapelnikov both play it as such because both artists had their musical performance roots in the late nineteenth century, but Solomon, even though of the next generation, also draws back the tempo. Today, with the influence of Horowitz, pianists play the whole section as fast as is humanly possible making musical nonsense of the whole. In fact, Solomon’s performance is most like Sapelnikov’s in eschewing empty vulgarity and presenting the work in a clear lucid fashion, giving himself time to shape phrases, make octave passages sound majestic and give an overall elegance to what has become an old war-horse. He could, of course, provide visceral excitement when necessary, as in the opening octaves to the fifteenth Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt, the most impressive of the solo records made for Columbia. Of the Chopin works he manages to make the A major Polonaise sound perfectly military notwithstanding the doubling of left hand octaves, and the F minor Fantasy is given a performance of true bravura and control.

Solomon recorded the Tchaikovsky Concerto again in 1949 for HMV, his recording company from 1942 until the tragically early end of his career, due to a stroke, in 1956. The pianist and writer Abram Chasins said of the later recording, "Solomon, in addition to being the one pianist faithful to Tchaikovsky’s rhythmic inspiration in the first movement, provides an expressive, sensitive, and urbane reading", and of his art in general says, "Solomon…..has a grand sense of momentum and musical design…..his playing has such proportionate grandeur that instead of seeming to lack power, he appears not to desire it. I can remember few performances from him that failed to produce something enchanting in the way of insight, elegance, or distinction."

© Jonathan Summers

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings.

Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

Producer’s Note

This release contains all of the issued recordings Solomon made for the Columbia label. They comprise his complete recorded output prior to 1941, when he was signed to HMV’s plum label.

The Tchaikovsky Concerto was transferred from the best sides of three American Columbia "Viva-Tonal" pressings, the quietest form of release for this set. None of the remaining recordings were issued in the United States, although I have been fortunate to locate laminated pressings of the all-Liszt disc and the Rakoczy March/Military Polonaise (the latter in an Australian copy).

There are a number of mechanical flaws in the original recordings. The Leggierezza, for example, was plagued with pitch instability throughout the side, which I have endeavored to correct; the Rakoczy March contains distortion, momentary signal loss and other noises inherent in the original master; and all of the non-laminated English Columbia pressings used for Tracks 8 through 12 have a basically higher level of surface crackle than the other discs. I have tried to avoid radical noise-reduction methods here so as to leave the piano tone as full as possible.

Mark Obert-Thorn

The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

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