LEV POUISHNOFF (1891 - 1959)
Lev Pouishnoff showed musical aptitude from the age of three and at the age of five gave two public concerts. When he was only nine years old his father died, and the family moved to Kiev where he attended school and joined the State Opera Company at the age of fourteen. Apparently, it was the great Russian bass Chaliapin who suggested that Pouishnoff go to the St Petersburg Conservatory to study piano with Annette Essipov. By this time, he was already sixteen; and he also studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatole Liadov and Alexander Glazunov, graduating with a Gold Medal.
At the age of twenty Pouishnoff toured with the great violinist Leopold Auer, took a position at the Conservatory of Music in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), and during these few years preceding World War I, toured Europe giving many concerts. The Russian Revolution forced him into exile and he escaped to Persia, where he became the first pianist to tour that country. After difficulties re-starting his career, Pouishnoff decided to settle in Paris; but the audiences of 1920 there were not enthralled with him and so he went to London, where he played five recitals at the Wigmore Hall during February and March 1921. The first recital was of Bach and Beethoven, while others were of Schumann and Chopin and the ‘modern Russians’ Rachmaninov and Scriabin.
In September of the same year a Prom concert at the Queen’s Hall prompted one critic to write, ‘Liszt’s Pianoforte Concerto was played in brilliant style by Leff Pouishnoff; it was a performance marked by its dynamic power, its accuracy and fire.’ Pouishnoff appeared as soloist over the next few years in London playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23: ‘With M. Pouishnoff in the solo part we had an extremely alive and exhilarating performance. M. Pouishnoff has the control really to play in a big style, and he never lets his tone become rough and coarse, while technically he was remarkably clear and sure.’ The next year it was Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor Op. 44, a work not admired by a critic who wrote, ‘It is unfortunate that this fine pianist should again have been cast for a work so unworthy of his skill.’
As early as 1925 Pouishnoff was broadcasting for the BBC. The programme contained favourite works that would often feature in his recitals: Bach–Saint-Saëns’s Overture in D major, Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14, a Polka Op. 42 by Glazunov, Albéniz’s Tango arranged by Leopold Godowsky and short works of Chopin. Pouishnoff gained a reputation as a Chopin player and in 1926 gave a whole week of Chopin recitals at the Wigmore Hall. This was during the General Strike in Britain, but the success of the concerts led him to repeat them the following year.
After his successes in Britain, Pouishnoff made his first tour of America. In the mid-1930s he toured Australia and New Zealand, giving nearly a hundred concerts, and in 1938 was the first pianist of international stature to broadcast on BBC television when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto in E flat. During World War II he performed regularly throughout Britain as well as playing for the troops in Europe and the Middle East; but after the war his career began to go into a decline. In 1953 he gave a recital at the Royal Festival Hall where the programme included Haydn’s Variations in F minor and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor: ‘His pearly tone in the decorative passages, and sonorous cantabile touch, were pleasing, but Liszt’s Sonata is more than these and the reading was musically sketchy, especially in the dramatic sections.’ It would appear that towards the end of his career Pouishnoff’s technique became fallible and by the mid-1950s one reviewer accused him of having ‘…given up listening to his own playing’.
It was reported in June 1959 that Pouishnoff had died from barbiturate poisoning, although the finding of the inquest was Death by Misadventure. An even sadder postscript found his wife, a former pupil aged fifty, dead less than three weeks later of the same cause but with an Open verdict at inquest in this instance.
Although he was known for his interpretations of Chopin, Pouishnoff also played works by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Schumann and Debussy as well as Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Apparently, he gave the first London and Liverpool performances of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op. 40. Certain works appeared frequently on his programmes including the Bach Chaconne arranged by Busoni. His playing was refined and elegant with a luminous tone that was sometimes caught by the recording process.
Pouishnoff’s main recordings were made for Columbia who released some acoustic discs in the early 1920s including works of his own entitled Quand il pleut, Petite Valse and Musical Box; and a Bach arrangement by Saint-Saëns. There is also a Polka, Op. 42, by Pouishnoff’s friend Glazunov. He made electrical recordings of some of his popular encores including Godowsky’s arrangement of Albéniz’s Tango, Paderewski’s Caprice in G major Op. 14 No. 3 and Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey, as well as a scintillating Gnomenreigen by Liszt which he had previously recorded acoustically. For Schubert’s centenary year of 1928 Pouishnoff was chosen to record the piano Sonata in G major D. 894; this was the first recording of a complete Schubert piano sonata and it displays all of Pouishnoff’s best qualities; the luminous tone, elegance and suave control. There are also impressive examples of Pouishnoff playing works by Rachmaninov, including a very fine Prélude in B flat major Op. 23 No. 2 and Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4.
Between June 1948 and October 1949 Pouishnoff made five visits to HMV’s Abbey Road recording studios. He recorded the Nocturne in B major Op. 32 No. 1, the Waltz in A flat Op. 34 No. 1, two études and the Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 30 No. 4 by Chopin, returning to make five or six takes of most of the sides. The recordings still have Pouishnoff’s admirable traits of clarity, control and attention to detail, but lack the sparkle of the earlier recordings. Only the Chopin was issued by HMV, although also at these sessions, in August and October 1949, Pouishnoff had recorded Le Cygne by Saint-Saëns and a Schubert Moment Musical, both arranged by his friend Leopold Godowsky. However, perhaps most interesting of the unpublished sides would be that of Scriabin’s Two Poèmes Op. 32.
Pouishnoff made one LP at the end of his life for the Saga label. Entitled The Art of Pouishnoff, it contains favourite works of Chopin: the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61, Berceuse Op. 57, Barcarolle Op. 60, Rondo Op. 16, Fantaisie-Impromptu Op. 66 and Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 No. 2. There is some fine playing in the Barcarolle and Fantaisie-Impromptu, but that in the final work, Liszt’s Mephisto-Waltz No. 1, betrays Pouishnoff’s age.
Courtesy of Jonathan Summers