MAUD POWELL (1867 - 1920)
Maud Powell was possibly the first American woman to gain an international reputation as a violinist. As was so often the case at the time, this was brought about by her extensive European training encompassing both the Franco-Belgian and German schools of playing. This said, her warm but restrained tone and serious, sensitive musicianship based on a thorough understanding of the music she played owed much, both technically and spiritually, to her connections with the classical German tradition and her study in two of its most important centres: Leipzig and Berlin. As a young student, Powell was notoriously disciplined, beginning her day at 6.30am with an hour’s practice before breakfast and developing her ‘Ten Practice Rules: Concentrate; Play in tune; Practise scales religiously; Practise slowly; Practise long bows slowly, slowly, slowly; Memorise everything; Keep in mind the structure of the composition; Play before people; Hear other violinists; Love your instrument as yourself’.
Her recordings, made from 1904 for the Victor Talking Machine Company, show eclectic tastes; she soon developed a versatility of technique and style commensurate with some of the newer compositions, including Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, with which she became associated.
That Maud Powell simultaneously embodied the ideals of the nineteenth century and also embraced newer trends is demonstrated by her recordings and her relationship to them. Powell’s discography is tremendously varied. Her recordings of Franz Drdla’s Souvenir (a highly popular piece at the time) as well as the famous Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs show that she tended towards standard repertoire from the early years of recording; these little pieces encapsulate the Romantic spirit and fit easily within the four-minute limit of the side of a single disc, and their range of dynamics and frequencies enabled successful reproduction with the acoustic technology available. Powell’s inclusion of her own arrangement of four American folksongs, including Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home and Old Black Joe show her characteristic patriotism, and a tolerance of more popular culture which characterised many other early recordings. At the same time, her 1915/1916 recording of Charles de Bériot’s Violin Concerto No. 7 represents more serious and large-scale repertoire, whilst her 1913 performance of Bach’s Bourrée, BWV 1002 owes a heavy debt, both in its inclusion and in its manner of execution, to her training with Joachim. This performance is remarkably chaste, the phrasing and general execution closely matching Joachim’s own 1903 recording. Elsewhere, Powell’s style is typical of what has since been seen as a transitional period in violin playing, and of a generation very much caught in the process of change. Whilst her playing embodies much freedom towards the notation as regards rhythm and phrasing, and a prevalent (but always beautifully executed) use of the portamento, she uses much more vibrato than Joachim, albeit discreet, relatively slow and narrow.
Maud Powell’s career involved, in fact, an interesting and prophetic relationship with the gramophone. On 8 January 1917 she gave a Carnegie Hall recital which, importantly, was based entirely on her recorded repertoire. The Victor Talking Machine Company capitalised upon her success, writing in its publicity material for this event:
‘Listen to Maud Powell’s violin. If you want to be transported to a heaven of delight by the pathos of a simple sweet song,—if you want to feel the uplift which an evening of aesthetic enjoyment gives, or if you want to feel a thrill of patriotism because a great, modest, unaffected, true and vibrant talent has been born in the Western Hemisphere—in short, if you want to find out how much can be got out of a fiddle, go—listen to—Maud Powell.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)