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A Buyer's Guide to Historic Piano Recordings Reissued on Compact Discs

By Donald Manildi (Curator, IPAM) and Farhan Malik

Anthologies

ANTHOLOGIES

The preceding section of this Buyer's Guide mentions a number of multi-pianist reissue collections of historic material, such as "The Pupils of Liszt" on Pearl 9372, "Legendary Piano Rarities" (Grieg, Saint-Saëns, et al) on Marston 52054, and IPAM's "A Multitude of Pianists" (IPAM 1206). What follows is a critical description of several other piano anthologies that have appeared in recent years, mainly on Naxos Historical CDs.

 

 

LANDMARKS OF RECORDED PIANISM

Two volumes have been released to date, each containing two CDs: Marston 52073 and 52075. Curated by Gregor Benko and Ward Marston, each is a highly miscellaneous collection that focuses on material of exceptional rarity as well as great historical interest. In the first volume we are given such items as the only recorded example of Josef Labor's playing (in a movement from Beethoven's Op.10/3), a live Rachmaninoff Concerto No.2 with Leff Pouishnoff, five hitherto unknown private recordings by Dinu Lipatti, Abram Chasins in an unreleased 1931 performance of Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses, and several unique Horowitz items.  Volume Two (a March 2020 release) contains Rosenthal's spectacular Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 that differs radically from his official recording, the complete 78rpm discs of Federico Mompou, a live Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 with Mark Hambourg in 1955, and most notably, Ignaz Friedman in a 1933 broadcast from Tokyo in works of Chopin and Mendelssohn. A third volume is in the planning stage. All are essential for serious collectors of piano material.

A-Z of PIANISTS (Naxos 8.558107/10)

This valuable package consists of four CDs and an 863-page book by Jonathan Summers. The CDs contain transfers (by Ward Marston) of 78-rpm recordings by 75 different players; many of these are not otherwise accessible at present. Among the latter are items by Monique de la Bruchollerie, Jacques Février, Jacob Gimpel, Lev Oborin and Pietro Scarpini. The accompanying book includes entries for those 75, plus 225 others, representing the mainstream of recorded pianistic activity by performers from both the past and present. The commentary by Summers offers biographical sketches, descriptive characteristics of each pianist's style, and an overview of their existing recordings. His remarks are concise, to the point, and generally but not completely free of factual errors. Inevitably there will be disputes over inclusions and omissions, but the book is a significant reference tool (although it cannot be obtained separately from the CDs) and the package as a whole is an ideal starting point for anyone interested in the history of recorded pianism. The more seasoned collectors should find a good deal of worthwhile material, too.

 

WOMEN AT THE PIANO (Naxos 8.111120, 8.111121, 8.111217)

Unfortunately the high-caliber production values of "A-Z of Pianists" are not reflected in this Naxos series, which ranks among the most poorly conceived and badly executed reissues in the current marketplace. The apparent raison d'etre of these discs is to offer a vast panorama of female pianists on recordings from 1926 to 1954. As of the early 21st century, it is debatable (to say the least) whether women performers need to be segregated into a special group by themselves, since their accomplishments easily stand on their own merits without reference to gender. These three CDs offer selections by over 60 women pianists, each being represented by what Naxos calls "a single exemplary work." (No duplication of repertoire is allowed.) Each pianist is therefore given one to eight minutes' playing time. As a result, the emphasis is entirely on quantity rather than quality, or on logical choices, or on appropriate depth of coverage. A number of the pianists included, such as Lucette Descaves, Una Bourne, Marie Novello, and Harriet Cohen, recorded copiously and many of their discs have not been reissued. By limiting each performer to just one work, a major opportunity has been lost to offer a broader perspective of their pianism. Far from advancing the cause of these important pianists, it could be argued that such paltry representation is an insult to their memory, since nearly all deserve fuller attention than this. Furthermore, it is more than likely that collectors hearing the virtuosity of, say, Emma Boynet or Reah Sadowsky will crave further examples by them. But the shortsighted design of this series precludes any such likelihood.

Several of the selections reveal a distinct lack of discrimination. For instance, Bourne made better records than the charmless, slapdash Paderewski Crakovienne included here. (This piece, by the way, is in B major, not B minor as both track listings incorrectly state.) Maryla Jonas, esteemed for her numerous Chopin discs, is represented by a perfunctory run-through of a piece by Handel. Ruth Slenczynska's Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude is uncharacteristically dry and less than accurate.

The audio restoration of these CDs reveals no better judgment than does the choice of material. The producers, Marina and Victor Ledin, along with "restoration mastering engineer" Anthony Casuccio, are responsible for a badly misguided attempt to provide what they call "a seamless listening experience." This blithely assumes that all listeners intend to hear these discs straight through, rather than focusing on one or a few specific items. Consequently, the individual tonal and timbral qualities of each pianist, instrument, and acoustical setting have been homogenized down to the lowest common denominator. Anyone familiar with a proper playback of the original sources will hear that they sound significantly brighter, more detailed and more vital than in these drab, soggy, heavily-processed transfers. Adding insult to injury, at least two items (Myra Hess playing Debussy's Poissons d'or and Aline van Barentzen in Falla's Andaluza) have been dubbed a half-tone sharp. Nor have the relative sound levels been consistently handled: Gaby Casadesus's Couperin follows the preceding track at a jarringly loud volume. What might have been a worthwhile survey (apart from any conceptual issues) has thus been thoroughly botched. If the objective was to truly honor important women pianists, this will only be accomplished through an intelligently-chosen roster of players, each being given an ample number and variety of recordings with professional-quality transfer work. (Some early publicity for this series mentions the prospect of no fewer than ten CDs in preparation. But as of mid-2008, the conspicuous absence of any further "Women at the Piano" releases suggests that good judgment has finally prevailed and the project has been abandoned.)

BACH PIANO TRANSCRIPTIONS (Naxos 8.110658 and 8.111119) JOHANN STRAUSS PARAPHRASES AND TRANSCRIPTIONS (Naxos 8.111226)

These compilations, like "Women at the Piano", are the work of Marina and Victor Ledin. Their names should serve as a warning to prospective purchasers that the transfers are likely to be submarginal in quality, and that proves to be the case again here. Heavy-handed digital processing and radical removal of surface noise are the defining characteristics, and the resulting dull, lifeless piano images are a misrepresentation of whatever was inherent in the original sources. One particular production blunder in the Johann Strauss anthology stands out. Alfred Grünfeld's Soirée de Vienne is included from a Russian 78 that the Ledins attribute to Jakov Fliere, and they even provide notes about him in the booklet. The label of the original disc, however, quite clearly states that Yakov Zak is the performer. Some of the selections are off the beaten path, such as those by Walter Rehberg and Stanislas Niedzielski, but again the inept transfer work militates against obtaining a proper measure of their pianism. Two earlier collections of Strauss waltz paraphrases on other labels (VAI 1019 and APR 5540) contain more substantial choices of recordings as well as significantly better transfer work. The two Bach CDs are filled with a great deal of generally familiar material (by players such as Rubinstein, Backhaus, Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Copeland, Gieseking, Fischer, Petri, and Gabrilowitsch) that is available in superior transfers on other CDs. There are a few rarer items, most of them by two-piano teams like Bartlett & Robertson and Luboschutz & Nemenoff.

 

EDVARD GRIEG: The Piano Music in Historic Interpretations (SIMAX PSC 1809)

This three-CD set was produced in Norway in 1992 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Grieg's birth. (Several items therein have been mentioned in the main body of this Buyer's Guide.) The discs contain a comprehensive survey of 78-rpm recordings of Grieg's solo piano works, beginning with Grieg's own 1903 Paris recordings for G&T. Although better dubbings of the latter discs can now be had on Marston 52054, thanks to more recent transfer technology, the Simax collection offers a great deal of rare and unusual material, including otherwise unobtainable performances by Percy Grainger, Rudolph Ganz, Mary Barratt Due, Robert Riefling, Ivar Johnsen and Kjell Bäkkelund. The transfers of these are acceptable or better, and the accompanying booklet contains extensive, pertinent historical information.

 

THE DAWN OF RECORDING: THE JULIUS BLOCK CYLINDERS (Marston 53011-2)

One of the most significant historical releases ever produced, this 3-CD set contains hitherto unknown recordings by numerous pianists, violinists and singers who were captured privately on Edison cylinders between 1889 and 1927. In 1889, a businessman named Julius Block became fascinated with Thomas Edison's cylinder recording device and arranged to transport one such device to Russia, where he persuaded many eminent musicians of the day to make recordings. The pianists included here are Josef Hofmann, Sergei Taneyev, Paul Pabst, Anton Arensky, and Egon Petri. Additional, non-piano material was later recorded by Block in Germany and Switzerland. These experimental recordings remained unheard for many decades until they were recently unearthed in St. Petersburg, transferred to the digital domain, and finally made available by the Marston label. They provide compelling evidence about 19th-century performance practices as well as invaluable documentation of many musicians who did not otherwise make recordings.