Landmarks of Recorded Pianism, Vol. 2

52075-2 (2 CDs)  | $ 36.00
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Landmarks of Recorded Pianism, Vol. 2
In this second volume of the series Landmarks of Recorded Pianism, producers Ward Marston and Gregor Benko once again select piano recordings of great historical significance. There are several broadcast items presented: “live” performances by Rosenthal of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, as well as Mark Hambourg playing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 and short selections from a Japanese broadcast by Ignaz Friedman, all of which expand our understanding of these pianists’ artistic contributions. Additional broadcast performances by Etelka Freund, Percy Grainger, and Reah Sadowsky, plus a unique broadcast of Grace Castagnetta improvising, are joined by commercial recordings of composer Federico Mompou and pianists Rosita Renard and Frank La Forge that have never been reissued before, as well as what is probably the earliest fortepiano recording, Arnold Dolmetsch playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. The volumes of this ongoing series will likely prove to be cornerstones of any library of historical piano recordings.

CD 1 (78:58)

Moritz Rosenthal (1862–1946)

1.Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor (Liszt-Rosenthal)10:44
 11 February 1929; New York City; Edison Hour Broadcast; unpublished
2.Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor (Liszt-Rosenthal)7:47
 16 April 1930; Berlin; (30473/4) Ultraphon F 486

Percy Grainger (1882–1961)

3.Introductory Remarks by Grainger 1:02
4.Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 (Bach-Tausig)8:44
5.Scotch Strathspey and Reel (Grainger)3:48
6.Irish Tune from County Derry (Traditional, arranged Grainger)3:31
 22 July 1953; Midwestern Music Camp recital at University of Kansas; unpublished

Federico Mompou (1893–1987)

7.Canción y Danza No. 1 (Mompou)2:52
 13 December 1929; Barcelona; (BJ 2830-2) Spanish HMV AA 172
8.Canción y Danza No. 2 (Mompou)3:01
 13 December 1929; Barcelona; (BJ 2831-2) Spanish HMV AA 172
9.Canción y Danza No. 3 (Mompou)3:05
 20 December 1929; Barcelona; (BJ 2863-4) Spanish HMV AA 175
10.Valse in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2 (Chopin-Mompou)2:38
 20 December 1929; Barcelona; (BJ 2864-1) Spanish HMV AA 177
11.Secreto (Mompou)2:23
 20 December 1929; Barcelona; (BJ 2865-2) Spanish HMV AA 177
12.Canción y Danza No. 4 (Mompou)2:29
 29 January 1930; Barcelona; (BJ 3027-1) Spanish HMV AA 175
13.Canción y Danza No. 6 (Mompou)3:15
 Late June 1944; Barcelona; (T6917-2) Spanish HMV private issue
14.Paisajes No. 1: La fuente y la campana (Mompou)3:34
 Late June 1944; Barcelona; (T6918-1) Spanish HMV private issue

Ignaz Friedman (1882–1948)

15.Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 (Chopin)6:37
 28 February 1933; London; (CAX 6733-1/6734-3) Argentinian Columbia 264968
16.Mazurka in B-flat, Op. 7, No. 1 (Chopin)2:11
17.Polonaise in B-flat, Op. Posthumous (Chopin)4:23
18.Song Without Words, Op. 67, No. 4, “Spinning Song” (Mendelssohn)1:50
19.Prelude in D-flat, Op. 28, No. 15, “Raindrop” (Chopin)5:03
 8 October 1933; Tokyo; Studio Broadcast; unpublished

CD 2 (79:54)

Frank La Forge (1879–1953)

1.Pasquinade (Caprice), Op. 59 (Gottschalk)3:14
 1 October 1912; Camden, New Jersey; (B-12420-4) Victor 45050

Rosita Renard (1894–1949)

2.Madrigal (Monteverdi-Alderighi)3:09
 17 December 1929; New York City; (E31524) Brunswick 41257
3.Feuxd’artifice, No. 12 from Préludes Book II (Debussy)3:07
 28 February 1930; New York City; (E32021) Brunswick 41257

Reah Sadowsky (1915–2012)

4.Transcendental Etude in B Minor, Op. 11, No. 10, “Lezghinka” (Lyapunov)7:33
 17 September 1944; New York City; WNYC Studio Broadcast; unpublished

Mark Hambourg (1879–1960)

Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 (Tchaikovsky)
5.I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso—Allegro con spirito17:52
6.II. Andantino semplice—Prestissimo—Tempo I6:31
7.III. Allegro con fuoco—Molto meno mosso—Allegro vivo6:54
 25 February 1955; London; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent; unpublished

Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940)

Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight” (Beethoven)
8.I: Adagio sostenuto5:07
 ca. 1933; location unknown; (19/18) Dolmetsch Recording No. 8

Etelka Freund (1879–1977)

Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” (Beethoven)
9.I. Allegro assai9:11
10.II. Andante con moto5:36
11.III. Allegro, ma non troppo—Presto7:52
 29 September 1951; New York City; WNYC Studio Broadcast; unpublished

Grace Castagnetta (1912–1998)

12.Improvisation on four notes (Castagnetta)3:47
 20 July 1944; New York City; Concert Broadcast; unpublished

 

•     •     •     •     •

Producers: Gregor Benko and Ward Marston

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris

Photographs: Gregor Benko

Booklet Coordinator: Mark S. Stehle

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Booklet Notes: Gregor Benko

Marston would like to thank the Recorded Sound Archive at the Thomas Edison National Historic Site, Curator Gerald Fabris, for providing the digital transfer of Moritz Rosenthal performing on the Edison Hour, CD 1, Track 1.

Marston would like to thank Jon Samuels for providing a digital transfer of Argentinian Columbia 264968, CD 1, Track, 15.

Marston would like to thank Jihoon Suk and Se-Hyun Kim for help in procuring the unique off-the-air disc of Ignaz Friedman’s Tokyo broadcast for the International Piano Archives at Maryland, CD 1, Tracks 16–19.

Marston would like to thank the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland, 
curator Donald Manildi, for providing the disc recording of Ignaz Friedman’s Tokyo broadcast, CD 1, Tracks 16–19.

Marston would like to thank Seth B. Winner Sound Studios, Inc. for remastering Ignaz Friedman’s Tokyo broadcast, CD 1, Tracks 16–19.

Marston would like to thank The British Library Sound Archive, Curator Jonathan Summers, 
for providing the digital transfer of the BBC Broadcast of Mark Hambourg, CD 2, Tracks 5–7.

Marston would like to thank Eugene Pollioni for providing the recording of Etelka Freund’s WNYC Broadcast, CD 2, Tracks 9–11.

Marston would like to thank John Bolig, Maxwell Brown, Frank Cooper, Carsten Fischer, 
Jolyon Hudson, Jay Reise, and Akiko Turley for their assistance with this CD set.

Since the first volume in this series was released, voices have been heard asking, just what is a landmark recording anyway? Various dictionaries and other reliable sources have yielded this condensed definition:

A landmark is recognizable as conspicuously standing out, something that might be of interest due to notable features of historical significance.

One person’s landmark is another’s enigma, so responsibility for the choices made must fall on the producers, Ward Marston and myself. Rather than simply using the designation Landmarks as a rubric for presenting orphan recordings, it seemed that choice of what to include also could serve historical purposes, illuminating themes and conclusions. Some of these recordings provide evidence for at least two important areas of historical inquiry and discussion: how differently did pianists play before the Second World War, and how differently did those pianists play in live venues when compared to their playing for commercial recordings?

In the notes for Volume One, I lamented that no publication remained definitive for long, citing as an example Rosenthal’s 1939 Chopin waltz recording we were presenting that had surfaced only after the 2013 publication of “The Complete Rosenthal” on the APR label. Historical recordings of importance are still being discovered! Just months later we have yet another “new” Rosenthal recording, and it is indeed important.

CD 1:

MORITZ ROSENTHAL (1862–1946)

In 1929 Thomas Edison’s youngest child, Theodore Edison, was working for his father as a lab assistant and researcher, attempting to develop long-playing vertical-cut recordings. He decided to record an hour-long broadcast of a radio tribute to his father on the old man’s eighty-eighth birthday; that Edison Hour was intended to be the first in a regular series of Edison broadcasts. Theodore entered the details in his experiment book: “2/11/29 Experiment #185A 300 thread 30 RPM .00379 stylus part of the Edison Hour Station WJZ … (R81 tube in power pack went Democratic; caused by 8 mf condenser blowing) …”

The recording that resulted is an undisputed landmark in the history of radio and of recordings. According to Elizabeth McLeod on the website Documenting Early Radio: “Approximately forty minutes of the program were recorded on two 30-rpm vertical-cut ‘Rayediphonic’ discs—an experimental long playing modification of the Edison Diamond Disc system which recorded thirty minutes per side—but an electronic failure in the recording amplifier made it impossible to record the entire program.”

Those “Democratic” technical difficulties chronicled by Theodore resulted in an imperfect recording of some of Rosenthal’s part of the broadcast, with static interference, speed changes, interruptions in the flow of the signal, and other problems. Still, the complete performance by Moritz Rosenthal of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody was captured. (Ward Marston and Rich Harris have worked hard and long to correct and alleviate the problems with the original recording.) Apparently Rosenthal’s performance of Lyadov’s “Musical Snuff Box” from the broadcast has not survived. The announcer proclaimed that the pianist would soon record the Liszt work for the Edison record label. He did record several works for Edison a few weeks later, but not the rhapsody as announced.

Amazing as some of Rosenthal’s recordings are, it has always seemed to me that none of them captured more than hints of his legendary virtuosity as it was described by those who heard him before he came to make records. In the Saturday Review, critic and composer Herbert Hughes wrote that, at the end of the nineteenth century, Rosenthal was “the most audacious of virtuosi, out to stagger humanity by the brilliance of his technical apparatus.” Hofmann heard Rosenthal in Berlin in 1892 and said the playing actually frightened him. One critic at that concert wrote that something “wild had happened,” another that Rosenthal’s “stamina and dexterity defy imagination.” After a Rosenthal recital they had attended together, Anton Rubinstein told Hofmann: “I never knew what technique was until I heard Rosenthal.” Later Hofmann told an interviewer: “Rosenthal, who was unquestionably one of the greatest technicians, once said to me: ‘I have found that the people who claim that technique is not an important thing in piano playing simply do not possess it.’” A certain exalted idea of technique was associated with the younger Rosenthal. There is individual style to technique, so much more than mere fast and loud. Now we know a bit about what that was in Rosenthal’s case; we have recorded evidence that provides a glimpse of the wild and frightening Rosenthal of the past.

In the commercial recording made ten months later there is less scratch from the recording process, but Rosenthal plays with much less interest, and is definitely in a more subdued mood. The live version is three minutes and twenty seconds longer, but not because the performance is slower. Obviously the two sides of a twelve-inch commercial recording limited the time available, cramping expansive ideas. But it also seems to have cramped his style, for the broadcast performance exhibits features of piano playing almost entirely absent from the commercial recording, quite irrespective of timing. In this performance, Rosenthal made the piano dance tipsily, using an arsenal of effects (some will call them tricks) of emotional expressivity, accents, individual tone colors, imaginative rhythmic explorations, adding passages, making the piano growl, painting with a larger dynamic range that builds to something terrifying. During the big “Cerveza Rheingold” tune he smacks the keyboard with his right hand, but at no point is his tone glassy or ugly. Astonishing, breathtaking and exhilarating, but not everyone will love it. (Once at a Carnegie Hall recital, when Rosenthal added some scales in a performance of the rhapsody, a man actually had to be removed by ushers for shouting “Is this necessary?”)

Is he desecrating the composer’s wishes with all this added stuff, or would Liszt have approved? This is Rosenthal’s personal response to a musical world that was still living for him, an assertion of his individual will. As musicologist and critic Richard Specht wrote in 1906, “Nietzsche especially would have enjoyed Rosenthal’s art … fascinating and proud, it does not insinuate with flattery, but rather conquers one with iron …”

•     •     •     •     •

The recording engineer for Rosenthal’s Edison sessions was John Loesche, to whom the pianist dedicated the photo reproduced here.

PERCY GRAINGER (1882–1961)

Grainger’s 1931 commercial recording of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has justly been held up for decades as one of the great historic piano recordings, even if Tausig’s transcription is decried. Here he is twenty-two years later in a concert performance of the same work, prefaced by his short speech about Bach. He’s lost little in the way of technique at age seventy-one, exhibiting undiminished virility and drive, as well as some unique pedaling, and achieves grandeur in the concluding pages. He did not commercially record his “Scotch Strathspey and Reel” (composed originally for four male voices, on the shanty “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?”), while he did make an earlier recording of his musical thoughts on “Danny Boy”, the Irish Tune from County Derry.

FEDERICO MOMPOU (1893–1987)

Piano tone, the individual pianist’s unique “touch,” was once the first thing in consideration of any pianist. As late as 1933 it was still being written about as a “personal emanation which the pianist communicated.” A beautiful tone was most desired, and no one thought any other quality of piano sound should, could or would be attempted, or promoted. That was before musical progress moved us away from that ideal and now it is not noticed much anymore. In 1941 a reporter asked Josef Hofmann if the idea of a pianist’s touch was actually only a myth, and he replied “You can hit a single note with an umbrella end, but in a group of notes—hah, touch is the whole thing. When touch is a myth, playing will be barren, and every player sound the same.”

Today many music lovers, I think, have never actually heard a truly beautiful piano tone. There’s plenty of it to be heard on historic recordings (and, yes, also from a few living pianists), but it would be difficult to decide which recordings had captured the most beautiful piano tone of all. Certainly the extremely rare, almost unknown earliest discs of composer Federico Mompou playing his own compositions (and a Chopin transcription) recorded in Barcelona ninety years ago, plus one double-sided private disc he made about 1944, are contenders for the palm. It was a certain kind of intimate sound—softer but focused piano sound—that so attracted him. Hearing Gabriel Fauré play a recital about 1902 influenced him for the rest of his life, and it is probable that we can hear echoes of Fauré’s touch in Mompou’s playing. Mompou adored Chopin above almost all other composers, and he would have heard much beautiful piano tone in the performances of Chopin in recitals he attended in Spain and France before World War One. He recorded some of his compositions again on a monaural LP for EMI, then in 1974 he recorded most of his solo piano works in stereo for Ensayo. Despite the scratch from the poor-quality shellac, these early discs captured him at his height, preserving one of the most finished and penetrating piano tones ever. Probably no performer will ever make a better case for these mysterious, quiet compositions.

IGNAZ FRIEDMAN (1882–1948)

Friedman recorded Chopin’s “Heroic” polonaise twice, first in London in March 1927, then again for English Columbia, in 1933. The earlier recording, one of his most exciting discs, captured an interpretation that could be described as swashbuckling, and it has been reissued several times. Some typical comments (harvested from the Internet) about that 1927 version include: “… unchained … exuberant … over the top … naughty … willful … outrageous … absolutely eccentric and absolutely wonderful … overwrought … spasmodic … too emphatic … erratic … tacky … not very good.”

For whatever reason, the second recording, made six years later, was issued only in Argentina and the disc is a great rarity. We are left to speculate why the playing on the 1927 version is so unbuttoned, while the 1933 version is comparatively “buttoned up,” and then why the later record was so little exposed. This rare 1933 recording has only been reissued once before, in an inferior transfer, so we present it here as a prelude to the big Friedman news—a recording taken from a broadcast in Japan.

Friedman visited Japan in October and November 1933 and played many recitals in various cities. He also made this broadcast, part of which was recorded by an amateur on an early home recording apparatus. His first recital in Tokyo took place on October second—he played five recitals in the city on five successive days. At the fourth recital, on October fifth, he performed the Appassionata Sonata. He rested on October seventh, then played the broadcast recital for Japan’s Nippon Ho¯so¯ Kyo¯kai (NHK) public radio station on October eighth. The broadcast included the Mendelssohn “Spinning Song,” which he did not record commercially, and the Appassionata Sonata, which unfortunately is not present. If it was recorded by the same unnamed hero who recorded the remainder of the broadcast, that portion of the recording has not come down to us. Our guess is that the complicated details of recording a three-movement work on a seven-minutes-per-side disc were more than the recordist wished to tackle, and that perhaps only the short works were recorded.

The Victor Recording Company had introduced pre-grooved plastic discs in late 1930 as a component of their earliest product for making recordings at home. A special wide, blunt recording stylus was guided along by the pre-grooved record and it embossed the existing groove with the wave patterns of the incoming signal. But this big Friedman news is not unmixed, and it must be moderated with a sad detail. The recording is like a diamond that comes with a curse, in that although it is genuine, and it is Friedman playing, the sound is dreadful and “over-recorded,” for the original disc was made with the gain set too high. That recordist in Japan (all honor to her or his memory) was not an expert, and inadvertently turned the volume knob too high, overloading the amplifier in the recording apparatus, pushing it beyond its limits, clipping and distorting the sound. That distortion cannot be removed with any method of restoration.

Despite the best efforts of Seth Winner and Ward Marston who, together, were the restoration engineers for the Friedman broadcast, it is not pleasant listening. That said, for many it will not be difficult to hear what Friedman was doing. The recording documents him highlighting inner voices and in general playing with more freedom, bravura, outgoing imagination, and with even more elasticity than is revealed on most of his commercial records. These are not dull and sober readings. Perhaps someday technology will advance to the point where sonic distortion can be mitigated or even removed. The original disc will be available at the International Piano Archives in Maryland for new restoration. Until then we thank I.P.A.M. for acquiring this disc at auction in Japan (at a dear cost), and making it available to the world that cares.

CD 2:

FRANK LA FORGE (1879–1953)

Born in Rockford, Illinois, Frank La Forge was a prodigy whose astonishing musical memory and uncanny ear showed itself from his earliest days. At the beginning he could play almost anything he had heard, “by ear” as described by the English idiom. Like Saint-Saëns, Hofmann, and a select few others, he remembered every note he ever heard and most often performed without consulting the score. Later he accompanied many great singers in literally thousands of songs, as well as played the entire piano repertoire, from memory. A creature of a different time, La Forge wrote that performing should be spontaneous, separated from any study of the score, too much of which he thought stifled musical imagination. He started his musical career as a boy soprano and was interested in and involved with the art of song and singing all his life. He heard soprano Sissieretta Jones, known as the “Black Patti,” sing a tenor aria from Il Trovatore at one of the first concerts he ever attended. The first great pianist he heard was Teresa Carreño. In his autobiography La Forge remembered: “She was beautiful and looked very much like Lilli Lehmann. On this occasion, she wore a green dress, low cut and decorated with medals from all over the world. Her arms and neck were painted a bright pink, and her black hair was short and curly. I shall never forget her rendition of Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ and also Gottschalk’s ‘Pasquinade’! Carreño had been a pupil of Gottschalk and she rendered this well-known composition with tremendous success.”

La Forge went to Vienna in 1900 to study with Leschetizky, as well as harmony and counterpoint with Joseph Labor. La Forge wrote about Labor (whose unique recording appears on Volume One of this series): “It was said he knew every note of Bach’s music by memory. Practically all blind musicians have great memories, but his was phenomenal! He was interested in American piano music but did not concede much in its favor. After hearing a piece, he would tell one exactly what measure and what progression he did not like. It was uncanny.” La Forge tells of Leschetizky’s almost violent temper with most of his students, but that he was fortunate to be a “pet” of the master. Also of concerts Leschetizky staged for the students: “… sometimes it would be Katharine Goodson, the great English pianist, or Mark Hambourg, whom Leschetizky loved above all his pupils. But once, Herr Professor said, ‘I have a great surprise for you, which I have been keeping a deep secret.’ This time it turned out to be Ignaz Friedmann [sic]. He was a tremendous artist …” It was during his study with Leschetizky that La Forge determined to concentrate on working as an accompanist. Leschetizky scoffed at this idea, but later, after hearing La Forge accompany Marcella Sembrich in Vienna, admitted he was wrong, and told La Forge “You are right; accompanying is a great art and the field of the solo pianist is more difficult day by day.”
La Forge went on to have one of the most successful careers ever for an accompanist and coach, famous and much respected for his work with singers Johanna Gadski, Sembrich, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Marian Anderson, Lawrence Tibbett, and many others. He died while performing at the piano, at a dinner for the Musicians Club of New York.

La Forge recorded several pioneer piano discs for the Victor Talking Machine Company starting in 1906, as well as dozens of records accompanying famous singers. His 1911 record of the Chopin D-flat Nocturne and the slow movement from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto recorded the next year are among his most fascinating, along with this Gottschalk record. While not a profound composer, Gottschalk is an important American one. His works should probably be performed in the style he played himself, but what was that style? There is little recorded evidence of a tradition, although there were three recordings made for Pathé in Lisbon in 1905 by a pianist connected to Gottschalk, Lucien Lambert; they have yet to surface. The most interesting recordings of his music from modern times have a certain jauntiness, but hardly hint at subtlety or anything complex. La Forge’s “Pasquinade” is so different from other recordings of the music of Gottschalk that it seems to come from a different musical universe. It is piquant, but somehow chaste. Played at a measured tempo with much varied, beautiful coloring, he found opportunities for subtle effects and tonal shadings no one else on records has divined, which seems to me to elevate the music considerably, from the salon to slightly higher realms.

ROSITA RENARD (1894–1949)

Rosita Renard died in her native Chile from encephalitis on 24 May 1949, her husband Otto Stern and friend and colleague Claudio Arrau at her bedside. She was only fifty-five. It was just four months earlier, on January nineteenth, that she had played her sole Carnegie Hall recital, a triumphant occasion. Today she is immortal because that recital was recorded, preserving her live playing, an impetuous pianistic force of nature, a modern Teresa Carreño. The recording shows that there was something titanic while, somehow at the same time, restless and searching in her unique musical and pianistic makeup. She had made some rare commercial recordings two decades earlier, and those show a more careful kind of playing, but still with great personality. Copies of her American Brunswick records are hard to come by, and one of them, presented here, is so rare it was unknown until recently. Debussy’s “Fireworks” is not a polished sheen of surface glitter but something more imaginative, even granular, in her recording. Renard’s friend, the Italian composer and pianist Dante Alderighi (1898–1968) made this simple but effective setting of a Monteverdi madrigal.

REAH SADOWSKY (1915–2012)

Sadowsky was a prodigy born in Canada into a family of Ukrainian musicians who soon moved to San Francisco. At age fourteen she began studies with Isabelle Vengerova at the Curtis Institute of Music, then in New York with Alberto Jonas, and at the Juilliard School she continued studies with both Josef and Rosina Lhevinne. A successful international career followed but her life was peripatetic, for she married and constantly relocated with a professor of Spanish who worked for the State Department and held successive residencies in cities all over the world. In 1980 she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area where she continued to perform, a beloved presence on the city’s musical scene. To celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday, she played Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album. She performed this Lyapunov etude at her New York debut on 4 November 1945. The New York Times critic Noel Straus (a piano specialist and mentor to Harold Schonberg) praised her “sensitive control of tone … deftness in matters of tinting… polished technique and her imaginative projection.” This broadcast performance was most likely played on a small grand piano in the radio station’s studio, but perhaps provides a better idea of Sadowsky’s art than do her few commercial discs recorded a year later for the obscure American “Prize” label.

MARK HAMBOURG (1879–1960)

Mark Hambourg’s commercial recordings, made between 1909 and 1935, comprise about 150 of the 800 compositions in his repertory. He recorded a lot for a pianist of his time, but few of his recordings seem to comport with the reviews he received for his live performances for decades over and over, comparing him
to Anton Rubinstein. Hambourg’s once-great reputation has been difficult to accept in our day, for most of his records do not show much that is special, and reissues of his 78s have consequently been scarce. A review by Richard Masters of a recent Hambourg reissue called many of his 78s “infuriating.” How then can we understand Leschetizky’s comment that
he loved Hambourg “above all his pupils?”

I think one way is to remember that Leschetizky claimed Anton Rubinstein was a greater pianist than Liszt, and that, until recently, we had to accept the comparisons between Hambourg and Rubinstein on faith, for his recordings did not hold up. No longer.

Obviously Hambourg’s commercial recordings, and the few sound films he made late in life, could not represent his playing accurately, or even adequately. It seems he was not able to shed his inhibitions when recording or making films. Now we can reconcile all that with this recording of a live performance which confirms his great reputation with aural evidence. Jonathan Summers, Classical Music Curator of the British Library, discovered it in a collection of reel-to-reel tapes donated to the library by Frank Hardingham and his family, and to them we must be grateful. As Mr. Summers has written on his blog, the recording is “… of great historical importance because it rewrites the history of a career of one of the great pianists of the twentieth century … It is very similar in conception to his 1926 commercial recording (although in 1955 he had better support from Malcolm Sargent) and contains the same unusual features—the echo effect in the cadenza to the first movement, and the slowing of the waltz section of the Prestissimo in the second movement. The 1955 performance is far superior and … it restores Hambourg’s reputation as one of the great pianists of the first half of the twentieth century.”

In one of his books Mark Hambourg wrote: “… Rubinstein made an immense impression on me, boy though I was, and I have never forgotten the power of his personality, the magic of his touch, and the grandeur of his interpretations … it was awe-inspiring.” Harry L. Anderson (1910–1990), magnificent pianophile, heard Hambourg play the Liszt E-flat concerto in London during World War Two, and in 1960 wrote: “He was considered to be the most ruggedly individual of them
all … his manner at the keyboard was
imperious … The opening octaves swept in with a roar … with a majesty of effect … The most distinctive feature of the uninhibited Hambourg was the almost improvisatory freedom which he combined with the grand manner. Both had their precedent in Liszt but Hambourg, insofar as he needed a model, found it in Rubinstein … When Rubinstein came to Vienna, he liked to play cards with Leschetizky in the evenings, sometimes with Hambourg at his elbow as a mascot …”

Anton Rubinstein’s reputation today is misunderstood, resting on the mistaken idea that his playing was mainly about torrents of sound and technical feats of derring-do, often collapsing as he attempted them. This lopsided idea of his art omits thoughts of the supreme delicacy which combined with his forceful playing. Francesco Berger wrote that Rubinstein’s touch was liquid, like “the ‘liquid light’ of the planet.” Rachmaninoff and Hofmann both remembered more his imagination, improvisatory spontaneity, unending poetry, his varied and beautiful tone, and also with Hambourg, the grandeur of his interpretations. We can actually hear at least some of those qualities in Hambourg’s playing here.

There is hardly a page here without something unexpected, something different and beautiful, as if he were composing while playing. So what if there are wrong notes in the first pages (another reminder of Anton Rubinstein?) In places the hidden meaning of running passages is revealed through Hambourg’s insight for what seems like the first time. Chains of chords melt into liquid tone colors, virtuoso runs unfold into poetry, previously overlooked melodies are highlighted, while quiet passages are thoughtful and contemplative. Not for Hambourg the pile driver conception of the concerto, now the usual model. Technical feats are present, but not omnipresent; rather, there are so many new sounds, so varied a palette of tone colors, a second movement as if we had never heard it before, filled with unique ideas and a different kind of poetry. Hambourg was helped with an amazingly flexible accompaniment from conductor Sargent. Almost certainly this recording will feature prominently in future courses in performance practice, for it is treasure trove of insight into how music was performed in the culture still alive at the time of the composer.

ARNOLD DOLMETSCH (1858–1940)

This is probably the earliest recording ever made on an “original” fortepiano, performed by Arnold Dolmetsch, one of the giants of the twentieth century revival of early music and performance style. It is one of a group of recordings made about 1933 of various Dolmetsch family members, performing on early instruments, with only the one piano recording. The label states that Dolmetsch’s performance was recorded by two of his students, Hugh Goff and Leslie Ward. It is said that the piano used for the recording dated from 1799, and we can presume that it was restored to playability by the Dolmetsch studios, but curiously, the maker of the old fortepiano was not named, nor has the identity been established since. The choice of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata was most likely to demonstrate that one could hold the pedal down throughout the entire movement, as Beethoven specified, but only on an old piano with shorter sustaining power could one achieve the subtle effect of the tones melting into one another. On modern pianos this would result in huge smears. We have asked Frank Cooper, harpsichordist, pianist, and Professor Emeritus of Musicology at Miami University, to contribute the following:

That Arnold Dolmetsch was preternaturally musical at the keyboard was established decades ago by his recorded performances on the harpsichord and, particularly, on the clavichord. Ezra Pound caught the scent, declaring, “I have seen the Great God Pan and heard him. His name is Arnold Dolmetsch.” Dolmetsch’s sole pianoforte recording is a conjury of an image-in-sound, through one of the repertoire’s most hackneyed pieces, the Adagio sostenuto which opens Beethoven’s 1802 Sonata quasi una
fantasia in C-sharp minor
. Poet-critic Ludwig Rellstab, by the inadvertent remark that it reminded him of the way the moon shone on Lake Lucerne, planted the idea of what English speakers call “Moonlight.” Thus, a part of an utterly abstract musical grouping of three movements found itself nailed to the cross of extra-musical pictorial reference of the sort allied to Nineteenth Century Romanticism.

In its time stranger than anything for the piano that Beethoven had yet released to the public, the alla breve movement is marked, phenomenally, “You must play this piece most delicately and without mute.”, and between the first measure’s two staves, “ever pianissimo and without mute.” The mute mentioned is the damper mechanism, operated by knee lever(s) or a pedal. An effect used sparingly by Beethoven’s former teacher Joseph Haydn in a piano sonata, it here is intended uniquely for the whole of the movement. Beethoven’s single instruction is that the dampers be raised apparently throughout (not that they merely be used, which would imply moving them up and down). There should be a mysterious lingering of every tone. The other salient feature of his instruction is that the first movement is alla breve, not 4/4. The half note is the pulse, not the quarter.

Four lines of music are notated: two in the bass, usually as octaves; one mostly in the tenor-alto range but vaulting climactically into the soprano twice, ever in triplets; one, noticeably the melody, in the alto-soprano range. Six times, six notes of the same pitch launch phrases with a dotted-rhythm motif that is instantly recognizable. This factual description conveys little of what Beethoven fashions—not melody and accompaniment but four-part counterpoint so flexibly treated as to commingle in unity, perfect vertically and horizontally. It is Beethoven’s intricate interplay to which Dolmetsch responds, a prophet in revelation.

Informed by performance tradition stretching more than three hundred years before, Dolmetsch does not sound the notation’s verticalities simultaneously, but apart—thus to enable the ear to follow Beethoven’s lines. Without doubt, Beethoven’s instruction about the dampers allows overtones of all elements to collect as an aura surrounding his fantasy in counterpoint and renders homogeneity of affect—yet another of his bolts of genius.

ETELKA FREUND (1879–1977)

Etelka’s brother Robert Freund, born in Budapest in 1852, was a talented pianist who studied with Moscheles, Tausig and Liszt. He became a professor at the Zurich conservatory at the astonishingly early age of twenty-four and had a minor career as a performer. Ernst Paur wrote in 1895: “His performances are very much admired for their refinement and warmth of expression.” Robert Freund was especially close to Busoni, who wrote to him that he was “Among the chosen few upon whom I could have relied as artists and human beings.” The two agreed on most points, although Busoni could not share Freund’s enthusiasm for Johannes Brahms, another of Robert’s great friends. Busoni to Robert, 5 July 1908: “… I know how fond you are of this great composer; I am irritated by his facility and his Germanism … according to my ideals, only in the introduction to the finale of the C minor symphony is music to be found.” Robert was twenty-seven years old when Etelka was born; she too was a pianist, also a prodigy, and she benefitted greatly by being Robert’s little sister, gaining entrée to the highest levels of musical aristocracy in Europe, although her playing seems to have been very different from her brother’s. She also had a modest career, which she interrupted in 1910 to raise a family, then resumed in 1936 when her brother died, playing a few concerts in Europe. She moved to the United States after her home in Budapest was destroyed by the War when she was in her mid-sixties. She presented her first American recital in Washington, D.C. On the day of the recital (July 6, 1947) the Washington Evening Star reported “… Brought up in the intimacy of an artistic circle … already well known as a child prodigy in her native Hungary … admitted … to the famous Tonkünstler-Verein in Vienna while in her teens, proposed by Brahms … her Berlin debut with the Philharmonic Orchestra under Busoni’s direction … taught by the latter after completing her musical education, first under her famous brother … and later under Stephen Thoman and Eusebius Mandyczewski …” The same paper’s review the next day was positive but reads today more like a public relations press release than a review. Her second recital in Washington took place six months later, with Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata the big number on the program. The review in the Evening Star was less celebratory: “… inclined to rely on strength and velocity for brilliance of display and sometimes overreaches the mark in both … clarity is sacrificed for speed and the piano tone is forced beyond beauty in the effort toward sonority … extremes of soft and loud and with little intention towards the beautification of either …” She played the Beethoven Choral Fantasy with orchestra twice in Washington in the next months, also appearing on the radio in New York three or four times, but somehow she made little impression. Her son, Nicholas Milroy, an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army, went to some lengths to tout his mother (and his uncle), but Etelka did not join the ranks of pianists with successful American careers. She made recordings for the Remington label in 1953 and the New York Times took notice, reporting that her playing was “… interesting, with a big, spacious style and a notably sustained lines …” but that she had a few struggles with technique. Those Remington recordings, along with a few other broadcast and private recordings, are highly regarded by some pianophiles. (A few performances identified as her playing found on the internet are sonic forgeries. There is no such question about this performance.) Again, the artist probably performed the sonata on a small piano in the radio station WNYC’s studio.

GRACE CASTAGNETTA (1912–1998)

Born in New York, Grace Catagnetta was a prodigy who started playing compositions she had heard and improvising on them at age three. A 1921 article about her reported “She had but to hear a song once and she could reproduce it on the piano, and often improvise upon it, making the rendition doubly beautiful and twice as intricate. More than that, she could transpose the piece into any key requested, though she knew nothing of keys.” She subsequently studied first at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, then returned home and graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music. In interviews I conducted in the 1970s about the Curtis Institute in the old days, Shura Cherkassky, Jorge Bolet, Abram Chasins, and several other of her co-students were still raving about her talent for improvisation and the demonstrations of it that they had witnessed at Curtis. Many of the students there also improvised, but all told me that she was special in that department, in fact, none of them equaled her. Just before the Second World War she began an extensive and successful career as a pianist, composer and author. In 1940 she and Hendrik van Loon collaborated to produce a book about Bach, which was published with six records of her playing Bach works (subsequent volumes she coauthored with van Loon did not include recordings). At her New York recital in April 1942, at the end of her regular program, the audience was asked to provide themes upon which she could improvise, and the first theme suggested was the song, “Blues in the Night.” Critic Ross Parmenter reported in the New York Times: “If the artist had fears that what might strike some as a vaudeville stunt would injure her standing in the concert field, it can be reported they were needless … her improvisations were so resourceful and musical that they aroused the delighted wonder of the large audience … She started to improvise on the theme and under her hands it became the basis for a serious and romantic work that rose to a sensuous climax.” Someone in the balcony suggested the fate theme of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Parmenter wrote “she played it like an impressive fugue”, while she converted Yankee Doodle into “an exceptionally charming witty little piece.” A place on her recital programs for improvisations on themes from the audience became her specialty and formed a part of most of her subsequent recitals. Soon she was known as “The Queen of Improvisation.” Often she would ask for just four notes upon which to improvise, rather than a theme, for the themes supplied were most often well-known tunes and not very challenging. This broadcast recording captures an occasion when she was presented four notes, submitted by four different audience members, that seem to constitute a most unlikely basis for improvisation.

Perhaps some readers will not already know that improvisation was once integral to musical life, a vital part of the training musicians received, informing and supporting an underlying idea of spontaneity. It was often a weapon in the portmanteau of virtuosos. The practice has nearly vanished. Once everybody used to do it, ranging from genius level (the opening of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy) to silly child’s play, like the many versions of “Happy Birthday” in the style of various dead composers. Now almost no one knows how to do it or is expected to improvise. There have been few other recordings from the tail end of that long epoch when improvising flourished. One that is said to consist of improvisations is also of Grace Castagnetta. It has improvised versions of Christmas carols, played on the so-called Siena Pianoforte. They are pleasant, imaginative and some even masterly, but more notable is the fact that Mme Castagnetta seemed to be able to control that piano, make it “speak,” better than any of the other artists who
recorded on it. It can be heard on YouTube.

© Gregor Benko, 2020