Expanding The Piano Files

I have recently started a Patreon page to help support my activities on this website, my YouTube channel, and my Facebook Piano Files page. [Detailed explanation follows – there’s a bullet point summary at the bottom of the page.]

The sad reality of the music industry now is that individuals like me who operate outside of the mainstream, focusing on highly specialized aspects of music such as historical piano recordings, have very few opportunities to earn income within an industry that is already financially challenged (my colleague Jessica Duchen reports at this link about the declining investment in classical music journalism). I might publish a magazine article or CD liner note once a year (2017 was an exception with 2 articles), or have a couple of lecture appearances, all of which amounts to very little income. Other than these unreliable and irregular sources of revenue, my music work is unpaid and is funded by my work in other fields. There was a period when radio and magazines regularly explored the pianists and aspects of comparative interpretation that I focus on, but that time seems to have come and gone.

However, we are fortunately living at a time when producers and consumers can have direct contact due to the non-physical, non-geographical nature of the internet. Enter a few well-chosen words in a search engine and you can access content that is of specific interest to you. However, it can be challenging for those who are producing such content to be financially remunerated for their work.

patreon logoThe Patreon website helps producers such as myself by providing a subscription platform that can provide income for work expended. While there is the option for payment to be given for each product – a YouTube video, blog post, or radio program episode – I have set my Piano Files page on Patreon for a flat-rate monthly donation to allow for more predictable budgeting for my sponsors. I currently have three reward levels – $1, $4, and $7 a month – as incentives to donate and support me increasing the volume of my activity with my daily postings on Facebook and on this website, and to cover expenses such as the redesign of this website and the Dinu Lipatti website.

I post a YouTube link with a description of the playing to my Facebook page every day of the year, with very few exceptions (I even did so daily when in hospital a few years ago). While it is a great pleasure to make these postings and this daily relationship with music brings me great joy, the fact of the matter is that searching for a recording on YouTube to feature, writing something about the performance, and then engaging with subscribers who post comments all takes time that is unpaid, so there is a limit to how much time I can realistically devote to it. I am of course happy to do these posts and will continue to do so – but in order to be able to add more substantive content to this website in the form of longer articles, podcasts, specialized YouTube uploads, I require some support.

If you break down the daily cost of a monthly donation, the value is evident: a $1 monthly donation would equate to between 3 and 4 cents a day; $4 is about 13 cents a day; and $7 is about 23 cents a day. As an incentive, subscribers get preview – and at times exclusive – access to specialized content: $1/month subscribers get preview access to YouTube uploads that I produce; $4/month subscribers get preview access to blog posts that will later be featured on this site; and $7/month subscribers get both exclusive and preview podcast-style radio programs that I record, featuring great recordings by some of the supreme pianists with my spoken commentary and analysis. You can donate anywhere between or even above these subscription levels to support my activities on Facebook, this website, YouTube, and elsewhere – any donation is helpful and appreciated! And you can also make a one-off donation if that appeals to you more by using the Paypal Donate button on the right-hand sidebar of this page.

Here is a sample of the first ‘podcast’-style program that I compiled, featuring ten great pianists. I have uploaded an episode devoted to Marcelle Meyer which is available for my $7/month subscribers and am currently preparing episodes featuring Solomon, Geza Anda, Joseph Villa, and Dinu Lipatti. Please note that your donations are to support my overall work and that I encourage all subscribers to purchase all of the commercially available recordings featured in these episodes – details of how to purchase recordings is given in each program.

Piano Files mockupI have thousands of subscribers on my Facebook page – over 8000 to be precise, although Facebook algorithm changes over the years have meant that many of them are surely not receiving updates, and recent reports indicate that this might be more challenging in the future. There are certainly several hundred very active subscribers who regularly click and post comments. While I realize subscriptions might not be within everyone’s means, if the most active members were able to commit to even a modest regular donation, it would go a long way to supporting the feasibility of the Piano Files website becoming a long-standing online resource to great pianists and their recordings.

The first order of business is updating this website from its current dated design and back-end structure to one that is more visually appealing and user-friendly. As you can see from even the first rendering by my new web designer (on the right), the prospect for an attractive streamlined website-online resource is very appealing! The price tag for this upgrade is $1500 – not much more than I paid for this site and the DinuLipatti.com website to be created several years ago. As the website becomes more attractive (and easier to read) and user-friendly for me and subscribers, it will be easier for me to set it up as an online reference point for those interested in the piano and its greatest performers.

I repeat that I will continue to make my daily Facebook postings and to do what I can on this website, and that there is no obligation whatsoever for anyone to make any donations – I am happy for what I do to be available. And simultaneously, the reality is that the greater the number of supporters on Patreon or via donations, the more content I will be able to create. If you regularly purchase books or magazines about music, as well as recordings, and enjoy what you hear and read on my various platforms, please do consider whether a donation or subscription can fit within your allotted entertainment budget.

To summarize:

Many thanks for your continued interest and support!

 

Magical Maryla

Maryla JonasThe Polish pianist Maryla Jonas is one whose name has all but been forgotten except by the most ardent piano fans and record collectors. First pressings as well as early LP discs of her 78rpm recordings – particularly a 1955 Columbia Entre LP featuring a set of Chopin Mazurkas made in the late 1940s – continue to fetch top dollar at shops and auctions. But beyond the legendary tale of her movie-like biography is a level of pianistic expression that is utterly magnificent and unique.

Much of the biographical material about Jonas contains some erroneous details. Born Maryla Jonasówna in Warsaw on May 31, 1911, she debuted as a child prodigy prior to the age of 10 (her age varies depending on the account). Reports that she won the 1932 International Chopin Prize are thoroughly inaccurate: she didn’t place in the 1927 competition and she came in 13th in 1932, also winning a diploma in the 1933 Vienna Competition, where Lipatti famously, much to Cortot’s consternation, tied for second; other diploma winners in Vienna include Gina Bachauer, György Sandor, and Karl-Robert Kreiten (who perished at the hands of the Nazis and whose memory still brought Claudio Arrau to tears decades later). In Brussels in 1938, she participated in the Eugène Ysaÿe International Music Competition – now the Queen Elisabeth Competition – and didn’t place in the top 12. On the basis of her competition standings, one wouldn’t think she would become a pianist whose scant recordings would be lauded into the next century.

What is clear (from her own admission) is that her suffering due to personal losses in the war would infuse her playing with a depth that cannot be learned in conservatories. Jonas was rounded up with other Jews in Warsaw in 1939, but a German officer who had previously heard her play in Germany released her. She is said to have made her way to Berlin on foot (a distance of over 300 miles), an arduous journey that was so incredibly taxing that it would lead to health problems that plagued the pianist for the rest of her short life. Contacts at the Brazilian embassy arranged for her to join her sister who had moved there several years prior to the war: Jonas was smuggled into Brazil with forged papers claiming that she was the wife of a diplomat and was reunited with her sister before news reached her that her husband, parents, and a brother had died in the camps.

Jonas Brazil - 18 June 1940 paper clippingJonas was unconsolable and refused to play the piano, reportedly being admitted to a sanatorium to recover from her psychological stresses. It has been said that her admirer and compatriot Arthur Rubinstein lured her back to the piano by asking her to help him check the acoustics prior to his recital in Rio, and that once she touched the piano she couldn’t stop playing; apparently the audience had started to enter before she realized that she had been at the keyboard for hours and was not alone with Arthur. The enthusiastic response by those who heard her led her to be booked to perform a recital of her own.

While it has been stated that she spent extended periods of time recovering from her emotional turmoil, she in fact played her debut in Rio earlier than has been reported, as this news clipping from June 18, 1940 indicates: she was due to to perform on June 29, not long after she had arrived in the country. Whether her time recuperating was before or after this performance is unclear. Jonas did not seek out the limelight, though the impresario Ernesto de Quesada arranged concerts for the pianist in South America and eventually in New York, where her success would launch the most prolific period of her career.

With successes at Carnegie Hall in New York in early 1946 – the virtually empty hall on February 25 was full when she reappeared on March 30, thanks in no small part to a rave review in the New York Herald Tribune – Jonas signed a contract with Columbia Records that found her in the studio as early as April 19 producing discs that have in the intervening years cemented her reputation amongst piano connoisseurs. Among the works recorded at her first session is this reading of the Mazurka in F Minor Op.68 No.4, with phrasing is dramatically forged through varying key pressure and articulation, a phenomenally pure and focused singing sonority, elegant nuancing, and marvellous timing, with a wonderful rhythmic lilt and gorgeous rubato:

The fabled Columbia Entré LP issued September 26, 1955 features some of Jonas’ late 1940s recordings of Mazurkas, which captures her idiomatic approach to these seminal works, the varying moods beautifully characterized and played with a simplicity that belies the pianistic and musical skill required to phrase with such directness and purity of tone. While these works might not be technically challenging when it comes to playing the notes, to capture the right mood and play with such seeming directness is no small feat. Jonas accomplishes the Herculean task with elegance, grace, wit, and tenderness:

It is little wonder that this LP is still prized by collectors – though present-day listeners can fortunately now purchase Jonas’ complete discography in a marvellous four-disc set issued by Sony, remastered from the source material for the first time and issued with a lavish booklet and slip covers that are replicas of some of her vinyl releases.

Jonas NY Phil programmeSadly, Jonas’ complete discography comprises a mere four CDs (the recordings could actually fit on three) and there aren’t any large-scale works among them, the longest single composition being Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which is itself made up of shorter pieces. There was indeed some criticism during her brief career for the absence of more substantial repertoire in her programmes, and one laments that none of her concerto broadcasts seem to have survived (she made her New York Philharmonic debut in October 1946 with Beethoven’s first Concerto – and while a recording of Wanda Landowska playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.415 two weeks later has been found and issued, there is no trace of a Jonas aircheck).

However, one can learn more about piano playing and interpretation in a single mazurka reading by Jonas than one can in many readings of longer, more ‘profound’ works by many other pianists. While the scale of works she played might have been limited, her musical depth was anything but.

Maryla Jonas3Jonas would largely give up performing in 1951, after a fainting spell while playing Carnaval in a Carnegie Hall recital led her to believe herself unfit to continue in the public eye, though she would have two more recording sessions a few months later, on May 9 and May 17, 1951. The following year she was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that would ultimately kill her less than a decade later. She made one final appearance in concert, a Mozart and Chopin performance at Carnegie Hall in December 1956. She died on July 3, 1959 at the age of 48 – her second husband died three weeks later.

Another wonderful example of her pianistic mastery is gorgeous reading of Mendelssohn’s Song without Words Op.102 No.4 from that next-to-last Columbia session of May 9, 1951, played with a dramatically arched melodic line and fluid legato phrasing that is as seamless as it is beautiful in tone and shaping. To think that this exquisite example of her pianism was produced at a time at which she had given up performing:

Sony Classical’s exceptionally well-produced The Maryla Jonas Story is a must-have for lovers of fine piano playing, containing the first ever official release of her complete discography, remastered from the source material (read my review here) – a fitting tribute to a truly exceptional pianist whose playing deserves repeated listening.

The Marvellous Marcelle Meyer

This is an edited version of an article previously published in the now defunct magazine Classical Recordings Quarterly.

Les SixA famous 1921 portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche entitled ‘Le groupe des Six’ depicts five of the six composers known as Les Six with their ‘godfather’ Jean Cocteau (Louis Durey is missing, having seceded from the group, but the pianist-composer Jean Wiener is in the background). The focal point of the picture is an elegant young woman, the pianist Marcelle Meyer. Although not officially a member of the group, Meyer was muse to this groundbreaking group of composers and important figure in the Parisian musical scene in the early decades of the 20th century, although far less known than other pianists of her generation despite her phenomenal pianism and close relationship with important composers, musicians, and artists.

Marcelle Meyer was born on May 22, 1897 in Lille, France. Her elder sister Germaine, also a gifted pianist, gave the child her first lessons. When it became clear that Marcelle was worthy of a more formal musical education, her father allowed her to go to Paris in 1911 to study at the Conservatoire with Marguerite Long. It was not long before Meyer moved to the class of Alfred Cortot, whom she revered. His interpretative freedom, deep tone production and imaginative outlook clearly resonated with her, and years later she still called him ‘mon Maître’.

Meyer’s lessons with the Catalan pianist Ricardo Viñes had a major impact on her artistry. A contemporary and preferred interpreter of Debussy, Ravel, Albéniz and Falla, Viñes dedicated his life to promoting new music at the expense of his popularity (he died penniless). His clear, direct style and steadfast dedication to his musical peers strongly influenced Meyer’s devotion and unusually frank approach to modern music. She also studied with José Iturbi, who gave her further insights into the Spanish school.

A new era

Meyer by Man RayMarriage in 1917 to the actor and producer Pierre Bertin whisked Marcelle into the burgeoning realm of the new artistic movement in Paris. Bertin introduced his attractive wife to the composer Eric Satie, who affectionately called her ‘Dadame.’ And on meeting Diaghilev, Meyer was immediately commissioned to perform in his upcoming production of Satie’s Parade. The premiere was a scandal yet Meyer revelled in the bold artistry of the production and took no notice of the near riot that ensued. Claude Debussy was at the performance, giving credence to the rumours that Meyer prepared his Préludes with him before his death nearly a year later.

Meyer premiered several works of Les Six, including the Mouvements perpétuels by Poulenc, Chandelles romaines by Durey, and Printemps, Alfama, and Scaramouche by Milhaud. She introduced the two-piano version of Ravel’s La valse with the composer at the other keyboard, and while the private performance of April 16, 1920 did little for Ravel’s prospects of producing the ballet, Meyer appears to have won over Stravinsky: he asked her to perform Petrushka with Monteux in 1921 and was delighted with the results, and she was chosen as one of the four pianists to premiere Les noces.

Her career

Meyer crossed the Atlantic only once, travelling to South America in July-August 1927 to accompany the soprano Jane Bathori in Buenos Aires, and in general her activities appear to have been more muted than her talent warranted. It has been suggested that her insistence on performing obscure music of the 18th and 20th centuries limited her appeal to a wider audience. Nevertheless, she did perform more popular works of Mozart, Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann. She also balanced programmes featuring works for piano and orchestra by contemporary composers Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger, Strauss, and Milhaud with more mainstream concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt.

Marcelle Meyer by HarcourtIn 1930-31 Meyer went on an extensive tour organized by Cortot’s agents Kiesgen-Delaet that took her to such cities as Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Bucharest, Budapest, Constantinople, Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut – in Budapest she played the Burleske under Strauss’s baton – and while she may not have had streams of return engagements, artistically she seems to have been a hit: George Enescu wrote her a postcard praising her ‘unforgettable’ performance of Beethoven’s C Minor Concerto. Her activities in Europe generally consisted of handfuls of concerts locally and a few regular engagements – she played in Amsterdam almost every year.

Having divorced Bertin in 1927, a few years after their daughter was born, in 1932 Meyer married the Italian lawyer Carlo di Vieto, with whom she would have a second daughter; they lived in Paris until settling in Rome in 1947. Italy provided another galaxy of composers whose works she would advocate – Casella, Rieti, Petrassi, Veretti, Dallapiccola – while she travelled to France to record for Les Discophiles Français.

As discussions were under way for a tour of North America with Dimitri Mitropoulos, with whom she had played in Athens back in 1930, Meyer went to Paris for what would be the last time. During that visit, on November 17, 1958, she suffered a heart attack while at the piano in her sister’s apartment and died in hospital that night, aged 61.

A rich legacy

Meyer Stravinsky Ragtime 78Meyer’s artistic testament is a vast discography spanning more than 20 hours of studio recordings and three decades. She signed a contract with HMV on June 15, 1925 and first recorded at Hayes on 30 June: Debussy’s Sérénade interrompue and Général Levine, eccentric (Matrix Bb 6272-1 & -2) and Chabrier’s Idylle (Matrix Bb6273-1, -2 & -3). Both sides were unpublished. On December 1st she returned to set down Poulenc’s Mouvements perpétuels (Matrix Bb7430-1, 2a & -3); Stravinsky’s Ragtime (HMV D1063, W727); Albéniz’s Navarra (D1063, W727) and Sous le palmier (E434, P725); Falla’s Dance of the Miller from The Three-Cornered Hat (E434, P725); a remake of Chabrier’s Idylle (Matrix Bb7437-1 & -2); and Debussy’s Poissons d’or (Bb7438-1 & -2). Takes of the Poulenc and Debussy were released in 1992 (EMI CZS7 67405-2) and the Chabrier was finally released on EMI France’s 17-disc tribute to the pianist in 2007. Although her contract was renewed for a year in 1926, nothing eventuated. She made two discs for French Columbia in 1929: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (LF11) and Chabrier’s Bourrée Fantasque (LF24).

In 1938 Meyer went back to HMV for the famous recording of Milhaud’s newly composed Scaramouche (DB5086), with the composer at the other piano. Then followed her vivacious 1943 account of Strauss’s Burleske under André Cluytens’s baton (HMV W1565/6). Sadly a planned Ravel G Major Concerto was axed, as it was not thought commercial enough (how times have changed – the Ravel is far more popular today) – a most regrettable decision, as an unpublished live account from the 1930s shows that Meyer was in her element in this work.

In 1946 Meyer began to set down an array of older and newer music for Les Discophiles Français, for which she would be posthumously recognized with a Grand Prix du Disque in 1959. Founded in 1941 by Henri Screpel, an art book publisher, the Discophiles label set out to produce recordings by worthwhile artists lacking international renown: among their stable of pianists were Lili Kraus and Yves Nat. Marcelle Meyer focused on then rarely played repertoire such as Rameau, Scarlatti, Chabrier, and Stravinsky. Most of the sessions took place at Salle Adyar, on Avenue Rapp on the left bank. The piano used was a Hamburg Steinway chosen by Kraus, a surprising fact given its bell-like sonority and light action. Although Meyer tended to favour Pleyel pianos, she liked this Steinway and its rich tone and lightness of touch served her well, lending her performances great clarity and suppleness.

Meyer at the pianoUnder Screpel’s artistic direction, the Discophiles recordings were engineered by André Charlin, legendary for his wonderful tonal balance. Regrettably the surfaces of some of the 78rpm discs leave a great deal to be desired, and with Charlin’s focus on sound over other details, speeds can be erratic – many of the Bach discs were off pitch when released on CD in the 1990s because the masters were not recorded strictly at 78rpm. Recording dates are equally unreliable: sometimes what is documented is the day a transfer was made or a tape edited.

Given careful pitching, Meyer’s beautifully recorded Discophiles performances exhibit magnificent warmth and are musically beyond reproach. Presented in attractive textured gatefold cases, the records are sought after by collectors, many of whom will pay hundreds of dollars for original pressings. Some of the recordings were additionally released in the US on Haydn Society LPs: the Mozart concertos (HSL88), Stravinsky piano music (HSL113), and Ravel piano music (HSL111/2).

Meyer Debussy References CDWhen Discophiles Français went bankrupt in 1958, Screpel disappeared, much to the chagrin of Meyer and her family, with whom he had developed a close friendship. The rights were purchased by Ducretet-Thomson and later passed to EMI. In the 1980s Rémi Jacobs, creator of the EMI Références series, brought Marcelle Meyer back into the catalogue after a decades-long absence with four two-LP sets of Rameau, Scarlatti, Chabrier and Ravel. In 1989 a Références CD of a previously unpublished recording of the complete Debussy Préludes was released (EMI CDH7 63348-2) as a bonus (if you bought three Références discs, you got the Meyer for free); the source for this recording a test record from her elder daughter’s collection for an LP that went unissued due to the dissolution of Les Discophiles Français.

In 1992, EMI France released the first of three sets dedicated to Meyer in their Introuvables series, a six-CD box of 19th- and 20th-century music (CZS6 76405 2). With the release of the four-disc Vol.2 (CZS5 68092-2) and five-disc Vol.3 (CZS5 68498-2), Meyer’s near-complete commercial recordings had been issued by the mid-1990s. The only items not included were Espla’s Sonata del Sur, which in 2003 was released on an EMI Spain CD (5 62585-2), and some 78rpm versions of music she later recorded on tape. The 27 Scarlatti Sonatas from 1947 were issued separately with Bach’s C minor Toccata, BWV911 (Pearl GEM0137).

Marcelle Meyer Ses EnregistrementsRémi Jacobs’s last task before retiring from EMI France in 2007 was to produce a 17-CD set devoted to the complete commercial records of Marcelle Meyer (384699-2). It includes new transfers of every studio version of each work Meyer recorded, as well as a newly discovered Pleyela piano roll of Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34. Also being published for the first time since their initial release are works by Debussy recorded in 1947 (DF92/95), the Bourrée fantasque from 1929 and the studio version of the Mozart Sonata K310 (Album 37) – the previous EMI set had a broadcast transcription instead of the commercial recording.

There are curious gaps in Meyer’s commercial discography. She did not record a note of Eric Satie, a peculiar omission given that she was his preferred pianist and she made only the one 78rpm side of Poulenc, odd given her close friendship with the composer. Romantic repertoire is largely absent – in the studio she set down works by Chabrier but no Chopin or Schumann, both of whose works she played frequently. A Dutch critic found her Études symphoniques to be ‘clear, healthy, purely musical, full of expression and character, without any … exaggerated romanticism’. It seems strange that Meyer should have opted to record two Mozart concertos but no other works for piano and orchestra during her tenure with Discophiles Français. Concerted works by Ravel, Franck or Saint-Saëns would have suited both her playing and the label’s focus on French repertoire.

The performances

The pianism of Marcelle Meyer is particularly striking in its simplicity. Her playing is graceful and supple, with melodic lines always clear and flexible. Her timing is impeccable, with each phrase meticulously measured for cadence and tone production: melodies rise and fall with fluidity and every note blends seamlessly into the next. Whether in Baroque keyboard music of Rameau and Couperin or in works by her contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, Meyer’s carefully controlled craftsmanship exhibits precise pedalling, a line that never loses focus, and a beautiful ringing piano sound.

Among her triumphs are the recordings of early keyboard music, in which she breathes new life into music that had gone largely unnoticed by pianists of her generation. To Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, and Couperin she brings warmth and transparency with her clear tone, delicate phrasing, and deft fingerwork. Particularly remarkable is her ornamentation: her trills are not mere technical devices but a subtle shift of the melodic progression that produces a warbling effect without distorting the inflection or lilt of the line.

At a time when pianists might have played an occasional Scarlatti sonata or a Godowsky transcription of Rameau, Meyer set about recording extensive tributes to these composers. After making a few Rameau discs in 1946 (DF64/7), she taped his complete works in 1953, the first cycle on record (DF98/9). Her crystalline sound and clear phrasing assist her in capturing both the melancholic and exuberant moods prevalent in Rameau’s oeuvre. Particularly noteworthy is how she fluidly incorporates ornamentation into the melodic line, whereby trills are not merely decorative devices but an integral aspect of the melodic line.

The slower pieces feature beautifully terraced harmonies and the livelier ones are played with dynamism, as are nine Couperin works (72/9). Meyer recorded two batches of Scarlatti Sonatas, 27 of them in 1946 and 1948 (D68/71, 130/3) and 32 in 1954 (139/40). She launches into the sonatas with both verve and sensitivity, her flawless technique allowing her to bypass technical challenges and her sensitive ear enabling her to reveal depth inherent in pieces at the time often dismissed as superficial.

Among Meyer’s other ‘firsts’ were several Bach titles: the English Suite no.4 (Album 38), Partita no.3 (82/3), and Toccatas in D minor BWV913 (60/1) and F sharp minor BWV910 (Album 38) were the first piano performances of these works on record. In general Meyer approaches Bach’s works with a more robust attack and greater rhythmic vitality than with Rameau and Scarlatti, although in the Inventions and Sinfonias she phrases with a smooth sensuality that still clarifies the contrapuntal structure of these seldom-recorded works.

Meyer’s transparent textures and declamatory delivery serve Mozart’s idiom well. Although the Concertos K466 and K488 (37) are somewhat marred by the scraping strings of Maurice Hewitt’s orchestra, her playing is magnificent here and in several solo works. A few broadcasts of solo works (Tahra TAH579/80) have added to her official Mozart discography, but a forthright broadcast of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto is all that has been released of her Beethoven. Judging by the Haydn sonata roll, she had affection for his music. In five pieces from Rossini’s Péchés de ma vieillesse (EX25008), Meyer expresses the operatic nature of the writing with a strong lyrical line and sense of drama. She recorded a number of Schubert dances in 1948–49: Valses nobles, Ländler, Valses sentimentales and Danses allemandes (134/8), all despatched with vigour and enthusiasm.

Meyer’s Chabrier cycle (151/2) is one of the glories of recorded pianism, showing her to have been a romanticist of the highest order. She traverses his Pieces pittoresques with remarkable sensitivity, impeccable timing, and luscious piano tone, expressing the unique flavour of each work to perfection, without an ounce of self-indulgence or exaggeration. Idylle, which Meyer’s daughter calls ‘the soundtrack of (her) childhood’, has a seamlessly fluid melodic line over a baseline that is at times magnificently elastic, at others deliciously hazy yet never unclear. In Habañera, Meyer builds to a magnificent climax without sacrificing the sensual mood, and in Feuillet d’album, cascading figurations caress a hauntingly beautiful melody that is expressed with tenderness and fluidity.

Meyer apparently wished to record both piano parts of the Valses romantiques, hoping that they could be edited into a single performance. As the technology of the time made such double-tracking difficult, she invited her dear friend Francis Poulenc to the second piano, and the recording is a powerful testament to their musical sympathy.

Unlike a great many pianists, Meyer makes a palpable distinction between Debussy’s and Ravel’s idioms, impressionistic but not blurred in the former, attentive to structure and clarity in the latter. The Debussy Préludes are priceless documents, with amazingly subtle pedaling fused with full-bodied tone and remarkable feats of virtuosity; the 1947 ‘La terrace des audiences du claire de lune’ is utterly mesmerizing for its evocative colours, sumptuous phrasing, and magnificent timing. She also delivers superlative readings of L’isle joyeuse, Images, and Masques.

That Meyer’s Ravel cycle (100/1) won the 1955 Grand Prix du Disque is hardly surprising: her crystalline tone and precision are ideally suited to Ravel’s jewel-like oeuvre, and her relationships with the composer and his colleague Ricardo Viñes bring credibility to her approach. She pedals with moderation and applies the gentlest of rubatos, and her tempos are fairly brisk: her Pavane pour une infante défunte is, as Ravel suggested, not a dead pavane for a princess. Jeux d’eau sparkles like diamonds in sunlight (how marvellous her Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este of Liszt must have been – she played it in recital) and Le tombeau de Couperin highlights the biting harmonies with clear textures and rhythmic certainty. Her Gaspard de la nuit features a hypnotic Ondine, a haunting Le gibet, and a breathtaking Scarbo.

A prime exponent of the newest music of her generation, Meyer performs her contemporaries’ works with exuberance. The shorter works of Poulenc, Albéniz, and Falla recorded in 1925 are played with aplomb, the 1938 Scaramouche finds Meyer and Milhaud throwing caution to the wind, and 1943’s Strauss Burleske bubbles with excitement blended with lyrical poise. In the works of Stravinsky, Meyer’s clear textures allow for a transparent presentation of the complex harmonies and structures. Producer Antoine Duhamel reported that the only time he witnessed Meyer technically taxed was while recording the incredibly demanding Trois mouvements de Petrouchka (48, 163), yet the 55-year-old Meyer’s performance is stupendous, played with a more relaxed articulation than usual so as to highlight the jazzier side of the music than one usually hears. Her 1956 recording (Hispavox HH1001) of Espla’s Sonata del Sur, conducted by the composer, features stunning technical feats and a blend of lushly Romantic melodic expression and modern tonal construction.

One of the true highlights of the art of Marcelle Meyer is a broadcast of Nights in the Gardens of Spain (TAH564), recorded only six months before her death. The playing smoulders with a flexible rhythmic approach and richly textured figurations that bring to mind the sensual moves of Spanish dancers and the vibrato of a Flamenco guitar. How unfortunate that the Burleske she performed at the same concert has not been released.

It is remarkable to consider that a pianist present at the birth of the music of Satie, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky should have left us over 20 hours of superlative recordings. Given the admiration of present-day pianists like Alexandre Tharaud, the fact that the Newport Music Festival has held two concerts in her memory, and the comprehensive re-release of her studio recordings, Marcelle Meyer may continue to influence future generations of music-lovers.

(c) Mark Ainley 2017

The Maryla Jonas Story

The Maryla Jonas StoryThe release of the complete commercial recordings of Polish pianist Maryla Jonas is true cause for celebration amongst pianophiles. I had long called for an official documented issue of her performances; in fact, a few years ago when I first met the current owner of the wonderful APR label, Mike Spring, in London (I had a long association with the founder, Bryan Crimp), he asked me what I thought the label should plan for future releases, and I immediately said, “THE COMPLETE MARYLA JONAS”.

Well, Sony Classical have not only issued her complete recordings, they have done such an exceptional job in producing the set that they have raised the bar for such releases. Whereas back in the day RCA and EMI used to produce wonderful tribute sets devoted to great artists, those are a pale shadow compared to this magnificent production: a beautifully designed cover and box, CDs in paper sleeves that are facsimiles of some of the original LP pressings, and a lavish booklet filled with photos of the pianist, concert programs, LP covers, and documentation regarding Jonas’s studio activities, together with a truly elegant and informative essay by my colleague Jed Distler.

Jonas setThe recordings have been remastered from the source material for the first time. It tends to be the case that larger labels tend to aim for more of an LP-like sound signature with recordings made on 78rpm records – one will rarely hear the kind of booming presence on mainstream reissues of such historical discs – and while that is the case here, the frequency range is to my ears full and warm, even if some of the dimensionality is less than one might get on the 78s. One can hear the fine details of Jonas’s playing – the masterfully crafted phrasing, deft articulation, subtle pedalling, and magnificent tonal colours – and fully appreciate the exquisite beauty of both her playing and the works she plays.

As for the performances themselves, there is little that I can say that hasn’t been said about this magnificent artist. Her Chopin Mazurkas in particular have been praised to the skies and yet such accolades still pale in comparison to the actual playing. Jonas herself said that it was the suffering in her life that brought her playing to life (she lost most of her family during the war and consequently had several breakdowns) and indeed the remarkable emotional depth of her playing in works that lesser pianists might despatch in a trite manner is utterly staggering: sumptuous phrasing, impeccable timing, gorgeous tonal colours, and marvellous voicing reveal the full range of character in these works, from the quaint and charming to the uplifting and joyful to the more anguished, sombre, heartfelt, and mournful. One can learn more about piano playing and interpretation in a single mazurka reading by Jonas than one can in many readings of longer, more ‘profound’ works by some other more famous pianists.

Jonas publicity posterThere were during Jonas’s lifetime comments about the limited range of her repertoire but her craftsmanship and musicality are so profound that I am content to hear whatever it is that she recorded. The fourth disc of the set featuring works by varied composers is utterly magnificent, featuring – among others – a charming Rondo alla Turca, a solemn Schubert-Liszt Ständchen, two probing Mendelssohn Songs without Words, and a varied and emotive Kinderszenen. One of my favourites is a two-minute marvel, a work by a scarcely documented composer Nicholas (no first name) entitled Musical Box: Jonas’s incredible tonal palette, refined pedalling, and brilliantly conceived timing truly create the effect of a wind-up musical box, the effect she achieves at the end of the work being particularly breathtaking.

If what I have communicated thus far isn’t grounds enough to warrant purchasing this set immediately, I don’t know what else to say other than to leave you with the playing of Jonas herself in a transfer of one of her highly-prized LPs, a 1955 Columbia Entré disc featuring some of her Mazurka recordings from the 78rpm period (original pressings of this vinyl still sell for hundreds of dollars). Bravo to Sony for having had not only the vision to issue Jonas’s recordings but for having paid tribute to this supreme artist with the thoroughness and elegance that her artistry warrants.

Catching Up with Benjamin Grosvenor

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor has been in the spotlight for over half of his lifetime, having won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 at the age of 10. He was already demonstrating profound maturity in his interpretations and command of the piano at that young age, and Grosvenor has continued to develop over the years. The first British pianist in 40 years to be signed to the Decca label, Grosvenor has now released four albums and continues to tour worldwide with solo recitals, chamber music collaborations, and concerto appearances. I’ve followed the pianist’s career with special interest, taking in both New York and Vancouver concerts in his 2017 North American Tour, having interviewed the pianist previously and having been commissioned to write the liner notes for Grosvenor’s third Decca CD (‘Dances’). This new interview brings us up to date on the artist’s current thoughts and preoccupations, and his recollection of his experiences growing up with so much acclaim. Benjamin Grosvenor has now made three Vancouver appearances with the Vancouver Recital Society; his debut concert was April 2013.

This interview first appeared on the Vancouver Classical Music website

Benjamin Grosvenor by Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

Benjamin Grosvenor by Patrick Allen/Opera Omnia

I HAD THE PLEASURE OF INTERVIEWING YOU IN 2011, WHEN YOU HAD JUST TURNED 19 AND WERE ABOUT TO GIVE YOUR MUCH-ANTICIPATED OPENING CONCERT AT THE PROMS. YOU MUST HAVE GONE THROUGH A LOT BOTH PERSONALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY IN THE LAST 6 YEARS.

Yes, quite a lot has happened in that time, from completing my studies at the Royal Academy of Music to taking on things like the vexing responsibilities of home ownership. Professionally, I have had so many rewarding musical experiences and partnerships and I have learned a great deal from each one. I have also undertaken a lot of new repertoire. I’m sure that certain aspects of my musicianship have developed as a consequence although it is difficult for me to tell you the specifics of this process.

MUCH WAS MADE OF THAT PROMS DEBUT AND THE FACT THAT YOU WERE THE FIRST BRITISH PIANIST SIGNED TO DECCA FOR SEVERAL DECADES. HOW HAVE YOU ADAPTED TO BEING A HIGH-PROFILE ARTIST IN YOUR NATIVE COUNTRY? IS YOUR EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT AT HOME THAN ABROAD?

In some ways, the nature of the coverage I receive in the UK can be a little trickier to deal with: the fact that I’ve been receiving media attention since I was 11 can mean that local journalists and some in the music business approach me based upon things that I did many years ago. Of course, I’m fortunate to be receiving attention at all, yet I do think it is refreshing to perform in countries where there are no baked-in preconceptions about having been perceived as a prodigy playing a certain range of works. The two things I most appreciate about playing ‘at home’ are, first, not having to go through the stresses of airports and delayed flights to get to a venue and, second, the opportunity to play with orchestras and conductors with whom I’ve established a musical bond over time. For example, I enjoyed greatly a tour I made last autumn with the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder playing the two Liszt Concerti. I learned a lot from that collaboration and Elder is an ideal, generous partner.

Grosvenor in performance Photo by Juan Diego Castillo, Teatro Mayor Bogotá

Grosvenor in performance
Photo by Juan Diego Castillo, Teatro Mayor Bogotá

YOU HAVE NOW GIVEN A GREAT MANY CONCERTS ALL OVER THE WORLD. DO YOU THINK YOUR WAY OF PREPARING FOR A PERFORMANCE HAS CHANGED?

In terms of musical approach, this will sound horribly boring, but I don’t plan the process of preparation differently now than I did ten years ago. I simply try to be as well prepared as I can. The major difference is that achieving this goal now takes considerably more coordination because I’m playing a lot more concerts and repertoire. Specifically, each season will usually involve 3-5 concerti plus one and a half recital programs plus chamber repertoire, as well as time for preparing new solo and concerted works. I’ve had to learn to try to use practice and preparation time as efficiently as possible.

YOUR TRAVELS HAVE OBVIOUSLY BROUGHT YOU TO A LOT OF DIFFERENT PIANOS AND HALLS. WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO ADAPT TO EACH INSTRUMENT AND PERFORMANCE SETTING?

I was always fussy about pianos and this has only grown with the years. I do have a particular sense of the texture and colour of sound that I’m seeking in each passage, as well as the overall dynamic range that I think is right for the acoustic. Of course, changes to tone can be improvised depending upon the character of a given instrument, and I might actually discover things through being forced to make adjustments on what seems to be, at first, an unfriendly instrument. But the real problem comes with those pianos that simply don’t have much capacity for colour or a grotty action. Experiences like this come with the trade, and I’ve had years of dealing with such situations. I’d like to think that I’m getting better at soldiering on through, but it doesn’t get any less frustrating.

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELECTING YOUR REPERTOIRE? ARE THERE SOME WORKS THAT YOU ARE EXPLORING NOW THAT YOU HAD WAITED ON EARLIER?

I’ve always enjoyed eclectic programmes and, within that overall approach, try to set myself some challenges. This season, for example, I’m playing the Berg Sonata. I’d loved Berg’s music since playing some of the Seven Early Songs in a chamber concert when I was a student. I’ve read through his violin concerto a couple of times with a friend who was performing it but, apart from these two experiences, I haven’t played any music from the Second Viennese School. I had felt rather little affinity with Prokofiev until about two years ago, but now I’d like to play one of the concerti and one or more of the sonatas in a future season.

Photo: Decca/Sophie Wright

Photo: Decca/Sophie Wright

EARLIER GENERATIONS OF ARTISTS PRIOR TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF RECORDING TECHNOLOGY LEARNED THE MUSIC FROM THE SCORE FIRST. HOW DO YOU APPROACH NEW WORKS THAT YOU WERE FIRST EXPOSED TO THROUGH RECORDINGS OR CONCERTS?

It can be awkward if one has a particular performance of a work already imprinted in the mind, but there is really no way to prepare a new piece other than via first principles, which means beginning with the score, and also comparing different editions and Urtexts. In fact, when something like this has happened with me, I have usually found that a detailed study of the score prompts possibilities different from those of, say, a ‘favourite’ recording. And that launches me on thinking about the piece in my own way.

WE HAVE PREVIOUSLY DISCUSSED THE VALUE OF STUDYING HISTORICAL RECORDINGS BY THE GREAT PIANISTS OF THE PAST. DO YOU THINK PIANISTS TODAY STILL HAVE A LOT TO LEARN FROM THEM?

I do feel that there is a great deal to learn from historical recordings. And pianists should listen not only to recordings of historical pianists, but to conductors, violinists, singers… There are a great many current artists who I admire too, but I wish I currently had more time for listening in general – hearing recordings and, particularly, attending concerts – but generally I’m so busy now that listening time is limited.

HomagesYOU RECENTLY RELEASED YOUR FOURTH ALBUM ON DECCA – A SOLO DISC THEMED AROUND ‘HOMAGES’ – AND WE ARE ALL ANTICIPATING NEW RECORDINGS FROM YOU. CAN YOU GIVE US A HINT OF WHAT’S NEXT?

I prefer not to make a recording until I’ve reached a robust level of confidence in the repertoire, which will nearly always mean plenty of concert outings first. I’m currently in discussions with Decca about the next disc. They’d like a concerto recording, but that does involve a lot of coordination with venue, orchestra, and conductor. Unfortunately, I can’t give any further details simply because there aren’t any at this point!

IN CLOSING, WHAT WOULD YOU REGARD AS THE MOST UNIQUE (STRANGE, HUMOROUS, WONDERFUL) PERFORMING EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE HAD THUS FAR?

I think that often the more entertaining, or at least unusual, stories are when things don’t quite go as smoothly as planned. I can think of a few such stories – from fainting double bassists to tactless Sicilian photographers – but there is not one that is quite golden enough to set down into words yet. I have to say that some of the most wonderful performing experiences have been at the BBC Proms. The atmosphere there is really something so unique. I’ve recently had fantastic experiences in parts of the world that I had not previously visited. I have fond memories of visiting Brazil when I was thirteen and I was able to undertake a longer tour of South America this year. I was struck by the warmth of the audiences and the charming people I met there.

© Mark Ainley 2017

Photo Credits: Patrick Allen, Juan Diego Castillo, Sophie Wright

“The Greatest Pianist You’ve Never Heard Of”

One of the marvels of our technological age is the possibility of new discoveries in musical arenas. Old records are being reissued and made more available than at any other time in history and archival recordings from radio broadcasts that have never been previously released can now be streamed or purchased, an exciting proposition for music lovers interested in the performers of the past. ‘New’ names are becoming known to present-day listeners as artists whose recordings were once only available overseas or unissued for decades become available. But even in such a climate it is unusual to come across an artist who died as late as 1970 who had a brilliant career yet didn’t make a single commercial recording – and whose current discography is made up entirely of taped practice sessions from the twilight of his career.

Jascha in 1931Aficionados of historical classical recordings will be familiar with the name of the violinist Tossy Spivakovsky, but even the most ardent collectors would likely not know that his brother Jascha was a highly esteemed pianist who had a luminous international career. Jascha Spivakovsky studied with Moritz Mayer-Mahr, a pupil of both Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, which in and of itself might not have guaranteed his skill as a performer; but with his highly honed technique and brilliant intellect, Spivakovsky had a degree of pianistic prowess limited to very few a generation and he gained international renown in a career that spanned six decades. Critics were adulatory in the extreme, Neville Cardus having written to the pianist personally to praise his Beethoven Op.111 while others regularly compared the performer to the most legendary pianists that came before him (the fiery Carreño was one frequently mentioned in his early years and at his Leipzig debut in 1910 he was declared to be ‘the heir to [Anton] Rubinstein’).

Jascha Spivakovsky toured the globe and played under major conductors equally effusive in their praise – Strauss, Furtwängler, Monteux, Goosens, Barbirolli, Boult – yet he never made a recording as piano soloist. The reasons are rather complex: he did go to the Parlophone studios to accompany Tossy and apparently made some test solo recordings for them, but these were likely acoustical recordings and he was unhappy 1952 Monteux Brahms programwith the sound. He moved to Australia in 1933 to escape the Nazis (Richard Strauss had warned him to leave as Jascha’s name was on a hit list – he jotted the musical notation to the William Tell Overture in a letter, a hint that he should get out ASAP) and put his career on hold until the end of World War 2 to help others escape Germany.

Although Spivakovsky toured until 1960 in locations where recordings were regularly made by other artists also not living in those centres – such as London and New York – he was not approached by any companies until 1959, when a flawless broadcast of his Emperor Concerto attracted some producers’ attention. Jascha had not himself sought out the opportunity to make recordings, in post-war years needing to re-establish his reputation on the concert platform and in any case preferring to perform live. But with a health scare in 1960 putting an end to his international touring, he ended up dying in 1970 without making a single solo recording.

Fortunately for posterity, Jascha’s son Michael recorded the pianist in practice sessions at their Melbourne home (sometimes without the pianist knowing), in a musical salon that had welcomed the greatest musicians visiting Australia – Moiseiwitsch, Schnabel, Kapell, Cherkassky, Rubinstein, Arrau, and even Victor Borge would all visit when Down Under (indeed, the ill-fated Kapell spent the last night of his life there, staying up all night as Jascha and Kapell played for each other, before boarding the plane whose crash ended his life at the age of 31… eerily, Kapell showed the young Michael the short lifeline on his hand, saying ‘I shouldn’t be here…’). Decades later, technology has finally enabled the poor-quality tapes to be remastered to a degree sufficient for allow their release.

The family was justly concerned that releasing private tapes made for the pianist’s personal use might be of limited appeal and not do him justice. Fortunately, Spivakovsky’s playing is of such incredibly refined and potent musicality that it is almost inconceivable to the listener that the performances are one-take practice readings. Indeed, I was recently playing the first movement of the Waldstein for a colleague who marvelled, as had I on my first listen (and on several hearings since), at the incredibly brisk tempo of the first movement in which the voicing is uncannily clear and consistent; he stated, ‘Not that this is the most important thing – but even with everything else he’s doing, he hasn’t dropped a single note.’ Even more remarkable: the performance was recorded when the pianist was 70. There is absolutely nothing in the playing that could lead one to surmise that the performer was anywhere near an age when faculties might decline. Listen for yourself:

Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical has done an exceptional job in remastering the recordings and has produced two CDs in a series that will include several more. The title ‘Bach to Bloch’ applies to the entire planned collection of discs, which will contain repertoire that spans a wide range of repertoire from Bach through classical and Romantic composers to more modern composers such as Debussy, Kabalevsky, and Bloch (a concert recording of whose Concerto Symphonique will close out the final volume). The first two 1948 Carnegie Hall programdiscs feature solo repertoire arranged in chronological order in a traditional recital format and reveal the pianist’s affinity to a wide array of styles. Yet while always playing idiomatically for each composer, there are qualities in Spivakovsky’s pianism that are consistently noticeable: an incredibly refined sonority (even when the piano is out of tune, as it regrettably is in one case); phrasing that is masterfully shaped by fusing dynamics, tonal colour, and timing; a rubato that breathes and defies bar lines but serves the architectural structure of the music without the rhythmic pulse ever being lost; voicing that is consistent to the highest degree (the only pianist I’ve heard able to voice with such exquisite and consistent clarity is Lipatti); unbelievably subtle and mastery of the pedal; and incredible digital dexterity (though he apparently had such thick fingers that he had to rely on unorthodox fingerings – as will be revealed when a filmed performance is eventually issued). He is, quite simply, one of the greatest pianists I have ever heard – quite rightly dubbed by Rose as ‘the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of.’

While this reading of the Chopin First Ballade is unfortunately slightly marred by some tuning issues in the upper register of the piano (we must remember that all of these recordings are practice sessions that were not meant to be permanent accounts of his playing), the recording features poised Romanticism at its best. Spivakovsky highlights often-ignored lines that were also featured in the playing of Josef Hofmann in his legendary Golden Jubilee performance, yet whereas Hofmann would often bring these voices to the foreground, Spivakovsky incorporates them into the entire fabric of the work, so that the musical tapestry is both seamlessly woven and richly textured:

Even a work as traditionally overplayed by amateur pianists such as Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu shines like the most elegant jewel – not that Spivakovsky holds back any emotion! Indeed, Jascha plays with unbridled and at times volcanic passion without any loss of precision or refinement – how gloriously arched and deep is his phrasing, how ebullient his rhythmic drive. A work that can easily come off as trite or quaint is given a reading of blazing intensity in its outer sections while the middle section is most lovingly phrased with a smooth lyrical legato and discrete pedalling, with particular attention paid to transitions (as always seems to be the case with Spivakovsky), although those who pay more attention to the tempo might not notice his exquisite subtlety in such moments.

Volume 3 is slated to include four Beethoven Sonatas, including Op.111, while we can also look forward to some glowing Schumann (Concerto without Orchestra and Carnaval) in later editions. There is a teaser of the former on the website, and here is a magnificent excerpt of the latter: the Chopin section of Carnaval, with truly remarkable breadth in the repeat:

Each work on the two issued discs receives a performance of extraordinary musical insight and power. The Bach is grand and noble, the Mozart clear yet profound, the Beethoven charming and inquisitive. Spivakovsky’s Chopin is expansive and impassioned (as has been heard above), his Brahms lush and rhythmically fluid, while his Debussy and Kabalevsky are both as idiomatic as you might hope (his Kabalevsky Third Sonata could displace Moiseiwitsch’s classic account).

1960 Jascha's handsBoth compilations are available as digital downloads (complete with your own CD cover to print and musical scores) or as CDs to be delivered by mail order. You can find info about both volumes here [click Volume 1 or Volume 2 in the upper right corner to get details about each individual disc]; and you can order the first compilation here and the second one can be purchased here.  I personally opted for the downloads to save time and money – I didn’t want to wait to hear this amazing playing!

While there are many pianists whose playing I adore, there are few for whom I hold unreserved appreciation, and Jascha Spivakovsky is now one of this small group. His highly individual signature – a gorgeous singing sound, with crystal-clear articulation, transparent and utterly consistent voicing, and magnificently forged phrasing – is almost immediately recognizable in the way that the unique fusion of qualities of Lipatti, Cortot, and Hofmann can quickly be perceived. Even if his playing at times can be so original as to raise an eyebrow – his almost pedal-free reading of the first movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata is highly unusual yet also intriguing and an approach worth considering (he told his son that he felt it was the best way to achieve the ‘Agitato’ called for in the score; I expected it to be a bit wilder but his more subdued, dry effect is fascinating) – it always has its own innate logic and is tremendously musical.

I simply cannot get enough of Spivakovsky’s playing and cannot wait for more performances of this superlative artist to be issued – I’ve heard excerpts of a Mozart Concerto broadcast that is outstanding and this and some more live concerto recordings are part of this planned series. This is some of the most arresting pianism I have ever heard and I cannot recommend these discs highly enough.

Living the Classical Life Interview

In July 2014, I was interviewed by Zsolt Bognar as part of his Living the Classical Life series of interviews. Although generally until that point the performers had tended to be well-known pianists such as Stephen Hough, Yuja Wang, and Daniil Trifonov, the series has expanded to include non-piano instrumentalists (such as violinist Joshua Bell) and other non-performer types… which is where I fit in.

Bognar had for several years been a subscriber to my Piano Files page on Facebook and as an active pianist interested in the role of the interpreter was interested in my thoughts about performance practice, and so he extended the invitation to be part of the series. I needed to see a few piano-related folks in New York last year and so we timed my visit to coincide with when he would be in the Hamptons as part of the terrific program Pianofest in the Hamptons, run by Paul Schenly.

Our original conversation extended to about 60 minutes, covering a few parenthetical topics (such as my practice as a Contemporary Feng Shui Consultant and what connections I saw between that and my musical work), but in the interest of focusing on the essentials, it was edited down to its current 26-minute length. We discuss how I first became interested in historical piano recordings, why we should listen to them, and the distinctive qualities of fine piano playing.

Here’s the episode:

And some of the recordings we mention therein…

Joseph Villa’s brilliant reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, transcribed by Liszt, which I use as an example for what is possible for a single musician to accomplish at a single instrument:

Josef Hofmann’s otherworldly interpretation of Chopin’s First Ballade, which I refer to in terms of playing that has to be heard to be believed, playing so different from what it is that we could normally expect to hear:

An example of Alfred Cortot’s glorious pianism – we discussed a lot of his playing (not just his infamous wrong notes), including his incredible tonal colours, exquisite colours, and amazing timing:

Dinu Lipatti’s legendary reading of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso… with at least one textual change that actually creates a more idiomatic effect than the pedal marking Ravel had notated:

And these are just a few of the pianists mentioned therein. I hope viewers will be inspired to examine the playing of these great pianists, as well as others mentioned (Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Marcelle Meyer…)! There are so many amazing artists of the past to explore… hence this website!

Resources for Historical Piano Recordings

If you are interested in purchasing recordings of the artists featured in my posts, the following sources may be useful – most of which are the labels themselves. I always suggest, if possible, that you order directly from the labels producing these items that don’t have huge commercial interest to most buyers, as it helps them get back more of their investment in the project (all of the labels below sell directly, except for Arbiter and Naxos).

Meloclassic
Monique Haas MeloclassicThe new kid on the block for historical issues, this label is releasing high-quality rare, previously unpublished recordings by artists both celebrated and lesser-known, including top-notch pianists, violinists, cellists, and conductors. Their piano series boasts some incredible performances that should be investigated by collectors, among them Monique de la Bruchollerie, Monique Haas, Jakob Gimpel, Lazare-Levy, Samson François, and Aline van Barentzen. Their productions use minimal sound restoration and live broadcasts include the radio announcements, really giving a very fresh sense of being present at the performance. Some incredible recordings made available for the first time ever!

http://www.meloclassic.com/https://www.facebook.com/meloclassic

Marston Records
hofmann marstonThis deluxe collectors’ label issues some of the finest and rarest commercial and broadcast recordings of pianists and opera singers to be found. Run by transfer engineer Ward Marston with productions assisted by knowledgable pianophiles, the label has issued incredible volumes devoted to Josef Hofmann, Raoul Koczalski, Leopold Godowsky, Ernst Levy, Carl Friedberg, Vladimir de Pachmann, and Jorge Bolet (the recent 6-disc set is a must-buy). If you subscribe to their piano series, you will also receive at least once a year a CD of rare recordings that is not otherwise available for sale (previous volumes include Marcel Ciampi and Ricardo Viñes). The highest level of presentation and annotation (the booklets are truly works of art) together with the best possible transfers of recordings that are indispensable for lovers of great piano playing.

http://marstonrecords.com/

APR
harold bauer aprThis label made its name in the late 1980s with amazing releases of Simon Barere’s HMV Recordings and Carnegie Hall recordings (never before issued), and expanded its repertoire of artists under the leadership of Bryan Crimp (formerly of EMI). Now run by Mike Spring of Hyperion Records, the label has released some incredible comprehensive collections in recent years, including impressive box sets of Dame Myra Hess, Moriz Rosenthal, Percy Grainger, Eileen Joyce, Harriet Cohen, and Harold Bauer – all must-haves. Fantastic transfers and presentation, with full discographies and fascinating insights in the booklets. An incredible source of superlative piano recordings with a perfect balance of content, presentation, and transfer quality.

http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/ol.asp?ol=3

St Laurent Studios
Fanny Davies St Laurent StudioThis Canadian label produces reissues of mostly commercial 78s, with some live and LP performances in their archive as well, with no filtering, leaving a fuller frequency range together with whatever surface noise existed on the records used. There are no booklet notes, but good discographical information and covers that include at least one image of either the original disc or the album cover. Some fantastic artists are featured, such as Maryla Jonas (her complete 78 and LP recordings – highly recommended), Jakob Gimpel (rare early recordings), Blanche Selva, Fanny Davies (a Clara Schumann pupil), Schnabel, Lipatti, Rachmaninoff, and Horowitz. A label for those interested in a real retro experience of 78s and vinyls, interested in the performances while not bothered by some of the ambient noise found on the old records.

http://www.78experience.com/welcome.php?mod=accueil

Arbiter
masters of chopinA great label featuring some wonderful rare concert and disc recordings by superlative artists, among them the pianists Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Tiegermann, Iren Marik, Francis Planté, Eugen d’Albert, Samuil Feinberg, Pietro Scarpini, and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. Detailed notes and discographical information in very well-presented and interesting issues of incredible performances, many of which have never been issued in any other format before. Some of my favourites include a Busoni disc that features incredibly rare concert performances by his pupil Egon Petri and a Brahms disc featuring performances by pianists who knew him.

http://arbiterrecords.org/
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Arbiter-of-Cultural-Traditions/105862311998?

Naxos
Moiseiwitsch NaxosA budget label reissuing a vast array of modern and historical recordings, with a wonderful catalogue of historical piano recordings, primarily based on commercial issues. They have produced complete reissues of the recordings of Benno Moiseitiwitsch, Mischa Levitzki, and Ignaz Friedman – all among the most important recordings ever made – and other collections of recordings by Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel, Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Josef Hofmann (commercial recordings only). Transfers are generally excellent (there are a few exceptions) and booklet notes are excellent, although the graphic design is nothing much to write home about. Very affordable and with ease of availability.

http://www.naxos.com/labels/naxos_historical-pianist.htm

KASP Records
kasp hungerfordThis label has produced some fantastic reissues of more recent rare recordings by some superlative but less widely celebrated pianists, including Bruce Hungerford (a stupendous high-octane Beethoven recital), Constance Keene, and Adrian Aeschbacher.

http://www.kasprecords.com/

Berkshire Record Outlet
A terrific resource for purchasing remaindered CDs – you can often find discontinued items, among them excellent historical issues, at fantastic prices.

http://www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com/

My Amazon Page
I created a ‘record store’ at Amazon, linking historical piano recordings from multiple labels available via Amazon. However, because I am in Canada, the site will only accept orders through the Canadian site as opposed to your country’s own Amazon site – I would receive a slight commission for orders placed through the ‘shop’, but it is not worth the extra expense of ordering via Canada unless you live here (and ordering from the labels directly, particularly for the smaller labels, is highly recommended). I primarily set this up as a listing of what was available, but haven’t updated it for a while…

http://astore.amazon.ca/thepiafil-20

Magnificent Münz

It is a sad truth that there are many great pianists who never had the career that their artistry warranted. For some it was management, for others luck, and yet for others, there is the sad reality of medical issues.

Munz Studio piano 2The great Polish pianist Mieczysław Münz was one such pianist. A pupil of Leschetitzky’s assistant (and wife) Annette Essipova, Münz would go on to be part of Busoni’s inner circle. He created a strong impression in Berlin at the age of 20 when he played three concerted works in one evening (the Liszt E-Flat, the Brahms D Minor, and Franck’s Symphonic Variations). Shortly after his New York debut two years later, he decided to move to the US. A particularly memorable experience came in 1925 when Münz decided to attend Ethel Leginska’s recital at Carnegie Hall: when by 9pm she had not shown up, he offered to play instead and received multiple ovations for his “precision, grace and flexibility.”

Münz was in demand as a teacher. Josef Hofmann brought him to Curtis, and over the course of several decades he also taught in Cincinnati, New York, Baltimore, and Tokyo.
Alas, his career as a pianist would be more limited. In the early 1940s, focal dystonia in his right hand forced him to abandon playing.

There are very few recorded examples of his playing – he made far more piano rolls than disc recordings, and never recorded a large scale work in the studio. There is some silent film footage of him playing in 1929 that is fascinating to watch:

Yet while he would not play much for the last 30+ years of his life, he clearly was a magnificent performer and in demand. This October 17, 1940 concert performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K.466 with Frank Black conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra is a case in point: Münz was the first pianist invited for the inaugural series of concerts dedicated to the concerto repertoire (as per the announcer’s preamble before the concert). His playing is marvellous, and we can appreciate Münz’s wonderfully clear sonority, precise and even articulation, transparent voicing, and beautiful singing line. It is worth noting that Münz plays the Hummel cadenzas in the first and last movements, in addition to a Hummel Eingang at 1:42 in the finale.

The performance which follows may have been Münz’s final public appearance: a December 8, 1941 concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the National Orchestral Association conducted by Leon Barzin. Münz’s style is different than the modern view of Romanticism, with a more chaste rubato and strongly defined line than one might hear today in works that often receive overly sentimental readings, yet there is plenty of emotion expressed through his tonal and dynamic shadings (notice how the two go hand-in-hand), as well as through his soaring phrasing.

While it is tragic that such a great pianist was silenced due to medical issues, his influence as a teacher was profound. He had a great number of successful students across the globe, among them Emanuel Ax, Felicja Blumenthal, Sara Davis Buechner, Rinaldo Reyes, and Ann Schein. Ax stated that “For me, simply no other teacher was necessary.” Sara Davis Buechner is effusive in her praise of Münz, having studied with him just over a year until his death in 1976: “I rather adored that man – he was the Dad I didn’t have enough time to get to know. Phenomenal musician and teacher. He gave off quite a Buddhistic aura, too, like he knew everything.”

Buechner describes Münz’s exercises (learned from Busoni) to make anything at the keyboard possible (‘magic tricks’): “He was a great proponent of rhythmic variants as thorough technical practice and training. Such exercises made the practicing of a two-minute Chopin etude take up to 2 hours, to go through thoroughly. And you understood that to master such a piece, you’d work on those rhythmic variants every day. That kind of slow, detailed work puts your mind into a Buddhistic zone of concentration, but it trains the fingers remarkably and the results are powerful. You can hear the easeful fluency in Münz’s playing… The point for me, as a pianist, is that when I faithfully executed Münz’s many technical exercises, I felt wholly secure at the piano, with the freedom to just interpret without even thinking about technical demands, on stage.” She describes his playing during lessons: “The tone just opened up and swallowed the room in velvet sonorities. The sound of his gigantic paws roaring out the finale of Chopin’s Third Sonata — my God, that was an orchestra. He made it all look easy.”

A man who led a difficult life – his wife leaving him for Artur Rubinstein, losing family in the Holocaust, and having his performing career end due to hand problems – Münz nevertheless relished his teaching and his students, as demonstrated, appreciated him tremendously. He is an artist whose name deserves to be remembered… and pronounced properly. To which end, an excerpt from the Florence Times Daily, Florence, Alabama USA, December 5, 1940:

It is not necessary to sneeze when you pronounce the name of Mieczyslaw Münz, the celebrated Polish pianist, who will appear at the Sheffield High School Auditorium at 8:15 o’clock tonight under the auspices of the Muscle Shoals Cooperative Concert Association. The pianist assures everyone that it is quite easy. The last name is pronounced “Mince,” like the well-known pie. The first name (it is the name of a Polish national hero, by the way) does offer some difficulty to American tongues, but this too becomes simpler upon analysis. “Mee-aich-chis-laff,” accented on the second syllable.

During the first visit of Münz to America — several years ago — one of his admirers who had mastered both pronounciations, was so carried away by the brilliant Münz art — and name, that he addressed his letter to the “Variations” column of the Musical Courier:

“Dear Variations:

I will not Münz matters, but come to the point at once. Mieczyslaw was soloist with the orchestra today, playing the difficult Liszt Piano Concerto in A major. It was pie for the boy — Münz pie. The most astonishing piece of Münzstrelsy heard in the state of Münz-sota in some time or I am greatly Münztaken.”

The Polish pianist, who knows English very well, took pen in hand:

“In spite of beseechings and hints
That plays upon words make me wince,
My friends take my name
And make puns on the same.
“Woe is me!” cried Mieczyslaw Münz.”

The Firebrand

photo (4)The Israeli-American pianist Natan Brand was one of the most fiery of pianists, a towering talent with a mercurial temperament that fuelled his impassioned conceptions. When he died in 1990 at the age of 46, he was known to a handful of musicians. In 1992, the APR label released a two-CD set of concert performances that garnered some rave reviews but which sold poorly, and in 2004, the label Palexa issued some of the same performances along with some other live recordings, and Brand’s name started to spread more. As the internet became more of a music-sharing resource, Brand became known to a wider audience than he had had in his lifetime.

What struck most listeners was Brand’s magnificent interpretations of Schumann. In particular, the complex Kreisleriana receives perhaps its most boldly inspired readings in the hands of Brand, with soaring phrasing, a glorious palette of tonal colours, and a simply massive sonority. Leonard Bernstein had heard the pianist play it at Tanglewood and proclaimed that Brand played it better than Horowitz. Years later when they met again, Bernstein immediately remembered Brand and his passionate playing. (It is worth noting that Horowitz had no greater fan than Brand, who would slide birthday cards and Christmas greetings under the legendary pianist’s door every year – Horowitz wrote back very cordial messages. The two never met.)

The released 1983 concert recording is indeed one of the most amazing performances of the work one could hope to hear:

On a trip to New York City in July 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Brand’s widow Lori, who was delighted to know that Brand’s name and interpretations are still known and admired. I was curious what other performances of this great pianist might exist, having heard from the producers of both the APR and Palexa sets that there was more and having obtained a few odd recordings here and there. As we chatted, Lori said, “I had all the videotapes of Natan transferred. Would you like to see some?” My jaw dropped – why had I not thought about the existence of filmed performances? Of course I wanted to see them!

We looked through a few of the videos, some of which were filmed practice sessions and lessons, but there were some live performances as well – the quality was not terrific overall, but of course the opportunity to see this pianist in action was worth it (I’m used to listening to ancient recordings, so I didn’t mind at all). Lori hoped that some of these could be shared with a wider public but wasn’t proficient at how to do it on YouTube. I offered to help and she was happy to share the videos with me. After my lunch appointment that day (and before my flight back home that evening), I returned armed with a portable hard drive and copied the bulk of the films.

Among the treasures therein are two that I believed were the top priority to share as soon as possible. The first is a filmed performance of the entire Kreisleriana (minus a few measures), a different concert performance from the one that was released on both APR and Palexa (some film footage of what appears to be that reading does exist, but it is incomplete). The original footage was quite dark and murky, and YouTube gave the options of brightening it somewhat, which creates a rather surreal colour palette that is not inconsistent with the otherworldly nature of Brand’s playing, but the benefit of seeing more of his hands and pedalling makes it worthwhile. Like commercially released recording, this performance is overflowing with passion:

The visual and audio quality of the next video are both infinitely better, and the contents will be of particular interest to Brand fans, as this features a composition of which no recording by the pianist is known to exist: Schumann’s Carnaval. This film is of a practice session in an auditorium in which Brand reads through most of the work, and there are some terrific shots of his hands. It is remarkable to see how he can bring such power into a single finger to produce such an enormous sound without ever sacrificing the quality of tone or the legato line (his reading of the ‘Chopin’ section just after the 14-minute mark is divine). It is most unfortunate that his reading of the entire work was not filmed (and we’re looking into whether there is a complete audio recording of Brand playing it). Nevertheless, what follows here is a treat both for admirers of Brand and all fans of great Romantic piano playing:

These are some highlights of what is a more extensive archive of Brand performances than has been publicly available. Stay tuned to this website and our Facebook page for more Natan Brand videos and for other news related to his recordings and future CD releases as we seek to preserve and share the legacy of this unique musician.