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ClassicsOnline Home » LEGENDS OF THE PIANO - Acoustic Recordings 1901-1924
This collection features some of the greatest composers ever to record, along with disciples playing pieces by their masters. The disciples fall largely into two main ‘schools’: the Chopin/Schumann axis and the Liszt/Leschetizky group, offering piquant contrast in the piano styles that survived in the playing of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, respectively. The recordings were selected for performance quality as well as historical and sonic considerations.
By Jonathan Woolf
Legends of the Piano
Acoustic Recordings 1901–1924
The first classical composer to record was also the greatest to record: in 1889 Johannes Brahms played a few bars from his Hungarian Dance No. 1 to help Thomas Edison publicise his newly improved phonograph. That cylinder, posted here and there on the Internet, now resides in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—bent, pulled, and mangled by the deformed wax beyond any musical experience.
During the twilight of the Romantic era, when nationalist sentiment celebrated the vistas and heritage of la patrie, other composers followed Brahms to the recording horn: Saint-Saëns, who retained into his eighties the speed and clarity that dazzled Liszt, Berlioz, and Rossini; Grieg; Granados; and perhaps Tchaikovsky (there are rumours of a cylinder destroyed in World War II). Nature also was a theme, as with Debussy and d’Indy.
For Grieg, nationalism’s dark underside—xenophobia—left an unforeseen legacy. In 1899, after anti-Semitism had convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason, an outraged Grieg spurned an invitation to conduct his works in Paris. His letter of refusal (“Like all other non-Frenchmen, I am shocked at the injustice in your country”) was published in the press throughout Europe. Four years later Paris invited him again, though not all tempers had cooled. As Grieg took the stage on 19 April 1903, the packed Châtelet Theatre met him with hissing and shouts, but police ejected the worst disrupters. When the concert ended, Grieg was embraced with thunderous applause and repeated ovations. It was during this triumphal visit that Grieg, who rather enjoyed the drama, consented to make nine sides, his only disc recordings. At the end of Gangar, Grieg or his engineer can be heard.
Paris-born Cécile Chaminade was hugely popular in her day, performed by everyone from Nellie Melba to John Philip Sousa. Like other French composers of la belle époque, she often painted with exotic hues, as in one of her best-known pieces, the Spanish-tinged La Lisonjera, also called L’Enjôleuse. Though she wrote a comic opera, chamber and orchestral music, a ballet, and songs, about 350 compositions in all, Chaminade was famed for her short, gossamer piano works. These were the rage in France, England (where she performed regularly), and the United States (there were Chaminade clubs all over the country). Queen Victoria, an enthusiastic admirer, welcomed her at Windsor Castle. Chaminade’s organ Prélude, Op. 78, was played at the Queen’s funeral, a few months before this disc was cut.
In a tradition far older than the recording era, the major composers attracted pianists of at least equal skill, who became preferred interpreters. Vassily Sapellnikoff of Odessa, student of a prominent Lisztian at the St Petersburg Conservatory, toured with Tchaikovsky and became a close friend, playing the First and Second Piano Concertos under the composer’s baton. The Belgian Arthur de Greef spent time with Liszt and was on familiar terms with Grieg, who considered de Greef’s rendition of his piano concerto the finest he had heard.
Judged by Anton Rubinstein “the greatest of us all,” Ilona Eibenschütz, a cantor’s daughter from Budapest, was a prodigy at four (playing for a delighted Liszt not long after) and a mature professional at thirteen, when she began studying with Clara Schumann, the composer, concert artist, and among the most influential of teachers. Her natural, fluid lyricism was presumably encouraged by Frau Schumann, who, said Eibenschütz, insisted that the piano’s percussive aspects must be concealed; every note must be clear with a full, warm tone, carrying a touch that made every melody ring out like a song. (This exactly describes the style of another Clara Schumann pupil and Brahms friend, the grim-visaged Marie Baumayer, herself an important teacher and Brahms exponent in Vienna.)
While under Frau Schumann’s tutelage, Eibenschütz met Brahms, whose Klavierstücke, Opp. 118 and 119, she premiered. “I became an ardent Brahmsian,” wrote Eibenschütz, and the respect was mutual: once, when Brahms was strolling with Eibenschütz and a few other friends, he pointed to her and said, “She is the pianist I best like to hear playing my works.” Brahms, always alert to feminine charms, was evidently taken with the young beauty, who may have helped inspire these pieces.
Ten years into a brilliant concert career that took her all over Europe—she refused to travel to America, reportedly being afraid of Indians—Eibenschütz married a stockbroker and abruptly retired from public performance. She lived quietly in London, enchanting family and friends with private recitals. This copy of the waltzes (like the Ballade, played a bit faster than is now customary), a test pressing, was her own. Listen for the engineer prompting her to begin.
Alfred Grünfeld, one of only a handful to record Mozart this early, was friendly with Brahms and Johann Strauss, who dedicated his famous Voices of Spring waltz to him. Grünfeld’s specialty was the miniature: Brahms waltzes and Strauss transcriptions like his Voices and Soirée de Vienne, which interweaves tunes from Die Fledermaus. Though dismissed by the formidable Josef Hofmann as “a velvety touch,” Grünfeld exhibits genuine sensitivity in the Mozart; as for the Strauss, velvet ideally suits these creamery pastries from the salons of old Vienna.
At one generation’s remove are the Chopinists: Natalia Janotha, Aleksander Michałowski, and Raoul von Koczalski. Janotha (who also composed) studied with Frau Schumann and a talented Chopin favorite, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska. Here, Janotha plays from Chopin’s own manuscript of a Bach-inspired youthful work (with Chopin’s handwritten notations) given her by the princess. Even in an age of eccentricity, Mme Janotha stood apart: as Mark Hambourg observed, her concerts were always adorned by “a magnificent black cat, without which she declared that it was impossible for her to play a single note, and which sat plumply upon the piano in front of her.”
Michałowski, whose reputation was towering within Poland but almost non-existent without, received instruction from Karol Mikuli, Karl Tausig, and Ignaz Moscheles, eminent disciples of, respectively, Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. From Mikuli he learned Chopin’s ideas on interpretation; Michałowski likely approximates some aspects of the composer’s own playing. One pupil, the distinguished pianist/composer Władysław Szpilman (author of The Pianist and subject of the film by the same name), recalled for these notes that Michałowski, nervous and all but blind toward the end of his life, played his scores from memory “with a great virtuosity” and created a “special atmosphere” at home. Listeners felt Brahms could knock on the door at any moment.
Koczalski spent four summers with Mikuli in Lwów. “It was no trifle,” he remembered; “each lesson lasted two full hours, and these were daily lessons…Nothing was neglected.” Koczalski was a prodigy’s prodigy, making his début at four and, while still a child, appointed court pianist to the Shah of Persia. He had no teacher but Mikuli; both teacher and student apparently saw Koczalski as a specially equipped heir to the authentic Chopin tradition. In the light-fingered, aristocratic phrasing of Michałowski and the brisk, well articulated brushstrokes of Koczalski, we may glimpse their ancestor, fleet and dexterous.
For Chopin and followers like Clara Schumann (who heard Chopin play and had been among the first to perform his music in public), the piano was a single, pure instrument, akin to the violin or the human voice. For Liszt and pedagogues like Theodor Leschetizky and Anton Rubinstein, the piano was a one-piece orchestra, the synthesizer of its time, to be “conducted” for a full range of colour and effect through rubato, individual accentuations, and pedal artistry. In the twentieth century, these two approaches survived in the mellow singing line of Artur Rubinstein, protégé of Joseph Joachim, the great violinist and intimate of Brahms and Frau Schumann; and in the tempestuous fireworks of Vladimir Horowitz, student of a Leschetizky pupil at the Kiev Conservatory. Among our artists, Sapellnikoff, Lamond, and Friedheim most clearly exemplify the Liszt-Leschetizky “school,” while Eibenschütz, Baumayer, Janotha, and Michałowski are most clearly of the Chopin-Schumann axis.
Hambourg, a Russian emigrant to England, studied with Leschetizky (who told Hambourg he played uncannily like Anton Rubinstein). As habitué of a Chelsea salon, Hambourg mingled with Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry, and, on one afternoon, Lenin. To stir pride in his adopted nation’s artistic tradition during the Great War, Hambourg gave a series of concerts for which he had delved into England’s musical history, poring over ancient manuscripts in the British Museum. This 78 preserves a sampling of those successful concerts, which featured works by Purcell, Bull, Gibbons, Byrd, Blow, and Arne—then seldom played, now recognized masters of the English baroque.
Of those in Liszt’s circle who left recordings, Frederic Lamond and Arthur Friedheim occupy the top rank. The Glaswegian Lamond (Liszt called him “der Schotte”), admired by Brahms, won fame as a Beethovenist. Adept also on the oboe and violin as well as a linguist competent in French, German, Russian, Turkish, and Gaelic, Lamond taught, among others, Victor Borge.
After an Arthur Friedheim performance of the Sonata in B minor at Weimar, Liszt turned to those around him and confided, “That is the way I thought the composition when I wrote it.” Accepted by Liszt as a pupil, Friedheim became Liszt’s teaching assistant, personal secretary, and confidant. He was probably the closest student of all to Liszt, both in piano technique (the sweeping “grand manner”) and general temperament (intensely philosophical, with spiritual overtones), even sharing a physical resemblance. “Friedheim’s recital,” to one newspaper critic in 1922, “was more of a séance”. Wrote Louis Karpath, “When I listen to Arthur Friedheim I close my eyes and I seem to hear the Master, Franz Liszt.”
A proponent of Dreyfus’s innocence, Friedheim dissolved his long friendship with Saint-Saëns after Friedheim pressed him, unsuccessfully, to add his name to a defence of Dreyfus for publication in French newspapers. Ironically, this recording is the result of like prejudice. The anti-German hysteria in North America occasioned by World War I—Karl Muck, the noted conductor of the Boston Symphony, was interned as an enemy alien—extended (because of his name) to Friedheim, born in St Petersburg. Twice offered the directorship of the New York Philharmonic, honoured at the Taft White House and the courts of Europe, Friedheim was banned from the concert stage and reduced overnight to playing for the silent movies and the vaudeville circuit. His combustible reading of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, says a 1915 review in Variety, was a crowd-pleaser at New York’s Palace Theatre.
In this recording, made out of financial desperation for a pop music firm (Emerson was also Eddie Cantor’s label around this time), the reluctant crossover star, true to Liszt’s precepts, brings out the colours of his instrument while tossing off the bravura “gypsy” melody. Friedheim remained in New York except for sojourns in Canada and California, where he played duets with Albert Einstein on violin, but never again recorded.
Russell L. Caplan
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