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ClassicsOnline Home » POWELL, Maud: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1904-1917)
Listen to Maud Powells violin. If you want to be transported to a heaven of delight by the pathos of a simple sweet song, -- if you want to feel the uplift which an evening of aesthetic enjoyment gives, or if you want to feel a thrill of patriotism because a great, modest, unaffected, true and vibrant talent has been born in the Western Hemisphere--in short, if you want to find out how much can be got out of a fiddle, go--listen to--Maud Powell.
Victor Talking Machine Company
Maud Powell was born on 22nd August 1867, in Peru, Illinois, on Americas western frontier. Her grandparents were Methodist missionaries in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois before the Civil War. Her father William Bramwell Powell (1836-1904) was an innovative educator, who won a national reputation as superintendent of public schools in Peru, then Aurora, Illinois, and finally in Washington, D.C. Her mother Minnie Paul (1843-1925) was an accomplished pianist and gifted amateur composer. She and Mauds aunts were active in the woman suffrage movement. Her uncle John Wesley Powell, Civil War hero and explorer of the Grand Canyon, organized the scientific study of the western lands and of the native American Indians as the powerful director of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ethnology and founder of the National Geographic Society.
A prodigy, Maud Powell began her study of the violin at the age of seven in Aurora, then studied four years with William Lewis in Chicago. She completed her training with the great masters Henry Schradieck in Leipzig, Charles Dancla in Paris and Joseph Joachim in Berlin. She made her New York début when she was eighteen, performing Max Bruchs Concerto in G minor with America's foremost conductor Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic on 14th November, 1885. The intelligence, energy, and vigour in her playing reflected her American spirit and the brilliance, optimism and enthusiasm with which she lived. Powell performed with all the great European and American conductors and orchestras of her day, knew nearly every contemporary European and American composer personally and their music, and received international acclaim as one of the greatest artists of her time as she toured from St Petersburg in Russia, to South Africa and to Hawaii.
Although Powell died of a heart attack while on tour on 8th January, 1920, at the early age of 52, during her short lifetime, she transformed the art of violin playing and set a new standard for performance. A legendary figure, her influence was pivotal in the development of classical music in North America. Through her devotion to her violin, her art, and humanity, she became Americas first great master of the violin, winning the love and admiration of all who fell under the spell of her commanding bow and magnetic personality.
One has only to listen to Maud Powells recordings to grasp the power she had over her audiences. From the first note, she is in control of all that follows--completely in command of her instrument and totally en rapport with the music itself. There is no doubt that we are listening to a master whose genius would propel her to the top today just as it did then.
When Victor representatives approached Powell in 1904 to inaugurate its "Celebrity Artist Series" as its first solo instrumentalist, they undoubtedly hoped to capitalize on her already soaring popularity with American and European audiences. After all, the new technology of recorded sound needed all the help it could get to gain acceptance among performers and public alike. The primitive acoustic recording technology was intimidating to even the most courageous soloists. There was no microphone or editing in those days. The cylinder was just beginning to give way to Emile Berliners 78 rpm disk technology. An artist crossing the threshold into the recording "studio" stepped up to an imposing sound-gathering funnel, took a deep breath and plunged in.
"I am never as frightened as I am when I stand in front of that horn to play," Powell admitted. "Theres a ghastly feeling that youre playing for all the world and an awful sense that what is done is done. You watch that awful face at the window, waiting for the raising of the eyebrows which tells you to begin, and then (laughing heartily), for the life of you, you dont know whether you can put your finger on the right note or not! I assure you there is no chance of being bored!"
The experiment was a success. The public loved Powells recordings. Her renditions of Drdlas Souvenir (1907) and Massenets Meditation from Thaïs (1909) became best sellers both in Europe and America. Thus Maud Powell became the first instrumentalist to be named a "Victor Immortal" on the Red Seal label. In the first decade of the twentieth century, this "Celebrity Artist Series" was otherwise exclusively devoted to opera singers, including Caruso, Melba, Eames, Calvé and Plançon, because of the relatively greater effectiveness of the technology in capturing the sound of the human voice.
Even as she helped launch the new technology, Powell wisely began to use it to expand appreciation for her art. She was setting a standard of violin repertoire and performance for all the world to hear and she knew it. Her lineage as a violin performer could not have been more solid. She said she "owed the most" to her Chicago teacher William Lewis under whom she formed habits she never had to remodel. From him she received much of her vigour and freedom of style and broad taste. At thirteen she began her studies abroad, rapidly outstripping the instruction of Schradieck, Dancla, and Joachim in succession. Her unique American synthesis of all that she had learned elevated her to the highest level of violin technique and interpretation until she had few peers in the violin world. The sweep of her technical command was coupled with an unprecedented appreciation and understanding of music from every nationality. The breadth of her repertoire and the depth of her interpretative ability were unparalleled.
Although Powell introduced fourteen violin concertos to the United States, including those by Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and Sibelius, the primitive technology has denied us the opportunity to hear the violinists interpretations which first shaped this music in the public ear. What we can hear on this disc are authoritative interpretations of music by Bach and Bériot, which she learned through the most direct links to these composers. Dancla had heard Bériot perform his own music and Joachim, inspired by Mendelssohn, had reinstated Bachs solo violin works in the repertoire. In this volume, we also hear Powell continuing to champion the works of American composers. Herman Bellstedts Caprice on Dixie, composed especially for Powell, and Powells own transcriptions of Four American Folk Songs reflect the violinists strong American roots.
The American artist welcomed new music wherever she found it. In New York, she asked the newly arrived Australian composer Percy Grainger to arrange his Molly on the Shore for violin and piano. When she and pianist Arthur Loesser introduced the piece in a New York recital in 1915, Grainger watched as its infectious humour spread to the faces of a surprised and delighted house. Not surprisingly, she chose to record this gem in the summer of 1916 and it was a best seller by the autumn, boosting Graingers career as pianist and composer.
With Powell, we get a sense of the immediacy of the music she is playing on this disc. After all, so many of the composers whose works she was performing were personally known to her -- Max Bruch, Edward Elgar, Victor Herbert, Sarasate, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Sibelius and Grainger. She was deeply immersed in the music of her time as well as the classics of the violin literature.
In 1899, beginning to make her name in Europe after becoming firmly established in America, Powell turned to Max Bruch, whom she had known from her days at the Berlin Hochschule, for an introduction to the conductor Hans Richter. She played Bruchs Concerto in D minor for him privately in Berlin. While only Bruchs Kol Nidrei is represented here, we can almost hear the composer expressing his admiration for her "absolute mastery" of his concerto and his enthusiastic observation that she "played it with even more leidenschaft (passion) than Sarasate" (for whom it was written). Needless to say, the American artist was granted the introduction and that same year played the Tchaikovsky concerto with Richter in Manchester, in the North of England, where the then-intimidating masterpiece had only been heard twice before.
So as we listen once again to Maud Powells recordings, it is not hard to hear how playing like this earned the respect of her colleagues and the love and admiration of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. If Maud Powell had lived into the age of electrical recording and had been able to record complete concertos, there would be no question about her pre-eminence in the violin world in her time or her right to be ranked among the greatest violinists of all time.
Karen A. Shaffer
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