Schumann, Brahms, Mussorgsky

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Mussorgsky,Schumann
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Kinderszenen
PERFORMER: Benno Moiseiwitsch (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110668 ADD mono (1927-45)
VLADIMIR DE PACHMANN (1848-1933), one of the leading pianists at the turn of the 20th century, has been remembered more for his eccentric concert behaviour than for his pianism. Arbiter attempts to set the picture straight by assembling the most comprehensive and balanced single-disc survey yet devoted to Pachmann’s recordings (with samples of his work for G&T, Victor, Columbia and HMV), and by commissioning informed and appreciative booklet notes from Pachmann’s recent biographer Mark Mitchell; a bonus is the inclusion of previously unpublished Victor recordings, Chopin’s Étude, Op. 10/3 (1912) and Mazurkas, Opp. 67/4 and 33/3 (1911). Pachmann’s generation declaimed melodic lines with singing tone and inventiveness of both rhythm and articulation, but Pachmann also boasts agile fingers in passagework and, often, an enchanting delicacy of touch. Textual emendations range from the odd (a full chord concludes Chopin’s D minor Prelude) to the instructively improvisatory (such as altered flourishes in Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat). Pachmann’s playing deserves more attention than it has received, and I only wish that Arbiter had used quieter originals or found some way of reducing the rather fierce level of surface hiss.

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Like Pachmann, BENNO MOISEIWITSCH (1890-1963) was a native of Odessa. Two discs from Naxos reveal his supple tone and fluid phrasing, supported at many points by the breaking of chords between the hands. As a technique associated with Romantic pianism, this habit is perhaps thought especially appropriate in light, encore-type pieces. One disc features such works, the largest of which is Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser (in a performance more natural and direct than the famous renditions Jorge Bolet offered in the Seventies), but I have been more interested in the other disc, Moiseiwitsch’s HMV recordings of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (1930), Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Handel (1930) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1945). Especially in the last two works Moiseiwitsch displays a colourful, variegated, spontaneous and surprisingly rewarding style that today’s pianists avoid for fear that large-scale structure might be compromised. Without undertaking a full-fledged rewriting of Pictures, Moiseiwitsch nevertheless offers several alternative readings (the ‘Promenade’ theme is omitted from ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, for example). Ward Marston’s remastering is exemplary save for a jarring 12-second gap in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ in which a phrase of music is lost.

The playing of CLARA HASKIL (1895-1960), though clearly articulated, has sometimes seemed to me too hurried and nervous to realise the poetic implications of the music she plays. Some of this quality appears in Tahra’s ‘Inédits Haskil’, for example in Schumann’s ABEGG Variations and five pieces from Bunte Blätter, as well as in the cadenza and ending of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. But her opening phrase of the Beethoven is as stimulating as any I know, and her joyous poise in two Mozart concertos – especially K459 with Ferenc Fricsay – makes this set an essential one for her admirers, not least because it also includes a comprehensive annotated discography of Haskil’s recordings.

At his best, EDWIN FISCHER (1886-1960) was an inspiring musician. Though his commercial recordings have been much prized (recent issues of Bach on Naxos and Mozart on Urania show why), it has also been suggested that Fischer’s deeply poetical approach could not always find free rein in the recording studio. The six-disc set from Music & Arts focusing on Fischer’s concert and broadcast recordings offers some spellbinding performances – there is an ideally noble and involved account of Brahms’s Variations, Op. 21/1, and words are a poor medium through which to evoke the synthesis of confidence, mystery and freshness Fischer achieves in Bach’s E major Concerto. Not all the performances are so distinguished, however, and a real nadir is reached in an unsettled, impatient account of Brahms’s F minor Sonata – Fischer completely derails toward the end of the scherzo, improvising a conclusion that has little connection to the original. In all, this set supplements rather than anchors Fischer’s recorded legacy.

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The Dutch-French pianist GERMAINE THYSSENS-VALENTIN (1902-87) is probably a new name to most readers, but Testament’s reissues of her Fauré recordings from the Fifties have provided the most life-enhancing listening experience of my year so far. The importance of Fauré’s piano music is self-evident, but most performances of it in my experience have seemed more like piano-playing than music-making. This is decidedly not the case with Thyssens-Valentin. Her technique encompasses the music fully, without drawing attention to itself; she seems to be fully engaged with Fauré’s understated rapture, listening to it attentively and with caught breath as it unfolds; and her sound is ideally rounded, transparent and unforced, a gateway to a magical realm of introspection. I urge everyone interested in piano music hear and to absorb these incomparable distillations of Fauré’s expressive essence.