Friday, October 1, 2010

"A Century of Romantic Chopin" is now available at the Marston site

The must-have CD set for piano lovers everywhere is now available.

First, I will place here the announcement that Gregor Benko posted to Internet piano groups, because he can describe this historic set far better than I can:

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The web site gives the complete track listings and liner notes, including mini-biographies of the 65 pianists appearing in the compilation.  All of Chopin's etudes are represented, as well as a selection of preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, ballades, and scherzi, each performance conveying a personal approach to the music.

Some of the recordings will be familiar to piano lovers because of their legendary status, while many others are delightful (or infuriating, depending on your attitude) surprises, taken from concert performances and out-of-print recordings.

There are some incredibly great and almost unknown recordings, such as the "live" broadcast performance of Moriz Rosenthal in an (almost-complete) Largo from the B minor Sonata, the double-thirds Etude in a "live" broadcast performance by Josef Lhevinne, a previously unissued A minor Valse from a 1979 concert by Horowitz, an Op. 42 A flat Waltz by Arthur Loesser (one of the earliest electrically recorded discs ever made), and Zadora's transcription of the Minute Waltz from a "live" recording by Cecille Staub Genhart, one of the great but unknown pianists whose work is rescued by this set.

Some of the formerly unknown great recordings include two Etudes each by Sidney Foster and Arthur Rubinstein and the F minor Nouvelle Etude from a concert by Robert Goldsand, unearthly beautiful performances of Nocturnes by Raymond Lewenthal and Francesco Libetta, red hot live performances of Ballades 1 and 4 respectively by Earl Wild and Jorge Bolet, an astonishing group of Preludes from a 1966 concert by Guiomar Novaes, and a haunting Mazurka played at the last public performance by Joseph Villa.

"Live" recordings that will raise eyebrows include the B minor Scherzo by Natan Brand and the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne played by Thomas Manshardt in very free style, as well as the Tarantelle from a concert by Shura Cherkassky.

Perhaps few have heard of Antonietta Rudge, another of the great pianists of the last century whose work is little known, nor have many known of Karl Ulrich Schnabel's fascination with the third
Scherzo. Included in the set are commercial recordings that had never been issued before by Simon Barer and Lubka Kolessa, as well as formerly issued but obscure recordings by Geza Anda, Alexander Brailowsky, Marcel Ciampi, Arthur de Greef, Samuel Feinberg, Grigory Ginzburg, Youra Guller, William Kapell, Nikolai Orloff, Antonietta Rudge, Walter Rummel, David Saperton, Irene Scharrer, Ann Schein, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Jan Smeterlin, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Evgeny Svetlanov, Magda Tagliaferro and Michael von Zadora.

We have all heard early music specialists etiolate music on "authentic" pianos, but few have heard an actually beautiful romantic performance coaxed from those intractable boxes of strings under low tension; so be prepared for a very pleasant surprise in hearing Fania Chapiro play the Op. 62 B major Nocturne on an 1820 Broadwood pianoforte.

Not to be missed is Alicia de Larrocha's performance of the Op. 32 B major Nocturne, a recording made when she was nine years old, proving that great musical talent is inborn, at least in her.

Well known recordings by Arrau, Backhaus, Cortot, Friedman, Gieseking, Godowsky, Hofmann, Koczalski, Levitzki, Lipatti, Ohlsson, Pachmann, Plante, Renard, Rosenthal, Solomon, and von Sauer are also included.

At the end of the fourth CD are found eight "Historic" recordings by Busoni, Grunfeld, Michalowski, Paderewski and Rachmaninoff, as well as Paul Pabst's two 1895 cylinders (the earliest surviving recordings of Chopin) and the incomplete Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne performed in the freest possible style by Bela Bartok, recorded in 1939 on a piece of recycled Xray film.

The liner notes by Harold C. Schonberg and Frank Cooper are fascinating and controversial.  As co-producer I have heard from several people who purchased the set, and as expected, each and every one of them disagrees with a few of our choices, but all (so far) have loved the compilation and found it to be immediately an essential cornerstone of their recordings library.  Everyone has
complimented us on the handsome appearance of the set, on the superior transfers, and for having the idea in the first place.

Gregor Benko

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I will add a few personal remarks. 

First, let's review (and paraphrase slightly) a statement that Benko made at the very beginning of his announcement - that in this set "each performance [would convey] a personal approach to the music". 

A vast majority of these performances do not convey what we might consider to be "proper Chopin style" today.  But these performers lived closer to Chopin's time than we do, so who is to judge?  In fact, three pianists represented in this set (Aleksander Michalowski, Moriz Rosenthal, and Raoul von Koczalski) studied with Carl Mikuli, one of the best-known pupils of Chopin, and it is not too unreasonable to hope that perhaps they have some of Chopin's musical DNA.  (Mikuli also edited the "complete" Chopin works, still available in the US from G. Schirmer and some volumes reprinted by Dover.)

There are a few more pianists with some Chopin lineage.  Another Chopin pupil, Georges Mathias, taught such notables as Isidor Philipp and Raoul Pugno, both of whom unfortunately left us only a few scarce recordings. Alfred Cortot studied with Emile Descombes, who is alleged to have been a pupil of Chopin.

There has already been an onslaught of quips amongst pianophiles about "what should have been included".  The title of this set is NOT "A Century of The Greatest Chopin Performances".  Certainly many pianists (and possibly a few trained seals) have given better performances of the Chopin Etude in C Major, op. 10 no. 7.  But Francis Plante was pushing ninety when he recorded it, and he was born ten years before Chopin died, and possibly could have heard him play live.  Several benchmark performances were not included because they are so easily found elsewhere, and one that arguably "should have been included" was bettered here - by the same pianist!

The Josef Lhevinne recording of the "Thirds" etude, op. 25 no. 6, has long been the unassailable standard by which any performance of this piece was judged.  But Benko and Marston chose NOT to include that Victor recording, opting instead for a LIVE performance by Lhevinne from a 1933 radio broadcast. 

My personal favorite historical Chopin recording is the Ignaz Friedman recording of the Revolutionary Etude, op. 10 no. 12 - however it too is not included.  Instead, we have a live performance by Arthur Rubinstein from a 1974 recital.  Since Rubinstein gave us precious few recordings of the Etudes, I can be consoled with this - besides, I have a copy of the original Friedman 78, coupled with an equally transcendent recording of the Etude in C, op. 10 no. 7.  Same side, one take.  Correspondence with one "in the know" informed me that the the current owners of the American Victor and Columbia labels - I won't name names, but their initials are BMG/Sony - would not license material to Marston for this release.  This explains the omission of the Friedman Revolutionary Etude as well as the Lhevinne studio recording of the etude in thirds, any Rachmaninoff recordings for Victor, and many others such as Percy Grainger.

Another pleasant surprise for me was the recording chosen for the Etude in C sharp Minor, op. 25 no. 7 - the beloved "Cello" etude, and one I often perform myself.  I heard it "blind" - in the car while driving, and was amazed at the poetry, the rubato, but yet the underlying pulse.  This piece can fall into a pile of steaming emotion (and probably does often in my performances) but this recording is arguably the most beautiful recording of this etude that I have ever heard.  When I later checked the track listing, I was surprised to learn the pianist was Evgeny Svetlanov, who is now better known as a conductor.

The 1932 recording of the young Alicia de Larrocha of the Chopin B major Nocturne (op. 32 no. 1) is a high point for me, as it documents her immense talent at a very early age - nine years old.  While visiting family friend and mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia in the Odeon recording studio, little Alicia was persuaded to make a recording or two.

The playing of Natan Brand and Joseph Villa remind us that so many great talents are taken away too early, and we are fortunate to have some of their performances documented through recordings.

Sidney Foster, we hardly knew ye!  I only knew of his playing through an old Musical Heritage Society LP recording of Clementi Sonatinas (!), but his live recordings of the fourth and fifth etudes from op. 10 verge on the surreal.  I could swear I saw lightning bolts come out of my speakers.  Simply amazing, electric, pianism.  Perhaps nuclear-fission pianism.

Through the selected preludes by Mischa Levitzki we get an object lesson on how pianists "used to" perform these.  He repeats the shorter ones and varies the touch somewhat.  I confess that I have found Levitzki to be without charm in the past, these recordings cause me to consider a re-evaluation.

A few unknown names remain in my memory - Thomas Manshardt (1927-2009) for one.  This is one I will file in my "quirky historical pianists" file.  Known as "the last pupil of Alfred Cortot" (although Idil Biret is still alive, performing, and recording), he is represented here in a live 1980 performance of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne.  The playing sounds to me like that of a meandering, doddering old relic of the past, but he would have been 53 years old when this was recorded - a mere three years older than I am at the time of writing this article.  It is enlightening to hear, but it not playing that I would want to hear on a regular basis.

Few "current names" are represented, but Francesco Libetta seduces us with the D flat Nocturne, op. 27 no. 2.  This nocturne's sister, no. 1 in C sharp minor, is given an illuminating (if one CAN "illuminate" a Nocturne) performance by - of all people - Bela Bartok - an incomplete, but priceless as is, performance, captured on X-ray film.

And last, but not least, for those who have been unable to snatch up a copy of Marston's release of The Julius Block Cylinders, there are two tracks here played by Paul Pabst - recorded in 1895.  These are considered the earliest extant recordings of Chopin's piano music, and the performances hold up rather well.

Carefully researched, expertly transferred from often difficult sources, this set is a must-have for Chopin enthusiasts.  If you love the piano - if you love Chopin, buy it.


  1. Gregor and Ward are doing seminal, critical work in preserving (and re-establishing) a canon of creative piano playing performance.

  2. Thomas Manshardt died not in 1999 but in 2009. Nigel.

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