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Smeterlin recitals MC1067

Jan Smeterlin (piano)
Piano Recitals 1951-1958
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Carnaval, Op 9
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Poissons d'or from Images Bk.2, L.111L
L'Isle Joyeuse, L.106
Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
Coloquio en la reja, No.2 from Goyescas
rec. Maison Pulliérane, Lausanne, Switzerland, 5 March 1958 (Liszt), Studio 1, NCRV, Hilversum, The Netherlands, 24 October 1951 (Schumann), 20 April 1951 (Debussy, Granados)
Radio studio recordings

Jan Smeterlin was born Hans Schmetterling in Bielitz, Austrian Silesia in 1892. Though his parents were not musical they gave him the opportunity to learn the piano and his gifts presented themselves well enough that he played Mozart's Concerto K.467 at a school concert aged 8 and Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy the following year. He was not exploited as a child prodigy though and indeed his first appearance in print was not as a pianist but rather to report that the 6 year old Hans had been bitten by a rabid dog. While his father was content for him to continue playing piano he wanted him to study law and so was satisfied when Smeterlin chose Vienna University little realising that he had chosen Vienna as this was where Leopold Godowsky lived and, from 1909 to 1914, taught. He began to perform and as one of four Godowsky pupils who took the stage on 26th November, 1912 for a night of piano concertos he played Brahms' mighty Concerto in B flat which was evidently superb; That man has nerves of steel said Godowsky in 1916. After serving as an interpreter during the war Smeterlin began to concertise drawing his programmes from the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin as well as more recent music by the likes of Rachmaninov and, not surprisingly, Godowsky. From that point forward he made a point of including some more contemporary composers in his programmes, Albéniz, Dukas, Koechlin and Szymanowski amongst them. It was only after the second world war that his repertoire narrowed and he began to give all Chopin recitals though concertos by Mozart and Grieg still appeared. Nowadays he is known as a Chopin specialist since, apart from a 78 rpm of the Schulz-Evler Blue Danube arabesques and an LP of Brahms it is only Chopin that we tend to hear from him. It is wonderful to hear him in music he did not record commercially thanks to Lynn Ludwig's Meloclassic label unearthing these broadcasts from Dutch radio.

His Liszt B minor Sonata, recorded in 1958, is grand and authoritative, not the performance of a showman but by no means lacking in technical mastery. Smeterlin has firm grasp on the structure of the work and never overdoes the climaxes, approaching them with skilfully graduated dynamics. In the B flat major/G minor section where the opening theme is developed in octaves by both hands Smeterlin has an odd habit of playing the descending triplets almost as a continuation of the third beat; this is obviously a personal quirk as he does it each time that figure appears. It does not detract from what is a very satisfying performance. Two more broadcasts date from seven years earlier and in October 1951 Smeterlin played another major work, Schumann's Carnaval. Once again this contains fine playing; his tone is beautifully even in legato passages and there is a wonderful sense of rubato, very apparent in movements such as Eusebius and Chopin but present throughout. Little personal touches can be found here too; in the second phrase of Pierrot Smeterlin puts a little lift between the high A flat chord and the following B flat chord and he stresses the second beat of the bar in Valse allemande, more of a Valse Viennois really but it all makes for a colourful and personal vision of this kaleidoscopic cast of characters.

In April of that year he recorded Debussy and Granados; the Debussy items have sparkling articulation and in Poissons d'or a real sense of whirling, nervous aquatic movement. For me the highlight of the disc is Coloquio en la Reja, conversations at the grille, which he crafts with loving care. His control of line and inner voices, not surprising for a Godowsky pupil, left me breathless and he navigates the complex, sinuous writing with consummate ease. In the copla the shading of pianissimo and even quieter dynamics is miraculous and even as passions rise and the dynamics reach the other end of the scale his tone remains full.

Fans of Smeterlin, and I can safely add myself to that group, will be delighted to have these marvellous documents that give a more rounded picture of him as a pianist especially as the sound is so clear. The cover indicates that the 1951 items were recorded on acetate discs and though there is a difference in sound after the Liszt Sonata it is in no way detrimental and Smeterlin's lively characterisation and lovely sound are clear in all items. Lynn Ludwig, producer and owner of Meloclassic, hints that there may be another Liszt Sonata, this time from Swiss radio so it is to be hoped that this and more items surface for future release. The CD is in a gatefold sleeve with excellent, detailed notes by Michael Waiblinger (English only) and the website listing for the CD also has links to a pupil's memoire, reminiscences by Maurice Fitzmaurice who studied with Smeterlin between 1955 and 1962. A valuable release.

Rob Challinor

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