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claudette sorel rediscovered sccd018
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Claudette Sorel (piano)
rec. 1958-1962

I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve encountered the name Claudette Sorel, but what a discovery! As far as I’m aware, apart from a brief cameo appearance on a Naxos CD ‘Women at the Piano’ and a disc on an obscure label of Three American Concertos, her LP recordings never seem to have made it to silver disc. This 2 CD set entitled ‘Claudette Sorel Rediscovered’, released under the auspices of the Sorel foundation, helps redress the balance. The Sorel Classics label is under the umbrella of the Elizabeth and Michel Sorel Organization, founded by the pianist herself in 1996 and dedicated to her parents. Its mission is to support women pianists, composers and conductors.

Sorel was born in Paris in 1932 and emigrated, together with her family, to the States in 1940 prior to the Nazi invasion of France. She won a scholarship to study at the Juilliard when she was ten. She studied with Olga Samaroff, but when Samaroff died in 1948 she relocated to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she studied with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski until 1953. At the same time she studied mathematics at Columbia University. In tandem with her performing career she also taught piano at the University of Kansas, Ohio State University and at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her performing career was dramatically ended when she fell on some ice in New York in 1974. She died in August 1999.

The set comprises two CDs. Disc 1 features solo piano music, whilst the second disc presents works for piano and orchestra. Rachmaninoff and Chopin form the lion’s share of the solo items. Two scintillating gems act as a curtain raiser to CD 1. Sparkling filigree, emitting luminous sonorities, characterizes Joachim Raff’s La Fileuse (The Spinning Girl). Moszkowski’s Etincelles (Sparks) is taken at a much brisker pace than the Horowitz version. Capricious and whimsical, Sorel captures the mood to perfection. Rachmaninoff’s Nocturne in A minor, Op 10 No 1 is wistful and longing, with moments of sedate calm. It was when she was researching the composer’s piano music that Sorel stumbled across some early nocturnes, penned by Rachmaninoff when he was only fourteen years old. Rescuing them from oblivion, Sorel premiered them at a centenary celebration recital she gave in 1973. Here they receive their recording premiere. Sombre, nostalgic and imbued with Slavic melancholia, they're an absolute delight.

Sorel went to great lengths to promote and perform works by American composers such as Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss and Paul Creston. The latter composed and dedicated his piece Narrative, Op 79 No 2 to her in 1962. The work is highly charged with passionate intensity. It demands a technique of the highest order, and Sorel certainly delivers the goods with authority and commitment. Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor opens in true maestoso style. The lyrical second subject has some nicely judged rubato and is never over-indulgent. The Scherzo is a mischievous will-o-the-wisp, whilst the Largo which follows is a radiant, serene nocturne in Sorel’s hands. The exuberant finale is dispatched with coruscating brilliance; the evenness of the rapid finger work is breathtaking.

CD 2 features American Piano Concertos. The performance of Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No 2, Op 23 is a dress rehearsal from Carnegie Hall, New York taped in 1958. In the opening movement you can hear a few verbal interjections from the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Franco Autori; yet the performance is continuous. A sense of portent dominates the opening, and there’s certainly no lack of drama in the sweeping Romantic gestures of the first movement. The central scherzo-like movement is quicksilver and virtuosic and, despite its technical challenges, Sorel emerges victorious. The finale opens in serious vein, before triumph and optimism take over. The NYPO respond to Franco Autori’s inspirational direction with precision and style.

Joseph Wood’s three-movement Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra was taped live in Town Hall, New York in 1961. This is its recording premiere. The music is atonal and angular with neo-classical leanings. The two outer movements are energetic and lively, with a little bit of bombast thrown in from time to time to spice things up. It’s the central Andante sostenuto which draws me in more enthusiastically. It has a static quality, with the music hazy and overcast, almost leaden. The WNYC Festival Orchestra is conducted by Emerson Buckley.

Harold Morris’ Piano Concerto performance is also a recording premiere. It was recorded live at Carnegie Hall, January 10th, 1962 with the Orchestra of America, conducted by Richard Korn. The work is described in the booklet as “richly romantic” and “plush”. A tonal work in three movements, it conforms to the fast-slow-fast pattern. The beautiful slow movement is permeated with Negro spirituals, with some exquisite solo contributions from the first violin. Sorel responds eloquently to every nuance and inflection. The Rondo finale alternates energetic rhythms with more relaxed figures.  The recording captures a fine balance between piano and orchestra.

This release has been a terrific discovery for me. Sorel’s pianism combines supreme virtuosity, an extraordinary colour range, fertile and vivid imagination, personal magnetism and impeccable musicianship. It’s all there for the listener to savour. Sound quality is excellent throughout. David Dubal provides some highly illuminating recollections of the pianist in the accompanying booklet. If great pianism is your thing, then don’t hesitate.

Stephen Greenbank

Joachim Raff (1822-1882)
La Fileuse (The Spinning Girl)
Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925)
Etincelles (Sparks)
Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Morceaux de salon, Op 10: No 1 in A Minor, Nocturne
3 Nocturnes, Op. Posth.
Paul Creston (1906-1985)
Narrative, Op 79 No 2
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)
Piano Concerto No 2, Op 23
New York Philharmonic/Franco Autori
Dress rehearsal, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1958
Joseph Wood (1915-2000)
Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra
WNYC Festival Orchestra/Emerson Buckley
Live radio broadcast, Town Hall, New York, 1961 (New York premiere)
Harold Morris (1890-1964)
Piano Concerto
Orchestra of America/Richard Korn
Live radio broadcast, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1962

Published: October 24, 2022

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