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Leonard Pennario – the Early Years 1950-58
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.35 (1839) [21:21]

No.1 Op.18 E flat major [3:58]
No.2 Op.34/1 A flat major [4:34]
No.3 Op.34/2 A minor [5:58]
No.4 Op.34/3 F major [2:08]
No.5 Op.42 A flat major [3:43]
No.6 Op.64/1 D flat major [1:34]
No.7 Op.64/2 C sharp minor [3:18]
No.8 Op.64/3 A flat major [2:28]
No.9 Op.69/1 A flat major (1835) [4:10]
No.10 Op.69/2 B minor (1829) [3:07]
No.11 Op.70/1 G flat major (1835) [1:53]
No.12 Op.posth F minor (1847/48) [3:06]
No.13 Op.70/3 D flat major (1829) [2:28]
No.14 Op.posth E minor (1830) [2:55]
Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 [6:01]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Fantasia in C major Op.17 (1836-38) [29:48]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Sonata in B minor S178 (1855) [26:49]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Prélude, Chorale and Fugue (1884) [18:09]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [28:33]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Visions Fugitives Op.22 (1915-18) [19:58]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Piano Sonata Sz.80 (1926) [12:39]
Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)

Piano Sonata in A minor Op.20 (1949) [18:34]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Miroirs (1904-05) [25:31]
Gaspard de la nuit (1909) [20:14]
La Valse (1920) [10:46]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La Plus que Lent (1910) [4:33]
Rêverie (pub. 1895) [4:19]
Leonard PENNARIO (b.1924)

Midnight on the Cliffs (1942) [4:34]
Variations on The Kerry Dancers (1942) [8:41]
Leonard Pennario (piano)
rec. Hollywood, California, 1950-58
MSR 1188 [4 CDs: 72:40 + 74:45 + 79:57 + 78:37]


As well as being active in promoting contemporary pianists – Joshua Pierce is a prime example – MSR has now restored Leonard Pennario’s Capitol recordings made between 1950 and 1958. I’ve consistently found that MSR’s Pierce recordings promote a distinctly 1950s ethos in spotlighting the piano at the expense of orchestral forces. Here there’s no orchestra, obviously, but these genuinely 1950s recordings are all too audibly products of their time. I don’t know how faithfully the MSR remastering reflects the originals – very, I would assume, but without access to the original LPs one can’t be definitive – but the four well-filled discs present a distinct series of different problems.

Pennario’s Liszt Sonata sounds nastily synthetic with a thoroughly unpleasant, plastic bass. Capitol generally used Steinways I think but recorded them in unmerciful close-up. The results, as here, are unsympathetic. In any case Pennario’s instincts seem to be predicated on a Horowitz model but without much ancillary insight. The finale finds him exploring better musical avenues – there’s some beautiful playing despite the wretched recording. But earlier on his playing is rigid and mechanical. His Chopin is also disappointing. The Sonata sounds dead at the tempo he promotes, not least because he phrases with seemingly a total lack of affection for the music. There’s no doubting the finger precision but the spirit is missing. The Waltzes suffer from poor tempo choices – and are heavy and charmless.

By the time we reach the Mussorgsky Pictures – apparently heard in its entirety for the first time on disc – we reach the nadir of Capitol’s engineering. This is simply one of the most bizarre sounds I’ve ever heard from an LP. Sounding more like a clavichord than anything Pennario’s instrument proves utterly self-defeating. It’s difficult to reconstruct his instincts from the clavichord masquerading as a piano but even so there’s nothing especially distinctive about the playing.

The nature of the recording changes dramatically for the Prokofiev – so much better that one wonders whether the whole thing is not some plot. His playing here is very much more involving and marks a dramatic upturn in expressive sensitivity. This is a view seconded by his performances of Ravel where one senses his greatest gifts lay in the realm of a certain cool, dispassionate impersonality. His objectified approach is at a far remove from Gieseking. Pennario’s playing has a crystalline clarity in Gaspard, which is reflective of his entire Ravel performances. This kind of playing is brilliantly apt whilst remaining simultaneously rather limited in its colouristic responses.

The Bartók and Rozsa sonatas are distinctive performances. They demonstrate Pennario’s power of rhythmic control and an incisive awareness of the structural dictates of both works. To this extent his dispassionate objectivity finds its greatest target in these two works. The Franck is played well but suffers another uncomfortable recording – too many of these sessions were recorded either far too close or suffered from he kind of airless constriction once common in pre-War Parisian studios. The Schumann receives a young man’s performance – avid, determined, and superficial. There are two of Pennario’s own works, both youthful - Midnight on the Cliffs is the better known, a Lisztian and Rachmaninovian opus that sounds like a windswept Addinsell.

So the performances here are very variable and the original recording set-ups frequently inept. But the box covers a lot of ground and neatly collates a swathe of Pennario’s earliest recordings.

Jonathan Woolf

MSR web site


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