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
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