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MAUD POWELL (1867-1920). THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS 1904-1917. VOLUME 2

JS BACH Sonata No3 Movements 1 and IV
HANDEL Xerxes; largo
MOZART Divertimento K334; Minuet
BOCCHERINI arr POWELL Quintet Op 13 No 5; Tempo di Minuetto
MARTINI arr POWELL Plaisir d’amour
VIEUXTEMPS Bouquet americain Op 33; St Patrick’s Day
Polonaise Op 38
WIENIAWSKI Violin Concerto No2 Op 22; Romance
Capriccio Valse Op 7
SCHUBERT Ave Maria
Rosamunde Op 26; Entr’acte 111
RAFF Cavatina Op 85 No 3
ZARZYCKI Mazurka Op 26
SCHUMANN Kinderszenen; Op15 Traumerei
GRIEG arr MARCOSSON To Spring
LEYBACH Fifth Nocturne Op 52
OFFENBACH Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Barcarolle
OGAREW Caprice Op 51 No 2
CHOPIN arr MacMILLEN The Maiden’s Wish
MASSENET Les Erinnyes; Elegie
POLDINI arr HARTMANN Poupee-valsante
CADMAN Little firefly
Maud Powell violin with variously
Arthur Loesser piano
Waldemar Liachowsky piano
George Falkenstein piano
Francis J Lapitino harp
Orchestra conducted by Josef A Pasternack
Recorded between 1904-1917
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110962 [76.04]

Crotchet  

Pioneer American Violinist was the sub-title of Karen Shaffer’s 1988 biography of Maud Powell and it was a good one to choose. She was the first violinist to be signed by Victor, a genuine proselytiser for American music, an inveterate tourer, quartet leader, musical barnstormer and one of the finest string players of her time. It was Powell who gave the American premieres of, amongst others, the concertos by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Sibelius, Aulin, Conus, Coleridge-Taylor and the Lalo F major. A major figure in American musical life.

She was an artist whose musical training had ended by 1890. Amongst her teachers had been Joachim but she always considered her most formative experiences to have been with Dancla, her Parisian professor. Hers was a turn of the century style of playing with a vibrato of medium speed, not always consistently applied, a trill that was fast but not of electric velocity, a sturdy technique, with frequent recourse to portamenti, tonally often inclined to dryness, but of buoyant musicality and vivid incisiveness. It is of great interest to consider her recordings in the light of performance practice and to note the individual characteristics that informed her playing. In the two movements of the Bach sonata we can hear her expressive portamenti, a juddering rallentando, and her rather dry tone in the First Movement whilst the Fourth features a performance of real fleetness, clean articulation, expressive diminuendos (not an easy feat on a 1916 Victor) and the characteristically dramatic slowing down then fashionable in Baroque performance practice. There is even a temporary loss of synchronicity with her pianist, the estimable Arthur Loesser, so rapidly is the movement played. She makes no portamenti in the opening phrase of Handel’s Xerxes, unlike many of her younger colleagues, and has a sure instinct for musical structure. Her tone is hardly one of lyric intensity - this is pre-Kreisler playing - and if her final portamenti seems naively applied its purpose was always one of intensification of musical feeling – by comparison with a much younger player, Marie Hall for instance, her playing is decidedly clean and unaffected.

The Mozart displays her command of a steady tempo, if with dry sounding lower two strings, whilst the Boccherini is vibrantly realised, with good pizzicatos, and an admirable melodic impulse. Inconsistent vibrato usage afflicts the Martini. In Vieuxtemps’ flashy Bouquet americain we can hear a range of instrumental gimmicks, but admire the fluent and flexible bowing and the pizzicatos in the Irish passage and the same composer’s Polonaise is played with real flair, if not always perfect address. In one of her rare outings in the piano-accompanied concerto literature she plays the Romance from Wieniawski’s D major Concerto with lyric intensity if sometimes questionable intonation, whilst the meretricious but exciting Capriccio Valse tests the violinist’s technical equipment to Powell’s advantage.

In the ubiquitous Ave Maria surface noise, slow slides and a slow to medium vibrato tend to sap the piece; this is a performance that cannot compete in terms of vibrancy and colour with the burgeoning and opulent tonalists then emerging from Russia or with the established central European masters. Her Rosamunde is affectionate and nicely lyric but somewhat dissipated by uneven and inconsistent sound projection. The Raff Cavatina, stand-by of violinists down the years, shows the violinist sensitively and imaginatively varying both volume and tempi; this is a canny piece of playing and a well-rounded performance, never sentimentalised (she was not that kind of player) with nice double-stopping, if sounding a little rushed. Zarzycki’s Mazurka is tossed off dashing skill.

Elsewhere the Grieg transcription features more of her fast trills, is lyrical, well-paced and, albeit with a couple of gulped slides, a good performance if not of optimum expressivity. With Leybach’s rather charming salon piece the orchestra makes an appearance, reminding us of Powell’s days touring with Sousa’s Band. Her Offenbach lacks tonal variety, the Ogarew Caprice shows off her glissando and the Massenet is a neat but somewhat retrogressive performance. By 1917 it was already a dated style of playing with Elman and Heifetz already on American shores and the young Spalding carving a name for himself, not to mention others such as Sammons, Busch and Thibaud, and to say nothing of Kreisler. The Poldini Poupee-valsante is a subtly neat performance with good work on the lower strings and the final piece Cadman’s uninteresting Little Firefly receives a suitably uninteresting performance. It is strangely uninvolved playing, dry in tone and inexpressive and a disappointing end to the programme though hardly representative of Powell’s playing as a whole.

With the publication of that 1988 biography, the Maud Powell Foundation also issued three CDs (and cassettes) of her performances. This CD exactly replicates Volume 2 of the Foundation’s own issue, also remastered by Ward Marston who has taken the occasion to work on the transfers again. The differences are minimal. There is still too much surface "chuffing" on the Vieuxtemps Bouquet americain, too much swishing on Massenet’s Elegie and also on the Poldini. I am still unconvinced by the wisdom of a non-chronological series of discs. A series of CDs of this significance deserves a chronological release, session by session, from her first recording session in 1904 to her last.

That aside I have nothing but praise. Notes by Karen Shaffer, Powell’s biographer, are admiring and cogent. This is a series of real discographic and musical interest. A major artist’s entire body of work will be available at a cheap price in good transfers. If only such enterprise and largesse were to be shown to other elite violinists – Albert Sammons, Paul Kochanski, Joan Manen…. the list is long. How about it, Naxos?


Jonathan Woolf

See review of Volume 1


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