A fascinating release. Born Fannie Blumenfeld in Bielitz,
Austrian Silesia, Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler emigrated to America with
her family when a child. One of the foremost Leschetizky pupils she
seems to have been averse to recording onto disc but, like so many of
her contemporaries, not to making piano rolls, which she doubtless felt
enshrined with more fidelity her performances. This double CD set comprises
selections from her three sessions for one of the leading piano roll
companies, Welte Mignon, and date from 1908 and 1912 (in Freiburg) and
1924 (in New York).
One of the most active and admired of American pianists
she toured widely, premiered much and didn’t neglect contemporary compositions
– including Macdowell, Chaminade, Amy Beach and Marie Prentner, amongst
many. She took on the bravura repertoire such as Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein
and Liszt 1 but seems not to have tackled Beethoven 1, 2 and 4, Chopin
1 or either Brahms. The recordings here were used making the paper Welte
Mignon reproducing rolls on a restored 1923 Feurich Welte piano, in
stereo, using two microphones. They are remarkably lifelike and impressive.
The performances themselves are held to have reproduced the dynamic
level of each note as the musician played it (other systems, such as
the early Ampico and Duo Art couldn’t achieve this and the dynamic levels
were added after the performance by engineers, often with the help of
the pianist). Welte thus employed an edit-less system with the sole
exception of wrong notes, which were always corrected. The veracity,
correct transfer and fidelity of the reproducing piano roll is a complex
subject in itself and has been for many years now but these sound, occasional
piano tuning problems aside, exceptional.
It is of course exceptionally valuable to have major
literature, such as the Beethoven op 111 and the Chopin Sonata, played
by so distinguished a player. In general she emerges as a vibrant and
often compelling musician though not one as necessarily combustible
as history suggests. Famous for her fast tempi and occasional barnstorming
there is certainly evidence in the op 31 Scherzo of Chopin for her swift
speeds, crisp and energetic, and maybe bordering on the uncontrolled,
certainly insofar as absolute clarity of articulation is concerned.
Her Chopin Sonata is a comprehensively involving one – most impressive
– and in Beethoven’s op 111, whilst she begins rather prosaically, she
soon gains in amplitude and weight. The variations are played with remarkable
Her Chopin op 70 Waltz is rather hobble toed and strutting
– in general her Chopin is uneven – but Howard Brockway’s Serenade has
an understated rhythmic charm as does Moskowski’s Frühling (she
was a pliant and persuasive morceaux player). But I was disappointed
by Brahms op 119 no 4 Rhapsody which is a very ponderous affair indeed
– belying her reputation as a speed merchant; massive chording notwithstanding
it’s very unsatisfactory playing. She played a lot of Bach and we have
here the Organ Toccata and Fugue transcribed by Tausig as a solitary
representative. The Fugue does sound rather retarded rhythmically -
disjunctive, the fugal entries tend to fracture and fall apart. It made
me wonder if the speed is right on the transfer.
The notes are comprehensive and attractively printed.
Biographical details about Bloomfield Zeisler’s life and concerning
the reproducing piano roll are invaluable and I’m indebted to them.
As also the opportunity to listen to a sometimes uneven but always engaging
musician, of splendid technique, high imagination and vibrant musicality.