It’s something of an exaggeration for Naxos to claim
that this 1929 recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto is "legendary."
It’s true that the performance is distinctive, individual and far removed
from the tub thumping melodrama of other less scrupulous and musicianly
performers. Nevertheless even in terms of the Solomon discography the
1949 Philharmonia traversal, conducted by Issay Debrowen (who once famously
said of a Solomon performance "My God, so many right notes…"),
and now on Testament, has always been the better known of the two. But
the Naxos release does very usefully bring together all the pianist’s
early recordings for Columbia – this three-year group of recordings
was all that was issued and in 1941 he began recording for HMV.
Solomon first went into the recording studio in 1929
for a series of solo discs that was never passed for publication but
which were remade the following year. Between the rejected first set
and the 1930 remakes comes the Tchaikovsky Concerto, made in the Central
Hall, Westminster with the then leading British orchestra, the Halle,
conducted by Hamilton Harty. Solomon’s Tchaikovsky was famously faithful
and elegant with a fascinatingly aristocratic mien and seldom combustible.
The Halle’s very distinctive string playing – much portamento, frequently
three or four slides in a musical paragraph - and its unmistakable woodwind
section provide considerable orchestral pleasures as well. There is
much less plush to the sound and it is sectionally more disparate than
some of its continental counterparts.
The remainder of Naxos’ recital comprises Liszt and
Chopin. The former is of rigorous but not unfeeling clarity and control.
The Hungarian Rhapsody is especially impressive with its skirling
treble runs and some thunderous but not effortful bass chords. His Chopin
shows us the great player to come – the Chopin recordings in the 1940s
are amongst the greatest ever committed to disc – and is most impressive
on its own terms. The Rakoczy March Polonaise is not excessively
fast – and at this slower tempo is playful, with clarity, and with great
vertical depth in chordal passages. The F minor Fantasie is characterised
by a perfect exploration of the work’s initial inwardnesses and also
by avoidance of unnecessary rubato. Maybe, here and there, he lays slightly
too much stress on the middle voices at the expense of the treble. But
the A flat major Etude is especially successful, with Solomon beautifully
bringing out and sustaining the melody line.
An identical selection is on Pearl (Gemm CD 9478),
a disc I’ve not heard. Naxos has coped well with some semi-intractable
recording faults and the transfers are by Mark Obert-Thorn and are convincing
and attractive. Few pianists deserved the soubriquet "great"
more than Solomon and this inexpensive disc in the Great Pianists series
will go some way to showing why.