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Simon Barere, pianist. The Last Recording Sessions, March 1951

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Faust Waltz, after Gounod S104 (1861)
Concert Study No. 2 Gnomenreigen S145 (1862-63)
Liebesträume No. 3 S541 (c1850)
Année de Pèlerinage Petrarch Sonnet No. 104 S161 (1837-49)
Six Grande Etudes de Paganini - Etude No. 3 La Campanella S141 (1851)
Concert Etude No. 2 La Leggierezza S144 (c1848)
Valse Oubliée No. 1 S215 (1881-85)
Reminiscences de Don Juan, after Mozart S418 (1841)
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Scherzo in C sharp minor Op. 39 No. 3 (1839)
Ballade in G minor Op. 23 No. 1 (1831-42)
Simon Barere (piano)
Recorded New York, March 1951
CEMBAL D’AMOUR CD 114 [64.05]

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These were Simon Barere’s last recordings and ones he was destined never even to hear. A week or so later, on 2 April 1951, he suffered a massive haemorrhage on stage performing the Grieg Concerto, a piece he’d never before played. He was accompanied by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. There were no edits in these solo discs – Barere disliked the process. What one hears is essentially a single take. For all his colossal reputation as a master technician, as one of the most dazzling virtuosi in a century not illiberally sprinkled with phenomenal talents, what this Final Testament shows is that Barere’s prodigious feats of dexterity were not disassociated from equally memorable shafts of poetic insight. He could dazzle but he could charm as well. One is almost invariably aware throughout this disc of the sense of control Barere possessed. That control both animated and gave proper structural weight to his performances. There are very few instances, if any, where beauty of tone or colouristic potential is sacrificed to the dictates of mere velocity or mindless bravura. In fact the only performance with which I could take real exception is La Campanella where for all his stunning playing the results sound over-heated.

In the Faust Waltz the bravura, in a work susceptible to lopsided interpretation, is accompanied by rigorous clarity, by a defining control, by a tempo that is never unreasonably fast and by a range of colouristic devices that give enormous life to the music. So too Gnomenreigen, where contra any preconceptions, Barere is fluent but once more capable of rigorous constraint, though maybe fractionally inferior to his 1934 London recording. He is obviously much faster than an older Lisztian such as Frederic Lamond whose aesthetic impulses – and inferior technique - were distinct from Barere’s. His Petrarch Sonnet possesses a marvellous texture and is expressive into the bargain. La Leggierezza brings out his vast reserves of colour and poetry. Maybe the Don Juan Reminiscences fall very occasionally short of Barere’s exalted standard. His 1934/36 HMV set made in London is unmatched. However these are still mightily impressive. As I suggested above it’s only La Campanella that disturbed me. In fact he hadn’t – apparently - played it for ten years before these sessions and didn’t realize it was being recorded which might explain that whilst it starts superbly it ends in a supercharged attack that tips it over the edge. But the two Chopin pieces – the Scherzo and Ballade – are beautifully done and more than make amends, should any have been necessary. Even at the very end of his sadly curtailed life Barere’s admixture of virtuosity and poetry remained intact.

Jonathan Woolf 

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