Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Vassily SAPELLNIKOFF (piano)
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23
Humoresque in G Op. 10 No. 2
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Scherzo in E minor Op. 16 No. 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Fantasiestücke Op. 12; Traumeswirren
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D flat
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Valse Impromptu
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Spinning Song from The Flying Dutchman arr. Franz LISZT
Alexander ALABIEV (1787-1851)

Le Rossignol arr. Franz LISZT
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)

Staccato Etude in C Op. 23 No. 2
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)

Mazurka No. 4 in G flat
Anatole LIADOV (1855-1914)

Musical Snuff Box Op. 23
Vassily SAPELNIKOFF (1868-1941)

Gavotte Op. 3
Vassily Sapellnikoff (piano) with
Aeolian Orchestra/Stanley Chapple (in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto)
Recorded 1923-27
PEARL GEMMCD 9163 [70.30]


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Born in Odessa in 1868 and a pupil of Sophie Menter, herself a famous Liszt pupil, Sapellnikoff faced the Harold Bauer conundrum of whether to concentrate on piano or violin. Gradually his superiority as a pianist won and he began work on his eventual repertoire of twenty-five concertos, found time to compose (though he was always a soloist-composer and not a composer-soloist) and also to meet Tchaikovsky. This happened on an 1888 tour of Germany when Sapellnikoff promoted the former’s Concerto in B flat, which he did to the composer’s obvious satisfaction and pleasure. Sapellnikoff’s subsequent career was distinguished, with numerous world tours and long spells teaching, principally in Moscow. He died at around the same time as his great contemporary Emil von Sauer – though Sapellnikoff died, pretty much a forgotten man, in San Remo in 1941. He made no recordings during the last decade or so of his life – or, to be more exact, surveying the matrix sheets one can see he did record for fledgling English Decca in 1929 but the recordings were never issued. In what landfill site, one wonders, lie the broken Decca masters of Sapellnikoff’s recording of Rachmaninov’s second concerto (with Basil Cameron and Julian Clifford conducting, due to remakes) – or indeed the solo sequence he was known to have recorded, Liszt’s Polonaise No. 2, the Schumann-Liszt Wildmung and his own Gavotte No. 1?

Still, we must be grateful for what we have - a number of sides for English Vocalion, recorded between 1923 and 1927. The last few discs were electrically recorded – Vocalion not embracing the new technology and its investment complexities until long after its British rivals Columbia and HMV (and not lasting much longer, squeezed by the Big Two). The most important document Sapellnikoff left to posterity was the first ever recording of the Tchaikovsky he had so adroitly performed with the composer in Germany. This has nicely divided listeners in the seventy-five years since it was first issued. Some find it strait-laced and dull, others admire its reserve and musicianship. The former deplore its lack of bravura, the latter elevate its musical conscience in refusing to yield to octave flourish. For what it’s worth I like it very much, for all the incidental and ancillary problems. These include the occasionally problematical late acoustic sound and the cuts (to be expected). But as against this one can appreciate Sapellnikoff’s intense musicality, the clarity he favours, his excellent first movement cadenza. Though a small and not really very virtuosic band, the wind choirs make a characterful showing and support their soloist manfully. The second movement has delicacy and finesse and a strikingly reserved nuance. The finale has real nobility and though not paraded as such real digital security. First recordings tend to be bracing and are always instructive – and this no less so than any other given the pianist’s earlier association with Tchaikovsky.

The smaller pieces are ideally selected to illustrate Sapellnikoff’s clarity and winning filigree. The Mendelssohn is full of that hallmark clarity and the Schumann is deliciously animated. His deft voicings in the left hand elevate the Brahms Hungarian Dance and he brings graceful simplicity to Liszt’s Valse Impromptu. He shares Liszt pupil Frederic Lamond’s general approach to Gnomenreigen – measured but perhaps with a slight admixture of dark wit that the Scotsman abjured. Elsewhere pearly treble runs light up the Wagner-Liszt Spinning Song and his forthright musicality makes the Alabiev-Liszt live. The Rubinstein Staccato Etude is a rather dull sounding 1927 electric but Sapellnikoff impresses in Balakirev’s Mazurka – real engagement and real style. In Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque he knows just how to deal the deadpan charm and his Liadov is really delightful – wit in abundance. His own Gavotte ends the recital, a compound slice of baroquerie and "wrong note" teaser lashed with romantic tracery. Delicious.

Allan Evans’ notes set the scene well and include some autobiographical reminiscences from the pianist – piquant and full of Revolutionary era escapades – as well as Tchaikovsky’s own recollections of that 1888 German tour. The transfers, by David Contini, sound really very successful. Sapellnikoff’s 78s sell at around £35 each on the market today. You can save yourself years of searching and a small fortune if you buy this little jewel of a disc.

Jonathan Woolf


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