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Leo SIROTA - a Chopin Recital: 1952-1963
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1809-1847)

Nocturne in B Op.62/1
Scherzo in B minor Op.20
Ballade in F minor Op.52
Valse in F minor Op.70/2
Fantasie Impromptu Op.66
Funeral March Op.72/2
Etudes Op.10/9 and 10
Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise
Mazurka in A minor Op.posth
Nocturne in C sharp minor Op.posth
Fantasie in F minor Op.49
Leo Sirota (piano)
Recorded live 1952-1963
ARBITER 137 [76.47]


This, my third encounter with Leo Sirota, confirms in almost every respect the impression made by the earlier volumes in Arbiter’s series. Born in Kiev he became a pupil of Busoni, spent sixteen years in Japan and the remainder of his life, after the War, in St Louis. His commercial recordings were few and always pretty inaccessible and these live radio broadcasts recorded between 1952 and 1963 are part of a collection preserved the better now to further his memory.

Students of Busoni’s pedagogy and of pianistic trends generally will welcome the opportunity this series affords one to analyse Sirota’s playing. What I hear is a stylist of great gifts whose affinities with the Russian repertoire and Liszt are notable and the same is true of his Chopin playing. What is unavoidably true is his technical frailty - and time and again performances are vitiated by damaging weaknesses that will disconcert those unprepared to listen through them. There are moments when his own awareness of these limitations is apparent and his wild overcompensation – mostly flurried accelerandi – adds its own obvious dangers. I mention this – and the tape hiss – at the outset. This is a specialist issue and needs to be set in its proper context.

Given these drawbacks, and the sound of the piano in some of these radio sessions which is not immediately ingratiating, and one might think it’s best to call it a day. But not so. The Nocturne in B, which dates from two years before Sirota’s death, shows us immediately what a sensitive and imaginative musician he was, albeit one who seemed consistently to favour an overstressed left hand which vests paragraphs with unequal hand distribution and obscures melody lines. He shows his mastery of the Scherzo’s lyrical sections – when he has the chance, simply and uncomplicatedly to sing he really takes flight, but the pity is the messy technique that fails to deal with the surrounding thickets. The problem is that the now diminished technique inhibits him from one crucial thing and that’s judging the climaxes of phrases adequately, as in the F minor Ballade – opens very fast, then slows, then fractures in the face of insurmountable problems. But when one doesn’t expect it he can surprise, as in a generally impressive Fantasie Impromptu and a good Etude in A flat from 1953 where he exhibits far better control. The Fantasie in F minor sees him use rather too much pedal and though it starts well it soon buckles in the virtuosic runs causing him to skip notes and overcompensate through thunderous attacks. As with many pianists his Andante Spianato is most impressive whilst the conjoined Grand Polonaise is much less so. The former is elegantly elastic and despite odd finger slips there’s real beauty of tone; the latter is a thunderous, prodigious effort with one glaring memory lapse along the way and a torrent of compromised pianism.

Twenty years previously I suspect much of Sirota’s playing would have seen conception matched by execution. That it so plainly isn’t in these sessions might seem fatally undermining. I agree that tolerance is necessary but no sentimental sympathy. Time had taken its hold on Sirota and maybe his teaching and other commitments meant that he hadn’t enough time to practice. Whatever the reason, and the weaknesses, there is still undeniably a rich vein of nobility and ardour running through Sirota’s playing.

Jonathan Woolf



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