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Webster Aitken (piano)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Sonata No. 28 in A major Op.101 [18.41]
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major Op.110 [17.54]
Sonata No. 29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier [36.50]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Sonata No. 20 in A major D959 [36.16]
Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D960 [41.36]
Webster Aitken (piano)
Recorded 1950 (Schubert Ė released on EMS Records LPs) and live in concert in 1961-62 (Beethoven Ė and previously unreleased in any format)

Webster Aitken was a Californian, born in Los Angeles in 1908. Though he studied locally and for a year at Curtis (with Herbert Simpson) the bulk of his advanced studies were in Berlin where he worked under von Sauer and Marie Prentner, Leschetizkyís erstwhile assistant. Heís most remembered however as a student of Schnabel and for his proselytizing all-Schubert recitals Ė he gave a four-concert Sonata cycle in London in 1938, the cityís first. Back in America he racked up some prestigious concerto and recital engagements but after the War turned more to teaching and to propagating new music. He premiered Elliot Carterís Piano Sonata in 1947 and gave the first known performance of Ivesí Four Transcriptions from Emerson. In his mid fifties he withdrew from active concert life and died in New Mexico in 1981.

His recordings were for small labels and were few. Live recital performances were reissued by Delos on LP and other recordings are known to exist; a 1939 Mozart Concerto broadcast for instance has been preserved but hasnít yet been issued. In the main though Aitken is a pianist only obscurely remembered and then in terms of his recorded legacy, perhaps imperfectly. Nothing seems to have survived for example of his more challenging interests in contemporary music, with the exception of some Copland and the Webern Op.27 Variations, though the survival of these Schubert studio recordings is just, given his propagandising work in the late 1930s. Both these late sonatas were taped circa 1950 in New York for EMS and are apparently making their first ever re-release. The Beethoven sonatas are live concert performances from the days of Aitkenís teaching and college-performing fifties and are similarly making their first appearance here.

Op.101 is interesting in the divergences from Schnabelís own playing; Aitken was very much his own man, of course, and in tempo terms he cleaves more to Kempffís tempo than the older manís. That however is about all there is in terms of resemblance; in the opening movement Aitken refuses to let phrases flow and is deliberately static and abjures wide dynamic variance though heís certainly a much more fluent pianist in the second movement march than his accident prone teacher ever was. Though he makes a show of depth in the slow movement his performance is rather heavily phrased and pedalled and lacks Schnabelís richly voiced and sustained intensity of utterance. We can forgive the hash at the beginning of the finale but maybe not the rather peculiarly overstated view Aitken insists on imposing on it.

Aitken is certainly not cut from Schnabelian expression in Op.110 where he isnít especially interested in romanticised playing or overtly demonstrative music making. His flurried playing of the central movement is rhythmically out of control but is maybe meant to convey the sheer wildness of the music making. In his Beethoven playing one can make some kind of connection with another maverick player, the Swiss Ernst Levy, whose profoundly intellectualised performance are far more problematic but also manage to push oneís experience of Beethoven playing to undreamt of extremes. What Aitken seems to lack is cantabile, the rhythmically steady unfolding of melodic lines; his Adagio in Op.110 lacks moving simplicity and in the Fuga his rhythms become excitingly blurred.

The Hammerklavier opens with a mad hell-for-leather charge across the bar lines without any rests; this level of impaction is visceral and also idiosyncratic to the point of perversity. Where Kempff prefers neatness and Schnabel portentous, if untidy, control and where Solomon delivers magisterial and patrician eloquence, Aitken rides roughshod through the opening movement. His anti-romantic slow movement is a compound of some rhetorical drama and quite hard and fleet playing. Heís certainly not over given to any molto sentimento indication and the primary impression one takes of his Beethoven playing, if one accepts rhythmic instabilities as inherent, is of a tough, rather off-putting, cold and uneven musician.

I find his Schubert more convincing, though still highly personalised. A number of his voicings in D959 are idiosyncratic to say the least. Here though he seems more stable in rhythm than in Beethoven, with playing in the main thatís straightforward, cool, somewhat clinical. The Andantino receives a performance of clipped detachment, rather formal, with not much pedal, some rubati that will not necessarily please - and are no substitute for timbral warmth - insistent halts, and staccato-ish articulation. Thereís none of Kempffís measured if occasionally aloof warmth, much less Schnabelís huge gravity. After a great Schubertian Aitkenís playing in the finale can sound, whilst not uninteresting, perhaps a touch prosaic and lacking in imagination. The B flat major D960 opens in extrovert and very public fashion though his rhythm can race alarmingly. Once again though the slow movement finds him rather curt, abrupt and unengaging. Thereís a great deal of difference between attempting a corrective to overtly sentimentalised performances of the slow movements in late Schubert and withdrawing altogether into inert detachment. So, banish thoughts of Kempff, Curzon (another Schnabel pupil) or Schnabel himself, much the slowest of this august trio.

As for the recordings, the 1950 discs are in somewhat murky sound; not objectionably so, but with reduced range and rather boxy. The Schuberts come with a live acoustic, scarping chairs and some coughs; again rather par for the course for an amateur set up. And yet. Whilst I donít warm to Aitken at all, other significant judges did. B H Haggin for example admired him enormously, as did Virgil Thomson. Maybe the essence of his intractable pianism doesnít fully come across in these performances Ė perhaps we lose something of his withdrawn individualism. Whatever may be the case, Bandoneon has done Aitken proud in this two-disc set, copiously annotated, which includes a reprinted Aitken essay, a small biography, and a "lineage" of great Beethoven and Schubert pianists on record that is interesting to read and seldom easy with which to disagree. Clearly their determination to present his recordings is a labour of love and admiration. There are also other performances of his to which one can listen on their website Ė from which this set is available. As they say on the adverts, you canít buy this in the shops.

Jonathan Woolf

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