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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das wohltemperierte Klavier, Book 1: nos. 4 [05:45], 7 [05:55], 20 [04:35]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Valses: op.34/1 in E flat [05:08], op.42 in A flat [03:50], op.64/2 in c sharp minor [03:45]
Fantaisie-Impromptu in c sharp minor op.66 [05:11]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Vallée d’Obermann [12:44]
Sergei PROKOFIEF (1891-1953)
Sonata no.6 in A, op.82 [25:33]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Two Pierrot Pieces op.35 [06:44]
Arcangelo Zerensky (piano)
rec. various dates 1989-2005

I realize that in the present climate the project of which the present CD is merely a foretaste may stretch readers’ incredulity. I can only state that I am personally convinced of the veracity of all that follows and that I have personally met and shaken hands with Arcangelo Zerensky himself.

Arcangelo Zerensky, who owes his appealing name to an Italian mother and a Polish father, was born in war-shattered London in 1943. He was born dumb and blind in one eye. He had barely been weaned when a bomb tore apart the family home in East Holborn and deprived baby Arcangelo of his left arm. The family sought refuge in the country where some in-laws of Arcangelo’s mother, Maria Letizia, had a farm. In spite of his handicaps Arcangelo was a lively little toddler, perhaps too much so, for just before his third birthday disaster struck again. A close encounter with a mechanical ploughshare resulted in his having to have both legs amputated.

Immobile, unable to utter his thoughts out loud, seemingly impervious to human communication, Arcangelo might have been written off as a human larva. And yet it is often in just such cases that nature works a miracle, concentrating all its gifts on the limited human means available. Barely out of hospital and in continual pain, Arcangelo now remained inseparable from the old cottage upright which his mother’s sister-in-law had occasionally opened up to give a heartfelt rendering of "The Maiden’s Prayer". Virtually untaught, he revealed an uncanny ability to reproduce on the piano, first playing the right-hand part, then the left, any piano record played to him. And he needed only a single hearing. No technical difficulty seemed too great; Chopin Studies, Liszt Studies, Godowsky Studies, Alkan and Sorabji all poured from his single hand. Scarcely able to believe their own ears, his parents took him to play for a number of luminaries of the day. Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Benjamin Britten, Solomon, Moiseiwitsch, Herbert von Karajan and Yehudi Menuhin all testified that here was genius of the highest order, but regretted that there seemed no way of presenting it before the public.

So there matters might have rested for ever had it not been for the intervention of a kindly couple whose Hertfordshire home had a recording studio annexed with a distinguished old Steinway which had been played by Rachmaninov and a Welte-Mignon system for making piano rolls. I will explain the importance of this latter in due course. Here, in the peace and quiet of rural England, Arcangelo began to record his repertoire, first setting down one hand, then superimposing the other on it in a sort of super-human duet with himself. His sense of synchronization was almost infallible and invariably his first take was his only one. Yet when the results were presented to him he rejected them with that shaking of his head and that sharp snort of his nostrils which were his only non-musical means of communicating with the outside world. For that essential ingredient of all pianism was missing; the pedal. Not even his masterly performance of the Goldberg Variations satisfied him. The pedal may be used sparingly in Bach, but few pianists would wish to be denied it altogether. A strange grunt of pain on the unpublished master tape remains to record his reaction.

It was at this point that the Welte-Mignon system, once used by Busoni and lovingly restored by the Hertfordshire couple, came into its own. There are many who claim that piano roll systems do not provide a complete and reliable reproduction of the many subtleties every artist introduces into his interpretations. This is a false impression due to the fact that we practically never hear a piano roll played back on the piano at which it was made. It is obvious that, if you play on one piano with a technique gauged to another one, the results will be the lumpy uneven ones we usually hear. No such problem was encountered on this occasion and so Arcangelo was able to cut roll after roll. And thus the stage was set for the preservation in sound of some of the most extraordinary piano-playing ever heard, as the rolls worked their magic and Arcangelo hunched beneath the piano, his single hand creating pedalling effects of the most unbelievable subtlety.

Now that the system had been found Arcangelo proved a quick worker. In the course of two decades he set down a repertoire embracing the entire range of the piano literature, the extent of which far exceeds that recently claimed by the late Joyce Hatto. The fascinating thing is that, while basing himself on recordings by other pianists, in his selection from them he has built up a pianistic personality which is unique to him alone. I can testify from my own ears, and from wave-patterns that I have seen, that his Liszt on the present sampler-CD is identical to that of Horowitz, his Chopin to that of Rubinstein, his Prokofief to that of Richter, his Bach to that of Gould and his Cyril Scott to my own, yet the total result is his and his alone. Such is the all-embracing genius of this free-ranging spirit. And to think that I have actually met and shaken hands with this man.

Why, then, is this treasure trove emerging only now? Quite simply, the Society for Contemporary Art and Music (SCAM) has never allowed monetary concerns to dominate its vision. Here was an extraordinary, yet infinitely fragile phenomenon. One that should be allowed to develop and flourish undisturbed. The time was not yet ripe to present it to the world. Alas, a new factor has intervened. There will in all probability be no further recordings, for disaster has once more beset Arcangelo’s life. That beautiful Steinway piano, beloved of Rachmaninov, and the precious Welte-Mignon system once used by Busoni, are no more. Vandals have got them.

Rural Hertfordshire is affected by a most particular kind of vandal. You can leave your car out in the open, unlocked, all night and it will be as safe from thieves, paint-sprayers and joy-riders as if it were in a police compound. Your wife can forget her diamond necklace on the front seat and it will be more secure than it would be in a bank vault. But if you have a musical instrument of some value, there’s not a nuclear bunker or a combination lock in this world that will keep them away from it. It was bound to happen and it has happened. Arcangelo’s life’s blood has been drawn from him. At this point SCAM have decided, quite rightly, to allow him at least to reap the fruits of his labours.

It’s an extraordinary story and this is an extraordinary record. One that should not be missed.

Christopher Howell


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