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Legendary Piano Recordings; the Complete Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Pugno, and Diémer recordings and other G & T rarities
see end of review for track listing
Edvard Grieg, Jules Massenet, Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, Louis Diémer, Raoul Pugno (piano)
Georgette Leblanc (soprano), Mary Garden (soprano), Meyriane Héglon (mezzo-soprano), Maria Gay (mezzo-soprano), Gabriel Willaume (violin)
rec. 1903-1919
MARSTON 52054-2 [77:47 + 79:50]
Experience Classicsonline

For once a title doesn’t lie. These are some of the most important piano recordings ever committed to disc and they are foundation blocks of any such collection. When one sees that the executants happen to be Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Debussy, Pugno and Diémer then one realises the essential nature of the collection.
Of course other record companies have covered, partially or exhaustively, the Paris G & T recordings under discussion but this one has an amazing trick up its sleeve – trick is the wrong pejorative word; more of that in a moment. APR has released the complete recordings of Saint-Saëns – along with much else including the complete Chaminade recordings. It’s also recently added a fourth volume in its Piano G & T series [APR5534] which includes all the solo Louis Diémer recordings adding discs by Ilona Eibenschutz (Scarlatti and Brahms, London 1903), Josef Hofmann (a series of sides, Berlin 1903) and a run of London 1908 discs made by Wilhelm Backhaus. Symposium has all the Diémers, (and Chaminades) but not quite all the Saint-Saëns. He made a recording of the Havanaise with violinist Gabriel Willaume [037922-23] which is not in that Symposium set for reasons of space, but which is in APR’s set and of course Marston’s.
The performances however offer a plethora of things to excite, intrigue and amuse.  Saint-Saëns was a finger technician of the utmost clarity and brilliance. The verve and dynamism of his playing is spellbinding and scintillating. Thus Saint-Saëns’s Valse mignonne – especially the 1904 recording; he remade it in 1919 - is a vivid example of his nonchalant brilliance and colouristic palette.  The varnish and command of the excerpts from his own Second Concerto – important pointers toward authorial projection, naturally – vie with the truncated Rhapsodie d'Auvergne for executant scintillation. The sense of energy and brio is palpable in all his sides. He’s a veritable genius of the keyboard and even in the lightest of these essentially light selections his allure is visceral. His colleague the mezzo Meyrianne Héglon proves rather too indomitable in her selections of the vocal music. The voice has perceptible registral breaks and the lower part comes perilously close to crossing the Channel in search of Clara Butt. Gabriel Willaume plays with Gallic sensibility – an essentially vibrato-pure performer without undue mannerisms.   
Grieg’s May 1903 recordings were waxed on a single day and are all of his own music of course.  Subtlety and clarity inform his playing which is strongly characterised, digitally pretty well immaculate and of tremendous strength. Though he had not long to live these nine sides attest to his still powerful technique and an unsentimental command .He was known for his dislike of showy rubati and he demonstrates how well he practised what he wrote. The Butterfly Op.43 No.1 is especially captivating.
Massenet can be sensed on one title, accompanying Georgette Leblanc on his own Pendant un an je fus ta femme from Sapho; sensed rather than actively heard as he really is in the dim distance. Debussy’s famed recordings with Mary Garden are here. I read recently that Maggie Teyte once threw out one of her own copies of these precious discs in her old age; she had ceased to care about it all. But the pleasure and benefit of hearing Debussy in these four brief pieces is nevertheless incalculable -. and fortunately he’s better recorded than Massenet had been  the previous year. 
Louis Diémer plays two of his own sweetmeats but was better known as an executant. The five sides here were made when he was in his very early sixties, in 1904. His own Chant du nautonier is a rather meretricious etude-like affair but is played with the same kind of brilliance that informs the musicianship of his disc mates. His Godard is vivacious though his Chopin is rather reserved and over-fleet of finger. 
Pugno’s thirteen discs come from Parisian sessions in April and November 1903. Multifaceted and multi-talented Pugno was variously pianist, organist, accompanist and composer but didn’t specialize as a pianist until he was forty. You will be rewarded with some remarkable pianism from the sonata partner of Ysaÿe and the man who encouraged Grieg to record. His tempo in the Chopin Waltz Op 34/1 is conventional, the playing excellent but it is his famous recording of the F Sharp Nocturne that will pull you up short. He claimed the excessively slow tempo was from Georges Mathias, his piano teacher and one of Chopin’s best students. Exceptional grace animates the Mendelssohn Song without words and Massenet’s Valse folle is driven through with passion, the ritardandos stylish and playful. Incision, clarity of fingerwork and superb touch distinguish the Chabrier and superb voicings do likewise with the Chopin A Flat Impromptu. His delicacy and sensitivity to dynamics are clear in the D Flat Berceuse and in fact everywhere the superiority of his imagination and pianism is evident. If you’ve had to struggle all these years with the famous old OPAL transfer then struggle no more with this one. A tremendous improvement.

So, essential items for your specialist pianophile shelves. As for the competition where it exists Symposium’s transfers are not as extensive, of course, as either Marston or APR’s and are rather noisier and scuffier than APR’s. They also have rather more blasting in fortes than the rival company. But they are however somewhat more immediate and allow one to hear with clarity, through their non-interventionist approach, the roll-call of pianism on display. 
And now for the “trick” referred to earlier. Forget the forgoing question of competitor pressings. A number of these Paris sessions were grievously ruined by pitch instability. Many, in fact most, of the 1902-04 Paris G & T recordings were the subject of this wretched imperfection.  Anyone who has laboured through the endemic wow will know how frustrating and debilitating an experience it is and how much has to be taken on trust. But now Marston has teamed up with Dmitri Antsos, an audio engineering consultant. It’s to him that Marston pays tribute in his notes to restoring the pitch-defective recordings. How he did it – and how many hours he must have spent on it – must remain his secret. But I can attest to the miracle he has wrought. It is an astonishing piece of work; restoration work of the highest importance that has not compromised the source material. Frankly all piano collectors are in his and Marston’s debt. This is a heroic undertaking that transforms the listenability of these priceless recordings at a stroke. Nobody is pretending that listening to Paris G & Ts is an everyday event but in the past it has been a trial and a labour more of responsibility than of musical pleasure. All that has now changed, at one fell swoop. It’s for this reason that this will be one of my Records of the Year – a magnificent example of the use to which technology can be put, when it’s carried out with integrity and at the service of the music.
Jonathan Woolf

Track listing
Edvard GRIEG (1843–1907)
Alla Menuetto, from Sonata in E Minor, op. 7 [2:42]
Finale (Molto Allegro), from Sonata in E Minor, op. 7 (abridged) [2:41]
Humoreske in G-sharp Minor, op. 6, no. 2 [1:45]
Bridal Procession, op. 19, no. 2 [3:00]
Butterfly, op. 43, no. 1 [1:58]
To Spring, op. 43, no. 6 [1:55]
Gangar [Norwegian Peasants’ March], op. 54, no. 2 [2:02]
Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen, op. 65, no. 6 [2:03]
Remembrances, op. 71, no. 7 [2:24]
Edvard Grieg (piano), Paris, 2 May 1903

Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)
Andante sostenuto - Molto animato, from Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 22 (extracts) [3:54]
Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, op. 73 [1:52]
Improvised cadenza on Africa, op. 89 [2:48]
Valse mignonne, op. 104 [2:30]
Valse nonchalante, op. 110 [3:11]
Gramophone Company Limited, Paris, 24 November 1919
Mazurka No. 1 in G Minor , op. 21 [2:58]
Rêverie du soir à Blidah, op. 60, no. 3 from Suite Algerienne [3:47]
Marche militaire française, op. 60, no. 4 from Suite Algerienne [3:39]
Valse mignonne, op. 104 [2:26]
Camille Saint-Saëns (piano), Paris, 26 June 1904

Prélude, arr. from Le déluge, op. 45 [3:28]
Paris, 24 November 1919
Elégie, op. 143 [4:33]
Paris, 26 November 1920
Havanaise, op. 83 [8:04]
Gabriel Willaume (violin), Camille Saint-Saëns (piano) (1873–?) Paris, 24 November 1919

Ascanio: La, la, la… “Fiorentinelle!” Ah! qui m’appelle? [2:27]
Samson et Dalila: Printemps qui commence [3:38]
Rêverie [3:07]
La solitaire, op. 26, no. 3 [2:26]
Meyriane Héglon (mezzo-soprano), Camille Saint-Saëns (piano) Paris, 26 June 1904

Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Sapho: Pendant un an je fus ta femme [2:14]
Georgette Leblanc (soprano), Jules Massenet (piano), Paris, 1903

Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande: Mes longs cheveux descendent [1:47]      
Il pleure dans mon coeur (Ariettes oubliées No. 2) [2:15]
L’ombre des arbres (Ariettes oubliées No. 3) [2:24]
Aquarelles-Green (Ariettes oubliées No. 5) [1:39]
Mary Garden (soprano) Claude Debussy (piano) , Paris, 1904

Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in A, L. 495 (K. 24) [2:06]
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Gavotte Varié, from Suite No. 14, HWV 411 [2:41]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Rondo brillante in E-flat, op. 62 [2:35]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Scherzo in E Minor, op. 16, no. 2 [2:01]
Song Without Words in A, op. 19, no. 3, “Hunting Song” [1:53]
Song Without Words in C, op. 67, no. 4, “Spinning Song” [1:30]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Impromptu in A-flat, op. 29 [3:10]
Berceuse in D-flat, op. 57 [3:33]
Nocturne in F-sharp, op. 15, no. 2 [3:32]
Waltz in A-flat, op. 34, no. 1 [2:46]
Marche funebre: Lento, from Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 35 [4:02]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor [4:14]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Scherzo-valse, No. 10 from Pièces pittoresques [3:32]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Valse folle [2:59]
Raoul PUGNO (1852–1914)
Valse lente [3:16]
Sérénade à la lune [2:33]
Impromptu [2:42]
Raoul Pugno (piano), Paris, 1903

Page d’amour [2:07]
Maria Gay (mezzo-soprano), Raoul Pugno (piano), Paris, 1903

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Song Without Words in C, op. 67, no. 4, “Spinning Song” [1:43]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat, op. 27, no. 2 (abridged) [3:43]
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Valse chromatique [3:09]
Louis DIÉMER (1843–1919)
Grande valse de concert in D-flat, op. 37 [2:34]
Caprice de concert in D, op. 12, from Chant du Nautonier [3:15]
Louis DIÉMER (1843–1919)
Grande valse de concert in D-flat, op. 37 [2:47]
Caprice de concert in D, op. 12, from Chant du Nautonier [3:05]
Louis Diémer (piano), Paris, 1904/6


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