Ignacy Jan Paderewski: a Selection
of his US Victor Recordings 1914-1941 Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata in C sharp m op.27/2 – “Moonlight”: First movt(rec.
16 December 1926) [5:03]* Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in B flat D.935/3 (rec. 12 May 1924) [9:06] Franz LISZT (1811-1886) after
Horch, horch! Die Lerch (rec. 12 May 1924) [3:18] Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Waltz in A flat op.42 (rec. 26 June 1922) [3:51]
Nocturne in F sharp op.15/2 (rec. 14 May 1917) [3:53]*
Mazurka in A flat op.59/2 (rec. 12 May 1924) [2:39]
Mazurka in F sharp m op.59/3 (rec. 12 May 1924) [3:28]
Etude in C sharp m op.25/7 (rec. 4 May 1923) [4:27]
Etude in D flat op.25/8 (rec. 12 May 1923) [1:20]
Etude in G flat op.25/9 (rec.12 May 1924) [1:16] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1947)
Lied ohne Worte in C op.67/4 – “Spinnerlied” (rec. 4
May 1923) [1:51] Robert SCHUMANN(1810-1856)
Warum? op.12/3 (rec. 30 April 1914) [2:56] LISZT
La leggerezza S144/R5 no.2 (rec. 4 May 1923) [5:02] LISZT after WAGNER
Spinnerlied” from “Der fliegenden Holländer” S440/R273
(rec. 12 May 1924) [5:05] Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) arr.
Tristan und Isolde: Act 1 Prelude (rec. 14 October 1930)
[7:38]* Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp m op.3/2 (rec. 13 October 1930) [2:51]*
Prelude in G sharp m op.32/12 (rec. 13 October 1930) [2:15]* Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes 1: 12. Minstrels (rec. 13 October 1930)
[2:32]* Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Melody in B op.8/3 (rec. 4 May 1923) [2:52]
Minuet in G op.14/1 (rec. 20 May 1926) [3:52]*
Recorded address on the observance of the golden anniversary of Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s
American debut(rec. 31 January 1941) [3:50]*
Ignacy Jan Paderewski (piano)
Items marked * rec. New York City, others Camden, New Jersey, USA, dates as above NAXOS 8.112011 [79:08]
Years ago I bought a Pearl LP of some Paderewski performances,
all recorded in New York in 1930. I was not terribly impressed,
finding it pallid beside another Pearl issue of Ignaz Friedman
that I bought at the same time, and did not explore further.
I now see that, while you have to be a little selective
over your Paderewski, he still has things to tell us.
Between the Pearl LP and the present issue there is one common item,
one that seems common but is actually a different take
of basically the same performance, and two pieces that
are heard here in earlier acoustic recordings. So I’ll
start with the common item, the Wagner-Schelling transcription,
to get a measure of the transfer techniques involved. As
collectors of historical piano records will know, the Pearl
philosophy is to put the recordings onto LP/CD straight,
pretty well as you hear them on a standard gramophone of
the 1950s and 1960s that allowed you to play both 78s and
LPs. The hiss level is high but the piano is very present.
We seem to be right up close to the pianist.
On the rare occasions that I have been able to hear a 78 played on
older equipment with a fibre needle, I have noted that
the hiss is less intrusive, the sound mellower. You can
argue two ways about this. You can say that modern equipment
is picking up signals that were captured but could not
be reproduced by the gramophones of the day, or you can
say that the producers and engineers of the time had musical
ears and tried to work it so that what their listeners
heard was as much like the original as was then possible.
Ward Marston evidently takes the latter view. I imagine
he works with careful filtering, not an original machine
with fibre needles, but what we hear is a relatively gentle
hiss and a piano that we seem to hear from a seat in the
concert hall rather than close up. The heavier passages
of this arrangement sounded a little clumpy and overbearing
in the Pearl version; here they emerge as pleasantly full.
Much has been written, too, about Paderewski’s style being irrevocably
old fashioned, with its free rubatos and tempo changes,
its splitting of hands and chords. Certainly, if you listen
to the heavy rallentando near the beginning of the Beethoven
movement or to the sudden spurt of tempo before the return
to the original key about two-thirds through, you will
get the idea of a highly romanticized Beethoven. On the
other hand, you may rarely have heard the persistent triplets
played with such an independent life of their own, the
melodic lines so beautifully drawn, even the long bass
notes acquiring a mysterious beauty. Certainly, Paderewski
seems to have no doubt that the piece is about moonlight.
The title was not Beethoven’s, but he surely intended a
thing of beauty and it certainly is so here.
Similarly the Schubert. True to his generation, he finds none of the
suffering that post-war interpreters have drawn from this
music, yet there is a speaking quality to his very free
phrasing and he seems unhappy only with the minor-key variation.
The Chopin pieces all deserve careful study. It may be noted that
Paderewski’s Chopin is generally elegant and refined. There
is none of the fiery passion which is sometimes passed
off as authentically “Polish”. Though in truth the filmed
version of him playing the op. 53 Polonaise – available
on DVD in “The Golden Age of the Piano” – shows that his
patriotic fires burnt strongly when need be. What is remarkable
is the independence, not just of his two hands, but of
every single voice in the texture. The separation of the
hands and chords in the voluptuous duet that is the op.25/7
Etude, for example, is of no account when every line soars
freely. My only doubts concern the other two Etudes here,
particularly op.25/8, which were not originally published
and seem a little heavy.
The Mazurka op.59/2 offers a comparison with the 1930 version on Pearl.
Differences are minimal – evidently he didn’t change his
basic view much – but the later one sounds just a mite
more heavy-handed. He was, after all, 70 years old by 1930
and I get the idea that the earlier recordings are in general
the best. In spite of Jonathan Summers’s contention in
his notes that the electrical recordings – from 1926 – were “the
first recordings truly to capture Paderewski’s range of
tone” I had no difficulty in appreciating the earlier ones.
Indeed, the 1914 Nocturne is an exquisitely drawn performance
in sound that comes across remarkably well for the date,
as does the even earlier Schumann “Warum”, its upper voices
curling their question marks around each other.
Outside Chopin, results are variable. Compared with Rachmaninov’s
humorous but amiably eccentric version of the Mendelssohn,
Paderewski could almost pass for a Mendelssohn stylist
with his neat, sparkling semiquavers. Chopin interpreters
do not invariably make good Liszt interpreters and the
Etude here perhaps lacks grandeur and sweep. The light
semiquaver work is nevertheless scintillating. This begs
the question that Paderewski trained in a world where pianos
had a lighter touch than the Steinways of the 20th century
and seems happiest in those pieces – which include most
Chopin as he conceives it – where he can evoke the earlier
The “Spinning Chorus” from the “Flying Dutchman” is one case where
the 1930 version is preferable. In 1924 he managed to get
it all onto one longish side. The remake probably stemmed
from a realization that the result was brilliant but breathless.
In 1930, allowing himself a minute extra, he conveys more
sense of enjoyment. Moreover, the interventions of the
Dutchman’s leitmotiv, brushed over in 1924, are allowed
considerable poetry in 1930.
The Rachmaninov Preludes are an odd case. Paderewski shaves almost
a minute off the composer’s own recordings of the C sharp
minor, sounding doggedly matter-of-fact in the outer sections.
Many are the tales of Rachmaninov, who had come to hate
the piece, finally conceding it as an encore at his recitals
and approaching the piano with a face as black as doomsday.
Yet his three recorded versions, at least, distil the utmost
in poetic gloom, without a hint of staleness. The G sharp
minor is also read by Paderewski as a minor salon trinket,
a sort of autumnal companion to Sinding’s “Rustle of Spring”,
which he would probably have played much better. Again,
Rachmaninov himself inflects the opening with inimitable,
wistful poetry. These recordings were not issued at the
time, so presumably Rachmaninov was spared hearing them.
The Debussy is pretty cavalier over dynamics and some other oddities
suggest he insisted on playing from memory a piece he didn’t
know all that well. A strange pause – a memory lapse? – on
the last page does not appear in the Pearl version and
it was only here that I noted that Naxos offer, in fact,
the second of four takes. The Pearl, dated two months later,
was presumably the one chosen for issue, though it, too,
has its quirks. The performance is lively but lacks impish
glee and sarcasm – did Paderewski not have a sense of humour?
I seem to recall that the three other Préludes recorded
at these sessions were more successful. Debussy was certainly
pleased – many years earlier of course – to have them played
by such a famous pianist.
Paderewski’s own “Melody in B” finds him on obviously congenial terrain,
with singing lines and limpid textures. The famous – or
infamous – “Minuet in G” fuels the suspicion that he did
not really have a sense of humour, since you would have
to be fairly self-important not to see the funny side of
such a piece. There is an element of the same in the platitudinous
address that concludes the CD. This should, however, be
judged against the standards of such speeches at the time.
It may also conceal more art than it seems since his hope
that his “beloved Poland” and the United States would continue
to be great free nations implies, without actually saying
it, a swingeing criticism of the current American politics.
For Poland had been enslaved to the Nazis for over a year
and the USA had as yet not lifted a finger to help.
The notes by Jonathan Summers are extremely informative and well-balanced.
I began by referring to an LP issue of Paderewski recordings
that did not encourage me to investigate further. I think
this one will make you want to hear more.
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