Occasional murmurings about the greatness of Noel Mewton-Wood
(1922-1953), the Australian pianist who committed suicide at
a tragically early age, swelled to an underground reputation
when the British Music Society reissued his recording of the
Bliss Piano Concerto (see
review). I have to confess I had not investigated his art
before now. A brutally truncated career can give rise to all
sorts of legends and I have yet to be convinced that Dino Ciani,
for example, was more than just a very good pianist. On the
strength of this Chopin I’d say Mewton-Wood was among the greatest
of recorded pianists, his early death a loss on a level with
that of Lipatti or Kapell.
In Chopin his playing has great panache and passion, alternating
effortlessly with moments of delicacy and of melting poetry.
His tonal gradations and colouring in the gentler passages can
be appreciated in spite of the problematic recording quality.
His rubato is very free, yet without losing the rhythmic shape
of the phrase. Similarly, his tempi change with a certain freedom
but he never loses sight of the larger structure of the music.
In this latter he is helped by the sympathetic direction of
Walter Goehr. The Zurich orchestra is not always immaculate,
but he invests the orchestral tuttis with unusual fire and warmth
while giving Mewton-Wood full rein in piano-led episodes. Goehr
seems entirely identified with the spirit of the pianist’s interpretation,
he is not just accompanying. In some ways it could be said that
Mewton-Wood was able to combine the old-style personalized approach
with a more modern rigour.
One of the finest-ever performances of this work put on disc,
then, so what about the recording?
Like most of Mewton-Wood’s recordings, it was made for the Musical
Masterpiece Society, which notoriously cut economic corners.
The technology was not of the best for its times and pressings
were poor and noisy. This same performance can be downloaded
freely from the site of M.
René Gagnaux. Gagnaux has taken a special interest in the
MMS and has also transferred Mewton-Wood’s recordings of Beethoven’s
Fourth Concerto and the first two of Tchaikovsky. His catalogue
of Walter Goehr recordings is extensive and fascinating.
Gagnaux tells us that he made his transfer by combining the
best passages of two copies from his own collection and a third
made available by another collector. There is a heavy surface
swish throughout but the sound is vibrant and alive, the piano
close and sometimes clattery in fortes, especially in the higher
range, but warm and involving. The orchestra is also close,
sometimes a bit confused but full and, again, involving. The
oboes sound very acid, but the Suisse Romande oboes sounded
similar so I suppose that’s how the Swiss liked them. All in
all, the performance comes across convincingly.
Given that all this costs nothing but internet connection and
a blank CD to burn it on, you may take the line that “if it’s
free there must be something wrong with it”. So if you pay the
far from exorbitant price for the Pristine transfer, what do
First of all, Andrew Rose has succeeded in reducing the surface
noise to virtually nothing. Even on headphones I detected no
background. But can this be done without filtering out a good
part of the music too? At the outset the orchestra is far duller,
with the husky string sound typical of heavy noise reduction.
The effect is almost that of a drastically cleaned up pre-electric
recording. The piano, too, is duller, much of the light has
gone from the sound. There’s also some wow at the beginning
of the slow movement. The more delicate moments are attractive
in a moonlit way, but the overall impression is that Mewton-Wood
is playing an elderly upright piano rather than a grand. Both
pianist and orchestra sound to be further away from us in this
transfer, too. In the last resort the performance itself sounds
less remarkable. So no contest, I’m afraid.
The Stravinsky was transferred as one of the fillers on the
BMS Bliss disc – in the absence of other British repertoire
set down by Mewton-Wood. I haven’t heard this.
The modern tendency is to treat Stravinsky’s neo-classical works
with a certain dispassionate elegance. Stravinsky himself, as
conductor, left no doubt that these works stemmed from the same
volcanic personality as had penned “The Rite of Spring”. I am
here talking of Stravinsky’s performances of his neo-classical
works in general, I don’t know a Stravinsky-led version of the
present piece. Mewton-Wood and Goehr provide real conviction
and a blazing, barbaric splendour. Mewton-Wood’s tonal beauty
emerges in the few passages – such as the beginning of the slow
movement – where it is relevant.
Stravinsky was notoriously antipathetic to the idea that the
performer was also an interpreter. Whether or not you agree
with him where other composers than himself are concerned, his
own music does not essentially require an “interpreter” the
way Chopin does so this performance, excellent as it is, tells
us rather less about Mewton-Wood. Any collector who takes my
advice and downloads the Chopin in Gagnaux’s transfer needn’t
regret the loss of the Stravinsky all that much, therefore.
Those who buy the Pristine CD will note that in a patch of the
slow movement the surface noise is so strong that Rose does
not attempt to eliminate it. On the whole the sound is livelier
here than in the Chopin.
I hope I’ve made it clear that Mewton-Wood is a pianist who
demands investigation – but the present disc is not the place