I will not be the first person to have fallen into the trap
of regarding Harriet Cohen (1895-1967) as being merely a ‘pendant’
of Sir Arnold Bax. To be fair, I first heard of her through
my early ‘study’ of Bax back in the nineteen-seventies.
The received wisdom suggested that for three decades, she ‘pursued
a tempestuous affair with this composer’. When she suddenly
discovered that she was not slated to become Lady Bax on the
death of his wife, she had an ‘accident’ and cut
her wrist whilst carrying a tray of glasses.
Certainly, her colourful personal life has distracted attention
away from her achievements in the ‘recital room’
or recording studio. Stephen Siek, in the liner notes, suggests
that Harriet ‘as a young woman was beguilingly beautiful,
and [that] she rarely hesitated to advance her career through
charm and even seduction.’ He mentions her liaisons ‘real
or imagined’ with ‘men ranging from H.G. Wells to
Ramsey MacDonald’. Another issue that causes the biographer
problems is Harriet’s tendency to fabricate - Siek notes
that her autobiography is filled ‘with self-aggrandizing
inaccuracies that must be carefully sifted from the truths that
it also contains’.
The ‘gossip’ has partially obscured a pianist who
was not only great but inspired. Her interpretation of Bach
would have been sufficient to have established her reputation
for all time. However, as this present collection of recordings
proves, her achievement extends in many directions.
Out of interest, W.S. Meadmore quotes a story in the Gramophone
Magazine from 1929: ‘When Busoni met Harriet Cohen he
looked at her hands and said: "These are the smallest and worst,
hands I have ever seen. It would be impossible to play the piano
with them. You must give music up." Miss Cohen played to him.
He was astonished. He could hardly credit that such hands could
make such fine music.’
A few highlights of Harriet’s life and achievements may
be of interest to those who have not come across her before.
Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen was born in Brixton, London on 2 December
1895 into a largely musical household. Her father, Joseph, was
an amateur cellist and composer and her mother, Kathleen Irene,
was an accomplished pianist. After piano lessons with her mother,
Harriet attended the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School. Other
pupils at that time included Myra Hess. In 1908, she gave her
first recital - a Chopin Waltz at the Bechstein Hall! Shortly
after this, she won an Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Royal Academy
of Music where she was one of the star pupils. Harriet won ‘a
string of awards’ including the Sterndale Bennett, the
Edward Nicholls and the Hine prizes. She continued her studies
with Felix Swinstead and Matthay himself. Whilst at the Academy
she was introduced to Arnold Bax and became part of the ‘set’
that adored all things Russian in the wake of Diaghilev’s
ballet triumphs in London.
One of Harriet Cohen’s achievements was the ‘discovery’
of the significant vein of keyboard music by Tudor and other
‘early music’ composers. This included works by
Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and Henry Purcell. Another important
interest was of Spanish music: she gave the second performance
of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain
and subsequently performed it many times.
However, her major achievement must be regarded as her exposition
of J.S. Bach. The German critic Adolph Weissmann stated that
‘… so deeply has the spirit of the master entered
into her that she has few, if any, equals as a Bach player’
and no less a person than Alfred Einstein insisted that ‘she
is one of those chosen few who stand among the elect.’
The Times obituary writer notes that Harriet played Bach ‘with
great musicianship, precision, buoyancy and an emotional tact
which refuses ever to aim at effects outside a true Bach style.’
Over the years, Harriet gave the first performances of a number
of important works by contemporary British composers. These
included the Piano Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bax’s
Symphonic Variations. William Walton’s Sinfonia
Concertante was introduced by her to France, Spain, Germany
and Austria. European composers including Ernst Bloch and Bela
Bartók dedicated works to her. The Soviet composers Kabalevsky
and Shostakovich provided her with new pieces: they are represented
on these CDs.
Harriet officially retired from public life in 1960. Thereafter
she devoted much of her time to the Harriet Cohen International
Music Awards and the writing of her autobiography A Bundle
of Time. She died on 13 November 1967.
It is not my intention to discuss every number on this superb
three CD set - there are 58 tracks each deserving comment and
analysis. However, I will mention a few highlights - at least
from my perspective.
The lion’s share (32 tracks) of this recording is given
over to the music of J.S. Bach. There are three main groupings
here. Firstly, there is the important keyboard concerto - No.1
in D minor (BWV1052). This is presented here in two versions
- one dating from 1924 and the other from 1946. Both are beautifully
stated performances; however the later one is naturally clearer
and casts more light on the contrapuntal working out of the
piece. Lewis Foreman has noted that Harriet was ‘celebrated
in her day’ for performances of this work. Once one makes
the ‘mental leap’ of hearing this work on the piano
as opposed to the clavier, it can be appreciated as a most enjoyable
execution. I feel that this music is perfectly poised and ultimately
cool in mood.
The ‘pioneering recordings’ of part of Book 1 of
Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier are critical to
Harriet’s career. Apparently, Columbia proposed to issue
the entire ‘48’ however, the project never got beyond
the first nine. Her playing of these pieces is pretty near perfect.
I accept that there have been many fine interpreters of these
works - my current favourite is Andras Schiff. However, Harriet’s
commitment to these masterpieces of the keyboard art is impeccable
and combines a superb technical approach to the music with a
‘lofty intellectual perception’, which is outstanding.
It is only a pity that the set was never completed.
The last element of the Bach recordings is probably less-popular
these days - the transcriptions. Perhaps the most famous transcriber
of Bach’s music is Busoni; however many other composers
turned their hand to this form of arrangement, including Franz
Liszt, Max Reger and Sergei Rachmaninov. Harriet also contributed
to this genre with a number of pieces including the lovely ‘Beloved
Jesus, we are here’ (BWV731) and the stately ‘Sanctify
us by thy Goodness’ from Cantata No.22.
It may seem a heresy to many readers when I admit that I am
not a huge fan of Mozart’s and Brahms’ piano music.
Naturally, I accept that they are both masters of the keyboard,
and concede that it is just the fact that I have not got to
grips with their music. However, I enjoyed the classical and
‘unsentimental’ rendering of the Mozart’s
C major Sonata K330. The liner-notes rightly admit to the somewhat
‘erratic’ tempos of the first movement - one might
call them ‘eccentric’. However, the slow movement
is beautiful and the concluding rondo is perfectly paced.
I am convinced that other reviewers will extol the virtues of
Cohen’s Chopin and Brahms recordings. Certainly, I found
her interpretation of the Études attractive, if not revelatory.
The Brahms Ballade in D minor is a ‘big’ work that
was inspired by a grisly Scottish ballad tune, ‘Edward’.
This performance is expansive and well-balanced. The closing
bars of pianissimo are in perfect contrast to the macabre earlier
pages. The Intermezzo in B flat minor is a little lighter in
mood, but is still introspective.
I noted above that Cohen took up Falla’s Nights:
alas, there is no recording of this work available. However,
this collection includes three pieces for solo piano from his
pen. I have always sworn by Alicia de Larrocha for my Spanish
piano music; however, Cohen’s performances of ‘Andaluza’,
‘The Fisherman’s Tale’ and ‘The Miller’s
Dance’ are beholden to no one. The balance between the
fire, the passion and the sultry heat are all ‘present
and correct’. These performances are amongst the highlights
of a set of CDs full of highlights!
Stephen Siek notes that Harriet’s favourite ‘a cappella’
work was William Byrd’s five-voice mass: Elizabethan music
certainly appealed to her as can be heard in the five short
pieces from Orlando Gibbons - ‘Ayre’, ‘Alman’,
‘Toy’, ‘Coranto’ and ‘Mr Sanders
his Delight’. I prefer these played on the piano than
on the virginal - irrespective of musicological mores. There
is a wistful and melancholic beauty about these timeless pieces
that defies analysis. I do wish that she had recorded more music
from this period. These pieces were taken from Margaret Glyn’s
groundbreaking edition of the composer’s works, first
published in 1922. Harriet also included Ralph Vaughan Williams
heart-breaking Hymn Tune Prelude on [Gibbon’s] Song
13. This is one of the most moving pieces that RVW composed.
It is naturally good to have everything that Harriet recorded
from the pen of Arnold Bax. The powerful and demanding Paean
(Passacaglia) certainly gives the lie to those critics who suggested
that her small hands limited her technique. She brings a magic
to ‘Hill Tune’ and to ‘A Mountain Mood’,
which is quite simply perfect. Harriet underscores both works’
largely impressionistic nature. The Morning Song (Maytime
in Sussex) which was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth on her
21st birthday is one of Bax’s lighter pieces.
Like many of his late works, it has been considered as lacking
in inspiration. However, for me it is a delight and manages
to portray the idealised landscape, which seemingly inspired
One of the pleasures (for me) of the entire set of discs is
the highly charged, romantic and very overblown - but gorgeous
Cornish Rhapsody from the Gainsborough picture Love
Story starring Margaret Lockwood. This performance was used
on the film soundtrack.
The liner-notes by Stephen Siek are excellent and constitute
a major essay on Harriet Cohen’s recording career. It
certainly bears careful study both before and after hearing
the music. It would have been nice to have had dates for Messrs.
Gibbons, Bax, Bath et al: they were given for many of
the other composers. There are some excellent photographs of
Harriet of both the studio and the ‘snap’ variety.
The CDs themselves are crammed full of music. I guess that they
only just managed to fit in all this music on the three CDs.
They are superb value for money - the three discs are available
for around £19.
I have never been a great enthusiast of ‘historical recordings’.
For one thing, I never know quite what to expect from the sound
quality. Listeners are so used to a pristine reproduction of
sound and regard clicks or hiss askance. The present three CDs
certainly have some hiss. Could it have been removed? I guess
not. However, I was impressed by the general sound, the pitch
seems to be ‘perfect’ and there is little evidence
of where the 78 rpm records would have needed to be ‘turned
Yet to possess these three discs I am prepared to forgo my usual
reticence about listening to historical recordings. In fact,
I would go as far to say that I would give an arm and a leg
to hear these tracks - complete with a bit of surface noise.
The reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with
Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may
well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen
to her performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune and
not be impressed, challenged and moved.
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)
Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor BWV1052
Orchestra/Sir Henry Wood (1924) [24.16]
J. S. BACH
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I: Preludes and Fugues Nos. 1-9
BWV846 - BWV854 (1928) [47.36]
Mortify us by thy grace, from Cantata No. 22 (1928) [2.41]
Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731 (1928) [2.37]
J. S. BACH
Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor BWV1052 Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter
Susskind (1946) [24.14]
J. S. BACH
Prelude and Fugue No. 4 BWV849 from WTC Book 1 (1947) [7.39].
Sanctify us by thy goodness [2.39]
Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731 [2.41]
Up! Arouse thee! from Cantata No. 155 [4.03] (1935)
Fantasia (Praeludium) in C minor BWV921 (1935) [3.21]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major K330 (1932) [15.32]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne Op 15 No. 1 (5.00)
Trois Nouvelles Études Nos. 1 and 3 (1943) [4.12]
Étude Op 25 No. 7 (1928) [5.50]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ballade in D minor Op. 10 No. 1 [4.24]
Intermezzo in B flat major Op. 76 No. 4 [2.30] (1930)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Clair de lune, from the Suite bergamasque [4.26]
La cathédrale engloutie, No. 10 from Préludes
Book I [4.52] (1948)
Manuel DE FALLA (1876-1846)
Andaluza, No. 4 from Pièces espagnoles [4.18]
The Fisherman’s Tale, from El Amor Brujo [2.12]
The Miller’s Dance, from The Three-Cornered Hat
Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Sonatina in C major Op. 13 No. 1 (1943) [6.44]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Prelude in E flat minor Op. 34 No. 14 (1943) [2.33]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Ayre - Alman - Toy - Coranto - Mr Sanders His Delight (1947)
GIBBONS/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13 (1947) [4.20]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Paean (1938) [3.47]
A Hill Tune (1942) [4.53]
A Mountain Mood - Theme and Variations (1942) [4.42]
Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) Orchestra/Dr Malcolm
Sargent (1947) [8.25]
‘The Oliver Theme’ from the film Oliver Twist
Philharmonia Orchestra/Muir Mathieson (1948) [7.46]
Hubert BATH (1883-1945)
Cornish Rhapsody from the film Love Story
London Symphony Orchestra/Hubert Bath (1944) [6.11]
Dates given are when piece was recorded.