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Vassily Sapellnikoff and Xaver Scharwenka (pianos) - The Complete Recordings
rec. 1910-27
APR 6016 [73:20 + 74:34]

Vassily Sapellnikoff (1968-1941) was one of Tchaikovsky’s favourite interpreters. He had distinguished teachers and studied in St Petersburg where it was Sophie Menter, with whom he studied for three years, who had recommended him to Tchaikovsky. He performed the latter’s Concerto in B flat minor for the first time, under the composer’s baton, in 1888 and it is therefore all the more exciting that Sapellnikoff recorded it in 1926 in London. Critical reception of this recording acknowledges the somewhat problematic nature of Vocalion’s set-up, as they were still recording acoustically at a time when their more technologically savvy and richer competitors had switched to electric recording. Nevertheless despite the rather cramped acoustic, as the conductor Stanley Chapple noted in an article three years later, this was a well-rehearsed piece of work over which the musicians laboured with some effort to get good results. It was the concerto’s first recording, heard in the revised third edition, though there’s a big cut in the finale – the word ‘abridgement’ was invariably used at the time instead of ‘cut’. It sounded more formally exacting, I suppose.

Sapellnikoff exemplifies a school of pianism that may sound alien to today’s listeners brought up on Soviet-era Klaviertigers. It’s a school based on finger clarity of an almost pellucid kind and this easily transcends the relatively primitive sonics. It’s also a school that prizes lyricism over mere, or sheer, heft. Fingerwork is fleet, precise and clear. Trills are even and rounded, and Sapellnikoff plays as softly as the technology of the time would allow. Certainly his dynamics are worthy of study. He shows no studio nerves, and though the playing can’t be characterised as unbridled – this would imply a fiery element that was largely missing from him - he presents the work, one that he had played by then for nearly forty years, with remarkable subtlety. Interpretative divergence in some works runs the gamut – think of violinists Anja Ignatius and Tossy Spivakovsky in the Sibelius Concerto for polar opposites, for example. In this respect Sapellnikoff represents an altogether different tradition to that espoused later by Horowitz. As for Chapple he follows his soloist with great care. The winds, vibrato-free, are pipy, the strings - bolstered by brass reinforcements -occasionally stygian. No matter. This is a very important document.

It was fortunate that someone had the good sense to record Sapellnikoff at all. Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque is another important associative piece and his Russian repertoire invariably sounds just right. The Glinka-Balakirev Lark may be abridged but has a full range of colour and subtle rubati. He deals with the virtuosic demands of Anton Rubinstein’s Staccato Etude with nonchalance and generates real brio – unusual to find such self-confidence in the studios of the time - in the Weber-Tausig Invitation to the Dance. Vocalion moved over to electric recording in 1927 and some of these sides are electrically recorded, though the Marconi system they used was badly inferior to Western Electric employed by rivals. It’s good to encounter those pieces that spread out over two sides of a 78, such as The Wagner-Liszt Tannhäuser or the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12. The Chopin sequence is delightful, played with dextrous clarity that doesn’t preclude warmth. He can be a little strait-laced in Liszt but also plays three of his own compositions, character pieces of much charm and high spirits, and no little drollery.

The remainder of disc two is given over to the very few recordings of Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924). His piano compositions have stayed on the fringes of the repertoire, heard more often in recordings than the concert hall. He set down just seven sides in New York in 1910 and 1913. These tasteful performances are imbued with a degree of robustness but never extroversion. He’d made his debut in 1873 with Mendelssohn’s D minor Concerto and it’s clear from this performance of the Andante and Rondo capriccioso that he was a fine and sensitive interpreter of the composer’s music. It may well be his best disc.

Many years ago Pearl released their transfer of Sapellnikoff’s Tchaikovsky concerto adding a dozen other pieces. There was much more surface noise there though a touch more openness as well. Despite this, these APRs are conspicuously good transfers. The booklet by Jonathan Summers is first-class.

A final thought: checking some old listings we find that Sapellnikoff returned to the studios for the fledgling Decca company in 1929 but his Rachmaninov Second Concerto was never issued. Basil Cameron was the conductor for most of the undertaking, but Julian Clifford covered for him on the latter of the two recording dates. He also recorded Widmung, Liszt’s Polonaise No.2 and his own Gavotte - an electric re-make of a piece he had recorded for Vocalion. Of all these recordings not one was issued and no trace remains of them.

Let’s not mourn what’s lost: let’s salute what remains. This splendid twofer is priced as for one, which makes its appeal even greater.

Jonathan Woolf

Full track-listing

Pyotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 [31:13]
Aeolian Orchestra/Stanley Chapple
Humoresque Op.10 No.2 [2:30]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)-Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
The Lark [3:15]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Mazurka No.4 in G flat major [3:52]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Staccato Etude Op.23 No.2 [4:00]
Anatole LIADOV (1855-1914)
A Musical Snuffbox Op.32 [2:20]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Invitation to the Dance, Op.65 arr. Tausig [4:03]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Scherzo, Op.16 No.2 [4:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Traumes Wirren; Fantasiestücke, Op.12 No.7 [2:32]
Frühlingsnacht; Liederkreis Op.39 No.12 [2:32]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)-Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Spinning Chorus from The Flying Dutchman S440 arr. Franz LISZT [4:17]
Entry of the Guests from Tannhauser S445/1 arr. Franz LISZT [7:14]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D flat major
Vassily Sapellnikoff (piano)
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1809-1847)
Waltz No. 1 in E flat major 'Grande Valse Brillante', Op. 18 [3:01]
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 [3:50]
Étude Op. 10 No. 5 in G flat major 'Black Key' [1:31]
Étude Op. 25 No. 9 in G flat major 'Butterfly' [1:05]
Alexander ALYABYEV (1787-1851)
Le Rossignol arr Franz Liszt S250/1 [3:08]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Valse-Impromptu in A flat S213 [4:16]
Waldesrauchen; No.1 of Two Concert Studies S145 [3:23]
Gnomenreigen: No.2 of Two Concert Studies S145 [3:01]
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 12 in C sharp minor [7:54]
Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 13 in A minor [4:15]
Vassily SAPELNIKOFF (1868-1941)
Waltz in E flat Op.1 [4:08]
Gavotte in E, Op. 4 No. 2 [3:02]
Polka-Miniature, Op. 6 No. 2 [2:21]
Vassily Sapellnikoff (piano)
Carl Maria von WEBER
Invitation to the Dance, Op.65 [4:40]
Rondo Capriccioso in E major, Op.14 [4:49]
Fryderyk CHOPIN
Waltz in A flat major, Op.34 No.1 [4:18]
Impromptu No. 4 in C sharp minor, Op. 66 'Fantaisie-Impromptu' [4:13]
Liebestraum, S541 No. 3 (Nocturne in A flat major) [4:22]
Xaver SCHARWENKA (1850-1924)
Spanisches Ständchen, Op. 63, No. 1 [4:08]
Five Polish Dances Op. 3: No. 1 in E flat [3:08]
Xaver Scharwenka (piano)


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