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Fiorentino Edition - Volume 4: The Early Recordings: 1953-1966
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
rec. 1953-1966
Contents listed below
PIANO CLASSICS PCLM0104 [10 CDs: 716:03]

I applaud Piano Classics in promoting the recordings of neglected pianist Sergio Fiorentino. This is the fourth and final volume of their Fiorentino Edition and it presents the early recordings made for ‘Concert Artists Recordings’ between 1953 and 1966 (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3). A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Volume 3 devoted to music by Rachmaninov.

Fiorentino was born in Naples in 1927 and at the age of eleven went to study at the Conservatory San Pietro a Majella with a stipend from the Italian Ministry of Education in recognition of his talent. He later attended master-classes with Carlo Zecchi in Salzburg. With several competition successes under his belt a concert career beckoned. In 1955 he was injured in a plane crash which temporarily halted things. During this time he took up teaching. By the time he returned to the concert platform he had been largely forgotten. He began a second career in England in the fifties.

After a spell with an Italian agent who worked in England called Julius Finzi, Fiorentino attracted the attention of William H. Barrington-Coupe, who later found fame in the Joyce Hatto fiasco. Barrington-Coupe, founder of ‘Concert Artists Recordings’, gathered around him a brood of young artists of whom Fiorentino was one; Clive Lythgoe and Bernard Vitebsky were others. The label’s first recordings were made in the Levy Sound Studios in London. In 1956 plans were unveiled in the UK to celebrate the impending Mozart bicentenary with the label issuing recordings; a complete Chopin collection was also mooted. At the time Concert Artists Recordings was strapped for cash and the artists themselves frequently financed the projects. As with many of Barrington-Coupe’s endeavors, much remained pie in the sky; many releases never got beyond the advance publicity stage, or a single test pressing. The upshot was that master tapes ended up in storage and eventually the company folded through lack of funds. It wasn’t a very auspicious start to Fiorentino’s recording career; he had been one of the label’s mainstays. Bernard Vitebsky gave up the piano and became a stamp collector and dealer.

The fruits of the early period of Fiorentino’s Concert Artists legacy are to be found on the first CD of the set. The only surviving master tape is that of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 KV467, which dates from October 1954. Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor Woo 80 and Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 35 are taken from test pressings made in 1953. From two years later Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 57 Appassionata is transferred from a Fidelio LP, another of Barrington-Coupe’s labels. The Mozart Concerto fares best sound-wise, but I find Mervyn Vicars' conducting uninspiring and pedestrian and the result is a lacklustre performance short on poetry and charm. Allowances must be made for the other three items, the sonic limitations of which are clearly a drawback.

The four Bach items were all recorded on the same day in August 1965 in Guilford’s Civic Hall. From master tapes, the sound quality is satisfying. The Italian Concerto is particularly convincing, pliant and rhythmically vital. In the Organ Prelude and Fugue BWV 532 Fiorentino musters some powerful organ-like sonorities. The Chaconne has nobility and grandeur. The remaining Beethoven offerings consist of three ‘named’ sonatas taped in the Borough Hall, Greenwich - July 1963 Op. 13, and August 1965 Op. 27/2 and Op. 53. The Pathétique and Moonlight have been transferred from a decent Fidelio LP, the pianist this time being credited as ‘Otto Bergman’. The Waldstein is taken from a master tape. There’s some noticeable background hiss in the first movement of Op. 27/2. As a performance, I have a preference for Fiorentino’s Pathétique. It’s a spacious reading, and I’m drawn to the way the slow movement gently unfolds, and the finale is agile and energetic. The Waldstein is let down by a rather hesitant and ponderous Rondo.

It’s amazing that all the Schumann was recorded on one day on 11 August 1965 at Guildford’s Civic Hall – no mean feat. The transfers draw upon LP dubbings and master tapes, with Bryan Crimp coming to the rescue for the latter. Fiorentino’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26 is every bit as energized and compelling as Richter’s 1976 live airing from the Moscow Conservatoire. In Kinderszenen and Arabeske the pianist has wrought miracles in terms of poetic insights and nuanced voicing. Similar attributes can be found in the remaining Schumann items, which are informed by intuitive expression and exquisite refinement. We have to thank Bryan Crimp for the transfers of both sets of Brahms Variations. This is big-boned playing, both imaginative and gripping.

The box offers a sizeable serving of Chopin – five CDs in all, set down between 1959 and 1962. The Ballades originate from a Delta LP and were recorded in Paris. Sound quality, considering provenance, is perfectly acceptable. The same applies to the first two Scherzos made in London and transferred from master tapes. Scherzos 3 and 4 sonically don’t pass muster, Barrington-Coupe himself referring to them as ‘sub-standard’. They were issued on a Fidelio LP under the fictional name of ‘Auguste du Maurier’. In both the Ballades and the Scherzos Fiorentino underlines with purposeful intent the contrasts between drama and lyricism. Impressive is the strikingly powerful climactic coda of the F minor Ballade, dispatched with breathtaking virtuosity. In the B minor Scherzo the central episode, based on the Polish song ‘Lulajże Jezuniu’ is eloquently contoured, contrasting with the fiery presto con fuoco sections which frame it. The two sets of Études and Trois Nouvelles Études originate from master tapes (Op. 10) and a well-cared-for LP. Fiorentino ends the Revolutionary Étude with an alternating octave flourish, apparently utilizing Anton Rubinstein’s version. LPs provide the source material for the Waltzes (Delta) and the Impromptus (Fidelio). The Waltzes sound a bit brittle, but welcome are five little-known waltzes from Chopin’s youth, completely new to me. The Impromptus offer one of the most captivating interpretations I’ve heard, and are a highlight of the set. From September 1960 come the complete Polonaises in excellent sound, deriving from good quality master tapes and expertly transferred by Bryan Crimp. In the Andante section of the Op. 22, the pianist achieves a luminous and bewitchingly pearlescent tone. A seductive and assured Fantasia on Polish Airs Op. 13 is ably partnered by the Guildford Philharmonic under Vernon Handley (February 1966).

Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux Op. 33 are well-characterized, and Fiorentino’s deft use of pedal highlights the myriad colours and sonorities. The Polka de W.R. I don’t much care for; its rather matter-of-fact and lacks the subtlety and excitement brought out by Horowitz. The Kreisler Liebesfreud transcription again does nothing for me, though through no fault of the pianist. At 6:23 it rambles on and outstays its welcome. The Borodin Scherzo, in refulgent sound, is a delight. It's the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear it.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli thought very highly of Fiorentino calling him ‘The only other pianist’. In 1974 the pianist withdrew from the concert stage to devote his time to teaching. In the early 1990s he made a surprisingly late come-back, but his Indian summer was only short-lived. Sergio Fiorentino died suddenly on 22 August 1998, aged seventy.

Ernst A. Lumpe’s annotations, in English only, are detailed and informative. This, together with the other three volumes of the series, has been a labour of love and, for piano buffs, will be required listening.

Stephen Greenbank
Contents List:
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue
Italian Concerto
Organ Prelude and Fugue in D minor
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 KV467
The London Mozart Ensemble/Mervyn Vicars
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations in C minor Woo 80
Piano Sonata Op. 13 Pathétique
Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 Mondschein
Piano Sonata Op. 53 Waldstein
Piano Sonata Op. 57 Appassionata
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Etude Op. 104 No. 1
Song without Words "Bees Wedding"
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
4 Ballades
4 Scherzi
Complete Études Opp. 10 and 25
Piano Sonata No. 2 Op. 35
Nouvelles Études
19 Waltzes
4 Impromptus
Early Polonaises
Fantasia on Polish Airs Op. 13*
Guildford Philharmonic/Vernon Handley*
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26
Kinderszenen Op. 15
Carnaval Op. 9
Arabeske Op. 18
Symphonic Studies Op. 13
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Paganini Variations Op. 35
Handel Variations Op. 24
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Etudes-Tableaux Op. 33
Polka de W.R.
Bach E major Preludio,
Kreisler Liebesfreud



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