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Leff Pouishnoff (piano) The complete 78 rpm and selected Saga LP recordings
rec. 1922-1958 APR 6022 [73:49 + 75:32]
I have to admit that although I had heard the name Leff Pouishnoff, until this release came along, I had never heard any of his recordings. It is hardly surprising. Apart from a single CD on the now defunct Pearl label issued in the early 1990s, none of his recordings appear to have surfaced on the silver disc. The accompanying blurb states that this is the first time the pianist's complete 78 recordings have appeared on CD. In addition, APR have also treated us to some samples from his collaboration with the Saga label, sourced from a single LP and an EP.
The pianist was born in Odessa in 1891, and by the age of fourteen he was working as a coach and accompanist at the State Opera Company in Kiev, where the family had relocated in 1900 after the death of his father. It was there that he came to the attention of Feodor Chaliapin who encouraged him to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Annette Essipova, a prominent Russian pianist. He also studied composition under Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Glazunov, graduating with a Gold Medal in 1910. Prior to World War 1 he undertook some tours in Europe. Following the Revolution, which forced him into exile, he visited Paris and then settled in London, where he took British citizenship in the 1930s. Columbia approached him in 1922 to make some records, and this kick-started his recording career. He made many appearances in Britain as well as in Europe. In the seasons 1924-1925 and 1925-1926 he toured the major cities of the United States. In fact, the 1920s were a golden period for him. There was a twenty year gap between his early recordings and the later ones he made for HMV. His final records were made in 1958 for the newly formed Saga label. A year later he died of barbiturate poisoning, aged only sixty seven. Strangely, his wife died three weeks later of exactly the same cause.
Pouishnoff's discography, comprising only solo items, is top-heavy with miniatures or single-movement works. In 1926, Columbia made attempts to record him in Franck's Variations symphoniques, but for some reason the project was never completed. One has to look to his radio broadcasts for concerto repertoire.
Twelve titles, recorded 1922-1923, make up the Columbia acoustics. Pouishnoff was in his prime then, and his technique is impressive by any standards. Sample the two Chopin Études and Liszt's Gnomenreigen. The latter sparkes with diaphanous fingerwork. A delicate touch and luminous tone characterizes Glazunov's Polka and the pianist's own Music Box. Aside from purely technical considerations, the sheer excitement, vitality and thrill he injects into his playing are admirable.
The Schubert/Pouishnoff Ballet music No. 2, Liszt's Gnomenreigen and Glazunov's Polka were later remade in the electrical era between 1926-1929. They are interpretively similar, yet the improvement in sound quality of the later recordings is striking. The Schubert/Godowsky Moment musical is exquisitely nuanced and rhythmically buoyant. However, it is the Rachmaninov Prelude in B flat Op. 23 No. 2 which is the highlight for me; maybe not quite as breathtaking as Richter’s, but not far off.
Pouishnoff made the first ever recording of Schubert's G Major Sonata D.894 in 1928 for the composer's centenary celebrations. It is the most substantial work in this compilation. He allows the opening movement to unfold naturally. The slow movement is particularly fine, where he invests his playing with a panoply of tonal hues. The Menuetto is boldly stated and rhythmically tight. The finale is swiftly delivered, but comes over as too frenetic, resulting in several misfires along the way. The same problem afflicts the trio section of the composer’s Impromptu in A flat major D.935. It is rushed, sacrificing much of its elegance and refinement in effect.
It was for HMV that, twenty years later, the pianist set down 15 sides of Chopin. Over three sessions, between June and September 1948, one twelve-inch and one ten-inch disc were the result. His playing is now more considered, some might even say introspective. Despite this, the Études and Waltz are virtuosically adept. Pouishnoff achieves a beguiling, pellucid tone in the B major Nocturne, which is eloquently contoured.
By the time the pianist was approached by the Saga label, his career was already in decline, and ten years had elapsed since his previous recording endeavours. The result was a single LP of Chopin and Liszt pieces and an EP of Glazunov's Theme and Variations Op. 72. The latter was released posthumously in 1961. The executive producer Michael Spring writes a short article in the booklet entitled "The mystery of Pouishnoff's Saga Recordings". It uncovers a "mysterious case of fraud" regarding the authenticity of some of the pianist's recordings for the label. I do not intend to discuss the complexities of it here, but it is worth mentioning that one of the protagonists in the debacle was William Barrington-Coupe of Joyce Hatto fame. Some of the alleged recordings were thought to be the work of Sergio Fiorentino. APR have not included the disputed items in this release.
Glazunov’s Theme and Variations Op. 72 is, at 18 minutes, fairly large-scaled, and Pouishnoff delivers a stylish performance of this melodious score. It is difficult to believe that his playing was in decline when this was set down, but it is worth noting that by this stage it is much less impetuous. Of the Chopin pieces, I particularly like the Barcarolle and Berceuse, which are suffused with poetry and lyricism, with rubato well-judged and sensitively applied.
The value of this splendid release lies not only in the fact that this is currently the only available documentation of Pouishnoff's recorded legacy, but also that we can admire the fusion of virtuosity and poeticism that underlies his art. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are first-rate and sympathetic. The accompanying annotations, in English only, illustrated with finely produced photographs, provide comprehensive biographical information and context. It gets my full-hearted recommendation. Thanks to APR, Leff Pouishnoff finally gets the attention he deserves.
Complete tracklisting CD 1 [73:49] The Columbia acoustics 1922–1923 Bach/Saint-Saëns Overture BWV29 [3:21] Beethoven/Saint-SaënsChorus of Dervishes [2:39] Schubert/Pouishnoff Ballet music from "Rosamunde" [2:30] Chopin Étude Op. 25/9 [0:56]
Étude Op. 10/4 [1:58] LisztGnomenreigen S145/2 [2:46] Debussy Arabesque in G major [2:24] Glazunov Polka Op. 42/2 [2:32] Rachmaninov Humoresque Op. 10/5 [3:26] PouishnoffQuand il pleut [2:54] Petite valse [1:24] Music box [1:08] The Columbia electrics 1926–1929 Schubert/Pouishnoff Ballet music from "Rosamunde’\" [2:25] Schubert/Godowsky Moment musical Op. 94/3 [1:59] Schubert Piano Sonata Op. 78 [31:14]
Impromptu Op. 142/2 [3:48] LisztWaldesrauschen S145/1 [3:24] Gnomenreigen S145/2 [2:46]
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