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Nikolai Orloff (piano): The Decca Recordings
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1875 rev1879, 1889) [33:07]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29 (1837) [4:11]
Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7 No. 3 (1831) [2:15]
Valse in F major, Op. 34 No. 3 [2:22]
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3 (1840) [4:08]
Etude in D flat major, Op. 10 No. 8 (1829-32) [2:15]
Etude in A minor, Op. 10 No. 4 (1829-32) [2:00]
Prelude in B minor, Op. 28 No. 6 [1:53]
Prelude in B major, Op. 28 No. 11 [0:43]
Prelude in G major, Op. 28 No. 3 [0:56]
Prelude in B flat minor, Op. 28 No. 16 [1:07]
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66 (1835) [4:43]
National Symphony Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari
rec. November 1945, Wembley Town Hall, London (Tchaikovsky), September and December 1945, Decca Studios, West Hampstead (Chopin)
ELOQUENCE 482 8710 [60:16]

Russian-born pianist Nikolai Orloff (1892-1964) spent much of his adult life in Britain, as did other luminaries and contemporaries such as Moisewitsch, Pouishnoff and Hambourg. Unlike them he didn’t record much and, when he did, he was past his best. He had a fine pedigree, studying with Vasily Safonov in Moscow and with that excellent exponent and teacher Konstantin Igumnov. He studied composition and counterpoint with Taneyev and gave the premiere of Glazunov’s First Piano Concerto, something of a coup for one so young; he was just twenty. In 1922 he decided to settle in Paris but began a series of world tours. In the prickly New York atmosphere, he made what sounds to have been a glowing entrée and was noted as ‘Sensational Pianistic Success of the Season’ by possibly overheated headline writers. Gradually Chopin came to prominence in his repertoire but whilst he performed with such as Damrosch, Beecham, Szell and Wood he never really reached the heights and died in Scotland in 1964.

His only known recordings were made shortly after the end of the Second World War. The major one was the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the same work that he had performed at his New York concerto debut in November 1928 – shades of Vladimir Horowitz, who had played it at his first American concert in January of the same year. I wish I could report that Orloff possessed the electrical charge of a Horowitz but I’m afraid I can’t. The restoration has done what it can and given that the original restorer was Ward Marston and that Mark Obert-Thorn has added his expertise there was no shortage of expert hands at work. The trouble is that the original recording was pretty dire. It was taken down on 78s in Wembley Town Hall and the Decca team messed up microphone placement. The piano is very recessed and cloudy, and the orchestra is on enthusiastic but not invariably subtle form under Fistoulari. Orloff hardly sounds the beacon of Romantic bravura in this work; he is more the lyric interpreter but sometimes lets the line sag. His first movement cadenza is very competent but not dashing, the slow movement attractive if a touch low-key, and he has to take second place to the orchestra – acoustically speaking – in the finale.

In the same year but at the studio in West Hampstead, he set down a Chopin series. His is interesting rhythmically in the Waltz in F major and seems unruffled by the technical demands of the Etude in D flat major, whilst his A minor Etude is similarly good. Something of the lyrical poetry contemporary critics heard in his playing can be strongly glimpsed in the Prelude in B major. Generally, this Chopin sequence shows a cultivated artist at work.

There was one more visit to the Decca studios in July of the following year for a recording of Beethoven’s Sonata Op.31 No.2, but this was never released. However, if you take a look at Decca’s books it might go some way towards answering questions as to why Orloff was not invited back to record. Moura Lympany recorded the Khachaturian Concerto with the same accompaniment – the National Symphony and Fistoulari – just before Orloff’s Tchaikovsky recording, and just before Orloff’s unreleased Beethoven, Eileen Joyce set down Tchaikovsky No.2 with Fitelberg and the LPO. With Kathleen Long still recording sonata repertoire and Curzon on their books, there was really no place to go with a fading figure like Orloff.

Jonathan Summers has written a fine booklet note on a figure many will not have encountered before, and the transfers have done, as I said, the best they can with some difficult (the Concerto) source material.

Jonathan Woolf


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