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Leonard Pennario (piano)
The Complete RCA Album Collection
rec. 1961-66
RCA RED SEAL 19075899272 [12 CDs: ca 10 hours]

Over a decade ago MSR reissued a tranche of recordings by the young Leonard Pennario made in Hollywood, California between 1950 and 1958. The 4-CD set, whilst interpretatively uneven and frequently badly recorded, served notice of the catholicity of his repertoire as well as his formidably developed technique. In a few years he was to record for RCA Victor and this new box collates the fruits of that very productive period.

This is the first ever recording of his complete RCA legacy in a single edition, though elements of it – notably the chamber sequence with Heifetz and confreres – has been multiply reissued. Four LPs make their first appearance on CD. As is now almost de rigeur in reissues of this kind, the discs are presented in facsimile LP sleeves with the original liner notes preserved. Full discographic details can be pursued in the booklet.

In terms of what has been issued multiply and what hasn’t some of the earlier discs are the more valuable. Pennario teamed with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops for a notably fine Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody – superb technique, unshowy musicianship, concentrated nobility of expression. Even in a country that boasted such titans as Kapell, Wild, Janis, Katchen et al, Pennario stakes his case here as a member of the elite. The Franck Symphonic Variations is scarcely less good, and the Litolff Scherzo is a frothy way to end a formidable first disc. The two Liszt concertos with Leibowitz and the LSO (1963) follow and they’ve been the subject of reissue over the years. Deft and technically accomplished though they are, they’re not quite at the same level as the Rachmaninov-Franck pairing; there’s a lack of wattage from time to time.

Discs 3 and 4 are given over to small solo pieces, the first ‘Virtuoso Favorites’ and the second ‘Humoresque’. The former opens with Pennario’s own arrangement of Johann Strauss’ Kaiser-Waltz, a piece of barnstorming pianistics, and includes a thrilling Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz and an excellent La Valse. The literal humoresques include those by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, with a single Debussy (Golliwogg’s Cakewalk) that foreshadows the two books of Préludes to come, Gershwin’s Three Preludes, the obligatory Für Elise – I wish more people took up Claudio Arrau’s challenge to vest it with gravity – two favourite Grieg Lyric Pieces and others of that ilk.

Disc Five returns one to bigger matters; Rachmaninov’s First and Fourth Concertos with Previn directing the RPO in October 1964. This coupling reminds one that Pennario was the first to set down the complete concerto cycle after Rachmaninov himself; it also reminds one of performances that have been overshadowed by, say, Janis and Reiner in No.1 and by Wild and Horenstein in the whole cycle, with the same RPO, in a set recorded the year after Pennario and Previn taped the two concertos. Pennario eschews Wild’s intense animation and speed, in a performance (of No.1) that is resilient and slightly reminiscent of Janis’. Thus, there’s a lack of outsize bravura in No.4, but it is played with superb composure.

Debussy’s Préludes occupy discs 6 and 7. They are not steeped in impressionist wash, nor are they as clarity-conscious as some earlier French practitioners on disc. They are however clear-sighted, probing and unshowy performances and if that suggests a degree of under-characterization, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. It’s back to concertos in disc eight, for Schumann’s with Ozawa directing the LSO. The piano is spotlit here which does the balance no favours Strauss’s Burleske is finely played.

Discs 9-12 focus on chamber music. Pennario joined Piatigorsky for Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata and that of Richard Strauss. The former is graced by outstanding instrumentalism but imperilled by one of those terrible master-and-servant balances that sees the cellist in the hot seat and the pianist relegated. The Strauss is warmly expressive and better balanced. The high-octane Heifetz-Piatigorsky-Pennario trio performances on the remaining discs are very well known; admirable, with Pennario having to fill Rubinstein’s place, which he does with commendable sang froid. The repertoire is lively and not too predictable – it includes, in addition to a hard-bitten Mendelssohn Op.66 and Dvořák’s Op.65, Arensky and Turina in addition to Beethoven and Brahms. The final work in the set is the famous Franck Quintet traversal, with the addition of the seemingly nerveless second violinist Israel Baker, and William Primrose.

Some sifting may be required if you have a significant number of these excellently transferred discs, a couple of which have been newly remastered from the original tapes. Otherwise Pennario’s name is a welcome and justified addition to the RCA Album series.

Jonathan Woolf

Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Franck: Symphonic Variations for piano & orchestra, M46
Litolff: Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102: Scherzo
Boston Pops/Arthur Fiedler
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S124
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125
London Symphony Orchestra/René Leibowitz
Strauss, J, II: Kaiser-Walzer, Op. 437
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night's Dream: Scherzo
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre, Op. 40
Shostakovich: Polka from The Golden Age, Op. 22
Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges: March
Ravel: La Valse
Kreisler: Liebesleid
Gounod: Faust - Waltz, Act II
Dvorak: Humoresque in G flat major, Op. 101 No. 7
Tchaikovsky: Humoresque, Op. 10 No. 2
Rachmaninov: Humoresque in G major, Op. 10 No. 5
Rachmaninov: Morceaux de fantaisie Op. 3 No. 4
Debussy: Golliwog's Cakewalk (from Children's Corner)
Gershwin: Preludes (3)
Schubert: Moments Musicaux, D780: No. 3 in F minor
Beethoven: Für Elise (Bagatelle in A minor, WoO59)
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37b: November (Troika)
Grieg: Lyric Pieces Op. 43: No. 6 - To Spring
Grieg: Lyric Pieces Op. 43: No. 1 - Butterfly
Falla: Cuatro piezas espańolas: Andaluza
Rubinstein, A: Soirees a Saint-Petersbourg, Op. 44: No. 1, Romance in E flat major
Tchaikovsky: Scherzo humoristique (No. 2 from Morceaux (6), Op. 19)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/André Previn
Debussy: Préludes - Book 1
Debussy: Préludes - Book 2
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Strauss, R: Burleske for Piano and orchestra in D minor, AV85
London Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58
Strauss, R: Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 6
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello): Leonard Pennario (piano)
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66

Arensky: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32
Turina: Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 35
Beethoven: Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70 No. 1 'The Ghost'
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87
Dvorak: Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65 (B130)
Jascha Heifetz (violin), Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), Leonard Pennario (piano)
Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 14
Jascha Heifetz (violin), Gregor Piatigorsky (cello), William Primrose (viola), Israel Baker (violin), Leonard Pennario (piano)



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