Edith Picht-Axenfeld (piano)
German Radio Broadcast Recordings
rec. 1952-56
MELOCLASSIC MC1043 [79:06 + 78:44]

I've only ever been acquainted with Edith Picht-Axenfeld (1914-2001) via her harpsichord recordings. I'm thinking especially of her wonderful 1968 Goldberg Variations, which was my introduction to the work. She forged a career as a concert pianist after studying piano with Rudolf Serkin in Basel and organ with Wolfgang Auler and Albert Schweitzer. In 1935 she entered the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. This was the year Yakov Zak took First Prize; she came sixth. As time went on she embraced the harpsichord, which she taught, together with piano, at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg until 1979. She recorded for labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Erato. RCA also released an LP of Chopin's Op. 10 and 25 Études. These radio recordings, featuring her exclusively on the piano, were taped between 1953 and 1956, and make a valuable addition to her discography.

The rarely performed Piano Sonata in C sharp minor by Haydn happens to be one of my favorites, so I’m more than happy it features here in a radio broadcast from 24 April 1956. Picht-Axenfeld makes a good job of the elusive and rhythmically quirky first movement, contrasting the opening belligerence with the more placatory elements to come. From four years earlier we have two Beethoven Sonatas. Op. 2 No. 3 requires technique of the highest order, and this it gets, with all the virtuosic challenges delivered with panache. The slow movement is eloquently expressed, and the semiquaver runs in the finale sparkle with glitter and precision. The first movement of Op. 54 is nicely paced, with the octaves in the stormy trio precise and clearly articulated. The toccata-like second movement is thrilling, and there's a sense of exhilaration in the closing dash to the finishing line. Brahms alternates capriccios with intermezzos in his Op. 76 Piano Pieces. Here, the latter are lovingly contoured and lyrically drafted. The final Capriccio, rife with dissonance, builds up to an electrifying climax, but this performance will never displace my top recommendation for this cycle, namely that of Stephen Kovacevich.

CD 2 reveals the pianist as a refined and intuitive Chopin player. The Nocturne Op. 27 no. 2, with its florid decoration, is expressively sculpted, and sensitive pedaling imbues it with a wealth of tonal shadings. The Mazukas run the spectrum from light mood to dark and tragic. Picht-Axenfeld performs the Op. 68 set. Op. 68/1 is sprightly of step, whilst Op. 68/2 sounds rather world weary. No. 4 of the set is wistfully melancholic. The E flat minor Polonaise, Op. 26, No. 2 is weighed down with dark tragedy. The Op. 10 Études brim over with astonishing virtuosity. Whether it be the effortless arpeggios of No. 1, the sweeping surges of No. 8, or the potent intensity of the Revolutionary, all appear to be plain sailing for Picht-Axenfeld. Schumann's Humoreske is both ruminative and poetically inspired. The pianist makes the most of rhythmic contrasts and is never afraid to let the music speak for itself. Throughout, she employs a wide colouristic range, which is a positive asset in the composer’s piano music.

These well-preserved broadcasts are rewarding in every way, and have been lovingly restored. The detailed biography by Michael Waiblinger is more comprehensive than anything you'll find elsewhere. This is a must-have collection for pianophiles, enabling you to fully savour the refined pianism of a long-forgotten artist.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Hob XVI:36 [15:28]
rec. 24 April 1956, Frankfurt, Funkhaus am Dornbusch, Hessischer Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 3 in C Major, Op 2, No 3 [26:46]
Piano Sonata No 22 in F Major, Op 54 [11:45]
rec.19 June 1952, Frankfurt, Altes Funkhaus · Hessischer Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
8 Klavierstücke, Op 76 [25:05]
rec.18 October 1954, Frankfurt, Altes Funkhaus, Hessischer Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
2 Nocturnes: D flat major, Op.27 No.2 [5:21]: B major, Op.62 No.1 [6:10]
4 Mazurkas, Op 68 [6:22]
Polonaise in E-flat Minor, Op 26, No 2 [7:16]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op 20 [26:30]
rec. 3 August 1953, Frankfurt, Altes Funkhaus, Hessischer Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1856)
12 Études, Op 10 [27:03]
rec. 28 May 1953, Stuttgart, Studio VI, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Radio Studio Recording