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Harold Samuel (piano)
The Complete Solo Recordings
rec. 1923-1935
APR 6036 [79:28 + 78:24]

Harold Samuel's recordings of Bach were one of my early piano purchases when they were released on a generously filled long-player by Pearl many years ago. That release and all mentions I have heard or read since associate Samuel with Bach so closely that it came as something of a surprise to receive this set and find him playing Brahms and Schubert as well as movements by the sons of Johann Sebastian – a welcome surprise as it turns out.

Harold Samuel (1879-1937) was born into the Golden Age of the piano; he was an almost exact contemporary of the great pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch (1878-1936) and was born within a week of Mark Hambourg. Around him were the grand romantics of the age - Hofmann, Rosenthal, Friedman, Paderewski and many others for whom Bach was almost exclusively played in transcription. Samuel was unusual as he became known as an interpreter of Bach's original works for the keyboard and would also programme music of the Elizabethan masters and contemporary works; he played Ravel and gave the premiere of the second Piano Concerto by Herbert Howells – albeit grudgingly as he discovered he disliked the piece when he started to learn it. It was Samuel's teacher at the Royal College of Music, Edward Dannreuther (1844-1905) who played such an important role in the development of his love of Bach. Dannreuther had studied in Leipzig with Ignaz Moscheles who was himself passionate about Bach and who had played the concertos for two or more harpsichords with the likes of Mendelssohn, Thalberg and Clara Schumann. Hubert Parry, whose writings include Johann Sebastian Bach: the Story of the Development of a Great Personality, also played his part, encouraging Samuel to explore the solo keyboard works. The CD booklet, with comprehensive and informative notes by Donald Manildi, emphasises this Bach connection, from his early groundbreaking recital performance of the Goldberg Variations and first all Bach recital in 1919 to his week-long Bach series in 1921; the booklet reproduces the programme for his New York Bach series given just two years before his untimely death.

The first thing that still strikes me about Samuel's Bach is the almost modern style; if it weren't for the tell-tale hiss of the old recordings this would fit right in nowadays. There are some giveaway traits; in one of his first recordings, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Samuel extends some of the trills longer than is usual and doubles up on some of the octaves, even reinforcing some of the more declamatory right hand figures with the left hand on occasion. In the fugue he plays a descending scale in sixths though that was probably due to the editions of the day rather than any caprice on Samuel's part. This goes for the low bass A on the second beat of the 7th bar from the end. Samuel is apt at finding different characters within the music; the final page of the fantasia has a real sense of fantasy that is quite different to the improvisatory but more regular opening pages. The final available side of this recording was given over to the bourrées from the second English Suite, a work that Samuel returned to in his 1926/27 sessions. He didn't re-record the bourrées in the later sessions so APR have inserted them into the correct place in the suite which explains the slightly different piano sound though this is no more disconcerting than the slightly higher surface noise that is heard in the allemande from the suite and less than the difference in surface noise between the Clementi Sonata movement and the Schubert Moment musical found on disc 2 recorded just 4 years apart.

The first Partita is a beautiful recording and has less surface noise; engineer Seth Winner has used the slightly quieter Victor produced sides though this brought its own problems (all detailed in Winner's booklet note). Four alternative takes, recorded for HMV, of movements from the first Partita are included as Samuel re-recorded these for the the American Victor release. In this Partita the sarabande opens with a rather stern, almost declamatory feel though Samuel brings a great deal of tenderness to it for the repeat, following in the manner of the sarabande from the English Suite but without the decoration that is featured in that instance. He captures the dance-like qualities of the faster movements with flexibility and bounce and there is an unforced nature to his phrasing that is very appealing; in the Preludes and fugues Samuel doesn't feel the need to accentuate the fugue subjects but you are always aware of them due to Samuels's excellent sense of balance, even shining through the heavier surface noise of his 1923 fugue in B-flat major. Having heard the first 17 preludes and fugues that Columbia recorded as part of a projected complete set (with Harriet Cohen APR7304 and Evlyn Howard-Jones APR6035, APR6035) it would have been wonderful to hear Samuel in a continuation of the project as Donald Manildi suggests may have been the case had everything gone to plan.

Before his 1919 Bach recital Samuel was often called on as an accompanist and chamber musician and to add to his Bach discography APR include the E major Violin Sonata in which Samuel is joined by Isolde Menges, a pupil of Leopold Auer and Carl Flesch and with whom Samuel also recorded two of the Brahms Sonatas. It is joy to listen to this partnership; Menges' tone is warm and full and her subtle portamenti are sensitively played. They respond so well to each other's phrases and there is joyous buoyancy to their playing aided by a deft lightness of touch, especially in the fugal second movement and finale. To complete his Bach recordings APR include a live Brandenburg Concerto No 5 from an NBC broadcast of 11th December, 1935. Seth Winner has done wonders restoring this recording and though, as Winner says, there are still sonic shortcomings it is a remarkable document that allows an awful lot of detail as well as a vibrant performance to shine through.

We have Columbia's association with Percy Scholes to thank for four sides of Samuel in music other than Bach. He contributed these short recordings of works by Bach sons and Clementi to their project The Columbia History of Music by ear and Eye and they are engaging enough to make one wish Samuel had been given the opportunity to record more music like this; at the time few pianists played this repertoire and the few recordings that precede these would have been very hard to track down (Gunnar Johansen in a 1928 recording of C.P.E. Bach's Rondo is probably the only familiar name in this repertoire prior to Samuel's recordings). The other sides date from 1928 and include two short but delicious performances of Schubert Waltzes and the once popular Gluck/Brahms Gavotte.

Due to the relative rarity of many of these discs and the difficulty of finding clean copies it is a tribute to APR and Seth Winner that the results are so marvellous. Winner has had his work cut out eliminating pops, clips, swishes and other sonic nasties but that work has paid dividends in these bright and vivid transfers.

Rob Challinor

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf, Stephen Greenbank

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chromatic fantasia and fugue BWV.903 (1723?) [13:06]
Prelude and fugue Book 1 No 1 in C major, BWV.846 (1722) [3:46]
Prelude and fugue Book 1 No 2 in C minor, BWV.847 (1722) [3:14]
Prelude and fugue Book 1 No 21 in B-flat major, BWV.866 (1722) [3:28]
Prelude and fugue Book 2 No 15 in G major, BWV.884 (1740) [3:19]
English Suite No 2 in A minor, BWV.807 (1720-22?) [19:39]
Partita No 1 in B-flat major, BWV.825 (1726) [16:07]
Partita No 2 in C minor, BWV.826 (1727) [15:50]

Fantasia in C minor, BWV.906 (1704?) [4:33]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Sonata in F minor i. Allegro assai H.173 (1763) [3:00]
Sonata in B minor iib cantabile H.245 (1774) [2:47]
Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Sonata in E major iii. Rondo: prestissimo Op 5 No 5 (pub.1765) [2:01]
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonata in E-flat major i. Allegro Op 12 No 4 (1784) [3:32]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Moment musical in F minor, D.780 No 3 (1823-24) [1:57]
Valse sentimentale in A major, D.779 No 13 (1823) [0:53]
Waltz in F major, D.365 No 33 (1818-21) [1:04]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787) arr. Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Gavotte from Iphigénie en Aulide (c.1774/1871) [2:55]
Johannes BRAHMS
Intermezzo in E-flat major, Op 117 No 1 (1892) [4:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Violin Sonata No 3 in E major, BWV.1016 (1720) [15:56]*
Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major, BWV.1050 (1720-21) [22:05]**
Alternative takes
Partita No 1 – Praeludium [1:51]
Partita No 1 – Allemande [2:16]
Partita No 1 – Menuet I and II [2:15]
Partita No 1 – Gigue [2:29]

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