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Harold Samuel (piano) The Complete Solo Recordings
rec. 1923-35 APR 6036 [79:28 + 78:24]
I first became acquainted with the distinguished English pianist and pedagogue Harold Samuel (1879-1937) several years ago from a 2 CD set published in 1992 by Koch in their legacy series (3-7137-2 K2). The restoration engineer for that collection was Seth B. Winner. Now, almost thirty years later, Mr Winner has returned to these recordings with new remasterings in this new release from APR. Though the Koch and APR have the same contents, this latest revival includes an appendix at the end of CD 2 with four alternative takes from the First Partita. I’ll say more about the comparison between the new restorations and those from the early 90s later in the review.
Samuel was born in London and studied piano with Edward Dannreuther and composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He later became a professor of piano on the faculty there. His career focused on the keyboard music of J.S. Bach of which he was a distinguished interpreter. He learned the composer’s entire keyboard oeuvre by heart, and made his London debut with the Goldberg Variations in 1898. He performed the keyboard works in their original form rather than in the transcriptions by the likes of Liszt, Tausig, d’Albert and Busoni favoured by his contemporaries.
Samuel's commercial recordings span the years 1923-1932 and, as such, witness the transition from acoustic to electrical recordings. His entire Bach portfolio are first recordings of the works with the exception of the Prelude and Fugue No 1 in C major; in this he was pipped to the post by Busoni. He generally observed repeats except where 78 time restrictions prevented otherwise. He varied the colouration second time round.
Even taking into account the age of the recordings, I’m amazed by his clarity of line, and at no time do the textures sound clogged up. A combination of lightness of touch and stressing the importance of character in the themes enable this delineation to occur. This is especially so in the fugues, where the themes emerge with definition. Rhythm, balance and structure seem just right, and the absence of mannerisms and eccentricities confer a modern sounding quality to them. In fact, there's a total absence of Romantic excess in terms of exaggerated dynamics and tortuous rubato. He was very faithful to the score, but he does add some octave doublings in the Chromatic Fugue, probably due to a corrupt edition he was using.
Though the lion’s share of the Samuel legacy is devoted to J. S. Bach, his repertoire did stretch far wider. From 1928 we have small helpings of Schubert, Brahms and Gluck/Brahms, and later in January 1932 he visited the studios to set down some pieces by C.P.E. Bach and Clementi. Such is the radiance of his playing of these works, that’s it’s regrettable there aren’t more to savour.
In 1928, Samuel collaborated with the English violinist Isolde Menges in Bach’s Violin Sonata No 3 in E major, BWV1016. The pair also recorded Brahms’ Sonatas 2 and 3. The latter can be found on a Biddulph CD (LAB 076). Menges ‘old school’ playing with its anachronistic portamenti sounds very old-fashioned to modern day ears.
We are very fortunate to have the NBC radio broadcast from 11 December 1935 of the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, BWV1050. It’s the only known ‘live’ performance featuring Samuel. The orchestra is the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Frank Black. The solo violinist is Josef Stopak, whilst Arthur Lora assumes the solo flute role. It’s preceded with an announcement. Although, according to Seth B. Winner, the lacquer-coated discs proved problematic, the final result is very good indeed, and a big improvement on the Koch transfer. There’s a gratifying balance between the soloists and orchestra
Seth B Winner writes at length in his “Engineer Note” regarding his source materials and the restoration and remastering techniques he used in this issue. I hear a marked improvement when I compared these transfers to his Koch restorations. There’s a noticeable reduction of crackle and a greater presence and freshness. He’s done a sterling job. The booklet also includes a detailed essay on the pianist by Donald Manildi. Samuel’s Bach playing will be of particular interest to those, like myself, who prefer Bach performed on a modern piano.
Contents Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV903 [8:26]
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, BWV846-869: Prelude No 1 in C major, BWV846 [1:51]: Fugue in C major, BWV846 [1:55]: Prelude No 2 in C minor, BWV847 [1:29]: Fugue in C minor, BWV847 [1:45]: Prelude No 21 in B-flat major, BWV866 [1:30] : Fugue in B-flat major, BWV866 [1:58]
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, BWV870-893: Prelude No 15 in G major, BWV884 [2:09]: Fugue in G major, BWV884 [1:10]
English Suites (6), BWV806-811: No 2 in A minor, BWV807 [19:41]
Partita No 1 in B-flat major, BWV825 [16:04]
Partita No 2 in C minor, BWV826 [15:50]
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV906: Fantasia [4:33] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Keyboard Sonatas and Rondos (6), Wq57 'fur Kenner und Liebhaber, Collection 3': No 6 Sonata III in F minor, H173: I. Allegro assai [3:00]
Keyboard Sonatas (6), Wq55 'fur Kenner und Liebhaber, Collection 1': No 3 in B minor, H245: Cantabile [2:47] Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Keyboard Sonatas (6), Op 5: No 5 in E major: III. Rondo. Prestissimo [2:01] Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Piano Sonatas (4), Op 12 No 4 E-flat major: I. Allegro [3:32] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Moments musicaux (6), D780: No 3 in F minor [1:57]
Valses sentimentales (34), D779: No 13 in A major [0:53]
Originaltanze (36), D365: No 33 Waltz in F major [1:04] Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Iphigénie en Aulide: Gavotte arr. Johannes Brahms [2:55] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in E flat major, Op 117 No 1 [4:33] Johann Sebastian BACH
Violin Sonata No 3 in E major, BWV1016 [15:56]
Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, BWV1050 [22:09]
Appendix – alternative takes:
Partita No 1 in B-flat major, BWV825: Praeludium [1:51]: Allemande [2:16]: Menuet I and II [2:15]: Gigue [2:29]
Isolde Menges (violin)
Josef Stopak (violin): Arthur Lora (flute)/NBC Symphony Orchestra/Frank Black