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Cyril Smith (piano)
The Complete Solo Recordings
rec. 1929-52
APR 7313 [3 CDs: 217:53]

The English pianist Cyril Smith is best remembered for his collaborations with his wife Phyllis Sellick in three-handed arrangements, post the devastating stroke he suffered in 1956 whilst in the city of Kharkov in Ukraine at the start of a concert tour of the Soviet Union. His 78-rpm solo recordings he set down in the previous twenty years have been largely forgotten, so this new release from APR, featuring them in their entirety for the first time, is more than welcome.

Cyril Smith (1909-1974) hailed from Middlesbrough. He studied piano with Herbert Fryer (a student of Tobias Matthay and Ferruccio Busoni) at the Royal College of Music, winning medals and prizes along the way. In 1928, he won the Daily Express piano contest and a year later made his concert debut in Birmingham. In the early 1930s he worked for a while for the BBC, and it was there he met Phyllis Sellick; the two married in 1937. In 1934, he left the BBC to take up an appointment as professor of piano at the Royal College of Music. During the war, Smith performed concerts for ENSA, and in 1941 he and his wife began performing together as a piano duo at the Proms. Many foreign tours courtesy of ENSA and the British Council took place. It was in 1956 that Smith suffered his stroke in Kharkov whilst touring the Ukraine. His solo career ended, he and his wife built up a repertoire of three-handed piano arrangements. He died in London on 2 August 1974.

APR have grouped the solo recordings by composer rather than chronologically. What better curtain raiser than Balakirev’s Islamey, the composer’s most famous work for piano, to launch CD1. Smith has tamed it to perfection, the security of his technique is beyond reproach. The Gärtner/Friedman Viennese Dance No. 2 has an idiomatic Viennese lilt. The Polonaise No. 2 from Suite for piano by Sir Arthur Bliss is performed with tight rhythmic control. Of the two Impromptus by Schubert, the G flat D899/3 disappoints with its feet-dragging and hesitancy. The B flat D935/3 is better, though the actual theme is slow and doesn’t really flow; the other variations proceed more comfortably. Chopin’s Barcarolle is poised and elegant, and it brims over with poetic insights. I like the way Smith detonates the opening chords of the First Scherzo, setting the tone for a reading full of drama and passion. The central section, quoting the old Polish Christmas song Lulajże Jezuniu, offers a soothing contrast. Schumann’s Romance is poetically sculpted. The three Albéniz pieces prove Smith’s affinity with this music, and the performances are both idiomatic and multi-hued, with the final piece Triana oozing Iberian swagger.

CD 2 has a glistening account of the Paganini/Liszt La Campanella, beautifully articulated, with the upper reaches sparkling and effervescent.  The Bach-Rummel transcription of Mortify us by Thy grace has a fervent simplicity. Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude, Op. 23/5 has generous helpings of push and pull, containing a lovely eloquent middle section, and the G major, Op. 32/5 is the perfect vehicle to showcase Smith’s myriad tonal palette.

Dohnányi features in two solo pieces on CD 3. The Capriccio in F minor is a sort of moto perpetuo, of which Smith gives a crisply articulated and breathless account. My favorite, however, is the Naila Waltz, the composer’s scintillating arrangement of a waltz by Delibes. It’s an absolute delight, “an after-dinner mint” as Horowitz would describe it.

In addition to the solo recordings, APR have included some concerto recordings of Smith in Rachmaninov and the Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Tune. Cyril Smith was among Rachmaninov's favoured interpreters. The composer’s Second Concerto and the Dohnányi Variations both feature Malcolm Sargent at the helm of the Liverpool Philharmonic. The Concerto is both cultivated and contained, avoiding excess emotion. Lyrical moments evince some heartfelt moments, and Smith’s coloristic palette, the result of some sensitive pedaling, adds lustre and shading. Smith and Sargent visited the Dohnányi twice, a later recording from 1953 has been issued on the Guild label. Both are interpretively similar, with the later traversal having the edge sonically. Having said that, Smith’s is one of the finest interpretations of the work I’ve heard. The pair reunited in 1948 for a blistering rendition of the Paganini Rhapsody. This time the orchestra is the Philharmonia. Variation 18 is exquisitely sculpted. Smith joins forces with George Weldon and the City of Birmingham Symphony for a spellbinding rendition Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. The performance is impassioned, ardent and fervid with the sensational finale delivered with generous helpings of vigour and rhythmic drive. Weldon is, all the while, a sympathetic and responsive partner.

Listening to this valuable recorded legacy, I can truly say that Smith was a wonderfully communicative artist and masterful technician. The remasterings have been carried out with due diligence, expertise and dedication. The detailed accompanying documentation, courtesy of Stephen Siek and Bryce Morrison, is beyond reproach. Kudos and a big thank-you to APR.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Jonathan Woolf ~ Rob Challinor
CD1 [76:52]
Balakirev: Islamey - Oriental Fantasy [8:21]
Gärtner: Viennese Dance No. 2 (arr. I. Friedman) [3:20]
Rubinstein: Six Etudes No. 2 in C Major “Staccato" [4:19]
Bliss: Piano Suite, F. 147 II. Polonaise [3:27]
Schubert: 4 Impromptus, D899 No. 3 in G-Flat Major [7:42]
Schubert: 4 Impromptus, D935 No. 3 in B-Flat Major [12:19]
Chopin: Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major, Op. 60, B. 158 [8:08]
Chopin: Nocturne in F-Sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2, B. 55 [3:43]
Chopin: Waltz in D-Flat Major, Op. 64 No. 1, B. 164 [1:39]
Chopin: Waltz in G-Flat Major, Op. 70 No. 1, B. 92 [1:55]
Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20, B. 65 [6:25]
Schumann: Three Romances No. 2 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 28 [4:22]
Albéniz: Cantos de España No. 5, Seguidillas, Op. 232 [2:37]
Albéniz: Espagne No. 2, Tango (arr L Godowsky) [3:40]
Albéniz: Iberia, books 1-4 VI. Triana [4:47]
CD2 [72:08]
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [21:59]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
Liszt: Grandes Études de Paganini (6), No. 3 in A-Flat Minor, S. 141 [4:57]
Bach: Solo Violin Partita No.1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 VII. Tempo di bourrée (arr. C. Saint-Saëns) [2:07]
Bach: Cantata BWV22 'Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe' No. 5, Ertöt uns durch dein Güte (arr. W. Rummel) [2:52]
Rachmaninov: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5 [3:24]
Rachmaninov: Prelude Op. 32 No. 5 in G major [3:48]
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [32:54]
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent

CD3 [68:53]
Dohnányi: Variationen über ein Kinderlied, Op. 25 [23:13]
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
Dohnányi: 6 Konzertetüden, Op. 28 No. 6 in F Minor, Capriccio [2:32]
Delibes: La source, ou Naila; Waltz (arr. E. Dohnányi) [8:11]
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op 30 [34:47]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/George Weldon

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