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Harold Samuel (piano) The Complete Solo Recordings
rec. 1923-35 APR 6036 [79:28 + 78:24]
One of the earliest attempts to get to grips with Harold Samuel’s legacy was by Pearl, whose LP ‘Harold Samuel plays Bach’ (GEMM147) restored many, but by no means all, of the British pianist’s recordings of the composer’s music. Symposium in their 77-minute CD (1309), included recordings of Partitas 1 and 2, where Pearl had only included the First. But the major contribution came on Koch with a double-CD (3-7137-2 K2) called ‘The Art of Harold Samuel’ that went much further still in including Samuel’s recording of Bach’s E major violin sonata, corralling some non-Bach recordings, and including a unique live broadcast performance of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Now, thirty years or so after the release of that twofer, restoration engineer Seth B Winner returns to his earlier work in this latest release from APR.
Samuel (1879-1937) is a proper subject for the label’s line of twofers, a musician of the highest probity and focus who largely abjured Bach hyphenations then popular and concentrated on the composer’s music to an extent few performers had ever done. To have performed the Goldberg Variations at his debut in 1898 and to have given six all-Bach subscription recitals, as he frequently did, elevated him to a position that was only matched by Wanda Landowska and her giant Pleyel harpsichord.
APR follows Koch’s running order in their second CD but changes the programme in the first disc, starting with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, collecting the various recordings Samuel made of the ‘48’ and unleashing the large-scale recordings of the English Suite and the two Partitas. The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue comes from his earliest session in October 1923. Not every record company was as generous to its artists as was Victor to Kreisler, for example, in allowing the largesse of as many as 14 takes for a single side, so Samuel had to do with a limited number of takes and it’s this that accounts for the few finger slips you’ll find along the way. It was of this piece that he once wrote that ‘the emotional side should never be lost sight of’ and that ‘the various quasi-virtuoso phrases must never be played as such but as melodically as is consistent with not too heavy a pace’ and that is what one hears in this performance. There is a sense of logic underpinning everything he does, and it’s playing that sits at a remove from that of the more romanticised Landowska and even the more overtly expressive Edwin Fischer.
Samuel only recorded three of the Preludes and Fugues, two from Book 1, but enough remains to show his subtle and refined art. Prelude No 2, BWV847, recorded in September 1926, shows very clearly the range of his dynamics and the breadth of his technique and whilst the acoustic recording of the Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor can’t properly isolate the left hand pointing, it certainly reveals his dignity and nobility in this music; measured against Samuel, Glenn Gould can’t help but seem especially nutty in this example. The English Suite No 2 in A minor was recorded piecemeal in 1923, 1926 and 1927 but has been ‘reconstructed’ which is something that previous releases have also done, very fairly in my view. Though there is obviously a sonic divergence between the acoustically recorded Bourrées and the early electric other movements, it isn’t especially dramatic and allows the work to exist as an entity in itself. The curiosity, of course, is why Samuel seems not to have re-recorded the Bourrées electrically. He is direct and purposeful here, in much the same way that his compatriot and contemporary Evelyn Howard-Jones was in his own Bach recordings (see review). Both have been criticised in the past for being ‘academic’ but nothing could be further from the truth. As he shows in the two Partitas, rhythmic buoyancy and clarity are fundamental approaches to the repertoire and he makes no recourse to grandiose ritardandi or to extravagant rubati. This is finely balanced Bach playing.
He formed a duo with violinist Isolde Menges and they left behind three significant recordings; two Brahms sonatas, which are on Biddulph, and this Bach sonata, recorded in 1928. Menges’ tonal purity, her endemic and very precise slides and natural affinity with Bach’s music – she was the first performer to record the Chaconne - ensure that her partnership with Samuel was one of stylistic and instrumental equals.
The survival of the Brandenburg Concerto was due wholly to one of the three soloists, violinist Josef Stopak, who arranged for it to be recorded. Arthur Lora was the flautist and Frank Black directs the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1935. This was an earlier and smaller incarnation of the orchestra that was later to become subsumed in 1937 into the larger ensemble that Rodziński was to train for Toscanini. As the only known example of a live Samuel performance it is of great significance and his playing conveys something of his uncompromising force. In its previous appearance on Koch it was bedevilled with pops and something of a clangy aura but new restoration work means it is very much more listenable and a pleasure to hear.
There are some other recordings that hint at the larger nature of his repertoire, such as his deft CPE Bach and Clementi movements, three lighter Schubert pieces, the Gluck-Brahms Gavotte and a Brahms Intermezzo. All show how much more he was than merely a Bach encyclopaedist. I think too often he has been seen as a a retrograde precursor to the ‘modern era’ genius of Fischer, or Gieseking, or Lipatti. In his wide-ranging notes annotator Donald Manildi takes a swipe at later players of the repertoire who engaged in ‘wilful eccentricities or… ponderous pedanticism’ (he means Gould and Tureck) and it’s very clear that dismissing players such as Samuel is both ahistorical and unmusical. Each generation doubtless thinks that its own players own the secret to the performance of Baroque music, but recorded history shows how vain that thought is.
One other detail speaks in APR’s favour. An appendix is included of four alternative takes from the First Partita. These takes were all issued at some point. It’s interesting that takes one and four of the Praeludium/Allemande were issued, as he plays such a clinker in the fourth take, but such was routine at the time.
A small footnote: in March 1931 he seems to have recorded some, at least, of the French Suite in G major. It was never released, and I wonder if anything survives in the EMI/Warner archive.
Samuel remains an important, pioneering exponent of Bach on the piano and these improved transfers deserve to gain wide currency.
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