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

With a career that began in 1930 playing Brahms' monumental Second Concerto with the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Adrian Boult, British pianist Cyril Smith is probably best known as the third hand in the duo he formed with his wife Phyliss Sellick after suffering a stroke in 1956 whilst on a tour in Russia with Sellick and other prominent British musicians. Smith and Sellick had played and indeed recorded together as a duo for years before that and in both incarnations had music composed for them by the likes of Malcolm Arnold and Lennox Berkeley. Smith had recorded as a soloist as well and though these have not been entirely ignored it has been mostly his concerto work that has been released. It is therefore a real pleasure to have all his solo and concertante recordings collected together here with well documented notes and marvellously faithful sound.

A glance through the works recorded quickly establishes Smith's credentials as a virtuoso who revelled in the romantic literature; his Bach is in transcription, Chopin and Albéniz form the core of his 19th century repertoire, there are three Rachmaninov concertante works as well as Dohnányi's once popular Nursery Song variations and a generous handful of showpieces opening with Balakirev's formidable Islamey. Among these are two more pieces by Dohnányi one of which he chose for his debut recording, a blistering Capriccio in F minor, as good a performance as I have heard, recorded in 1929 when Smith was still a student under Herbert Fryer at the RCM. Fryer apparently hated any music written after 1910 so perhaps Smith studied this in secret? Smith is no slouch in Islamey or Rubinstein's staccato étude either, delivering each with sweep and panache and, notably in the Balakirev, a lilting lyricism for all he doesn't tend to linger over phrases; the octave decorations here are as light as a feather. His Friedman Viennese Dance 2 is more urbane than Friedman's marvellous but more capricious version and in his sole recording for Decca we are treated to a rarity in the wonderfully vibrant Polonaise from the Suite for piano by Arthur Bliss, recorded in 1935.

The rest of the set comprises the recordings he made for Columbia between 1944 and 1952; two Schubert Impromptus are first and for all the beauty of sound there there is a somewhat halting feel to some of the phrasing that doesn't entirely convince me although I do like his way with the very Schumann-like third variation of the B-flat Impromptu. The grand sweep he employs in his concerto recordings isn't quite as successful in his Chopin Barcarolle though it makes for grand excitement in the outer sections of the B minor Scherzo. My favourite among his Chopin selection is his marvellously shaped F-sharp major Nocturne with real delicacy in its final bars. His Seguidillas is as bright and sunny as one could wish with a surging accelerando in the middle section that ramps up the excitement while he teases admirably in Godowsky's sugar-coated version of the Tango. There is a colourful Triana too with some wonderfully delicate playing in the complex filigree writing and La Campanella holds no fears for him. If his Bach Bourrée in the transcription by Saint-Saëns doesn't dance quite as much as Ossip Grabrilowitsch's recording (Video Artists International 1018) it is still well done and I have no issue at all with his serene performance of Mortify us by thy grace. Finally there are two Preludes to add to his Rachmaninov discography; a crisp G minor and a heart melting G major, limpid, weightless and possibly the finest playing on the disc.

His Concerto recordings are as strong, especially so in the case of the Dohnányi and Rachmaninov Variations. As in the solo items it is clear he favours fast tempi and loves to see an accelerando marking; in the D minor Concerto this makes for some real seat of your pants listening but there are moments in the cadenza (the shorter one that Smith's hero Rachmaninov preferred) where it is all a wee bit breathless though undoubtedly exciting. He also has clear ideas about when to employ rubato. Take the lyrical theme from the finale of the second concerto; Smith takes the opening phrases with a good pinch of give and take but then drives through the more passionate sections where Rachmaninov's heart-string-plucking harmonies follow each other in quick succession. There is a similar effect in the opening movement of the third concerto where Smith's lovely touch in the B-flat major theme dissolves into yearning forward momentum before the grand E-flat major section begins its blossoming growth. It has been noted that the iconic opening chords of the C minor Concerto are played in a relatively straightforward manner but they are not played casually and they lead effectively to Smith's grand sweeping arpeggios against the opening theme. One is quite aware of Rachmaninov's tempo changes in the slow movement as Smith evidently wants to stress the fresh character of each new section. The Paganini Variations fizz in this respect, amply reflecting the virtuosity of both Paganini and Rachmaninov. Smith's big sound, grand manner and impeccable technique is matched by the orchestra and the slightly ragged ensemble that can be heard, albeit fleetingly, in the finale of the D minor concerto sounds like it is born out of Smith's passionate momentum. His fast finger-work hasn't always been admired – his none the less distressing to the musical wrote Lionel Salter in his Gramophone review; he goes on to describe Smith's version of the popular 18th variation as glutinous schmalz disregarding the dynamic markings, a description I would disagree with certainly on Smith's part. It is definitely big-hearted playing but not in my mind over-the-top; I welcome his broad romanticism here and he doesn't wallow in the melody. In Dohnányi's equally inventive Variations the whole performance is a dream. From the doom laden introduction and its comically anticlimactic response in simple octaves – Twinkle, twinkle little star or Ah! Vous dirai je, Maman – onwards there is complete engagement between conductor and soloist. It is all wonderful; Variation III with its delicate improvisatory touches, the music box variation with tubular bells ringing out the melody, the Liverpool Philharmonic really enjoying the glorious Viennese waltz of variation seven– and doesn't Dohnányi excel in waltzes? Dark clouds appear in the Alla marcia and on into the diabolic scherzo variation IX before all dies down, the Passacaglia begins to unfold and Dohnányi's rich, inventive harmony unfolds with it. The huge Choral that ends this is one of the great moments in music for me and from there we can clearly hear Smith's delicacy and his crisp finger-work in the finale fugato.

All in all this is a very well presented and documented set. The transfers here are excellent with a transparency that allows for lots of detail. I have looked forward to hearing these discs for a long time and will say thank-you to APR for another excellent release.

Rob Challinor
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf


Disc 1
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey (1869) [8:21]
Ignaz FRIEDMAN (1882-1948)
Viennese Dance No 2 after Eduard Gärtner (1916) [3:19]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
'Staccato' Étude, Op 23 No 2 (1859-60) [4:19]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Suite for piano – No 2 Polonaise (1925) [3:27]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G-flat major, D.899 No 3 (1827) [7:42]
Impromptu in B-flat major, D.935 No 3 (1827) [12:19]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Barcarolle, Op 60 (1845-46) [8:08]
Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op 15 No 2 (1830-31) [3:43]
Waltz in D-flat major, Op 64 No 1 (1846-47) [1:39]
Waltz in G-flat major, Op 70 No 1 (c.1835) [1:55]
Scherzo 1 in B minor, Op 20 (1833) [6:25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Romance in F-sharp major, Op 28 No 2 (1839) [4:22]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909)
Cantos de España – Seguidillas, Op 232 No 5 [2:37]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ arr. Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
España - Tango, Op 165 No 2 [3:40]
Iberia No 6 - Triana [4:47]

Disc 2
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op 43 (1934) [21:59]
Grande étude de Paganini – La Campanella, S.141 No 3 (1851) [4:57]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) arr. Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Bourrée from Violin Partita in B minor BWV.1002 (c.1720) [2:07]
Johann Sebastian BACH arr. Walter RUMMEL (1887-1953)
Mortify us by thy grace – Cantata No 22 (1723/1948) [2:52]
Prelude in G minor, Op 23 No 5 (1901) [3:24]
Prelude in G major, Op 32 No 5 (1910) [3:48]
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (1901) [32:54]

Disc 3
Ernő DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Variations on a Nursery Song, Op 25 (1914) [23:16]
Etude No 6 – Capriccio in F minor, Op 28 No 6 (1916) [2:32]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891) arr. Ernő DOHNÁNYI
Naila waltz (1866/1897) [8:11]
Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30 (1909) [34:48]

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