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

These three CDs do indeed present Cyril Smith’s complete solo recordings but they also add concerto performances too, so that this set is perhaps rather more than it seems on first looking at its title. Smith (1909-74) is just as well known for his duo performances with his wife Phyllis Sellick, which began in 1941 and continued as a three-hands after Smith’s catastrophic stroke suffered in Kharkov during a Russian tour in 1956.

As a romantic virtuoso in the 1930s he was a relatively rara avis in the British pianistic firmament. One can’t easily imagine Curzon, Hess, Murdoch or Solomon, to cite just four, taking on Rachmaninov and Dohnányi in the way Smith did, though Moura Lympany, seven years Smith’s junior, was another artist in his mould. And Smith took on such repertoire with authority, technical accomplishment and a dashing flair that famously even impressed Rachmaninov himself.

APR doesn’t present the recordings chronologically but, as is its house style, groups composers together, in the main. It allows one to start the first disc with Smith’s blistering 1935 HMV recording of Islamey which he drives through with few concessions to its reflective elements. Interestingly, Simon Barere recorded it later in the same year in London – the recording was never issued – but returned successfully to record it in spectacular fashion in 1936. That’s the kind of competition Smith was courting. His Gaertner-Friedman Viennese Dance No.2 is full of teasing rubati and vivid colour. There’s a brilliantly conceived and executed Rubinstein ‘Staccato’ Etude and one of his few forays into contemporary British music before the rise of the LP, which is Arthur Bliss’ Polonaise, the second piece from the Piano Suite, a recording made for Decca later in 1935.

There’s a lacuna in the first CD, given that rather than insert Smith’s 1940s readings APR prefers to continue with a 1950-52 sequence made for Columbia. These include standard Romantic repertoire. His Schubert consists of two Impromptus of which the deeply considered and rather beautiful recording of the G flat major is especially convincing. Of his Chopin sequence his right hand runs in the Barcarolle in F sharp minor are crystalline and he glides elegantly through the Waltz in D flat major though his Scherzo No.1 can be a bit hectic in places. Though this is only a small Chopin selection I think it’s clear that he wasn’t as superior a stylist in this repertoire as his fellow London-based pianists, Solomon and Moiseiwitsch – but then, few were. Rather more to his stylistic liking, one feels, was Spanish music. His Albéniz is vividly phrased and rhythmically alive, and the famous Tango, in Godowsky’s arrangement, has real insinuating charm, whilst Triana from a 1944 session is exceptional.

The second disc opens with the 1948 Philharmonia-Sargent Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. Guild has issued the Paganini Variations and the Smith-Sargent Philharmonia remake of the Dohnányi (review) as well as Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Concertos (review) though note that No.3 there is the later remake with Malcolm Sargent and not the one in this twofer, where George Weldon accompanies. The Rhapsody is pretty much a first take recording and sounds fine in this transfer. Even at his most crisp in this work he is never glib and his refusal to indulge is a fairly constant of his musicianship. There’s virtuosity in abundance in the Paganini-Liszt La campanella, and whilst he cedes to the arranger’s performance in the Bach-Rummel transcription, and he is rather blunt and curt in his playing of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor he is both touching and beautiful in the companion Prelude in G major. To finish the second disc there’s the Second Concerto with Sargent in Liverpool in 1947, a testament to his sure identification with the composer’s idiom. I prefer this transfer, as I do of the Rhapsody, to that on Dutton CDCLP4004, though that also includes the superb 1948 Smith-Sellick traversal of the Suite No.2 in C.

The third disc opens with the 1944 Dohnányi Variations on a Nursery Song, which I reviewed in the guise of the Philharmonia remake on Guild, as noted above. The wartime recording included in APR’s release was presided over by Walter Legge, forever bossing artists about in Liverpool sessions, and who duly scolded Smith for a wrong note in his opening phrase. That said, and perhaps because of the tension engendered, this is a tremendously witty and brilliant recording; no wonder both artists were re-engaged to record it a decade later with the Philharmonia. This is followed by a rarity, Smith’s first ever recording, made in 1929 by Columbia as part of the Daily Express Piano Competition. This was the prize-winner’s chance to record, and the 19-year-old Smith duly turned in a scintillating display in Dohnányi’s Capriccio in F minor. His affinity with the composer’s piano works is cemented by his droll and alpha plus recording of the Naila Waltz, arranged from Delibes, and an eight-minute encapsulation of Smith’s legerdemain as well as his stylish command. This also dates from 1944, when he made some of his very greatest 78s.

To finish there’s Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with Weldon and the City of Birmingham Orchestra in 1946, again presided over by Walter Legge. Smith had tried to record it the previous year but had rejected the results, so not surprisingly there was a high ratio of takes; at least four takes for each side rising to six takes for one side of the first movement. One feels that Smith had closely modelled his conception on the composer’s own in the first two movements, though he can’t match Rachmaninov in the finale. In fact, whilst Rachmaninov was famously fast, and for all of his beautiful phrasing in parts of the concerto, Smith can sometimes sound terse, in a way that, say, Lympany – a more lyrically-inclined player than Smith – didn’t in her recording with Anthony Collins. Still, given the privations of post-war England and the fact that the Birmingham orchestra was hardly back to pre-war strength, it is something of a minor miracle that the recording turned out as well as it did. Weldon too deserves great credit.

There’s another first-class Stephen Siek booklet note, though light flecks of American usage might grate with less forgiving subjects in the scepter’d isle (‘auto’ for car: ‘collaborative artist’ for accompanist, ‘Middlesbrough native’ for ‘born in Middlesbrough’). As for Cyril Smith’s formidable virtuosity and musicianship, the majority of his solo recordings and his concerto performances show remarkably brilliant polish and bravura command.

Jonathan Woolf

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]

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

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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