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Hyperion Records

APR5636 - Paderewski – His final recordings

Recording details: Various dates
HMV, United Kingdom
Release date: September 2009
Total duration: 73 minutes 55 seconds

Paderewski – His final recordings
Rondo in A minor K511  [9'55]  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)  recorded 30 January 1937
Adagio sostenuto  [5'31]  recorded 30 January 1937
Allegretto  [2'21]  recorded 30 January 1937
Presto agitato  [6'15]  recorded 30 January 1937
A flat major  [5'22]  recorded 15 November 1938
Nocturne in B major Op 62 No 1  [5'37]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 15 November 1938
Waltz in C sharp minor Op 64 No 2  [2'50]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 15 November 1938
Polonaise in A flat major Op 53  [7'22]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 30 January 1937

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Paderewski is a most difficult man and would simply delegate your letter to the waste-paper basket. Personal contact is the only way in which to approach Paderewski and that only through very good friends of his.

Blunt, somewhat dismissive, counsel from the Head Office of The Gramophone Company in Hayes, Middlesex. It was written in 1935 in response to a letter received from their French branch, Cie. Française du Gramophone, enquiring whether it would be in order to approach Paderewski for new recordings. The writer was someone well-versed in dealing with ‘difficult artists’ in general and Paderewski in particular: Fred Gaisberg. It was Gaisberg, the doyen of record producers during the first half of the twentieth century who, after much resistance, had per­suaded the celebrated pianist to record for the gramophone back in 1911 and who had sub­se­quently supervised all Paderewski’s European recordings. The French heeded Gaisberg’s advice and any idea of ‘resurrecting’ Paderewski for the gramophone was forgotten. After all, Paderewski was now in his mid-seventies and would inevitably be past his prime: his 1931 RCA Victor records would surely be recognized as his studio swan song. However, in the following year the prospect of recording Paderewski unexpectedly reap­pear­ed on the agenda. In August 1936, Paderewski starred in the Pall Mall film Moonlight Sonata in which he played himself opposite the singer and actress Marie Tempest, another veteran star in the twilight years of a long and distinguished career. Such were the expectations of the film it was decided to make commercial recordings of the featured music, namely the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, Chopin’s ‘Heroic Polonaise’, Paderewski’s own inescapable Minuet in G, and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody.

Gaisberg might not have held high expectations of the enterprise but he would certainly have given it his personal support. Pianist and producer enjoyed a genuine friend­ship based on their past work together and, of course, there was the possibility of consider­able financial reward for The Gramophone Company. Equally important, might this at last be an opportunity to capture Paderewski’s unique sound? Previously Gaisberg had been forced to agree with Paderewski that the gramophone was incapable of capturing his playing. ‘His art involved such broad and unrestrained dynamics – the faintest pianis­simo crashing into a great mass of tone. In other words, he painted on a vast canvas, and the gramophone could only reproduce a miniature of his mighty masterpiece.’ By the mid-1930s, however, EMI’s London studios had produced a stream of exceptional solo piano recordings – ‘the finest in Europe’ Gaisberg repeatedly maintained. Thus, in late January 1937, the stage was set for Paderewski’s return to the recording studio, twenty-five years after his last British record.

Despite his age Ignacy Jan Paderewski (6 November 1860–29 June 1941) still emanated a very particular magic at this time. Acknow­ledged to be the most popular and highly remunerated musician of his era, he was lionized and feted as pianist, composer and eminent statesman. (When his native Poland won its independence in 1918 Paderewski abandoned the concert platform to become his country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.) He was also an astute businessman; at one time he owned the only first-class hotel in Poland and he farmed extensively in both that country and the USA. But Paderewski’s position in history is, of course, as the ultimate celebrity, regularly crossing the United States of America on extended tours by way of his own train with a vast entourage that included his wife, valet, chef, pianos, piano-tuner, secretary, tour manager and, most importantly, his beloved parrot. Paderewski was also an exceedingly generous benefactor, particularly with regard to Poland. For example, in a single year (1910) he marked the centenary of Chopin’s birth with a donation of $60,000, so enabling the construction of the Chopin Memorial Hall in Warsaw to proceed, and he contributed $100,000 towards the erection of a statue in Warsaw to mark the 500th anni­ver­sary of the Battle of Grünwald, one of the most significant moments in Poland’s fractured history.

Equating the level of adulation Paderewski received in the concert hall with the pianist we hear on record has always been a challenge. Yet even in concert, it was not so much tech­nical brilliance that held his audiences in awe, rather something uniquely individual, an overwhelming charisma allied to a highly distinctive sound. We know he had to work exceptionally hard to develop and maintain an acceptable level of technique throughout his career, largely, it would seem, because of the inadequate and haphazard tuition he received as a child. The full extent to which he drove himself must have been extreme given that when he first approached the great piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky for lessons, he was advised to abandon any idea of becoming a concert pianist. However, Paderewski was built of sterner stuff, his ambitions undoubtedly driven and stiffened by the hardships of his early life. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him, during his childhood his father was imprisoned in Siberia, and his first wife died just days after giving birth to his only child, a handicapped son who did not survive to adulthood. Furthermore, all these tragic events were endured in a state of unremitting poverty. It has been stated that during his ‘apprentice years’ he spent as many as eighteen hours a day practising and when, in later life, he was asked the secret of his success his reply came from the heart: ‘One per cent talent, nine per cent luck and ninety per cent hard work.’ This capacity for hard work never deserted him. On his first USA tour in 1891/2, which covered a period of 130 days, he played 109 full-length recitals as well as attending countless dinners given in his honour. When touring the UK (in 1926, for instance), he would think nothing of giving an all-Chopin recital in Liverpool in the afternoon before travelling to Manchester for an evening recital of Bach, late-Beethoven and Schumann with encores by Schelling, Stojowski and Liszt. That was Paderewski the legend.

Here now was Paderewski the elderly pianist about to brave the recording studio once more, naturally with Fred Gaisberg mentoring the sessions. As is apparent from the accompanying discography, Gaisberg risked single ‘takes’ of as many sides as possible in order not to overextend the seventy-six-year-old. (Standard procedure was to record at least two ‘takes’ of every 78-rpm side in case the side chosen for ‘mastering’ was damaged or lost during the delicate processing of a wax disc to the metal master used for pressing commercial shellac discs.) When more than a single ‘take’ was needed, it was either because of a too-obvious finger slip or on occasions, according to the recording sheets, an ‘audible cough’. Intriguingly, although the plan to record Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody was abandoned, the remit of the sessions actually broadened to include music not in the film: Haydn’s Variations and Mozart’s Rondo proved to be significant additions to Paderewski’s discography.

Quite why Paderewski returned to the same studio almost two years later, in November 1938, is a mystery. Gaisberg maintains that it was to fulfil ‘a promise to complete some titles begun in the previous year’ which is patently misleading; the music featured in Moonlight Sonata had not only been recorded but the discs released in April and May 1937. (Incidentally, Gaisberg claims that this final session took place on 16 November whereas EMI’s documentation states it as having taken place the previous day.) Whatever the reason for Paderewski’s return, Gaisberg ‘was filled with sadness to see how in a few months the great man had aged’. Pianistically there is an obvious decline. As Gaisberg noted: ‘In his playing I found a lack of virility. To help compensate there were fine flashes of poetry, and in the cadenzas he showed all his old-time bravura.’ Despite these reservations and disappointments, this last session produced two further additions to Paderewski’s discography: Chopin’s Nocturne Op 62 No 1 and Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It would appear that Paderewski had been working-up this repertoire for most of his 1938 engagements. For example, ten days after this London session, he gave his final European broad­cast, transmitted from Lausanne, Swit­zer­land. The programme comprised all the music just recorded for HMV except for the Chopin Nocturne and the pianist’s own Mélodie.

More than seventy years on, as we approach the 150th anniversary of his birth, we now have the opportunity to hear every item recorded during Paderewski’s 1937 and 1938 HMV sessions for the first time. The playing might be that of ‘an old lion’, the style decidedly ‘antique’, and if not all the recordings are out-and-out successes perhaps only one can be classed as a failure. Additionally, thanks to Gaisberg and EMI’s advanced technology, we can glimpse Paderewski’s special sound world: the ringing clarity of his treble, the velvety warmth of his bass, even an indication of his dynamic range. Equally important, these recordings are a poignant adieu to one of the greatest legends in the history of the piano.

Bryan Crimp © 2009

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