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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.
After the end of the war, Zadora returned to Europe, settling in Berlin from where he gave concerts, made recordings and taught. It was here that he had met his most important musical influence, the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni. In 1923, at the Beethovensaal, Zadora was the first pianist to give an all-Busoni recital, while with fellow Busoni pupil Egon Petri he gave two-piano recitals and prepared the piano part of the vocal score of Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust; he also set up a Busoni Society. Pianist and composer evidently became close; in 1924, as Busoni lay on his death-bed, Zadora played a Mendelssohn Lied ohne Worte for him.
From his home in Berlin, Zadora made frequent tours, travelling to Russia to perform; in 1931, he made a notable broadcast – a recital from Stockholm that included Alkan’s Le tambour bat aux champs, Bach’s Sarabande and Partita and three of his own transcriptions.
By the mid 1930s, probably due to increasing unrest in Germany, Zadora was back in America. He performed regularly in New York during the last ten years of his life, generally giving one or two recitals a year at New York’s Town Hall. At one of these recitals, in the autumn of 1937, he played a group of works by Busoni – the Sonatina ad usum Infantis, Carmen Sonatina, and Intermezzo and Perpetuum Mobile.
In 1938 Zadora tried his luck in London; however, his recital at the Wigmore Hall received a disappointing review. Although he was praised for his performance of a group of three Chopin Nocturnes, which ‘revealed the player’s command of a beautiful tone, at once warm and deep’, the critic went on to dismiss him as ‘a follower of Busoni’ who ‘travestied his master’s style’ by playing Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata too fast. A second recital, given two weeks later, was not reviewed.
As was common with many pianists of his generation, Zadora also composed, publishing original works under the pseudonym of Pietro Amadis. He also transcribed five songs by Schumann, works by Bach (JS and WF), Buxtehude, Pergolesi, Delibes, Offenbach, Jensen, Henselt, Waldteufel and Schubert, while in 1942 he wrote a two-piano version of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. He also wrote for Broadway; in 1938, he composed music for a production of The Bridal Crown by Strindberg, given by the New York Players and directed by Andrius Jilinsky. This went the way of so many Broadway productions of its time, however, apparently closing after only one performance.
Little is known of Zadora’s personal life, although it is recorded that, in May 1943, he was married to Anne Biddle Brock of Philadelphia, niece of Mrs A J Drexel Paul, who came from a family of bankers and diplomats connected to the Astors. He was sixty-one. He died just three years later ‘after a long illness’ in June 1946, aged sixty-three, at his home on Seventh Avenue.
Zadora’s recital programmes would generally consist of the standard nineteenth- century piano repertoire – Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Bach–Busoni – as well as Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók and Debussy, plus rarer repertoire: in January 1937, he gave a notable performance of Liszt’s seldom heard Christmas Tree Suite.
However, from contemporary reports, it appears that Zadora was a nervous performer who often found it difficult to relax at the keyboard. The critic at his Town Hall recital in New York in 1940 that began with a performance of the Schubert B flat Sonata D960, wrote: ‘Michael Zadora … is a pianist who seems to be torn between extremes. He can shape a phrase with knowledge and sensitivity and he can make the piano sing it with unforced loveliness. Then he can turn around and beat out another passage with a rigidity of rhythm and a harshness of tone that make one wonder whether it is the same musician. When Mr Zadora leashes his tendency to pour on tone and when he gives voice to his poetic nature, his work is rewarding.’ He ended with, ‘The pianist did some of his best playing in the set of twelve Chopin Études Op 25. The Études are concentrated and Mr Zadora set them forth with a measure of restraint.’ A year later he chose Carnegie Hall for his recital (Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat Op 27 No 1 and the ‘Eroica’ Variations, Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Liszt’s complete ‘Paganini’ Études) but again ‘rapid work was propelled at a cyclonic rate of speed that made clarity impossible, despite the fleetness of the soloist’s fingers’.
In the recording studio, however, Michael Zadora showed quite a different side – he was more confident and relaxed, the complete opposite of his great mentor, Busoni. Most of his discs were made during the 1920s for Polydor, while he was living in Europe. His first few sides were recorded for Vox and demonstrate that his Chopin was always played with taste, and as a Russian critic wrote after Zadora performed in Leningrad in 1925, he ‘interprets Chopin in a remarkable style of his own, aiming at intimacy and quiet’. The recording of the Nocturne in B major Op 32 No 1 is one of the best examples of this. Also impressive are the Études from Op 25 which he used to perform as a set, and the following Waltz in D flat from Op 64 is played with charm and style at a tempo chosen so as not to turn it into a display piece. All these Polydor Chopin recordings and the group of four Preludes were recorded on a golden-toned Blüthner piano that was captured fairly well by the acoustic recording process. Other acoustic recordings of note are the four of Liszt’s six Consolations, and the once-popular Romance in E flat Op 44 No 1 by Anton Rubinstein to which Zadora applies discerning rubato. These, and beautifully turned performances of the Scarlatti–Tausig Pastorale and a Field Nocturne, show that he was in his element in quiet, intimate and introspective miniatures.
With the improved sound quality achieved by the electrical recording process, more subtleties of Zadora’s playing can be heard, particularly his tone and wide range of dynamics. The Prokofiev Prelude displays considerable finger technique while in La Passion by Lamare and Jensen’s Murmuring Zephyrs his wonderful controlled tone and phrasing of melodies is of the highest quality. These tracks were recorded on a Bechstein piano, its particular sound being captured well by the engineers. The bolder tone of a Steinway can be heard in the following work attributed to Bach, a performance no doubt stylistically influenced by Busoni. Writing in January 1930, one critic thought this recording to be ‘one of the best Bach records I have met with’.
Some of the last recordings Zadora made for Polydor were of two pieces from Debussy’s suite Pour le piano. The Prélude is given an impressive reading, although in the Toccata Zadora’s tendency to rush is in evidence; it is a thrilling performance, nonetheless.
Four sides recorded for Ultraphon in the early 1930s were of popular encores, three of which Zadora the composer had a hand in; his arrangement of the Larghetto from Henselt’s Piano Concerto is particularly arresting, with a gorgeous tone and languid air. The one disc for Electrola is of elegant but rather uninspired Delibes transcriptions. Probably Zadora’s most important recordings are the two discs he made in 1938 for the Friends of Recorded Music Society, as both are of Sonatinas by Busoni. He had recorded the Sonatina No 6 (after Bizet’s Carmen) for Polydor, but the Friends of Recorded Music Society (sponsored by the American Music Lover magazine) were interested in unusual repertoire, which is no doubt why they had Zadora record these works. One critic referred to the music as ‘representing the most fertile tendency in contemporaneous music. This is to say they are in the style which Busoni himself baptized as the new-classical.’ He found the ‘exploitation of bold, oftentimes iron bell and chime-like sonorities of the piano beautifully interpreted by Zadora’.
This survey of nearly all of Zadora’s commercial recordings (one disc, Polydor 19099 of works by Amadis and Stockhoff could not be traced) at last gives us the opportunity to reassess Zadora as a pianist. There is certainly some fine playing among his discs and it may be that he was one of the few pianists of the first half of the twentieth century whose recordings were superior to his concert performances. One of the best descriptions of Zadora was given by a critic of the New York Times in 1943 when he wrote: ‘He played an exacting program with a brilliance of technique, a beauty of tone and a poetic charm in interpretation that, while marred by certain temperamental idiosyncrasies, nevertheless resulted, if not in an evening of great art, at least in one of unusually fine piano-playing.’
Jonathan Summers © 2009