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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.
Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto with Miss Irene Scharrer as the soloist, was wildly received. It was a great rendering and also a great reading on the part of Mr. Ronald … The pianist scored a great ovation, her part was full of vitality, in fact a veritable tour de force. The technical difficulties were swept away as though they did not exist. The masculine vigour she was able to introduce stamp her as a pianist without a rival amongst the fairer sex. —Musical Standard, 31 October 1914
Thus, a London music journal reported on the collaboration of Irene Scharrer and her close friend Sir Landon Ronald, three months after the start of World War I. If the prose seems a bit Victorian, it serves to illustrate the stature of the then twenty-six-year-old Scharrer, a remarkable pianist whose achievements are far too little remembered by today’s musical public. James Little, the Standard’s reviewer, also praised the concert as a beacon to a nation that was then ‘passing through a dark cloud and living in abnormal times’. And indeed, before, during, and immediately after the War, Scharrer reigned as one of the icons of British pianism, for of all the Matthay pupils, she was far the most recognized for the warmth she imparted to highly demanding, virtuosic works.
The youngest child of Tobias and Ida Henrietta (Samuel) Scharrer, Irene was born in London on 2 February 1888, and not long after, her mother, an accomplished pianist, was commuting to Tobias Matthay’s new home on Brighton Road in Purley, at the urging of her elder sister Maud. As the grandchildren of Liverpool watchmaker Moses Samuel (1795– 1860) – whose descendants founded the H Samuel jewellery chain – Maud, Ida, and their seven siblings lived comfortably. Maud had begun lessons with Matthay at the Royal Academy of Music in 1886, and the Samuel family soon became among his most ardent admirers. One afternoon, Irene, then aged six, accompanied Ida on one of her Purley visits, but as Jessie Matthay recounts in her biography of her husband, the child’s attempt to greet the master with a formal bow was thwarted when a rug mercilessly slid across the polished floor, causing her to land feet first. However, she proved remarkably gifted, and after she reached the age of 10, Irene’s beloved ‘Uncle Tobs’ became her only teacher.
In the autumn of 1900, at the age of 12, she won one of the scholarships recently created by the RAM to honour the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and in subsequent years she also won the (Cipriani) Potter Exhibition and the Erard Scholarship, so that over time her studies were fully underwritten by awards and prizes. She arrived at the Academy on the same day as Arnold Bax – another Matthay pupil – but the student who soon became her closest friend, Myra Hess, did not appear for another two years. The girls met through their mothers, who were already friends, and Ida may have convinced Lizzie Hess to send her daughter to St. Leonard’s, a girls’ school that Irene already attended. Despite the two-year age difference, the girls soon became inseparable, and after Myra also began studying with Matthay (who had now relocated to Hampstead), they sometimes even scheduled their lessons together at his Arkwright Road home. Jessie later recalled:
While waiting for their lessons, they would often indulge in high jinks on the two studio pianos, extemporising simultaneously in a wildly exciting manner, making rhapsodies out of everything.
Years later, Bax remembered them as two ‘very small and eternally giggling girls’, but Irene’s temperament was far more extroverted than Myra’s, and as she blossomed into an extraordinarily attractive young woman, it seemed natural to most that she should devour the thunderous works of Liszt and Chopin with ease. In October of 1904, at the age of sixteen, she made her Bechstein Hall debut while still an RAM student, but The Times was not altogether flattering, suggesting that her virtuosity was still a bit empty, and counselling that ‘music means a good deal more than she now seems to imagine’. Nevertheless, fifteen months later, after she performed both the Liszt E flat and the Saint-Saëns G minor Concertos with Henry Wood and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the Musical Times praised her ‘delightfully sympathetic and delicate’ passagework, which she dispatched with ‘fascinating clearness and lightness’, and unflattering reviews soon virtually disappeared. Her self-confident assertiveness was in evidence behind the scenes as well, since despite the fact that she was a mere seventeen, she demanded that Wood, at least briefly, relinquish his baton to her teacher, so that Matthay’s youthful 1882 overture In May could be debuted on the same programme – a work he had been struggling unsuccessfully to premiere for nearly twenty-five years.
Soon hailed as a rising star, she was particularly acclaimed for her Chopin Etudes, performances that amazed even Vladimir de Pachmann, and she often thrilled audiences with her effortless rendition of the ‘Black Key’ from Opus 10. While still a teenager – aboard a steamer with a small piano – she once accepted a challenge from Alexander Mackenzie, the principal of the RAM, to transpose it a semitone higher, astonishing those present by extemporaneously creating a ‘white key’ extravaganza. Thus, it scarcely surprised anyone that her first commercial recording session made at the Gramophone studios on 23 July 1909, shortly after her twenty-first birthday, should include the ‘Black Key’, which she paired with a remarkable rendition of Mendelssohn’s ‘Bee’s Wedding’ (the Song without words Op 67 No 4 known more commonly as ‘Spinning Song’). Landon Ronald, who was also an outstanding pianist, had then been working for the company for nine years, and both he and Scharrer remained with the firm long after it began issuing records under the HMV label that year.
Not surprisingly, her earliest HMV collaborative venture, on 14 September 1912, featured Ronald and the New Symphony in an abridged version of Liszt’s familiar Hungarian Fantasy – the earliest acoustic recording in this set (all of which appear on Disc 2). Though only twenty-four, Scharrer makes a commanding impression, and her passagework glistens with brilliance, but – heeding Matthay’s advice – a brilliance that always bubbles, and never stings. Five days later, her rendition of the Chopin F minor Etude from Opus 25 (sharing a side with her first recording of the Etude Op 25 No 1) is nothing short of miraculous. She is completely faithful to the presto tempo marking (as well as to Chopin’s dynamics, which rarely rise above a piano), but – again illustrating Matthay’s tenets – every note is musically intended, and the listener is never captivated by sheer speed so much as by a luminous clarity. The same is true with the familiar ‘Minute’ Waltz, which appeared on the disc’s B side, and which – for those interested – extends here to 1.47, with art again trumping mere athleticism. Despite the distance of nearly a century, the acoustic technology has preserved the extraordinary jeu perlé of her finger-work, which is never blurred by pedal. The same is true with Scott’s popular Danse nègre, which she recorded on 20 September 1915, and which had been published a mere seven years earlier, as well as with her ebullient – if slightly abridged – reading of the Scherzo from Saint-Saëns’ Second Concerto, for which she joined Ronald two months later on 13 November.
On 21 December 1915, about five weeks after she recorded the Saint-Saëns, Irene married an Eton housemaster, Samuel Gurney Lubbock, in a ceremony that occurred just four days after she recorded some of the demanding ‘Tipperary’ variations composed by organist Arthur Goodhart (1866–1941) – another Eton graduate. Jack Judge’s familiar music-hall song was first published in 1912, and within three years, it had become so popular – especially with British infantrymen – that Goodhart published two sets of piano variations from which Scharrer chose five for her recording. The third presented here – loosely reminiscent of Chopin’s F sharp minor Prelude – was even dedicated to her. By then the War had raged for sixteen months, and no doubt both Lubbock (who remained close to his former students long after their graduations) and Scharrer were eager to support the War effort, even partially disrupting their wedding plans so that a favourite ditty might offer a degree of consolation to young men fighting far from home.
Though he was fifteen years Irene’s senior, Gurney Lubbock, educated at Eton and Cambridge, fully supported her career. To many, the pairing seemed an unlikely match, since her marriage required her to relocate to The Manor House on the Eton campus, where, surrounded by the boys Lubbock mentored, she was over an hour away from London. But she took to it well, eventually even teaching privately at their residence, and often performing for the students – who, from all reports, adored her. On 16 October 1917, she gave birth to their son, Ian Gurney Lubbock, and though travel was soon back to normal after the War, she deferred extended trips for a few more years to accommodate the birth of their daughter, Rachel Gurney Lubbock, who appeared on 5 March 1920. It may bear witness to Lubbock’s strong appreciation of aesthetics – his speciality was classics – that both of his children pursued careers in the theatre.
About a year before Ian was born, on 12 October 1916, she delivered an emotionally powerful reading of the Chopin C minor Nocturne, pairing it with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the Intermezzo from Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien. One of her specialities was the Chopin B flat minor Sonata, and two months later, she set down the Funeral March, which, at 3.39, precluded a repeat of the sombre march section. But what she did record commemorates the poignant beauty inherent in this often hackneyed work, especially the cantabile soprano line of the trio, where her exquisite rubato nearly overpowers through its emotional intensity – though she rarely rises above a piano. In the same session, she chose Liszt’s Gnomenreigen for the B side, and her seemingly reckless abandon (including some fascinating ornamentation beginning at bar 14) perfectly captures the spirit, if not always the letter, of the composer’s virtuosic etude.
In September of 1920, when Rachel was just five months old, Irene recorded a G major Scarlatti Sonata that Myra often performed (and later recorded), and the following July, she offered the C sharp major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, reminding us that she excelled not only as a large-scale Romanticist, but as a superb miniaturist. Her mastery of dynamic gradations was unexcelled, as she amply demonstrated three months later in the demanding F sharp minor Chopin Prelude, as well as in the last acoustic recordings which appear in this set – from 4 March 1924 – two of Debussy’s most sophisticated works, drawn respectively from Images I and II. Her Reflets is a miraculous study in shape as well as colour, and her Poissons d’or demonstrates that her tonal palette was so developed that she could have easily carved a niche as a specialist in Impressionist music had she chosen.
Here we may pause to reflect on what might have been. Throughout the acoustic period, but particularly in the last of these sessions in 1922 and 1924, Scharrer recorded a variety of works that never made it to commercial release. Possibly, some of these were musical or technical failures, but with the later dates, it’s quite likely that the only reason these titles never appeared was that the arrival of electrical recording made them commercially uncompetitive. These sessions included a complete Schumann G minor Sonata (the largest work she recorded), excerpts from the same composer’s Papillons and Fantasiestücke, a d’Albert Scherzo, Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op 23 No 5 and a clutch of additional works by Chopin. It is to be hoped that, somewhere, test-pressings of these works may still survive.
As HMV’s electrical era dawned, Irene was seriously contemplating an American tour. She had originally planned to go as early as 1914, but the War intervened, and since she refused to leave her children until they were older, she did not play in New York until February 1926. She brought major repertoire with her – she even played the Beethoven Fourth with Klemperer and the New York Symphony – but regrettably, many of the works she performed abroad were never placed on disc. However, in December 1925, shortly before she sailed, HMV did capture a few of her smaller encores with the newer microphone technology. On 13 December, she recorded Chopin’s familiar Fantasie-Impromptu (all HMV electrics are on Disc 1), a remarkable essay in colour and sensitivity, and two days before Christmas in an extended session, she recorded three Scarlatti Sonatas and the popular Toccata of Domenico Paradies. While the A major tonality of the Paradies introduces the D minor Scarlatti very effectively, all four of these are arguably a bit pushed in tempo by today’s standards of Baroque interpretation. Still, the delicacy and control she brings to them is impressive. At the same session she recorded a masterful Chopin A flat Impromptu, which HMV released as the A side to the Fantasie-Impromptu that she had recorded ten days earlier. When she played the A flat in New York about fourteen months later, the New York Times’s Olin Downes was captivated, observing that she caught not only its ‘lyricism and improvisational character’, but the ‘slowly vanishing fragrance’ of its ‘elusive’ ending.
As her touring schedule soon became more intense, her recording sessions became less frequent. She recorded little in 1926 and nothing at all until five days before Christmas, when she paired the posthumous Chopin E minor Waltz with the second Debussy Arabesque. Eight days later, she began recording Mozart’s familiar G major Sonata, K283. For whatever reasons, this became quite an extended project, for although the issued first movement dates from this session, Scharrer returned to the work during sessions in 1927, 1928 and 1929. The first movement is graceful in its figurations, but purists will no doubt take issue with her extreme tempo. The issued matrix of the third movement was recorded four days later − on New Year’s Day 1927 − and here her presto tempo is far more consonant with the composer’s markings, although the large-scale dynamics often suggest textures more reminiscent of Beethoven than Mozart. (Still, it should be noted, her interpretation was not that far out of line with the approach taken by many pianists who performed Mozart at this time.) The andante second movement was originally issued using matrix Cc 9566-2 from the same session as the third. However, the set was later issued using the matrix included here, recorded on 18 January 1929, and this may be the most successful movement of all, for here she delivers a performance that exquisitely captures Mozart’s cantabile lines. Whether there are any other issued permutations, including material from the 1928 sessions where the whole sonata was re-recorded, remains to be seen; during this period it was not unusual for the same catalogue number to be re-pressed using different matrices.
Nearly thirty years after their first meeting, Myra Hess still remained her closest friend, and at the same January session, Irene recorded the popular Bach-Hess transcription of the chorale from Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which had been published by Oxford three years earlier as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Myra had first recorded it in 1928 for Columbia, and although the several recordings she made of it over the years will no doubt remain definitive, Scharrer’s performance is remarkable, especially with respect to the hidden voices she discovers in the tenor line. Transplanting earlier keyboard music to the piano became a vogue in England after the War, as evidenced by Matthay’s student Harold Craxton (1885– 1971), who received acclaim in 1922 for a Wigmore Hall programme he devoted entirely to the Elizabethan Virginalists. Craxton soon acquired a reputation as an English Baroque-Classical specialist as well, and in September of 1927, Irene recorded his transcription of the Gavotte from William Boyce’s Sonata No 12 for two violins and continuo, published only the previous year by Oxford University Press. A month later, she offered an arrangement by Glasgow organist Archibald M Henderson of several Purcell dances, which had been published by Bayley & Ferguson in 1923. Although no attempt is made to replicate harpsichord textures, both recordings are fascinating studies in colour and rhythmic vitality, and criticisms that today might be lodged concerning stylistic authenticity are more than offset by her extraordinary musical sensitivity.
But Irene Scharrer’s defining legacy as a recording artist may well rest with her Chopin Etudes, which – allowing for the limitations imposed by earlier technology – compare favourably with the most esteemed interpretations extant. Regrettably, she recorded only nine of the twenty-four, and they were never undertaken as a set, but issued separately over two decades. Had different decisions been made both by the artist and her label(s), she might have left a body of work that would have seen frequent reissues, but until now, even the nine she left have never appeared in a single collection. Her earliest Etude was the 1912 acoustic recording of the F minor from Op 25 already discussed, and she re-recorded the ‘Black Key’ study (along with the Mendelssohn ‘Spinning Song’ and Sinding’s familiar ‘Rustles of Spring’) for HMV in July of 1927. Despite a few missed notes, at 1.36, the performance is a remarkable display of both finesse and warmth, as she continually engages the ear with a fresh lyricism extracted from the alto and tenor voices. The remaining seven Etudes were all issued on the Columbia label, whose ranks she joined late in 1929. On 28 July 1930, she recorded the ‘Winter Wind’, one of her encore specialities, and arguably one of the most demanding of the 24. But the difficulties inherent in the right-hand passagework seem not to exist for her, as one’s ear is irresistibly drawn only to the lyrical cantabile voicing of her left hand. Her ‘Revolutionary’, recorded over two years later – her only Etude from 1932 – is so overpowering that the last fifteen measures alone might ensure her standing as a major artist.
The remaining Etudes were all recorded in 1933, and on 21 July, she made a masterful recording of the ‘double thirds’ study from Opus 25. Opinions may differ, but this must surely rank as one of the finest ‘thirds’ Etudes ever committed to disc, and she toys with it effortlessly, transforming it into a fantasy of kaleidoscopic colour. In the same session, she included the ‘rolled chord’ E flat from Opus 10, and the C minor (‘Ocean’) from Opus 25. Both were great favourites of Matthay, who experimented endlessly with their voicing and accentuation possibilities, and Irene also finds hidden vocal lines beneath Chopin’s soprano arpeggiations. Her last Etudes were recorded about two months later, when she paired the A flat ‘Aeolian Harp’ with the G flat ‘Butterfly’ from Opus 25 – both released on a single side. The ‘Harp’ is a miraculous study in voicing and texture, and her ‘Butterfly’ begins as if floating on a cloud. At the same session, she recorded two of the ‘Nouvelle’ Etudes and both are masterpieces. Her F minor demonstrates tone production as Matthay taught it – that the key should always be accelerated and never struck, so that the sound could penetrate without harshness – and her D flat provides an intoxicating array of beguiling voices.
Perhaps Columbia had one day intended to issue more of her Etudes, but Irene made only one recording following her September 1933 session, when she joined Wood and the LSO a month later for the Scherzo from Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique, a sparkling, often spine-tingling performance that seems to have sold very well. In addition, her other Columbia discs were arguably some of the finest she made. In a single session on 12 November 1929, she recorded two enormous Liszt works, the twelfth Rhapsody and the Rigoletto paraphrases, both of which are breathtaking in their execution, and two years later, she virtually recomposed the often hackneyed Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, creating in essence, a minor masterpiece. Three months later, her B-flat minor Chopin Scherzo (another Matthay favourite) again discovers new voices and textures where others often see only the obvious, and her re-recording of the Fantasie-Impromptu in the same session offers improved sound engineering over the HMV version she recorded seven years previously.
The motivation behind Scharrer’s decision to abandon a successful recording career at the height of her powers (she was then only forty-five and far from retirement) are not altogether clear, but some have suggested that the Litolff recording—its success notwithstanding – heralded a very difficult period in her personal life. Though all the surrounding circumstances may never be known, within months, after thirty-six years of service, Lubbock resigned from Eton, the institution he loved, to accept a post at Farnborough School in Hampshire, and eventually the two of them separated. As always, Irene remained totally devoted to her two children, who were now teenagers, but for whatever reason, she began to tour less and she never recorded again. But today’s audiences can be grateful that the highpoints of her recorded legacy can now be so readily obtained and appreciated.
Stephen Siek © 2012