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The Matthay Pupils

Moura Lympany - The HMV Recordings, 1947-1952

Moura Lympany (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
HMV, United Kingdom
Release date: August 2013
Total duration: 156 minutes 33 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo of Moura Lympany in 1938; courtesy of Christopher Johnstone.

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.


‘Dame Moura's virtuosity quietly stuns. Her Mendelssohn, Liszt and Litolff are fleet and joyful; Granados's The Maiden and the Nightingale and Debussy's Clair de lune sing from the heart’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘The highlight of this collection is the Schumann Symphonic Etudes … each of the variations is well-characterised. There is drama and energy on the one hand, and lyricism and richness of expression on the other, with superb attention to detail…This is an impressive tribute to a fine British pianist’ (MusicWeb International)
Moura Lympany’s single-mindedness, courage and determination and, above all, her artistry led some years ago to an LP album suitably entitled The Lympany Legend. Born Mary Johnstone in 1916, she later, on the advice of the conductor Basil Cameron, changed her name to Moura Lympany, an inge­ni­ous alteration reflecting her ever-resource­ful mother’s love of all things Russian (Moura is a Russian diminutive of Mary, Lympany a re-setting of Limpenny, her mother’s Cornish maiden name). Sent to a Belgian convent school at the age of six, Lympany countered feelings of alienation with a growing awareness of her talent. Cherished, if occasionally chided, by the nuns (her exuberance occasionally seen as ‘the sin of pride’), she read through every piece of music she could find and astonished her early listeners with a per­formance of Liszt’s ultra-virtuoso E major Polonaise. Her return to England was marked by her debut when, aged twelve, she played the Mendelssohn G minor Concerto, music for which she retained a life-long affection. Her studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music continued in Vienna with Paul Weingarten, later Mathilde Verne and, most importantly, Tobias Matthay whose influence was at the very heart of her fluency and musicianship. Maxims such as ‘never play faster than you can think’, a quiet but firm insistence on an alternating tension and rela­xa­tion and, above all, on a naturalness of line, impetus and phrasing, became central to her outlook. As she herself put it, ‘I never went in for chi-chi phrasing or powdered rubato’, and long after Matthay’s death and in the later part of her career she would pause to wonder what her beloved ‘Uncle Tobs’ would have thought.

A triumphant Wigmore Hall recital was followed by international acclaim when she won second prize to Emil Gilels in Belgium’s 1938 Queen Elisabeth Competition, a time when competitions were few and far between and mattered supremely. Her Proms debut quickly followed in 1940, and she commenced her long association with the Khachaturian Concerto, an exotic showpiece she later recorded with Anatole Fistoulari. The first of three recordings of the complete Rachmaninov Preludes was begun (for Decca) in 1941 and this also marked her debut in the recording studio. That composer’s first three Concertos and his ‘Paganini Rhapsody’ and Second Sonata also became part of her Russian stock-in-trade. But so, too, were her performances of English music with premieres and appear­ances in works by Benjamin Dale, Richard Arnell, Benjamin Britten, Frederick Delius, John Ireland and Cyril Scott.

Armed with a colossal repertoire at her fingertips, Lympany enjoyed triumph after triumph in her post-war career. Clarifying and refining her art, she had little time for what she saw as distortion and would have been as non-plussed by, say, Martha Argerich’s turns of speed as by Richter’s slow tempi in Schubert. For her it was never a question of what to ‘do’ with music, but rather a desire to present the composer’s vision and wishes with all possible truth and clarity. Again, resilience was central to her success. Beset with illness and personal unhappiness she turned her back on mis­fortune. Returning to the Wigmore Hall in 1970, she regaled her audience with a story of how she invited her music-loving surgeon to her Royal Festival Hall performance of Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto only to receive an anxious letter asking her to confirm which part of her he had removed.

Lympany’s autobiography published in 1991 may be more fluffy than substantial but the list of her honours, culminating in her DBE in 1992, is formidable. She continued playing into her eighties and after a performance in Boston of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, showing an increasing warmth and inwardness, she was declared ‘a virtuoso of dreaming’. Her death in 2005 was marked by a service of thanksgiving in London.

APR’s two-CD celebration of Lympany’s artistry contains one gem after another. Her Chopin Fantasy Impromptu is pure Lympany and could be by no other pianist, graceful and fleet with a rubato at once supple and natural. She captures all of Schumann’s whimsical charm in his ‘Prophet Bird’ from Waldszenen, one of those works that must surely have baffled Clara, his often musically cautious wife, who feared accusations of oddity and obscurity. Liszt’s ‘Feux follets’ from the Transcendental Études, taken at a true Allegretto as marked, is enviably poised rather than fraught. Once characterized as ‘delightful’ by the authors of that august publication The Record Guide, this is hardly a word used by those of us who have struggled with an étude of fearsome double-note intricacy. You may miss the diablerie of  György Cziffra in the Mephisto Waltz No 1 (however note that this recording was not originally passed for publication) and Lympany’s way with the same composer’s ‘Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ prompted a lukewarm reaction from, again, The Record Guide (‘Lympany’s rendering has been much praised; but it could be thought rather provincial in style … as a whole the performance is but feebly evocative’), but hear her in the Toccatas of both Ravel and Prokofiev and you will note a fluency and ease in music which can cause even the most seasoned virtuoso to falter; high-calibre performances as immaculate as they are brilliant. What a marvel of colour and nuance she achieves in the Albéniz-Godowsky Tango, a born feel for such confectionary. Her finish and lucidity are unfaltering in the Mendelssohn G minor Concerto where she allows the composer’s voice to shine through in all its first freshness, unimpeded by extraneous gestures and manner­isms. Most of all, and arguably the highlight of the entire programme, her performance of the same composer’s Rondo brillant (once described as ‘a relentless trifle’) is of such lightness, vivacity and elegance that the music seems to bounce off the page and take wing. Here in particular it is difficult to imagine a more life-affirming musicianship or scintillation.

Given such quality, you may wonder why Lympany hardly achieved the star status of, for example, Myra Hess, Clara Haskil or Annie Fisher, pianists who excelled in an exalted repertoire where their distinctive qualities shone supremely. For the most part Lympany avoided late Beethoven (though I once heard her play the opus 109 Sonata), or late Schubert, yet her very recognizable character made her exceptional within her wide if carefully chosen repertoire. True, there were moments when her playing stayed within safe and predictable parameters, and her way with the major works on these discs, Schumann’s Études sym­phon­iques and the Brahms ‘Paganini Variations’, Book 2, could be thought able rather than memorable; performances where you will look in vain for, say, Geza Anda’s pianistic magic and piquancy in both works. Such limitation surely derived from a deference or insecurity, which I noted in my many conversations with her. Tobias Matthay may have laid the ground for her success, but her seeking of his post­humous approval could be thought to have blocked the way for a further daring and individuality, resulting in a form of musical laissez-faire. Refusing a request to record the complete Debussy Préludes, she claimed she could not see the point after Gieseking’s legendary offering. On the other hand, I once received a telephone call asking for ideas for her forthcoming choice of Desert Island Discs. I mentioned, in passing, Rachmaninov in Rachmaninov, Rubinstein in Chopin, Gieseking in Debussy etc, but in the event, she chose only her own recordings (prompting a plea in a newspaper for greater modesty). Such things suggest a fundamental insecurity that can haunt any artist, but Lympany’s success in her finest performances is surely indisputable.

Finally, she found a ready answer to admi­rers and critics alike. Joining Mendelssohn’s opinion she happily quoted:

In whatever way he writes,
He can’t please every man.
Therefore let an artist write
However he likes and can.

Replace ‘write’ with ‘play’ and this is most apposite.

Bryce Morrison © 2013

Other albums in this series

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