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Guiomar Novaes - The complete published 78-rpm recordings

Guiomar Novaes (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: November 2014
Total duration: 146 minutes 18 seconds

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.

This double album draws together for the first time all the published 78-rpm recordings made by Brazilian Guiomar Novaes. She is better known today for her later recordings from the LP era, but these early miniatures, recorded between 1919 and 1947, have been claimed to give a better idea of Novaes' considerable pianistic worth.


‘Playing then of another age and time, a sheer magic beautifully presented and with outstanding transfers’ (Gramophone)
Slavic schools of pianism often dominate discussions about great pianists of the past. A gentle reminder might bring German and French schools into the conversation, as well as important British artists and all of the major pianists from the United States who made their mark in the twentieth century. No doubt future pianophiles will look back on the early twenty-first century as the golden age of Asian pianists.

But one should not ignore Brazil’s consider able pianistic legacy. When asked if there was a typical style of Brazilian piano playing, Nelson Freire, one of the country’s prominent key board luminaries, said: ‘After soccer the piano is the second great love of Brazilians. But while Brazilian pianists have mostly worked in Europe and have certainly been deeply influenced by Europe, it is generally accepted that they have a certain rhythm, a kind of vibration that you don’t find elsewhere.’ Whether or not his friend and mentor Guiomar Novaes would have agreed, her reputation as one of Brazil’s most prominent and beloved pianists remains strong thirty-five years after her death.

Like most great pianists, Novaes’ gifts were apparent from an early age. Born on 28 February 1895 in São João da Boa Vista, a municipality in the state of São Paulo particularly noted for coffee growing, Guiomar was the seventeenth of nineteen children born to Anna de Carvalho Menezes Novaes and Manoel da Cruz Novaes. In an interview with Dean Elder, Novaes recalled being the kindergarten’s ‘official’ pianist, playing for marches and for singing. Soon Novaes started formal training with Luigi Chiaffarelli, an Italian pianist who had worked with Ferruccio Busoni, and, according to Novaes, ‘a most exceptional, perceptive deep teacher’. She also had weekly lessons with Antonietta Rudge Miller, a Brazilian of English descent. The following year Novaes appeared in public for the first time, and attended her first concert, a recital by cellist Pablo Casals and pianist Harold Bauer. The event made an indelible impression on the young pianist, who eventually would play concertos under Casals’ baton with the Friends of Music in New York. She also studied organ, and played for her church’s Sunday morning Mass.

At eleven, Novaes made her official debut as a last-minute substitute for an indisposed pianist, playing the difficult Grande fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien, a virtuoso tour de force by the American composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who had died in Brazil in 1869. The work would become one of Novaes’ signature pieces. As Novaes became noticed, the government arranged a four-year stipend for her to study in Europe. Chiaffarelli gave Novaes a letter of introduction to Isidore Philipp at the Paris Conservatory. She arrived in Paris in November 1909, just in time to enrol. The jurors included Fauré, Moszkowski, Widor and Debussy. Many years later André Caplet found a letter from Debussy about Novaes. Debussy wrote: ‘She has all the qualities for a great artist, eyes that are transported by music, and the power of complete inner concentration which is a characteristic so rare in artists.’

Novaes revered Philipp as a devoted pedagogue (‘He corrected what his pupils did wrong but allowed each pupil to have his own personality’), while Philipp declared Novaes to have been, according to Harold C Schonberg, ‘by far the best pupil he had nursed to the concert stage’. ‘Even at fourteen she had a mind of her own’, Philipp recalled. Schonberg wrote how Novaes played Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata for Philipp at a lesson:

‘No, no’, said Philipp. ‘The second movement is much too fast. Play it again.’ Novaes thought it over for a moment and then played it again—with somewhat different detail but with exactly the same tempo.

Incidentally, an article by Abrahm Chasins about Novaes related the same story, but with a Chopin piece played three times, not twice.

Novaes graduated from the Conservatory at fifteen with first prize honours, and made her Paris debut the following year with the Châtelet Orchestra under Gabriel Pierné’s direction. Her London recital debut followed, and the pianist was immediately invited to play Mozart’s D minor Concerto, K466, at the Queen’s Hall under Sir Henry Wood. In 1915 a close family friend, the journalist Dr José Carlos Rodriguez, took it upon himself to arrange the nineteen-year-old Novaes’ New York debut at Aeolian Hall, a 1,100-seat venue that presented many notable concerts from 1912 to 1926.

Only half of the seats were occupied, yet the critics raved. Henry Aldrich in The New York Times called Novaes ‘a musician by the grace of God’, and The New York Globe’s Pitts Sanborn claimed her to be ‘the young genius of the piano’. James Gibbons Huneker may have been geographically off when he dubbed Novaes ‘the Paderewska of the Pampas’, yet his colourful 1920 New York World review pinpointed what made the young pianist’s work stand out with remarkably detailed accuracy, and is worth quoting:

Her planturous touch is not only the outcome of a happy confluence of muscular and nervous energies, but is made more viable by the cunning interplay of pedal and a variety of finger, wrist and arm attacks. There is devitalization, but the hand never loses its firm contour. And this attack is nearly unique—de Pachmann, Godowsky and Rubinstein have and had it—inasmuch as we never hear the initial touch as a percussive blow. She glides into the music with that plastic delivery as a swan glides into the water.

For the next few years Novaes toured back and forth between Brazil and the United States, until she married Octávio Pinto in 1922. An accomplished composer and pianist who also studied with Chiaffarelli, Pinto made his living as an engineer, architect and a highly respected city planner. Yet he kept up music as a sideline, and often accompanied his wife on tours until his death in 1950. Novaes gave her final performance at New York’s Hunter College in 1972.

Novaes’ career as a recording artist essentially came into its own with the advent of the LP, when she entered into a productive relationship with Vox in 1949. In 1962 she recorded one LP for American Decca—a Chopin, Liszt and Debussy recital, and two LPs for Vanguard in 1967 (one featuring Beethoven, the other Chopin). The small Fermata label released Novaes’ final LP, a disc devoted to favourite short works by Brazilian composers. Unlike her near-exact contemporaries Wilhelm Kempff and Walter Gieseking who recorded easily and prodigiously, Novaes appears not to have faced the microphone with comparable equanimity. She dismissed her Vox Chopin Nocturnes as ‘very bad’, and all-but admitted that she set down the G major Op 37 No 2 prima vista. Conversely, time limits and session costs held no interest to her in pursuit of the perfect take. Producer Ward Botsford once had difficulty getting Novaes to stop playing at the end of a session. Duke Ellington’s band was scheduled next in the studio. Novaes kept going, oblivious to everything. The bandleader arrived, watched for a few minutes, turned to the agonized producer and simply said, ‘Man, dig this crazy pianist!’ On the other hand, Novaes approved uninterrupted first takes of the entire Schumann Études symphoniques and Beethoven ‘Waldstein’ Sonata.

However, Novaes’ latter-day discography tends to overshadow her earlier 78-rpm output. In his book The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg claims the fifteen acoustic RCA Victor selections recorded between 1919 and 1923 give a better idea of Novaes’ worth. The encore-length repertoire may be relatively insignificant, yet the pianism is anything but so. Huneker’s purple prose easily substantiates the pianist’s glittering, supple, direct and imaginative accounts of the two Liszt Concert études ‘Waldesrauschen’ and ‘Gnomenreigen’. Listen to how the former’s accompanying figurations manage to sound clear and disembodied at the same time, while the latter’s rapid repeated-note bass lines are as firmly delineated as those in Rachmaninov’s classic recording, yet somewhat lighter and more winged in effect. Her subjective approach to the Paderewski Nocturne arguably proves more animated and technically flexible than in the composer’s own recording. The sessions yielded Novaes’ first recording of the aforementioned Gottschalk Grande fantaisie, where the pianist’s youthful technique sizzles with a sense of unfettered joy and abandon that leaps out from the old grooves. She replicated this interpretive miracle in her sole RCA electrical session on 8 April 1927, a productive day that also yielded a delectably lilting Albéniz/Godowsky Tango and Godowsky’s transcription of Richard Strauss’ Ständchen.

Novaes made no further recordings until her association with the Columbia Recording Corporation between 1940 and 1947. The present release marks the first time that all of her published Columbia 78s have been reissued together, although several unpublished items from these sessions have previously been made available, including Chopin’s two mature sonatas.

Her first Columbia session took place on 29 March 1940, resulting in two Scarlatti sonatas plus short pieces by Couperin and Daquin that are exquisite examples of harpsichord fare filtered through a decidedly ‘old-school’ yet taste fully transparent modern-concert-grand orientation. The three selections from Book 1 of Villa-Lobos’ Prole do Bebê, along with further miniatures recorded in 1946, pay tribute to a close colleague, certainly in spirit, if not always to the letter. ‘Villa-Lobos was a dear friend’, Novaes told Alan Rich, ‘a wonderful man who did the most of anyone for the music of our country. I played many of his pieces, of course. Sometimes I even made changes in them, but if he noticed it, he never said a word.’

Novaes played Mozart’s music frequently yet selectively throughout her career. Her approach to the Rondo in A minor, K511, is here pianistically poised and brisk to the point of flippancy, at far remove from Artur Schnabel’s dramatic accentuations and harmonic underpinnings in his unforgettable 78-rpm version. One also might find her Chopin third Ballade relatively held back next to the heroism and surging climaxes of pianists as different as Cortot, Rubinstein and Friedman, but the Bach D major Toccata’s intimate contours and ravishing tonal refinement are ‘Golden Age’ worthy. Given Novaes’ reputation as a colourist, it comes as no surprise to encounter her effortless balancing of the multi-dimensional keyboard textures in ‘Evocación’ and ‘Triana’ from Albéniz’ Iberia suite. What we would give to hear Novaes in the ten remaining pieces, or, other Spanish impressionistic fare. ‘My dear husband told me that I should play the Granados Goyescas in public’, Novaes told Harold Schonberg, ‘but I don’t have time to prepare it. I am so busy at home.’

At least the pianist did prepare Saint-Saëns’ Caprice sur les airs de ballet from Gluck’s Alceste, a lengthy showpiece full of deceptively difficult and cruelly exposed passage work that leaves no room for the smallest smudge or imbalance. The long chains of trills are quite magical in Novaes’ hands, and give the impression that the piano has traded its hammers for both lungs and prodigious breath control. Pinto’s delightful Scenas infantis (‘Memories of Childhood’) stem from pieces that Novaes’ husband improvised while their two small children ran around in the garden. Novaes promised that if he wrote them down she would play them in New York. After one of the recitals, a representative from the publisher G Schirmer telephoned Novaes at her hotel. People had been calling, asking where they could get this music. Schirmer offered to publish the pieces. Pinto hesitated—after all, he was an architect, not a composer—but eventually gave in.

Far from the childlike melodies of the Pinto work is Guarnieri’s Toccata which was written for, and dedicated to, Novaes. It’s a fearsome study in double-notes, played much of the time very quietly as if to hide its virtuosity. Here we can only marvel at the effortlessness of Novaes’ technique in a work which was surely written to exploit her abilities to the full.

Although Novaes did not teach, she gave advice and support to younger colleagues, such as Nelson Freire, who once spent an afternoon playing each of the Chopin Preludes with Novaes, taking turns, without saying a word, as if the music itself was a form of speech and the piano keys represented instruments of the orchestra or characters in a theatre piece. Indeed, Novaes confirmed this in an interview for The Etude: ‘When I play I am always trying to make a drama or comedy with dialogue or monologue, as the case may be. When I appear before an audience, I may be vaguely conscious of the many faces before me, but the moment I begin to play, I lose myself entirely in my music.’

Jed Distler © 2014

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