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Vassily Sapellnikoff & Xaver Scharwenka - The complete recordings

Vassily Sapellnikoff (piano), Franz Xaver Scharwenka (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: April 2015
Total duration: 147 minutes 53 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.

Vassily Sapellnikoff (1868–1941) and Xaver Scharwenka (1850–1924) were among the earliest generation of pianists to record, and on this ground alone it is surprising that their complete recordings have never before been transferred for modern listening. Not only do they give us a fascinating insight into nineteenth-century pianism but in the Tchaikovsky Concerto (the premiere recording of the work) we have the pianist who, after his 1888 Hamburg performance under the composer’s baton, went on to become Tchaikovsky’s favoured soloist, witnessed in many subsequent performances they gave together.


‘Some truly wonderful performances … three of Sapellnikoff’s own compositions that sparkle with fabulous dexterity and a palpable joie de vivre’ (Gramophone)

‘Vassily Sapellnikoff (1968-1941) was one of Tchaikovsky’s favourite interpreterss … he presents the work, one that he had played by then for nearly forty years, with remarkable subtlety … this is a very important document’ (MusicWeb International)» More
Vassily Sapellnikoff (1868–1941)
Often transliterated today as Vasilii Sapelnikov, he was known in his lifetime as Wassily or Vassily Sapellnikoff and even, during the first decade of the twentieth century, as Boris Sapellnikoff.

The trajectory of Sapellnikoff’s career was similar to a number of other musicians of his era—a promising start as a highly gifted child, support from famous musical figures of the day, an audacious debut followed by a few decades of great success. Later there were some less favourable reviews, and a gradual decline in offers from prestigious locations and orchestras led to a withdrawal from public appearances. His close contemporaries Frederic Lamond (1868–1948) and Mark Hambourg (1879–1961) were two more pianists whose careers suffered in this way.

Reasons for this are manifold: myriad variables of personality, psychological and emotional factors and changing styles in performance—but upheaval and displacement due to war is also a major contributing factor. Sapellnikoff had escaped Bolshevik Russia in 1922 and died in war-torn Italy in 1941, a long way from his beginnings in nineteenth-century Odessa. That musically fecund city produced among others Vladimir de Pachmann, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Shura Cherkassky, Simon Barere, Emil Gilels, Maria Grinberg, Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein and David Oistrakh.

Although undoubtedly remembered today as a figure on the sidelines of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pianism, Sapellnikoff’s name survives for two reasons—first, because he made gramophone recordings, and secondly because of his close association with one of the greatest and most beloved composers of the nineteenth century, Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

When the great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein heard the eleven-year-old Sapellnikoff at the Odessa conservatory, he and the city of Odessa granted him an annual stipend. Two years later this enabled the boy to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he spent two years with Louis Brassin (1840–1884). However, it was the following three years of study with Sophie Menter (1846–1918) that would further his career more than he could possibly have envisaged. She only taught at the St Petersburg Conservatory from 1883 to 1886 (precisely at the time Sapellnikoff was there) and during the summers Rubinstein paid for him to stay and study at Menter’s home, Castle Itter, in the Northern Tyrol.

Menter was a pupil and close friend of Franz Liszt and also of Tchaikovsky who dedicated his Op 56 Concert Fantasia for piano and orchestra to her. It was she who recommended Sapellnikoff to Tchaikovsky so that in January 1888, at the age of twenty, he was in Hamburg making his debut with the Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23, under the baton of the composer. Tchaikovsky, who was highly impressed with the young man’s musical talent, wrote in his Diary of my Tour: ‘Now, at the rehearsal, as Sapellnikoff surmounted one after another the inconceivable difficulties of my concerto, and gradually revealed all the power and distinctiveness of his colossal gift, my enthusiasm increased, and, what was still more agreeable, it was shared by the whole orchestra, who applauded him warmly between each break, and particularly at the end. A rare force, beauty, and brilliancy of tone; inspired warmth of rendering; a wonderful power of self-restraint; finish of detail, musical sensibility, and complete self-confidence—these are the distinguishing characteristics of Sapellnikoff’s playing.’ After the performance, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste: ‘Sapellnikoff created a true sensation in Hamburg…He is indeed a great talent.’ Less than two weeks later Tchaikovsky began to write less about the young man’s talent and more about his own feelings: ‘I have grown terribly fond of him…it is difficult to imagine a more likeable, kinder boy. I have been inseparable from him for almost three weeks now and have grown so fond of him, and he has become so close and dear to me, that he is just like the closest of relatives…You cannot imagine a more attractive, gentle, sweet, delicate, noble individual…I consider him (and not I alone) a future piano genius.’

It would seem that during these three weeks together Tchaikovsky became besotted with the young man who, the composer said, ‘loves me dearly and takes great care of me’. Sapellnikoff was helping in making a great success of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos—he also often performed No 2 in G major, Op 44—and had endeared himself to the great man. When he had asked for money the composer was only too happy to help him and referred to him as ‘a kind, splendid boy!’, later commenting: ‘What a lovely person!…What a consolation Vasya is to me!’

From the few surviving uncensored letters of Tchaikovsky, we know that he was not adverse to importuning men in the street (Tchaikovsky and his World, ed. Kearney). However, the Tchaikovsky scholar Alexander Poznansky writes: ‘It seems very likely that an erotic element was present in Tchaikovsky’s friendship with Sapellnikoff…Almost certainly, however, their relations remained chaste, of a sentimental and aesthetic character, though the emotional attachments were clearly mutual.’ At present there is no evidence to support this statement one way or the other and perhaps some of the uncensored letters at the Tchaikovsky house in Klin may one day reveal more about the relationship between the two men.

Sapellnikoff and Tchaikovsky travelled throughout Europe together leaving a trail of success. In November 1888 they performed the Piano Concerto No 2 in Prague. The following spring Tchaikovsky spent three weeks in Paris with his young friend Brandukov and they were later joined by Sapellnikoff. The following year the young pianist made his London debut with Concerto No 1 and returned the next year, 1890, to give the London premiere of No 2. Spring 1891 saw the two musicians performing the G major concerto in Paris, the composer conducting the Colonne Orchestra.

As fond as he was of Sapellnikoff, Tchaikovsky did not feel that he was the exclusive performer of his piano concertos and wanted them to receive as much exposure as possible. He wrote to music publisher Albert Gutman from his home in Klin in August 1892: ‘If by any chance you should wish that Mr Grünfeld or Rosenthal should perform my concerto (No 1 in B flat minor), I would certainly be delighted by this and feel enormously flattered. In that case this concerto would take the place of the Serenade for strings. If by any chance neither of these great artists should wish to do me the honour of participating in my concert, allow me to recommend to you a great Russian pianist—indeed, I’d say a pianist of genius—Vassily Sapellnikoff, who is at present not far from Vienna and who would most certainly be glad to take up your invitation. (His address is: Itter Castle, Hopfgarten Station, Tyrol, at Frau Menter’s).’

After receiving his doctorate in Cambridge in the spring of 1893, Tchaikovsky stopped off on his way back to Russia for a week in June at Castle Itter to see Menter and Sapellnikoff. This was, in fact, his last visit to Menter’s home although of course he did not know it at the time. In August he wrote to Sapellnikoff about concert plans for the following year: ‘Our concerts in Petersburg are to take place on 15 and 29 January 94. I thank you for your letter and your praise for the ‘Trepak’. With you and Menter I will gladly travel to wherever you want: to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Vienna etc…It is quite possible that in September I shall come to Itter.’ It was not to be as Tchaikovsky died in October 1893. He had dedicated ‘Trepak’, the last of his Eighteen Piano Pieces, Op 72, to Sapellnikoff.

After the death of Tchaikovsky, Sapellnikoff continued to perform the two piano concertos regularly. He appeared frequently in London, and for the Royal Philharmonic Society, in addition to the Tchaikovsky works, played concertos by Henselt, Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Chopin, Schumann, Grieg and Beethoven over a ten-year period. In June 1895 he played Liszt’s Concerto pathétique for two pianos with Menter.

For two years from 1897 Sapellnikoff taught at the Moscow Conservatory, but teaching did not seem to be his forte. In 1902 he gave the London premiere of the Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18, by Rachmaninoff. He appeared regularly in London up to 1914, when he went to visit his family in Odessa. Unfortunately, Sapellnikoff was caught up in the Revolution and could not escape until 1922, apparently by swimming across a river to Poland. From here he travelled to Germany where he settled, living in Leipzig and Munich.

After his escape, Sapellnikoff was also quick to resume his concert career in the United Kingdom where, later in 1922, he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2 at Queen’s Hall with Henry Wood and gave a Wigmore Hall recital in November. Subsequently, he visited Britain in the spring of each year touring the provinces and from 1925 he broadcast for the BBC, on one occasion (in 1928) performing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 2 with Vaclav Talich as conductor. Critical opinion of his performances varied during the 1920s. In January 1923 he gave a highly acclaimed performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in Edinburgh:

Often as the concerto has been heard in Edinburgh, it is doubtful if it has ever been played here with such dash and vivacity as was the case last night. From the opening passage…the rendering of the piano part was a gorgeous piece of virtuosity which was admirably supported by the orchestra. It was a really magnificent performance, and at its conclusion Mr Sapellnikoff was recalled again and again. An encore after a concerto is a rare occurrence, and in view of the enormous demand which the Tchaikovsky Concerto makes upon a pianist’s mere powers of endurance, an encore might well have been omitted last night. The enthusiasm of the audience, however, was altogether exceptional, and Mr Sapellnikoff returned to the platform and gave Liszt’s Waldesrauschen. (The Scotsman 23 January 1923)

Yet in November of that same year The Irish Times found his playing in the first half of the programme of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy academic, but things improved:

With Schumann, however, M. Sapellnikoff entered into his own, playing the lovely Arabesque in C major with a compelling lucidity of touch and phrasing. From this onwards the programme was magnetic in appeal. (The Irish Times 13 November 1923)

Virtuoso Russian works appeared to suit him best as the remainder of the programme consisted of Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations in F major, Balakirev’s Islamey, which ‘seemed to appeal to M. Sapellnikoff, who treated its slight theme with the virility of the folk element, and kept its sensationalism well under control—a picturesque study’. He ended with Liszt’s Rapsodie espagnole.

A performance of Beethoven’s last piano sonata—Op 111—at the Wigmore Hall in 1929 was found by one critic to be ‘almost too perfunctory to be bearable’. His playing during this decade was summed up best by a critic of the Manchester Guardian in 1925:

Sapellnikoff has ripened into a pianist of ever-increasing technical power, but of something less than the finest sensibility. Last night he showed himself a more imposing player than ever before, but his greatest success was not in the most sensitive music, but where an overwhelming display of technique vitalised the playing. (Manchester Guardian 10 February 1925)

However, the reviewer at this concert could not but help being impressed by Sapellnikoff’s performances of Islamey, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance in Tausig’s arrangement and the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser as arranged by Liszt.

Perhaps he tired of touring. By 1930 he was sixty-two and was appearing on piers of English south coast resorts as ‘Sapellnikoff and Party’. In May he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2 in Torquay (one wonders what the standard of the orchestra was like). Tchaikovsky’s work was hardly in elevated company—on the same programme was a Suite de Ballet No 3 by F. W. Moreton, city organist of Plymouth, and Die Felsamuhle, an overture by Reissiger. Sapellnikoff’s last days were spent in Italy, where he died in San Remo in 1941.

It was during his frequent visits to Britain in the 1920s that Sapellnikoff made his recordings. The Vocalion Company, the gramophone label of the Aeolian Piano Company, issued popular and classical discs during the 1920s. Unfortunately, they were using the outdated acoustic process after most other companies had switched to the superior electric recording method, and when they did change, they chose the inferior Marconi system so that their electric recordings were still of a low quality.

Sapellnikoff made his recordings for Vocalion between 1923 and 1927. Of greatest interest is the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 recorded in 1926, the first ever recording of the work. It was in this year that the major labels were already recording by the electrical process, but Vocalion recorded this major work by the acoustic process. Three years later the conductor of the recording, Stanley Chapple, wrote:

When I think of the conditions under which it was recorded and how exhausting to the soloist (then fifty-three) was the tiring and inevitable preliminary rehearsing, I can only sigh and wish that electrical recording had come just a little sooner. In fact the time taken over that one concerto would nowadays have yielded at least half a dozen important works. As it was, the perfection of modern methods came just too late to record Sapellnikoff at his finest. That is a matter of great regret.

So the performance that was recorded was well rehearsed and although not in electrical sound, it is very revealing of many aspects of Sapellnikoff’s interpretation. This is the way the concerto was played before Vladimir Horowitz used it as his calling card in 1928. Sapellnikoff gives a fluid, lyrical, musically meaningful performance that casts a completely different light on this overplayed warhorse.

Josef Lhevinne recorded Tchaikovsky’s ‘Trepak’ in 1920 for Pathé and, apart from the Concerto, the only other disc we have of Sapellnikoff in his friend’s work is the Humoresque in G from Op 10. There is a sprinkling of other short Russian pieces, including an atmospheric transcription of Glinka’s ‘The Lark’ by Balakirev, although shorn of its beautiful introduction.

Anther notable disc is that of the ‘Entry of the Guests’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Liszt’s transcription, giving us another chance to hear Sapellnikoff in an extended work. The Chopin Berceuse and Études were for some reason assigned a different catalogue number series (K rather than A or B) and may have only been issued in Australia by Vocalion’s subsidiary, Kildaire. All three works show Sapellnikoff’s dexterity and clarity in fast passagework. His rather shallow tone on many of the discs may be a result of the acoustic recording process: the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 by Liszt, an electrical recording, shows much more variety of tone and touch from the pianist. Some of Sapellnikoff’s most impressive solo discs are those of his own compositions where he sounds freer and less inhibited, injecting the performances with personality.

Franz Xaver Scharwenka (1850–1924)
Born in 1850 in what was then Samter, East Prussia, but now Szamotuły, Poland, Franz Xaver Scharwenka was the son of an architect. The family moved to Berlin when Xaver was fifteen and there he enrolled in Theodor Kullak’s New Academy, studying piano with Kullak and composition with Richard Wüerst. Before completing his year’s mandatory military service in 1873 he made his debut in Berlin with Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in D minor, Op 40. He then began the life of the touring virtuoso which took him to Northern Europe, Russia, Austria and England. Scharwenka was a successful composer and his Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 32, written in 1877 impressed both Liszt and Tchaikovsky. In 1880 he was invited to Vienna to play this concerto with Hans Richter where it was reported that ‘without any reception and almost unnoticed, the young stranger seated himself at the piano, from which he was to rise amid a storm of applause, the like of which has perhaps never greeted any pianist since Anton Rubinstein’.

Always interested in musical education, Scharwenka opened his own conservatory in Berlin in 1881, joining forces with that of the Klindworth in 1893. After his first appearance in America in 1891 he opened a branch of his conservatory in New York and resided in the city for seven years before returning to Germany. In November 1910 he performed his Piano Concerto No 4 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Scharwenka visited the Columbia recording studios in New York in December 1910 and January 1913, when he was in his early sixties. All the titles recorded at the first session were released although it is not known what was recorded on one missing matrix in the series (30607). The playing of the Chopin and Liszt pieces is surprisingly dry when one considers the bravura and romantic style of his own piano concertos. One must remember, however, that the acoustic recording process demanded that the pianist often adapt his way of playing to meet the constraints of the medium. He would have been instructed by the recording engineer to use as little pedal as possible in order to obtain utmost clarity. This was certainly the case as late as 1922 when Ferruccio Busoni made his recordings for Columbia in London.

Scharwenka had played his Spanish Serenade and two Polish Dances at Mendelssohn Hall in New York earlier that month and one can only wish that he had recorded other repertoire from the recital—Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, Op 49, Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata, Liszt’s ‘Mephisto’ Waltz or Ricordanza. A very astute critic at the concert summed up his playing in terms borne out by the discs:

Mr Scharwenka’s playing is musicianly, sincere, and has the high intelligence of a master of his instrument, who has taken thought about his art. It does not often strike fire or kindle the imagination of his listeners; and yet it can be brilliant and dashing, as it was in Liszt’s diabolically clever Mephistophelian waltz. His playing of Beethoven’s sonata was admirable in its clearness and perspicacity, in its realization of the composer’s intentions. (New York Times 4 December 1910)

Only two titles were released from the second session on 30 January 1913. That evening, Scharwenka was guest of honour of the Manuscript Society at the National Arts Club, where he heard new works still in manuscript including a String Quintet by Edward Kilenyi. The Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo capriccioso comprise overall probably Scharwenka’s most impressive disc, as we get to hear his restrained rubato in the Andante and impressive touch and technique in the Rondo. Another side recorded at that session was Frühlingsstimmen by Johann Strauss, perhaps in an arrangement by Scharwenka himself. That, and the ‘Blue Danube’ Waltz recorded in early February were never released and unfortunately are now lost.

Jonathan Summers © 2015

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