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Anatole Kitain - The complete Columbia recordings, 1936-39

Anatole Kitain (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: May 2015
Total duration: 119 minutes 11 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.

Anatole Kitain (1903–1980) was an exact contemporary and fellow pupil of Vladimir Horowitz in Kiev, where he studied, as did the slightly older Simon Barere, with Felix Blumenfeld. All three developed fabulous techniques and were romantic pianists in the grand manner, and each fled Russia after the Revolution to make their way in the West. That Kitain is the least known can only be put down to misfortune as these pre-War European recordings attest to a pianist of fabulous talent. Sadly he failed to ‘make it’ after his Wartime emigration to the USA and slowly faded from view, giving his last New York concert in 1963.


‘Pianophiles should note immediately that this is a reissue of APR7029, first released around two decades ago … if you missed it before, you should get it now’ (MusicWeb International)» More
Anatole Kitain has been neglected for far too long. Might this anthology prompt a reassessment of a pianist who was not only an exact contemporary of Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere but equally blessed with phenomenal gifts? Those long-familiar with these recordings would hope so as there is surely little doubt that, on the evidence of his pre-War Columbia recordings, Anatole Kitain can be considered, along with Horowitz and Barere, one of the great modern advocates of the Russian romantic tradition.

There appear to be many reasons why Anatole Kitain ultimately failed to secure a place among the upper echelons of the pianists’ hierarchy, though they lie beyond the scope of this booklet. Despite this, the years spent in Russia and Western Europe witnessed the nurturing of a prodigious natural talent for his chosen instrument and the establishment of a career which, by the late 1930s, appeared to be destined for glory. Indeed, some considered Kitain ‘a musical Horowitz’—implying, of course, that while Kitain’s technique was on a par with his famous Russian compatriot and colleague, his interpretations at this time were musically more substantial and less prone to mannerism and idiosyncratic dalliances. But then, like so many other pianists of his generation, Kitain moved to America. Like them he was destined to live and work—and ultimately wither—in the omnipresent shadow cast by Horowitz.

Anatole Kitain was born on 17 September 1903 at St Petersburg into a family of professional musicians. Michel and Marie Kitain had four musical sons: violinists Robert and Boris, and pianists Alexander and Anatole. The fact that the infant Anatole had perfect pitch and could pick out by ear tunes on the piano probably came as no great surprise. However, his parents must have been taken aback when, at the age of six, Anatole’s performance of his own Nocturne so astonished Glazunov that the boy was granted immediate entrance to the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Political upheavals in Russia soon obliged the Kitain family to move to the relative tranquility of Kiev. At that city’s Conservatoire Anatole became a pupil of Sergei Tarnowsky and a classmate of Horowitz, who had entered the conservatoire in 1912. Kitain was the more precocious of the two, indeed Horowitz had no wunderkind leanings whereas Kitain made many acclaimed prodigy appearances, none more famous than a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 which the nine-year-old gave with the Crimea Orchestra conducted by Nicolas Orloff. Kitain later came under the influence of Felix Blumenfeld. Besides studying with him at both the Kiev and St Petersburg Conservatoires Kitain became, along with Barere and Horowitz, one of Blumenfeld’s select band of private pupils. (Like Barere, Kitain frequently included Blumenfeld’s Étude for the left hand in his recitals.)

Not long after Kitain graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatoire in 1923 the family was forced to flee Russia, an event which signalled the start of individual careers for the four boys. A major turning point for Anatole occurred in 1933 when he was a prize-winner at the first Franz Liszt Competition in Budapest. (The outright winner was Annie Fischer.) After an extensive tour of the Far East, Kitain settled at Boulogne sur Seine, France. The outbreak of the Second World War compelled Kitain to move once more, this time to the USA, where, as mentioned previously, he was unable to consolidate his earlier successes. (In 1944 he assumed the name Alexander Karinoff, ostensibly to avoid confusion with his violinist brother Robert, but more probably with the intention of seeking a fresh start, though after two years he reverted to his own name.) He nevertheless made concert and recital appearances across America during the 1940s and 1950s, garnering along the way laudatory reviews from some of the most respected reviewers of the day, not least Virgil Thomson and Irving Kolodin. During the 1950s he made a handful of LP recordings, including one with his brother Robert.

Anatole Kitain gave his last New York recital on 22 October 1963. He died, aged 76, at Orange, New Jersey on 30 July 1980. In the final analysis, critical and popular success had eluded him.

The recordings
Anatole Kitain’s first recordings were made in July 1936 at the Paris studios of French Columbia. Ironically, the company was a reluctant partner in the venture having expressed ‘only a slight interest’ in the pianist. To all intents and purposes, they were acting under instructions from British Columbia who were still desperately seeking to fill the void left by the abrupt departure from their artist roster of Leopold Godowsky, who had suffered a stroke during a 1930 recording session. Two titles, Feux follets and the Petrarch Sonnet 123, recorded as ‘commercial tests’, were deemed satisfactory (despite very obvious pedal noises) and promptly released on Columbia’s ‘celebrity label’. In London Fred Gaisberg decided that Kitain merited serious attention and so invited him to record at the new studios in Abbey Road, where, he argued, the best solo piano recordings in the world could be secured.

During repertoire discussions Kitain offered an impressive list of solo piano works, all of which were then at his finger tips: J S Bach’s Partitas Nos 1 & 3, Mozart’s Sonatas Nos 13 & 16, Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, ‘Waldstein’ and Opp 109 & 111 Sonatas, Schumann’s Études symphoniques and Fantasie, as well as a great deal of Liszt (including the Sonata) and much Chopin (significantly the complete Études and Préludes as well as the two mature Sonatas). Additionally, in June 1937, just prior to commencing work at Abbey Road, Kitain gave an acclaimed recital at London’s Grotrian Hall. The programme, which opened (!) with Schumann’s Toccata, also contained Brahms’s Sonata in F minor which Kitain very much wished to record. Not surprisingly Columbia considered this too ambitious a start and so, almost inevitably, proceedings began the next month with popular Chopin (the Ballade No 3 and Études Nos 5–8 from opus 10). These, and all subsequent recordings, were released on Columbia’s UK domestic label. A considerable number were later issued in the USA, a few in other territories such as Argentina and Australia.

When Kitain returned to the UK in February 1938 for a London Philharmonic concert with Beecham and another Grotrian Hall recital, he also began a second series of recordings. This time he appears to have succeeded in persuading Columbia to allow him to record Brahms, obviously a composer very dear to him, though the choice of the Op 39 Waltzes (with the ‘Edward’ Ballade as a fill-up), was a remarkable one given that Backhaus had recently recorded (in December 1935) the set for HMV. (It should be remembered that by this time HMV and Columbia were sister companies, theoretically working in consort.) These February 1938 sessions also included what appears to have been the premiere recording of Chopin’s Rondo. (Many of Kitain’s Liszt and Scriabin titles were also ‘additions to the catalogue’.) By June 1938 Kitain’s standing as a major Columbia artist was acknowledged when he received an invitation to play at London’s Claridge Hotel for a special gathering of ‘friends of the Gramophone Industry’, hosted by Columbia’s Managing Director, Sir Louis Sterling. (Kitain wanted to play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz; Columbia considered Chopin more conducive to the digestion.)

Gaisberg continued to be impressed by Kitain’s artistry. In 1939, when he forwarded test pressings of the Godowsky Fledermaus concoction to the pianist’s British agent, Harold Holt, Gaisberg confided that he was astounded by the strides Kitain had made in the short time they had worked together. Gaisberg also freely confessed that in Kitain he had discovered that rare creature, a sensitive artist who was both cooperative and compliant. Incidentally, Gaisberg did his utmost to pair Kitain and the Léner Quartet for a re-recording of Schumann’s Piano Quintet. (The Léners had already recorded the work in the early 1930s with Olga Loeser-Lebert.) Kitain prepared the part in readiness though in the event quartet and pianist were unable to coincide on mutually convenient dates. The events of September 1939 not only put paid to that particular project but also to the pianist’s European career. Kitain’s finest years had come to an end.

Of that extraordinary Russian triumvirate—Vladimir Horowitz, Simon Barere and Anatole Kitain—it is the latter who is less obsessively driven by daemonic brilliance, though it should not be inferred from this that Kitain’s technique was in any way inferior. Indeed, there are several technically awesome recordings in this anthology, none more so perhaps than the Godowsky title where Kitain’s all-encompasing keyboard mastery results in an interpretation of nonchalant charm and effortless grace.

Kitain’s playing always ravishes the ear with its unusually rich sonorities; resplendent yet without a hint of turgidity in Brahms, warm yet bell-like in Chopin and Liszt. Another striking Kitain attribute is his spontaneous, poetically expansive singing line. His Chopin interpretations blend masculinity with elegance, reserve with passion; his Liszt recordings benefit from a comparatively understated approach. There is also far more ‘inner musing’ to Kitain’s Liszt than that of his celebrated confrères. In Vallée d’Obermann, for example, where Horowitz unveils a vast oil canvas, daubed in sweeping, contrasting colours, Kitain presents us with an exquisitely detailed watercolour of subtle hues.

In the Russian repertoire we are reminded of Kitain’s link with Tarnowsky, famed for his seamless legato, and Blumenfeld, renowned for his brilliant yet sensuous lyricism. Scriabin’s ephemeral miniatures are caught ‘on the wing’; the serene beauty of Rachmaninov’s Élégie is captured to haunting perfection.

Bryan Crimp © 1995

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