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Olga Samaroff & Frank La Forge - The complete recordings

Olga Samaroff (piano), Frank La Forge (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only Available Friday 7 June 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Victor Recordings, United Kingdom
Release date: 7 June 2024
Total duration: 145 minutes 31 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.

Olga Samaroff (1880-1948) and Frank La Forge (1879-1953) were amongst the earliest pianists to record for the US Victor label, both making most of their discs in the acoustic era before 1925. Though American, both went to Europe to study—Samaroff to the Paris Conservatoire and La Forge to Leschetizky in Vienna.

Samaroff was the greater virtuoso, as can be heard in her famous recording of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, but after a fall, in 1926 she retired to an equally successful teaching career at the Juilliard School, her pupils including William Kapell, Raymond Lewenthal and Rosalyn Tureck amongst many others.

La Forge gravitated towards accompanying and went on to record hundreds of discs for Victor in that capacity. His discs as soloist include some of the earliest attempts to record concerted works.

Olga Samaroff (1880-1948)
In the United States during the nineteenth century, classical music was considered to be an exclusively European art. One had to be of Continental origin—or at least to have been trained and recognized abroad—in order to be taken seriously. Among the German immigrants to Texas were the Hickenlooper and Grünewald families: Lucy Hickenlooper, who later changed her name to Olga Samaroff, was born in San Antonio in 1880 and had piano lessons from her grandmother Lucy Grünewald. As her abilities warranted a level of guidance then unavailable in the States she moved with her mother to Paris. At the Conservatoire Samaroff’s instructor was Élie-Miriam Delaborde, widely believed to be Alkan’s illegitimate son. Samaroff’s memoirs make no mention of her ever visiting Delaborde at home; thus she was spared the acquaintance of his 121 cockatoos and two monkeys, one named Isadora after the pedagogue Isidor Philipp.

It was a prestigious scholarship that had enabled Samaroff, the first American woman admitted to the Conservatoire, to study with Delaborde, whom she described as ‘a strange being with a great beard, shaggy hair, short legs and a rolling gait, who looked more like a bear than any man I ever beheld’. Delaborde received her and a group of other co-nationals: ‘You are the American! Humph! Anglo-Saxon. Why do Anglo-Saxons try to study music? Never can succeed, never play.’ With this introduction, Delaborde ‘gruffly ordered’ the young, intimidated Samaroff to play. While she did, he ‘restlessly beat time with his foot … muttering to himself a sort of running commentary on Americans and their lack of musical talent. It was the first injustice I had encountered in life.’ This situation changed when Delaborde noticed that her name had a Germanic origin and thus upgraded her standing on his musical evolutionary scale. His initial prejudice gave Samaroff the desire not only to further her art but also to combat the bias against talented Americans. Thanks to Delaborde, Samaroff developed into a leading performer who frequently appeared with such eminent conductors as Muck and Stokowski, and also became an educator, writer and protagonist who greatly broadened the understanding of classical music in America and whose pupils ranked among the leading musical figures of their time.

When Samaroff moved to Berlin in 1898 she met Richard Strauss, the conductors Felix Weingartner, Artur Nikisch and Karl Muck, and other leading musicians. In Munich she was present while Bruno Walter rehearsed with Mahler the premiere of his Eighth Symphony. Samaroff soon befriended the composer and later appeared in the States as soloist in Grieg’s Concerto on several occasions under Mahler’s direction. In January 1905 she again defied a tradition imposed upon American pianists: that impressive, expensive European debuts were imperative before the first New York recital. Her Carnegie Hall concert with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony took place well in advance of any European appearance. Within five years her vibrant playing and strong polished technique won her acclaim throughout America and Europe. A recital from her first season indicates the repertoire she chose. On 9 November 1905 Samaroff played in New York: Franck—Prelude, Chorale and Fugue; Brahms—Capriccio, Op 76 No 2, and Paganini Variations, Op 35; Chopin—Sonata in B minor, Op 58, Nocturne in F sharp major, Op 15 No 2, and Op 25 Études Nos 3 and 11; Howard Brockway—Ballade; Wagner/Hutcheson—Ride of the Valkyries, and encores.

Samaroff’s encounter with recording technology began with the piano rolls she made in Germany for the Welte firm in 1908. She preferred the automatic piano to the primitive acoustically recorded discs of that period. Meanwhile, the brunette soloist was being courted by Leopold Stokowski, an unknown English church organist and choirmaster who had just arrived in New York. He aspired to be an orchestra conductor but had meagre funds and limited experience. Samaroff’s recent escape from a first marriage to a Russian engineer who disapproved of her independent musical career perhaps was the catalyst which led her to offer Stokowski her expertise and devotion.

In Paris Samaroff introduced Stokowski to Saint-Saëns and Widor and in Munich she brought him to Mahler and Richard Strauss. Her family’s prominence in Cincinnati secured for Stokowski a post with the city Symphony Orchestra from 1909 to 1912, something which garnered him major New York press attention. Further efforts by her family and friends brought Stokowski to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912. It was Samaroff who pushed him to begin in 1916 what would become a legendary series of recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He shared her feelings about the limitations of acoustical efforts but, at her urging, proceeded. Their shared interest in recording technology led to the advancement of recorded sound and thus contributed to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s international stature.

In the early 1920s, Samaroff presented in several US cities a nearly complete cycle of Beethoven’s keyboard works, years before Artur Schnabel considered such a project. Stokowski offered comments and accompanied her in various concerti with the Philadelphians. All that survives of her extensive Beethoven repertoire is Anton Rubinstein’s transcription of the very uncharacteristic ‘Turkish March’ from the ‘Ruins of Athens’. Record company officials conceded that Samaroff should include her ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, but only if she speeded up the first movement to fit on one four-minute side and acceded to engineers’ requests about not observing Beethoven’s pianissimi. Samaroff was further vexed by a proposed accompanying pamphlet which reiterated the myths sur rounding the work: ‘Nobody seemed to heed my argument that the lovely stories had no real foundation’, she recalled. Her four takes of the first movement ended with her refusing its release.

In 1921, as her marriage to Stokowski was ending, Samaroff was touring and began recording. A daughter, Sonya Noel, born later that year, only postponed their parting, which came early in 1923. While her first discs contained such works as Liszt’s Liebestraüme No 3, Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, Op 9 No 2, and Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song’, the pieces were not essential parts of her repertoire. Samaroff’s interpretations retain nineteenth-century-style spread chords and anticipated bass notes, yet what is so striking in her playing is her integrity and modernity, her overall clarity and precise adherence to the score.

Samaroff recalled how her first discs were planned: ‘Very often a battle with the company on the choice of music would result in a sort of compromise. For instance, they would let me play a Rhapsody of Brahms if I would consent to record the ‘Spring Song’ of Mendelssohn. I never agreed to anything below a certain artistic level, but I always chafed at wasting the making of a record on an innocuous composition. The more I played that cheerful ‘Spring Song’ the more innocuous it seemed. The record I finally made of it is probably the coolest rendition it has ever had.’

Although Samaroff later told her student Solveig Lunde that recording was like ‘playing in a straitjacket’, these discs display her keyboard artistry which transcended the limits of the studio’s ambiance.

Just as Samaroff defied tradition by starting her career in New York, she (like Stokowski) challenged those who objected to programming works such as the Chopin Ballade and Liszt Rhapsody. The company’s engineers complained that their dynamic contrasts were inaudible on the records or resulted in their distortion. Their approach also affected the instrument used, for her 1921/22 recordings were made on a baby grand piano. Beginning with the 11 January 1923 session, she brought to the studio in Camden N.J. her own Steinway concert grand. Having re-read Helmholtz in the original German and observed Stokowski at his orchestral sessions, she argued that it was a ‘question of quality [of sound]—not volume’. By 1925 company publicists cited her ‘clear, liquid, singing tone possessing a quality altogether hers’. Thus her 1923/24 discs have noticeably improved piano sound. Following her example, Victor provided a concert grand for all their artists’ studio work.

In these 1923/24 selections, Samaroff documented much more, however, than just that sound quality would be changed. As her student Wendel Diebel points out, her performances show a ‘shift from the 19th-century romanticism to the 20th-century attitude of emphasis upon the composers’ wishes. Her technical accuracy and bravura must have been the envy of all her peers …’ During these sessions, experiments with electrical recordings were held but sadly, the masters were destroyed. In terms of repertoire, and unlike most of her tradition-laden colleagues, Samaroff urged her students to learn post-1900 literature, of which she included the Lecuona Malagueña, Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie and compatriot Charles Griffes’ The White Peacock in her final 1930 session.

When an accident in 1926 incapacitated an arm, Samaroff began immersing herself in numerous activities, first of which was to chair the Philadelphia Conservatory music department. Samaroff retired from concert touring, although her 1928 White House performance is still regarded as one of the finest efforts to promote Washington’s formal recognition of fine arts. Samaroff assisted financially the merger of several fine arts schools with liberal arts institutions. She freely gave her time promoting other orchestras’ development, especially the Atlanta and National Symphonies.

Samaroff was selected as the only US-born Juilliard Graduate School piano faculty charter member (1924-48). She established the Schubert Memorial (1928-48), a music foundation for young artists, and The Layman’s Music Courses (1928-48), an audience building music education programme for performers, teachers and patrons. Samaroff contributed lengthy music criticism and arts commentaries for The New York Evening Post (1927-28) and The Philadelphia Record (1928-29) and published four books while maintaining a lecturing schedule which eventually included the Metropolitan Opera Guild, two radio series and a pioneering use of television. She co-founded several social programmes and was active on boards of cultural organizations and committees.

As a teacher Samaroff had great success. A roster of her pupils includes many prominent names from the musical world of the last half century: Augustin Anievas, Joseph Battitsta, Bruce Hungerford, William Kapell, Raymond Lewenthal, Eugene List, Carlos Moseley, Vincent Persichetti, Thomas Schippers, Claudette Sorel, Rosalyn Tureck, Alexis Weissen berg and Harriet Wingreen are but some of her noted students. Unlike others, she rarely imparted at the lessons her own inter pretations of the immense musical literature she mastered; instead, she expected individual artistry. Solveig Lunde once heard her demonstrate and wrote: ‘The tremendous rhythmic vitality, the luminous singing of melodic lines, the seemingly endless palette of colours, from the bold[ly] authoritative to the fleeing leggierezza compel the listener into the music.’
Dr Geoffrey McGillen © Pavilion Records 1996

Frank La Forge (1879-1953)
During the acoustic recording era (pre-1925), Olga Samaroff and Frank La Forge were the two pre-eminent American-born pianists represented in the cata -logue of the Victor Talking Machine Company. At the same time, the Victor roster also boasted such luminaries as Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Backhaus, de Pachmann, Novaes, and Bauer. Thus, it was a tribute to the artistic stature of both Samaroff and La Forge—almost exact contemporaries—that their recordings found a large audience and enjoyed a long catalogue life.

Frank La Forge was born in 1879 in Rockford, Illinois. His early training as pianist took place in Chicago under the supervision of Harrison Slater. Then, along with a number of other aspiring American pianists, he travelled to Vienna, seeking the tutelage of Theodor Leschetizky. According to La Forge, ‘Leschetizky’s temper was famous, and at times most unreasonable. Personally, I got along very well with him and even enjoyed the epithet of teacher’s pet for a while’. While in Vienna, La Forge crossed paths with such other soon-to-be-famous Leschetizky pupils as Mark Hambourg and Ignaz Friedman. While developing his solo repertoire, La Forge also frequented various aristocratic salons where noted singers often performed. At one such event he encountered the great Wagnerian soprano Johanna Gadski, who was seeking a new accompanist. La Forge, who had developed extraordinary sight-reading and transposition abilities, greatly impressed Gadski and her husband, who soon arranged for La Forge to accompany the singer on her 1904 tour of the United States. His success in that role soon attracted the attention of other noted vocalists, and La Forge was launched on a unique career that continued for nearly fifty years.

One of the more remarkable aspects of La Forge’s performing was the fact that almost all his programmes with singers were played from memory. He was said to have the accompaniments to some 4,000 songs and arias immediately at his fingertips, and in a variety of keys. La Forge became an early advocate for the importance of the accompanist during an era when such musicians were normally given little attention, frequently relegated to a subservient, nearly anonymous background function. He rightly insisted that singer-pianist collaborations required proper balance and an equal function in the musical outcome. In 1920, he established a training school in New York for singers and pianists.

La Forge entered the Victor studios for the first time in 1904, accompanying soprano Marcella Sembrich. Two years later he began recording a series of accompaniments for Johanna Gadski, and it was at that time that C G Child, Victor’s ‘most affable’ manager, persuaded La Forge to record solo repertoire. There followed several frustrating attempts to satisfactorily capture piano sound with the acoustical horn, but between 1907 and 1913, La Forge approved the sixteen sides that occupy tracks 5 to 20 of the present disc two. Of particular historical interest are the Liszt Hungarian Fantasia and the two abridged concerto movements from 1911/12. These appear to be the first American efforts to record piano concerti, although the ‘orchestra’ consisted of a very small body of players. (Two years earlier, for The Gramophone Company in London, the young Wilhelm Backhaus had made the first recording of a work for piano and orchestra—abridged versions of the first and third movements of the Grieg concerto.)

Victor’s choice of repertoire reflected the musical tastes of the day. Superior salon pieces by Gottschalk and Chaminade were still in considerable vogue, especially among amateur pianists, and La Forge’s stylish performances were undoubtedly an inspiration to many of those players. Also documented here are La Forge’s significant skills as a composer. He usually featured one or more of his own works on his programmes, and the Valse de concert often served as an effective recital-closer. The two Chopin pieces are notable for La Forge’s sensitive treatment of the fioritura and his flexible handling of tempo. In the Chopin Nocturne, he adds some embellishments to the melodic line that stem from his teacher, Leschetizky. We know this because Leschetizky himself employs them on his 1906 Welte reproducing piano roll. The same ornamentation can also be heard on a private recording by Arthur Shattuck, another American pupil of Leschetizky.

Except for his initial MacDowell recording, La Forge’s solo Victor discs appeared in the company’s ‘blue label’ series, as distinct from the more prestigious (and more expensive) red label ‘celebrity’ recordings on which the most famous singers, pianists and violinists were featured. Blue label Victor discs were aimed at a wide market and usually contained lighter musical fare. During the 1920s, the teenage Shura Cherkassky made his first recordings on blue-label Victor 78s (available on APR7316).

After the First World War, La Forge gradually reduced his solo appearances. He was quickly becoming more and more active as collaborator ‘at the piano’ in song and aria repertoire with Gadski as well as with Sembrich, with sopranos Frances Alda and Lily Pons, mezzo Margarete Matzenauer, and tenor Richard Crooks, among many others. Thus, there were no further solo discs issued until 1925 (La Forge’s own Romance and Valse de concert); these were among the first Victor electrical piano recordings. La Forge then continued his role as an in-demand collaborator, usually with singers, and his only additional recorded solo ventures occurred in 1940 with an album of a dozen accompaniments (without voice!) to familiar vocal selections. Their purpose was to enable aspiring singers to practise at home without an accompanist.

In 1953, in the midst of a performance at the Musicians’ Club in New York, La Forge collapsed at the piano and died. Although his legacy as a solo pianist is confined to the small number of recordings reissued herewith, he remains one of the more important components of the Leschetizky tradition.

Donald Manildi © 2024

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