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The Matthay Pupils

Harriet Cohen - The complete solo studio recordings

Harriet Cohen (piano)
3CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
London, United Kingdom
Release date: September 2012
Total duration: 232 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.


‘The reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen to her performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune and not be impressed, challenged and moved’ (MusicWeb International)
Harriet Cohen’s colourful – and at times, controversial – personal life has long clouded a modern assessment of her stature as a pianist. As a young woman, she was beguilingly beautiful, and she rarely hesitated to advance her career through charm and even seduction – so much so that many have written her off as a mere femme fatale. For over three decades, she pursued a tem­pes­tuous affair with the composer Arnold Bax – who wrote many of his piano works for her – and the adulation she received from other composers only enhanced her prominence. Vaughan Williams wrote his Piano Concerto for her, Falla chose her for the British premiere of his well-known Nights in the Garden of Spain (which she made into a signature piece), and Elgar asked her to record the piano part to his Quintet. But understandably her liaisons – whether real or merely implied – with prominent men ranging from H G Wells to Ramsay MacDonald often undercut, rather than advanced, her professional recognition, and Ken Russell’s 1992 film (in which he cast himself as Bax and Glenda Jackson as Cohen) even briefly derides her pianistic abilities. In addition, Harriet was a notorious fabricator, and her autobiography is filled with self-aggrandizing inaccuracies that must be care­fully sifted from the truths that it also contains.

But the most serious barrier to an objective appraisal of her artistry – the dearth of recordings available to modern listeners – has now been lifted. Although she recorded far less than many of her contemporaries, the nearly four hours of commercial releases contained here – her complete solo output (she also recorded three chamber works – the Elgar Quintet and viola sonatas by Brahms and Bax) – leave little doubt that she was a major talent, well deserving of the accolades she often received. While her oft-repeated insis­tence that her small hands prevented her from tackling large-scale Romantic works must be questioned, the repertoire in which she did specialize – Bach, pre-Bach, and contemporary works – connoted intellectuality, a trait which (despite her coquetry) was readily apparent to those who knew her. The recordings included here also document her mastery of contra­puntal textures, for despite inferences that might be drawn from her personal behaviour, there was nothing flighty or capricious about her musicianship. Her conceptions were always replete with musical structure and purpose, exemplifying the principles of her teacher, Tobias Matthay, who insisted that all performances convey a sense of shape and musical progression.

Born in Brixton on 2 December 1895, Harriet Cohen received her first lessons from her mother, a former Matthay pupil, who for a time worked as a cinema pianist. Florence Cohen was also the great-granddaughter of Moses Samuel (1795–1860), whose descen­dants founded the H Samuel jewellery chain. However, she was scarcely an heiress, and any professional aspirations she may have had were quickly subordinated to the responsibili­ties of rearing four children in a household where money was often tight. However, Harriet’s talents were nurtured by a cousin from the more affluent side of the Samuel family, Irene Scharrer, who (ironically) also became one of Britain’s most esteemed pianists. For several years, Irene and her mother, Ida, had commuted to Matthay’s home in Purley for lessons, so it seemed inevitable that the twelve-year-old Harriet would soon enrol in the newly opened Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School, then on Oxford Street. In July of 1908, Irene attended Harriet’s first recital in Bechstein Hall, where, as a pupil of Matthay’s sister, Dora, she performed a Chopin waltz. Shortly thereafter, she won an Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where she began studying with one of Matthay’s assistants, pianist and composer Felix Swinstead. Soon her talents were so apparent that she advanced to the head of the class, where she began working regularly with ‘Uncle Tobs’ himself.

When Harriet first entered the Academy building on Tenterden Street, its corridors still rang with the performances and compositions of some of Matthay’s most distinguished pupils, including Irene – seven years her senior – Myra Hess – five years her senior – and Arnold Bax – eleven years her senior. Years later, she remembered that Irene and Myra, who were the closest of friends, ‘overwhelmed me with luncheons and teas’, and bestowed other kindnesses as well. After she graduated, they all remained close, with Myra frequently augmenting Matthay’s guidance by giving her extra lessons, and regarding her much as a younger sister. However, their relationship changed dramatically when Myra discovered that her nineteen-year-old protégé was having an affair with the thirty-year-old Bax, a promising (though married) composer, who further complicated matters by requesting that Myra premiere many of the pieces he had dedicated to Harriet. The progression of this ill-fated triangle is related in the voluminous correspondence Harriet bequeathed to the British Library, which reveals that as a naïve teenager, she could be self-centred and brash. Shortly after their affair began in 1913, she spent Christmas at Matthay’s country home, where she wrote Bax an unrestrained love letter from her host’s study, and once she even poured out her passions to him on official TMPS stationery while she sat at Matthay’s desk waiting for a lesson. After the relationship became public, Matthay, his wife, and of course, Myra, all pressured Harriet to break it off, but she sternly resisted. Soon one rift bred a series of others, and by 1920, Myra and Harriet had virtually broken relations – a schism that lasted for the rest of their lives.

But Bax’s star was rising, and with his help, Harriet’s career began to gather momen­tum. On 17 April 1918, she joined him at the Old Vic to perform Moy Mell, his ‘Irish Tone Poem’ for two pianos (a work he had written for Irene and Myra), and soon they were so linked that a Cohen performance where she did not play his music was becoming the exception. At times, she premiered works by other composers as well – especially those by Bax’s British colleagues. By the early ’20s, her predilection for Bach had also been firmly established, as demonstrated by the earliest (and only acoustical) recording in this set – a collabora­tion with Henry Wood in what appears to be the first commercial release of the D minor Concerto (Disc 1). When she performed it with Wood at Wigmore Hall on 4 February 1928 (an ambitious program that also featured the Fifth Brandenburg, the Falla Nights, and Mozart’s Concerto in A, K414), The Times praised her ‘clear interweaving of Bach’s contrapuntal threads’. The same clarity is heard on her 1924 recording, as well as its successor, a 1946 release of the same Concerto (Disc 2) with Walter Susskind and the Philharmonia. In the later version, the microphone renders detail more clearly than the earlier acoustical horns allow, and the pianist’s continuous weaving of the contrapuntal overlay – which to her credit she makes as vital as the thicker orchestral textures – is beautifully captured. In many respects, both of these recordings sound surprisingly ‘modern’, in that there are no exaggerated rubatos or romantic gestures; instead, the music making is direct and unencumbered. In both versions, the slow movements are rendered as elegant arias and her ornaments tastefully embellish the soprano texture, foreshadowing the empfindsamer Stil keyboard writing soon to become so fashionable in northern Germany. Both of her finales are vibrant and energetic, filled with the unrelenting drive that defines so many Baroque allegros.

The same finesse can be heard in her Bach transcriptions, a genre which by the 1920s had become a repertoire staple for many pianists. Matthay himself frequently taught the tran­scriptions of Busoni, and any number of his pupils tried their hand at their own renderings, including Myra Hess, whose well-known arrange­ment of the chorale from Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, was published by Oxford in 1926 as ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. The German-born pianist Walter Rummel (1887–1953), a close friend of Harriet, published four volumes of Bach tran­scriptions while living in London, and she frequently performed his treatment (or, as he preferred, ‘adaptation’) of the chorale from Cantata 22, Ertödt’ uns durch dein’ Güte, which J & W Chester published in 1922 as ‘Mortify us by thy grace’. By the early 1930s, her recital programmes were often pairing his transcrip­tions with her own, and in 1935 Oxford issued her own treatment of the same chorale as ‘Sanctify us by thy goodness’. But oddly, she seems not to have recorded her own version, opting instead to record Rummel’s transcrip­tion twice, once in 1928 (Disc 1) and again in 1935 (Disc 2). Even more curiously, Columbia credited her, and not Rummel, as the arranger on the later recording, which might have seemed tenable to those who had recently purchased her Oxford score, since the two transcriptions are very similar. A possible explanation for the deliberate mislabelling may have been Rummel’s growing support for the Third Reich (a naturalized American, he even repatriated to Germany in 1944) – which would have been unacceptable to Harriet’s Jewish loyalties – but in the mid-1930s his views were still more agnostic than pro-German, and if his political leanings were an issue, one wonders why the recording was released at all, since it should have been a simple matter to substitute her own version. Both transcriptions follow the orchestral score closely – in fact, at times the right-hand figurations are virtually identical – but Rummel’s bass line uses far more octaves. Both versions also demand a cantabile tenor which must speak through a dense sur­round­ing texture, and the skill she demonstrates on both of these releases is admirable.

Her earliest transcription, an arrange­ment of the Bach choral prelude ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’, BWV731, published by Oxford in 1928, was committed to disc in the same year (Disc 1) and again on 21 March 1935 (Disc 2), in the same session where she re-recorded the Rummel. In both renderings, she brings an exquisite intimacy to Bach’s plaintive, melodic statement. On the next day, 22 March, she recorded two additional transcriptions, one of her own and another by Egon Petri. In 1931, Oxford had published her arrangement of the recitative and aria from the soprano Cantata 155, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange, as ‘Be contented, O my soul’, and on 22 March 1935 she recorded the aria, which Columbia then released as ‘Up! Arouse thee!’ – a title bearing scant relation to the soprano’s text, ‘Wirf, mein Herze’ (‘Throw yourself, my heart’). Her tran­scription is extremely literal, but she performs it a bit more slowly than the allegretto tempo marking indicated on her score, and far more slowly than one often hears the aria sung by sopranos. The lilting, dance-like rhythm is never double-dotted, and her slower tempo allows her the freedom to isolate any voice at will, creating an elegant, rhythmic tapestry of flowing colour. In 1922, Breitkopf & Härtel published a number of Bach transcriptions by the Dutch-German pianist Egon Petri (1881–1962), including the Praeludium (Fantasie) in C minor, BWV921 (Disc 2). Except for the expected octave doublings and other thicken­ings of texture, Petri’s arrangement follows Bach’s original rather closely, and Harriet’s performance is so sensitive – without resorting to sentimental gestures – that one might wish she had recorded Bach’s original as well.

But she did leave an impressive legacy of unadorned solo works in the first nine Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Disc 1), which she recorded in a two-day session in October of 1928. Though the project was never completed, Columbia may be credited with the earliest commercial attempt to place Book I on disc, albeit in three separate instalments. Perhaps their intention had always been to divide the project among different pianists, but Evlyn Howard-Jones was chosen for the second series, numbers 10 through 17, and numbers 18 through 24 never appeared. Though highly respected, Howard-Jones (1877–1951), a former colleague of Matthay at the RAM, had achieved no special recognition as a Bach interpreter, and at times he was criticized for excessive didacticism. When the two completed sets were released in America, Harriet’s contributions were far better received by The New York Times, which placed her photo above the fold on 7 December 1930 – alongside its review:

For choice, we would take the first, and are left wondering why Harriet Cohen was not selected to continue the series she commenced. Her touch is essentially sympathetic, and where Mr Howard-Jones’s manner is at all times too scholarly, in places almost mechanical, Miss Cohen brings out the melodious, romantic nature of her material without in any way sacrificing what may be considered in some quarters as the essential features of the contract. A product of Tobias Matthay, which she shows very definitely in spots, Miss Cohen … is justly regarded as one of England’s foremost Bach players.

To be sure, she brings remarkable qualities to these interpretations, including a sensitive, lute-like rendering of the often-hackneyed C major Prelude, followed by a powerful reading of the Fugue that suggests the majesty and tonal variety of a Baroque organ. She turns the C sharp minor Prelude (a great favourite of Matthay) into a fascinating study in colour, imbuing it with as much contrapuntal interest as any of the Fugues, and the five-voice Fugue which follows it is a wondrous array of legato textures, in which the damper pedal seems never to appear – except for occasional resonance. (Unfortunately, her 1947 recording of the C sharp minor (Disc 2) seems a bit too forced to recapture this magic.) The uncharacteristically slower tempo she takes in the massive D major Fugue (preceded by some miraculous cadenza-like flourishes in the Prelude) enables her to call attention to colours and contrapuntal interest that are often lost in more modern interpretations. But if anything, her tempo in the E flat minor Fugue (which is preceded by an exquisite Prelude) is a bit more brisk than one often hears, and she captures each of its three voices (even in aug­mentation) with a precision that only comple­ments, and never detracts, from the emotional warmth of her reading. In retrospect, one might echo the wish of The New York Times that she had been retained to record Book I in its entirety. Had she done so, today her pioneering efforts might well be ranked alongside those of Fischer and Landowska.

In May of 1932, she recorded her only Classical composition, Mozart’s Sonata in C, K330 (Disc 2). If the first movement is a bit erratic in tempo, her conception is still unsentimental and true to the text, and the third movement is a marvel of clarity and finesse. Not surprisingly, since her perform­ance engagements were centred around the music of Bach and twentieth-century works, she recorded only six compositions from the Romantic period, but the four Chopin minia­tures she left show the same careful attention to detail so evident in her Bach and Mozart renderings. Her Columbia session on 19 April 1943 was devoted exclusively to Chopin, and the F major Nocturne which appeared on the A-side is a remarkable display of the dual personalities that Chopin seems to exhibit in this work. Only two of the ‘Nouvelle’ Études could be accommodated on the B-side, but both are gems, as is her earlier 1928 recording of the C sharp minor (‘cello’) Étude from Opus 25, where she opts for clarity rather than impressionistic blurring. Her only Brahms recording (Disc 3) appeared two years later with the ‘Edward’ Ballade, an epic statement made all the more powerful by a massive middle section that never sacrifices contra­puntal interest for the sake of volume. For the B-side she chose the B flat Intermezzo from Opus 76, which she transforms into an array of colour, complementing a carefully structured design. Her only Debussy disc appeared eighteen years later with two of his most frequently played (perhaps overplayed) com­positions, but her Clair de lune is a wholly original conception. The B-side was devoted to the well-known La Cathédrale engloutie, which she renders powerfully without a hint of sentimentality, allowing the damper pedal to function only, as Matthay insisted, as a colouring device.

Although she never recorded Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, the three miniatures that she left in February of 1943 amply demonstrate the spirit and colour she was capable of offering to his scores. And the charming Kabalevsky Sonatina, which she recorded a month earlier, may be a breath of fresh air to pianists and teachers who have suffered through too many bombastic performances of this oft-maligned work. The Shostakovich Prelude which completed the disc was a fitting complement to a session which Harriet no doubt intended as an homage to Soviet composers trapped in Leningrad for the war’s duration, for she had performed both works there in June of 1935. It is also regrettable that she did not record more Elizabethan music, for which she had a particular affinity (her favourite a cappella work was Byrd’s five-voice Mass) and which Matthay’s pupils, including Harold Craxton and Myra Hess, brought to the piano with surprisingly little hesitation. Harriet learned the five Virginalist selections included here from Margaret Glyn’s 1922 collection of fifteen Gibbons pieces, which preceded her 1925 five-volume edition of the composer’s complete works. At the same session, Harriet recorded Vaughan Williams’s moving treatment of a Gibbons tune from The English Hymnal, which he presented to her in 1930 as a thirty-fifth birthday present. (He also requested a ‘reward’ of ‘one thousand kisses’ – of which he kept a ‘meticulous’ accounting.)

The five Bax compositions that Harriet recorded all appear on Disc 3, and at the earliest session in 1938, she performed the powerful passacaglia he called Paean (1920), which Bax’s biographer, Lewis Foreman, termed ‘an impressive example of ostinato architecture’. Four years later, in a single session she recorded two of Bax’s finest miniatures, beginning with A Hill Tune, which also dates from 1920, and which she performed in a highly celebrated all-Bax programme at Queen’s Hall in November of 1922. Reworking thematic material from an earlier string quintet, Bax has created a lyrical masterpiece, and her performance beautifully captures his con­ception. In 1915, Bax completed A Mountain Mood, which he terms a theme and variations, although the separate variations are not indicated in the score, and Harriet’s reading imbues it with the rich colours worthy of a brief, but masterful, Impressionistic fantasy. Five years later, she joined with Sargent to record Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex), an aubade for piano and small orchestra, which Bax had written in his role of Master of the King’s Musick to commemorate the twenty-first birthday of Princess Elizabeth. The recording was made on 7 February 1947, but Columbia did not release it until June, thereby missing the Princess’s April birthday by two months. Harriet first performed it for her in October, and though the performance was well received, The Gramophone found Bax’s work ‘a wee bit stiffly shaped … and perhaps not very new’, while conceding that it was ‘a cordial to the weary heart’.

Energetic and sparkling, Morning Song often projects the character of cinema music, but the only feature film Bax scored was David Lean’s highly acclaimed Oliver Twist, released on 30 June 1948. Supposedly, Lean suggested that he capture Oliver’s loneliness with a piano solo, so portions of the score became a mini piano concerto, with Harriet receiving a prominent screen credit. In May of 1948, she joined film conductor Muir Mathieson at Denham to record her sections of the sound­track, and they reunited in September, joined by the Philharmonia, to record an extract Bax had created for public performance that extends to nearly eight minutes. Nor was this Harriet’s first film ‘appearance’, for she was asked to dub for the main character, a terminally ill pianist played by Margaret Lockwood, in the 1944 wartime melodrama Love Story – much of which was filmed in Cornwall. Although he did not score the entire film, composer Hubert Bath (1883–1945), once a classmate of Bax at the RAM, was asked to create Cornish Rhapsody, a piano concerto pivotal to the story, and Harriet again received a screen credit. Although the film is little remem­bered, the Rhapsody became imme­diate­ly popular, and it survived for years in a number of recorded versions. Bath’s romantic score, with passage work and textures remini­scent of Liszt’s Concertos, seems to present few problems to Harriet, confirming the view that her Baroque and twentieth-century specializations were not dictated by technical shortcomings, but – in the best sense of the word – by choice.

Stephen Siek © 2012

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