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APR’s five-CD album of Paderewski’s complete Victor recordings (1914-1931) throws down the gauntlet. No pianist since the days of Lisztomania was so lionised. Even a glimpse of Paderewski’s noble profile as he sped past in his ‘royal’ train caused women to faint. Liszt may have possessed ‘a smile like a dagger in sunlight’ and prompted animated discussion as to whether his eyes were blue or violet, but Paderewski’s scarcely less legendary charisma could seduce even the most hardy, determinedly critical concertgoer.

Those who commented on fundamental flaws, of distortion, technical weakness and even ‘charlatanism’, ran the risk of being labelled pedants, unable to appreciate the finer things (or persons) in life. Since Paderewski’s legions of admirers included such luminaries as Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, Edwin Fisher and Ronald Stephenson, who is to disagree?

Again, Paderewski was seen as the master of ‘the grand manner,’ of a rich and sadly defunct tradition where the spirit rather than the letter of the score was all-important. To claim, as an American journalist once did, that the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes was ‘the Paddrooski of the Pampas’ was to pay the ultimate compliment. Even more recently, the novelist Beryl Bainbridge wrote that as a child, she recalled shaking Paderewski’s hand as an inspiring and unforgettable experience. So the legend lives on, fuelled by ever-increasing wonder and speculation.

In recordings, however, appearance and reality divide. APR’s invaluable document tells us that Paderewski’s finest hours occurred before he entered the studio. True, there are flashes of what I assume to be his former greatness, yet for the most part these performances are a tired and unstable reflection of past glory. The repertoire is almost exclusively devoted to miniatures, the favoured format of the time, making one long for something more substantial. Even so, it is hard to imagine Paderewski in, for example, the profound reaches of Beethoven’s Op 111 or, by contrast, in the virtuoso glitter of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 4 (works central to his early career).

What is extraordinary is that Paderewski transcended his mentor’s damning estimation: Theodor Leschetizky may have told him, ‘You will never be a pianist’, yet he went on to become, after Liszt, the most celebrated pianist of all time. Rudolf Ganz hit the paradox fair and square: ‘You listen to some of his old recordings and he was perfectly awful. But when he was on the stage, he had such a magnetic personality, and this is what shone through.’

Alas, time has not been kind to the recordings. Even when you accommodate yourself to a vagary no longer accepted, the constant de-syncronisation of the hands – almost as if the composer had written quasi arpa over every romantic theme – it is impossible not to be reminded of Leschetizky’s verdict evident in a continuous sense of strain and instability. There are, of course, exceptions when Paderewski breaks free from his faulty, belated training: Liszt’s ‘La Leggerezza’ (including a flashing coda by the pianist himself, later partially emulated by Moiseiwitsch) is alive with glistening passage work, fully in accord with the music’s title.

He can be gracious and lightly tripping in his own Minuet (there are four versions to choose from) and there is genuine aplomb in his Cracovienne fantastique (it became a speciality of his student, Małcużyński). There is a nice sense of the quizzical nature of Schumann’s Prophet Bird and there is no lack of eloquence in the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. These, however, are mere glimpses.

The inclusion of part of a speech given on the anniversary of Paderewski’s American debut (‘I have given you my heart… May God bless all and everyone of you,’ etc) amplifies and confirms the legend. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are masterly. The entire project is of an absorbing historical interest.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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