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Pianophiles of a certain vintage are bound to have in their LP collection Landmarks of Recorded Pianism, Vol 1. It was issued in 1977 on the Desmar label and held us spellbound with the distant playing of Brahms (and his voice), Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Grainger, Ilona Eibenschütz and others, all of whose recordings had at that time been unavailable for decades. There was never a Volume 2. Now the same team that produced that LP (Ward Marston and Gregor Benko) have issued another collection with the same title and volume number, this time on Marston’s own label. The contents are hardly landmarks of recorded pianism in the same way as the earlier LP, and can best be described as an unmissable curate’s egg.

Not least are five previously unpublished (private) recordings of Dinu Lipatti. Possibly only undiscovered discs by Rachmaninov could come closer to finding the Holy Grail. Three Scarlatti sonatas include K450 in G minor, rhythmically crisp and buoyant, Brahms’s Intermezzo in C, Op 119/3 and Capriccio in D minor, Op 116/7, all new to Lipatti’s discography. These are followed by what annotator/ producer Benko claims to be ‘the rarest piano record in existence’. It is of an extremely obscure pianist, the blind Josef Labor (1842-1924), playing the second part of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D, Op 10/3. Recorded in about 1921, this single two-sided disc is the only (currently extant) known example of his playing. Perhaps one day the remaining movements of the sonatas will resurface.

Space precludes an examination of every track, but mention must be made on CD 1 of the late Ivan Davis playing La campanella on an instrument known as the Siena Pianoforte (the full story is told in the extensive booklet). By some distance, it produces the most unpleasant piano sound ever committed to disc. Then here is Cortot playing ‘Danse russe’ from Pétrouchka in 1927 – unpublished, probably because of the high number (even for Cortot) of fluffs and miss-hits, yet a performance that captures the spirit of the music as well as any before or since.

Most rewarding of all, there is a live radio broadcast from July 1946 of Leff Pouishnoff playing Rachmaninov Concerto No 2, a magnificent performance attentively and sympathetically partnered by Sir Adrian Boult conducting the LSO. The famous opening eight bars will make you sit up, a convincing (for once) alternative to the composer’s instructions and recording. This forms the introduction to one of the most impassioned and individual accounts of the concerto I have ever heard. There is an uncharacteristic error in the track numbering for this on the rear of the jewel case; here also, there is a typo in ‘Nyiregyházi’ (heard playing some Schönberg).

CD 2 is less consistently satisfactory from a musical point of view, despite opening with superbly paced and voiced Variations sérieuses from Abram Chasins, now perhaps best remembered for his indispensable book Speaking of Pianists. Why this disc was unissued and why he abandoned his career to become a broadcaster must remain a mystery. This is followed by five excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in test recordings for the Bell Telephone Laboratory made in 1932 by Vladimir Horowitz and Fritz Reiner, the earliest known live Horowitz recordings. There are also two further unpublished (and insubstantial) snippets of him from 1959 and 1980, and a dreadfully unfunny spoken parody of a promotional message for an RCA album.

To make up for this we have the incomparable Guiomar Novaes in an unpublished complete (live) performance of Mozart’s Jeunehomme Concerto. What elegance, what sure-fingered lightness of touch and, in the finale, what irrepressible gaiety! Sadly, the producers have decided to follow this with nearly 14 minutes of an eavesdropped conversation in the recording studio sometime in the early 1960s between Ms Novaes and two employees of Vox Records. She is unhappy about the demands being made of her. Its dissemination traduces Guiomar Novaes. Why it was thought to be of the slightest interest to anybody, I can’t imagine. ‘A landmark of recorded pianism’? I don’t think so.

The two-disc set comes with a detailed and genial 31-page English-only booklet by Gregor Benko, with several unfamiliar photographs. Despite the inclusion of a few clinkers, there is more than enough here for the avid pianophile. I await the next bran tub with keen anticipation.

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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