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Only one of the recordings here falls into the generally accepted definition of ‘landmark’: ‘an event or development that marks a turning point or a stage’. What we have here, as on Volume 1 from the same source, are rare and/or unusual and/or unissued performances by famous (and not so famous) names. And, like the earlier volume, I cannot help feeling that the producers have sometimes confused rarity with musical value.

Take the first track: the magnificent Moriz Rosenthal playing his own version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 taken from a 1929 Edison Hour broadcast. Far from being an exciting take on Liszt’s original, Rosenthal disfigures and vulgarises the score. The lassan section is drawn out to an extraordinary degree, a dour dirge with bars cut and inserted, and other unnecessary amendments that do nothing but traduce Liszt’s original. As to the friska, if you want to hear a piano thumped unmercifully, here is your chance (try the downbeats at the beginning of the Tempo giusto-vivace section at 6’23”). ‘Astonishing, breathtaking and exhilarating’, says the booklet. ‘Terrible and tasteless’ is an alternative view.

A second (shorter) version of the same Liszt- Rosenthal arrangement (a rare Ultraphon disc recorded in Berlin in April 1930) is, apart from better sound, far worthier of the great pianist despite passing similarities in its conception and execution with the Edison Hour broadcast.

Live performances by Percy Grainger follow, part of a recital at the University of Kansas in July 1953. Grainger makes some introductory remarks in his unexpectedly high-pitched voice before announcing the first item, Tausig’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 (not to be confused with his superior 1931 recording of the same transcription souped up, as he might have said, by Busoni). Scotch Strathspey and Reel, differing slightly from the published music, is new to Grainger’s solo discography (though he recorded the original version with voices in 1925). Lastly, a fine rendering of his famous arrangement of the Londonderry Air.

With the second section of CD 1 we finally land on real treasures. Five pieces by Mompou and his Godowskyian arrangement of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor Op 34/2 played by the composer, recorded for Spanish HMV in 1929/30, with two further numbers for the same label from 1944. Charming pieces, lovely piano sound, delightfully played. Then Ignaz Friedman in a 1933 recording for Argentinian Columbia of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise with all of that great artist’s zest and technical ease, including a huge whoosh up the keyboard to welcome the final return of the big tune. Tremendous. Disc 1 ends with four items taken from a 1933 Friedman Tokyo radio broadcast, about which the most remarkable things are that any private individual should have had the equipment to do this in 1933 and why anyone in 2020 would want to listen to the results. All musical interest is completely obscured by hideous surface noise.

The Leschetizky pupil Frank la Forge (1879- 1953) opens CD 2 with one of the earliest recordings (1912) of anything by Gottschalk. Pasquinade, played at a more measured pace than most, is beautifully executed, though whether others will agree with the booklet that la Forge ‘found opportunities for subtle effects and tonal shadings no one else on records has divined’ must be a moot point. The forgotten Rosita Renard (1894-1949) plays a transcription of a Monteverdi madrigal before an electrifying account of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice (1929 and 1930 respectively) and Reah Sadowsky (1915-2012) in Lyapunov’s Lezghinka from an unpublished 1944 radio broadcast.

The centrepiece of this disc is Mark Hambourg (1879-1960) thundering his way through the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, adroitly followed by Sir Malcolm Sargent in a live 1955 performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is a massive, big- boned conception with Hambourg striving for effects that are utterly compelling, though often compromised by inaccuracy and fumbles. The slow tempo of the waltz section in the middle of the slow movement is one of several passages of vivid individuality.

Next come the only true ‘landmark’ recordings here: Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) with ‘probably the earliest recording [1933] ever made on an “original” fortepiano’ and almost certainly the first recording of the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata as Beethoven requested – ‘without mute’ (ie with the dampers raised throughout). Etelka Freund (1879-1977) had a modest career as her fine but otherwise unremarkable Appassionata would seem to indicate (another unpublished broadcast of frankly limited interest). Disc 2 ends, though, with Grace Castagnetta (1912-1998) live in 1944 playing one of her famous improvisations, this one based on four notes chosen by the audience. Hardly a landmark but, like most of this collection, a treasurable curiosity. Presentation and annotation are outstanding, as we have come to expect from Marston.

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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