Those who used to follow my reviews of recordings on Examiner.com know that I have had ongoing interest in audio documents of significant historical interest. As a result I have tried to pay close attention to releases from the British company Appian Publications & Recordings (APR), which has an impressive track record of anthologies of recorded performances by major pianists of the past, such as Egon Petri, Myra Hess and Guiomar Novaes. This past Friday saw the latest release in APR’s efforts to restore recordings of past pianists and make them available on compact disc, a five-CD album of performances by Ignacy Jan Paderewski recorded exclusively for the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1914 and 1931 at studios in both New York City and Camden, New Jersey. The first two discs cover acoustic recordings made between 1914 and 1924, while the remaining three enjoy the benefits of electronic technology. (I have yet to encounter a satisfactory history of audio recording technologies, and I hope that I shall have time to read one during the remainder of my lifetime!)
Given that we now live in an era dominated by those proud of willfully ignoring history, it is likely that there is little appreciation for the full breadth of Paderewski’s career and impact. My guess is that even readers in Southern California may not know that he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; but, given his many achievements, that tribute is almost insignificantly incidental. When I was growing up, his “Menuet célèbre” in G major, the first of six short pieces he published in his Opus 14 Humoresques de concert, was still popular among pianists, particularly as an encore selection, a decade after Paderewski’s death in 1941. (I have yet to have an opportunity to listen to it in a concert performance.) He was better known as one of the great virtuosos of the past; and, when Harold C. Schonberg’s The Great Pianists appeared in 1963, Paderewski was allotted an entire chapter (number XXI) entitled “An Archangel Come Down to Earth.” Pianists may still know him as the primary editor of the complete works of Frédéric Chopin, based on both autographs and original editions and supplemented with critical commentary, published by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. In addition Paderewski was a champion for the cause of Polish independence and served as the country’s prime minister for ten months.
In the context of such an impressive background, however, one might come away from this new recording with the sense that Victor never gave Paderewski a particularly fair shake. Given his scholarly attention to Chopin, one would have been justified in expecting that composer to be represented by more compositions, rather than multiple recordings of “greatest hits” selections. Thus, this recorded legacy testifies more to Victor’s interest in producing “best sellers” than to allowing more listeners to appreciate the qualities that made Paderewski a great pianist.
Most disconcerting is the funeral march movement from Chopin’s Opus 35 (second) piano sonata in B-flat minor. (Note that this collection does not include a recording of the sonata played in its entirety. There are two recordings of the funeral march and one of the concluding Presto movement.) On the 1927 electronic recording during the last time the opening march theme returns, Paderewski emphasized the funereal rhetoric with tone clusters of the lowest notes on the keyboard, probably suggesting the beat of a bass drum. (Those tone clusters do not show up in Paderewski’s scholarly edition of the score. They may have been conceived as a flourish when he played this movement as an encore, but they also might have been suggested by a Victor recording engineer.)
The one thing that does register in this collection is the breadth of Paderewski’s repertoire. The first two tracks are selections from the Pièces de clavecin by François Couperin; and what is important is that he does not overload either of them with the excesses of nineteenth-century rhetoric. A similar sensitivity can be found in his approach to the few tracks of piano preludes by Claude Debussy, suggesting that Paderewski knew how to bring the appropriate sense of historical context to the pieces he played. (Only one of the Debussy recordings is acoustic, while all of the rest are electronic.)
On the other hand there tends to be a prevailing impression that his approaches to the nineteen century itself come across as far more labored than one would expect of a virtuoso pianist. This may have been the result of the constraints of making recordings in those early decades of the industry. (We should remember that Ferruccio Busoni was highly averse to recording technology, although he seemed more positively inclined towards making piano rolls for Welte-Mignon. Schonberg suggested that he disliked having to conform to limited intervals of time in making the masters for his recordings, while a piano roll allowed him to play music of greater duration.)
All of these observations add up to the fact that there are a few diamonds is that disconcertingly expansive rough of the Victor legacy. Those patient enough to seek them out will definitely be rewarded by them. Those without such patience run the risk of coming away from this collection with a distorted account of Paderewski’s talents.