courtesy of Naxos of America
Exactly one week ago SWR>>music released its latest album of remastered tapes of a live concert recital. The entire recital, including the encores, fits on a single CD with all audience applause expunged. The performance itself was a solo recital given by pianist Clara Haskil in the Ordensaal of the Ludwigsburg Castle on April 11, 1953.
A search of Amazon.com reveals a generous number of documentary recordings of Haskil’s performances. I therefore felt a bit sheepish when I realized that the only time I mentioned her was when Alexandre Tharaud dedicated his album of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti to her. To say the least, this provides an unsatisfactory account of the breadth of her accomplishments.
Nevertheless, she only began to emerge “as a presence” after the end of World War II, by which time she was over 50 years of age. This overlooks the fact that, when she was only sixteen, she had played Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor in his presence. Busoni was so impressed that he invited her to study with him in Berlin. Her mother disapproved, which may have been just as well. She would have had to endure World War I in Germany; and, as an adult, she would have had to contend with the rise of Adolf Hitler, not the best of circumstances for a Sephardic Jew.
When one examines the full program that SWR recorded, the first impression is the breadth of music history that it encapsulates. She begins with Bach’s BWV 914 toccata in E major followed by three of the Scarlatti sonatas. She then moves into the nineteenth century with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata in C minor followed by two selections by Robert Schumann, the Opus 99 “Bunte Blätter” (colorful leaves), followed by his earlier Opus 1, the set of variations on the “ABEGG” theme. The program concludes in the twentieth century with two of Claude Debussy’s études and Maurice Ravel’s sonatina in F-sharp major. For her encores she returns to Bach (Busoni’s arrangement of the BWV 659 chorale prelude on Advent hymn “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland”) and the “Abschied” (farewell) movement from Schumann’s Opus 82 Waldszenen (woodland scenes) cycle.
The performances suggest that her interest in breadth may have led to shortcomings in depth. Those who have listened to many different performances and/or recordings of Opus 111 are likely to find her account somewhat uneven. Whether this is a matter of physical shortcomings (with which she had to contend for most of her life) or matters of the notes themselves, which she had not yet resolved for her own satisfaction, her reading is not particularly convincing. On the other hand there is no such sign of either discomfort or confusion in her approaches to Debussy and Ravel; and, where Bach and Scarlatti are concerned, she has the good sense to let them speak for themselves without imposing undue layers of latter-day expressiveness. Indeed, her account of BWV 659 suggests more concern for Bach than with what Busoni had done to Bach.
As a result, while this recording may be somewhat uneven when taken as a whole, much of the album still provides a valuable document of many of Haskil’s virtues as a pianist.