Reassessing Paderewski, Wizard of the Keyboard

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PADEREWSKI: THE AMERICAN RECORDINGS, 1914-1931 / COUPERIN: Pièces de Clavecin: La Bandoline (Rondeau); Le Carillon de Cythère. SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke: Warum? Waldszenen: Vogel als Prophet. Nachtstück in F. CHOPIN: Nocturnes: in F-sharp; in F; in E-flat. Polonaises: in A, “Heroic;” in E-flat min. Waltzes: in C-sharp min.; in A-flat (2 tks); in E-flat. Etudes: in E, Op. 10 No. 3 (2 tks); in G-flat, Op. 10 No. 5; in C min., Op. 10 No. 12; in G-sharp min., Op. 25 No. 6; in C-sharp min., Op. 25 No. 7; in D-flat, Op. 25 No. 8; in G-flat, Op. 25 No. 9 (2 tks); in A min., Op. 25 No. 11.  Berceuse in D-flat. Sonata No. 2 in B-flat min.: III. Marche funèbre – Lento (2 tks); IV. Presto. Mazurkas: in A min.; A-flat (2 tks); in F-sharp min.; in D; in C-sharp. Impromptu in B-flat min. Préludes: in D-flat (2 tks); in A-flat. CHOPIN-LISZT: My Joys [Chant Polonais]. The Maiden’s Wish. PADEREWSKI: Minuet in G (4 tks). Chants du Voyageur: Melodie. Cracovienne Fantastique, Op. 14 No. 6 (2 tks). Nocturne in B-flat. LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 2 & 10. Etudes de Concert: La leggierezza. MENDELSSOHN: Songs Without Words: Spring Song. Spinning Song. DEBUSSY: Images Book I: Relfets dans l’eau (2 tks). Preludes, Book I: Danseuses de Delphes; Le Vent dans la Plaine; Minstrels (2 tks); Voiles. SCHUBERT-LISZT: Hark, Hark the Lark. SCHUBERT: Impromptus: in B-flat; in A-flat (2 tks). Moment Musical in A-flat. WAGNER-LISZT: Der Fliegende Holländer: Spinning Chorus (2 tks). SCHELLING: Nocturne à Raguze. STOJOWSKI: Chant d’amour. By the Brookside. PAGANINI-LISZT: La Campanella (2 tks). BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight”: I. Adagio. RUBINSTEIN: Valse-Caprice in E-flat. RACHMANINOV: Preludes: in C-sharp min.; in G-sharp min. WAGNER-SCHELLING: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I. BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances Nos. 6 & 7. J. STRAUSS-TAUSIG: Man lebt nur Einmal (2 tks). SPOKEN WORD: My dear friends. My dear American friends / Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist/speaker / APR 7505 (mono, acoustic & electrical)

When I was much younger, I ran across a copy of Victor 78-rpm disc 6690. Side A was the first movement of the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata; Side B was Paderewski’s famous Minuet in G. Since I was of Polish descent, I approached the listening of this disc almost like the discovery of The Holy Grail. In addition to being a world-famous pianist, Paderewski was Prime Minister of Poland from January through November 1919 and, concurrently, Minister of Foreign Affairs from January to December of that year. He was later appointed Chief of the National Council of Poland—a Polish parliament in exile in London—from December 9, 1939 until his death in New York on June 29, 1941. Because of the Nazi occupation of Poland, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His body was not transferred to Poland until after it regained its freedom, in 1992. My Uncle Mike, who joined the Army the year before Pearl Harbor happened, was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the pallbearers at his funeral, thus the pianist had an almost mythic reputation in my family, not just as a great pianist but as the leader of a free Poland. (On an entirely different note, he’s also the person who introduced Zinfandel grapes to California way back in 1924; when the grapes matured, the wine was made for him by York Mountain Winery.)

I was bitterly disappointed by the record. There seemed to be a slip in fingering at the very beginning of the Minuet, and his playing of the “Moonlight” sonata was both too fast and lacking in atmosphere. I put it down to the fact that he was probably too old at the time (66) and thus past his prime. I let the record go from my collection a couple of years later.

moonlight-sonataRelistening to those selections now, in the light of what I’ve read in the booklet that Paderewski generally felt uncomfortable making records, I think he felt rushed making the disc, despite the numerous takes of the Minuet (12 of them!). I also think he’d have been more comfortable spacing that first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata over two sides of a 10-inch record, which would have given him close to six minutes, rather than squeezing it onto one side of a 12-incher. (In the 1937 film, Moonlight Sonata, a 77-year-old Paderewski plays it more slowly.) And I’m still puzzled why he didn’t record it complete in the studio in 1926, as he did on Welte-Mignon piano rolls (see next paragraph) and at the EMI studio in London in January 1937. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only sonata he ever recorded complete.

I’ve just alluded above to some smudgings and finger-errors on these records, but if you go further back to the 1906 Welte-Mignon piano rolls, you hear a lot more fudging around with the music and an almost unbelievable number of mistakes. A good example is that “Moonlight” Sonata, the first movement of which he does indeed play at a slower tempo than his Victor recording (running 7:32 compared to 4:58), but far messier. It’s not even just smudged notes, but actual wrong notes, in addition to constantly slowing down and speeding up the rhythm that sounds like a taffy pull. This is not just “individual” playing; this is rubbish. I could play the first movement of the “Moonlight” better than that and I was far from being a professional pianist. Paderewski also takes the second movement much too slowly (and the trio section in the middle even slower than that!) with no forward impetus and his detached-hands style that does the music no good and himself no credit. And I’ll go even further regarding the Welte-Mignon system: I believe that its accuracy is highly overrated. It accurately reproduced ONLY tempo and phrasing, but not at all tone or touch and only a minimum of dynamics contrasts. Another good example is to compare his Welte-Mignon piano roll performance of Chopin’s famed “Heroic” Polonaise to the Victor recording. The piano roll version is so God-awful that it sounds like a very drunken and off-form Liberace trying to play it—and that is not an exaggeration.

The conclusions I came to when making these comparisons were two. One, Paderewski probably didn’t take these piano roll recordings very seriously or he’d have never passed them for release with all those technical errors. And two, I honestly believe that the tempo and phrasing of these performances (but not the technical errors) represent Paderewski’s earlier style as it existed when they were made circa 1906. Which now brings us to the Victor recordings of 1914 onwards, where one can hear that although there are still a few quirks that annoy modern ears, the playing is not only more consistent technically (although, as noted earlier, he sometimes needed 12 takes of something even as simple as his own Minuet) but not as far-off musically. This doesn’t mean that they’re perfect by any means, but better is better, and this is immediately evident in the first two selections, very strangely, music by François Couperin. Immediately we hear not only a more technically assured but more stylish pianist: these are very good interpretations that would not have embarrassed Wanda Landowska, and that’s saying a great deal.

paderewski-chopin-etudeThe one thing that is seldom caught on his recordings, but is caught in film clips of him playing, was his ability to “float” the piano tone out over a concert hall as if the music emerged from the sky and showered down on the audience. Film sound caught some of this, but not the dead, boxy studio records he made. Without at least some room ambience, and particularly in those claustrophobic studios of yore, some of his careful pedaling effects and unusual style of playing the left hand slightly behind the right at times, were obscured. The recording horn, or microphone, simply recorded it as a “slip” whereas in actual concert it created an ambience of somewhat magical proportions. One feature of his technique that was acceptable then but not today was his manner of playing the right and left hand very slightly apart from each other by a split-second (you might think of them as “rolled” chords). This gave some listeners the idea that he couldn’t play a chord properly, when in fact it was artistic choice. But like string portamento, this is a technique now so frowned upon that it is not only never taught but actively admonished.

As a result of this—and all you have to do is go and listen to Paderewski playing “live” on film to hear the difference—it’s hard to accept the sound of these records, as they existed on the original shellac discs and as they now exist on this CD reissue, as the “reality” of his art. The sound needs some slight distance, some perspective, some reverberance to make them come to life properly. And they also need, for the most part, to be cleaned up sonically much more than Mark Obert-Thorn has done. Obert-Thorn is great at finding the proper width stylus to play each record so that not a single note comes out distorted, and he also is an expert at re-equalization when that is needed. But he is British, and the British tend to be what I call “noise collectors,” meaning that the noisier a 78-rpm transfer sounds on a CD, the better. They firmly believe that the “overtones of the music are in the surface noise.” This is not true. Yes, it is true that too much processing of the record suffocates the soft notes, making them sound a bit muddy, but giving the records more noise-scraping than Obert-Thorn allows, then adding a judicious amount of reverb and echo, helps restore at least a modicum of ambience to the playing of the one pianist most noted for using hall ambience to create his magic.

But I also feel that Paderewski’s “mastery” of the piano was never quite perfect technically, else we wouldn’t hear so many fingering slips. My guess is that he was a bit better than Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel, but not as solid a technician as Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus or Josef Hoffmann. Yet all these pianists, as well as some others from that era (like Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignacy Friedman and Benno Moiseiwitsch), all worked hard on touch and tone in addition to musicality, and this is now completely lost in pianism since the end of World War II. The only pianist I ever heard in person whose playing fused touch and tone with style and technique was Shura Cherkassky, and he is often acknowledged as the very last of that line. The coming of more objective pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin and Dinu Lipatti—all very fine artists in their own right, of course—pretty much killed off the “touch and tone” style, which is a great pity. They threw out the baby with the bath water.

The 1917 performance of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise heard here, though much cleaner than the piano roll, has to my ears a bit too much rallentando, a pulling back of tempo that drags the forward momentum. But if one listens to the Chopin recordings of Raoul Koczalski, who studied with one of Chopin’s prize pupils, one hears similar things in his performances, none of which are in the scores. Like so many composer-performers, then, Chopin had one conception of the music when he put it down on paper and quite another when he himself performed it. (You can hear the same thing in the recordings that Prokofiev and Sorabji made of their own music; Sorabji said his own recordings gave “the general idea of what I want.”) So is this right or wrong? Or just different? Today’s Historically-Informed Historicals will tell you that none of it is any good unless you’re playing it on keyboard instruments of the composer’s own time anyway, with tinny tone, lousy damper pedals and inferior wire frames, but that’s a whole other fetish. They don’t care, and never have, about how pianists or violinists actually played stylistically anyway because they don’t know squat about it.

As the set goes on, and one becomes more deeply involved in Paderewski’s sound-world, a certain consistency emerges, particularly if one reduces the surface noise level well below what Obert-Thorn has given us, and that is of a very poetic pianist whose occasional technical brilliance is merely the icing on the cake. The cake itself is that delicious blend of tone and touch, and despite the sonic limitations the acoustic recordings of 1914-24 capture his sound-world with a fair degree of accuracy. The famous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp minor, despite a somewhat exaggerated slow-down at the end of the opening theme, is played with such obvious love and understanding that one accepts it gratefully simply because it doesn’t sound like 300 other pianists’ versions of it. It sounds like Paderewski, and only like Paderewski.

Another feature of his playing that differs significantly from that of modern pianists is the way he plays mordents or turns. They just sort of roll off his fingers like a great singer singing a grace note…well, that’s another thing that’s changed over the years, too. Go back and listen to even such older pop singers as Irving Mills, Connee Boswell, young Bing Crosby or Buddy Clark sing grace notes, and they have a nicely rounded profile about them that trips easily from the lead note to the one following. Nowadays you don’t even have many classical singers who know how this is done, let alone actually do it. And of course, Paderewski—like Cortot, Gieseking and Cherkassky—sings on the piano. It is almost a vocal instrument, and in fact his peculiarly “soft” attack on the keys, even at full volume, only enhanced this illusion. Under Paderewski’s fingers, the piano was not really a percussion instrument.

I hasten to add, however, that Paderewski’s playing was NOT wimpy, or mushy, or any of those things that so many modern pianists seem to like indulging in. For all its singing tone and floating quality, it was still a distinctively masculine sound, just that of a man who is trying to seduce his listeners rather than putting them to sleep. He is not narcoleptic, just poetic. Hear, for instance, the way he makes the Chopin Berceuse float like zephyr but not numb you out like Sominex. Moreover, this is especially important when you hear him play his own pieces, and not just the Minuet. In his own Nocturne in B-flat, you hear much the same kind of magical tone and touch. No one today plays Paderewski’s music like Paderewski, thus what you hear on recordings is the aural equivalent of a flattened-out black-and-white image of, say, the Grand Canyon at sundown. Not only are the colors missing, but so too is the perspective.

There are other fascinating touches throughout this recital, as when he reaches the famed uptempo melody in the second half of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Although he increases the volume, he doesn’t “slam” into it, but gently “teases” the notes to produce a sort of lopsided Gypsy rhythm before then playing it “straight.” In the electrical recording of the “funeral march” from Chopin’s second piano sonata there is real magic in the soft crushed chords (how I wish he had recorded that sonata complete!). His performance of Chopin’s famed “Winter Wind” Étude (in A minor, Op. 25 No. 11) is, surprisingly, on the slow side. Artistic choice or lack of technique? He certainly played fast enough on other recordings from the same period (hear the Mendelssohn Spinning Song immediately following), thus I’d have to say that he wanted his listeners to hear every note articulated clearly, although this seems to run counter to Chopin’s feeling of a winter wind. Curiously, his recording of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor isn’t really given a mazurka rhythm until the middle section, and then a bit fast; the outer sections almost sound like a fantasia of sorts, with the pianist emphasizing the unusual key changes in the downward notes at the ends of the phrases. It’s little details like these that keep you listening to him. And I liked the May 1923 take of his famous Minuet best of all of them; it has real lilt and forward movement, and all the notes are played properly.

paderewski-debussyPerhaps the most surprising of all his recordings, however, because they are not only good but his only examples of modern music, are his Debussy recordings. I thought Minstrels just a shade stranger than I liked, with a few too many ritards, but all of them have the kind of floating sound quality that Debussy himself prized, and of course with his manner of coaxing sound out of the instrument his tone and touch were, again, perfect for the material. Oddly, he races through Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor to fit it on one side of a 10-inch disc yet is able to articulate all the notes clearly.

All in all, then, this is a good if slightly uneven representation of Paderewski the pianist, certainly better than his 1937-38 EMI recordings which really were past his prime (although APR has reissued those as well on a separate CD). The voluminous number of selections may seem daunting, but his mesmerizing style and touch keep the listener engaged even when one wrinkles a nose or makes a face at the occasional exaggerated rallentando or oddly-articulated phrase (as at the 4:40 mark in the Schubert Impromptu in B-flat). Yes, this is Old School pianism of a style now dead and gone, but I’d say that at least 85% of it is not only still valid to modern listeners but revelatory as to how some of these pieces should really sound.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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