Re-Evaluating Maud Powell

Maud Powell 2

Sometimes you inadvertently overlook an artist because of a bad first impression. This was my experience, and my error, in regards to violinist Maud Powell. Yes, I knew that she was the first American violinist—and certainly the first American female—to be considered on a par with such European giants as Ysaÿe, Kubelik and Kreisler. But the bulk of her recording activity, sad to say, leaned too much in the direction of effluvia: short pieces, encores and bonbons, all of which proved that she could play the violin but none of which showed her as a great artist.

Now mind you, such pieces formed the bulk of Kreisler’s output, too, but Fritz Kreisler had a way of playing those pieces, gently nudging the beat along with Viennese charm, that he was able to overcome this; and he lived long enough to actually record some substantial works, i.e. Grieg, Beethoven and Schubert sonatas with Rachmaninov, the complete Beethoven and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, and even the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas (with Franz Rupp). Plus, he wrote a large number of well-crafted and popular short pieces himself and participated in a long-running and artistically successful series of duets—many of them of Rachmaninov songs—with tenor John McCormack.

But Maud Powell, who died on January 8, 1920 at the relatively young age of 52, had no complete concerto or sonata recordings to her name, and most of the short pieces she recorded—aside from Humoresque, the Schubert Ave Maria and the Offenbach Barcarolle (the latter, in my view, not much of anything when played on the violin)—were of incredibly banal music. Just look over the titles:

St. Patrick’s Day
Silver Threads Among the Gold
At the Brook
Annie Laurie
Little Firefly
Molly on the Shore
To Spring
The Little Red Lark
Ben Bolt
Deep River
Slavonic Cradle Song
Arkansas Traveler
Have Pity, Sweet Eyes!
Petite Valse
Love’s Delight
Song of India

And even some of those titles that looked interesting—like “Fifth Nocturne”—turned out to be rubbish. Thus it was very hard for me to think of Powell as a great artist.

But then I ran across some recordings on YouTube that really opened my ears, particularly the finale from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Recorded with piano in one take in 1904, it is a performance of such vigor and, more importantly, dazzling precision of fingering and bowing, that it literally blew me away. That’s when I started searching for other “better” Powell recordings and came up with a fairly impressive list of titles:

  1. François Schubert: The Bee / Chopin: Minute Waltz (May 29, 1909) B-4671-3
  2. Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (abridged) (June 20, 1916) B-11149-4
  3. Thomas: Mignon – Gavotte (arr. Sarasate) (June 24, 1914) B-15000-1
  4. Bach: Violin Sonata in E, II. Allegro (June 6, 1916) B-17805-1
  5. Bach: Violin Sonata in E, IV. Presto (same date) B-17806-1
  6. Sibelius: Valse Triste (June 24, 1914) C-14999-1
  7. Vieuxtemps: Polonaise (May 20, 1909) B-1899-2
  8. Mozart: Divertimento No. 17 – Minuet (June 11, 1907) B-4668-1
  9. Chopin: The Maiden’s Wish (arr. Francis MacMillen) (June 7, 1917) C-20024-2 [portion]
  10. Alexander Zarzycki: Mazurka (May 20, 1909) B-7097-2
  11. Émile Sauret: Will O’ the Wisp [Farfalla], Op. 40 No. 3 (June 6, 1916) C-9008-4
  12. Massenet: Thaïs – Intermezzo (May 19, 1909) C-7098-1
  13. Jean-Marie Leclair: Tambourin (June 18, 1915) B-16108-2
  14. Jenó Hubay: Hejre Kati Scenes de la Czardas (September 27, 1912) C-12427-1
  15. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E min., III. Finale (Presto) (November 8, 1904) C-1911-1

Tracks 2, 4, 5, 11: Arthur Loesser, pianist. All others: George Falkenstein, pianist

It is in these recordings that some of Powell’s greatness can be heard. The bad: she , like every other violinist of her time, used portamento as a means of expression. This was a device that went back to the 18th century, and was then still considered an important part of a violinist’s (and singer’s) art, but of course the advent of violinists like Szigeti and Heifetz eventually led to its demise. Yet if you look past that, you’ll hear a remarkably expressive artist who took great pains to play everything in her repertoire with feeling and care.

Powell The BeeWe can decry the fact that she didn’t live long enough to make complete concerto recordings. I would especially have liked to hear her play the Sibelius Concerto, which she premiered in America, and which the composer himself heard her play and gratefully approved, as well as the Dvořák Concerto, which she gave the world premiere of under the composer’s baton. But we can hear some of her artistry in such short pieces as the Sibelius Valse Triste, Chopin’s The Maiden’s Wish and two pieces that are much better than the titles suggest, Zarzycki’s Mazurka and Émile Sauret’s Will O’ the Wisp. Even Francois Schubert’s The Bee is given a serious, virtuoso performance. And then there are the second and fourth movements of J.S. Bach’s third Violin & Keyboard Sonata. These show an artist taking infinite care in her phrasing and at least trying to perform in the correct style, and she does a very fine job.

We may still feel a bit cheated in not being able to hear Powell in her best repertoire, and not very much of it. But I think if you come at least halfway towards her and try to hear the genius in her playing, you will indeed hear it. Here is the link to cleaned-up reproductions of each of the tracks listed above.

You may or may not hear what I hear in the recordings of Maud Powell, but I would at least ask you to give her a chance. I think your patience will be rewarded. Her bow and fingering technique was second only to the amazing Pable de Sarasate, and her interpretive skill second only to Bronislaw Huberman.

The one thing that still puzzles me, though, is why on earth Victor—which had a ton of great singers on its roster—never paired her with a famous singer. Jan Kubelik recorded with Nellie Melba; Kreisler recorded with McCormack; Mischa Elman with Caruso; but not one singer bothered to record with Maud Powell. I wonder why!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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