BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1.1 Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Piano Sonata No. 3. Intermezzos in Bb min, E & Eb min. Rhapsodies in G min. & B min. BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 2 2 & 5.3 Piano Trio No. 7, “Archduke.” 5 Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 8, 14 (2 vers.) & 23. Cello Sonata No. 5.6 CHOPIN: Polonaise in Ab, “Heroic”; Ballade No. 4 in F min.; Nocturne No. 2 in Eb; Waltz in E min., Op. Post.; Études in E, F, Ab, F min. & F. Fantasias in A & F min. Scherzo in Bb. Nocturne in Bb min. SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto.3 Carnaval. MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 15.4 Piano Sonatas in Bb & D. HAYDN: Piano Sonata in D, Hob. XVI:37. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1.7 SCRIABIN: Piano Concerto in F# min.7 LISZT: Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes.8 BLISS: Piano Concerto in Bb.9 GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A min.3 J.S. BACH: Italian Concerto in F / Solomon, pno; 1Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI; Lorin Maazel, cond; Philharmonia Orch., 2André Cluytens, 3Herbert Menges, 4Otto Ackermann, 7Issay Dobrowen, 8Walter Süsskind, cond; 5Henry Holst, vln; Anthony Pini, cel; 6Gregor Piatagorsky, cel; 9Liverpool Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Adrian Boult, cond / Profil PH20032
The title of this review was also the title of an article on Solomon, published in either High Fidelity or Stereo Review back around 1970, when reissues of his recordings were appearing in the U.S. on EMI’s Seraphim label. Of course, as a young American not yet 20, I had never heard of him before; apparently, though he toured Europe rather extensively, he didn’t concertize in the United States; but I quickly learned from his recordings how interesting he was. It was at least another decade before I learned that his last name was Cutner, and just now that I learned that Cutner was a last name changed from Schneidermann—and that he had studied the piano with Mathilde Verne, a pupil of Clara Schumann. But one thing I quickly realized was that he was surely the best British classical pianist of his time, an artist who could easily hold his own against such formidable names as Arthur Rubenstein, Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Cortot and even that meteor of the piano world, Dinu Lipatti, who was dead long before Solomon suffered the stroke in December 1956 that ended his career.
A child prodigy who took pre-World War I England by storm, Solomon found himself at an artistic crossroads by age 14. He stopped concertizing and went to France to study with Lazare-Lévy who, aside from Alfred Cortot, was the most influential piano pedagogue in that country (several of his recordings are available for free streaming on YouTube). As the liner notes put it, “Lazare-Lévy was particularly attentive to the manual dexterity of his students and to their complete bodily interaction while playing.” Solomon reappeared in concerts after the War, touring Germany in 1923 and the U.S. in 1926 and 1939. His career now firmly established, he went on to become, as I said earlier, the best British pianist of his time.
The comparisons with Cortot and Lipatti seem particularly apt to me since I hear elements of both in his style: the warm, deep-in-the-keys richness of the first and the eclectic dynamism of the second. Of course, had Lipatti lived he would surely have been the dominant pianist of the 1960s and perhaps even the ‘70s—his was a talent admired by every musician and critic who heard him, an almost impossible approval rating to acquire (imagine conductors as diverse in style as Furtwängler, Toscanini and Karajan all wanting to work with him!). But I’m also convinced that if Solomon hadn’t had his stroke we Americans might never have heard much of Clifford Curzon, who somehow slipped into his niche as the favored British pianist of the time.
It almost seems appropriate that this massive retrospective on his career comes from a German label since, aside from the British, it seemed to be Germans who most appreciated his unique talents. My online acquaintance, the great German-born pianist Michael Korstick, rates Solomon as one of the most powerful influences on his own playing. Yet like so many pianists of the now-distant past, Solomon, like Artur Schnabel, has been swept aside to a large extent by the forces of history and public relations. No living pianists compare themselves to them, no PR sheets mention their names as influences on the young little piano machines who can rattle off notes at 90 miles an hour but have absolutely no concept of what musical style or phrasing is. As I said, Solomon stood aside from virtually every other British pianist of his day, though except for Great Britain and postwar Germany, very few countries got to hear him in person.
With the exception of some Schubert sonatas issued on CD by Testament, Mozart’s Piano Concerti Nos. 23 & 24 with Herbert Menges, and the Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 27-32, issued and reissued on CD by EMI (now Warner Classics), this set covers the bulk of the great pianist’s output. Sadly, no 20th-century works other than the Scriabin and Bliss Concerti appear to have been in his repertoire; everything else here consists of late Classical era and 19th-century chestnuts, as was the case of most pianists of his time. The exploration of much contemporary music was apparently off the table with him.
The back cover of the booklet claims that the recordings span 1942 through 1956, but they actually go further back than that. CD 3 contains three recordings from 1932—the Chopin Polonaise, Étude in Ab and Fantasia in F min.—and one from 1934 (the Chopin Étude in F). But Solomon, like Cortot, was not a pianist who had “periods” during which he played music much differently from any other time in his career, thus these performances are all of a piece.
The non-collector may feel that big boxed sets like this tend to contain a lot of ephemera, performances of many standard works that may be interesting to hear once as a novelty but lack any real lasting value. This is only true, for me, in the case of the concerti. Except to hear an individual turn of phrase here and there, what is the real value in having performances of such chestnuts as the Beethoven Second and Fifth, Tchaikovsky First, Mozart 15th and Grieg Piano Concerti aside from hearing warm, musical, satisfying performances of these routine works in restricted mono sound? I was, however, interested in hearing him perform the Schumann Concerto as well as that composer’s Carnaval because of his connection to Clara Schumann through his teacher, and certainly the Scriabin Concerto which would seem outside of his field. I was also very curious about the last two CDs, which are taken from live Berlin concerts of February 23 & 24, 1956, just to hear how much (if any) his Beethoven changed a bit from his studio recordings.
Solomon and Maazel take their bows in Turin, March 23, 1956
With that being said, the opening performance on this set, the Brahms First Piano Concerto in a live performance with Lorin Maazel conducting from March 23, 1956, is absolute dynamite. This came from the period when Maazel was a real firebrand on the podium, doing his best to channel his idols, Toscanini (who, ironically, despised him) and Rodziński. For whatever reason, he mellowed by the mid-1970s and never returned to his earlier style of conducting. Although I can’t say that Solomon’s playing is as powerful as that of Vladimir Horowitz with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, it is surprisingly virile and exciting along with his usual limpid legato in the second movement. This performance was previously released on a Guild CD in 2009 and garnered good reviews. Its only drawback is the sound—not nearly as bad as the 1935 Horowitz-Toscanini broadcast, though still a mid-‘50s mono broadcast tape with some pitch fluctuation—but Maazel is breathing fire and brings out so much detail in the orchestration that I think you’ll be amazed. I know I was. This is now my favorite recording of this concerto.
The Handel Variations stem from a 1942 live performance, and here the sound is particularly boxy, probably due to the heavy noise reduction. I sometimes have the same problem when removing surface and other artifact noise from old, damaged acetates, but what I do to restore some of the original sound is the boost the treble and add a very light amount of reverb. As a performance, however, it is astoundingly good.
The Beethoven concerti were about as I imagined they would be: nice, crisp performances but nothing special in either tempo or phrasing, but they’re surely nice to have if you’re a Solomon fanatic. The “Emperor” sounded eerily like the 1944 performance that Walter Gieseking recorded with Arthur Rother, except that the Gieseking recording was in pretty good early stereo while this one is in boxy0sunding mono. Solomon’s 1932 recording of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise is really terrific; the Ballade, Nocturne and Études are about the way Rubinstein played them. (Without ever having heard his recording of it previously, it turns out that I played the E-flat nocturne much the same way when I was younger and could play the piano.)
The Schumann Concerto is a warm reading, very Cortot-like in its deep richness of tone and straightahead phrasing, and for once conductor Herbert Menges turned in a really fine job, but after hearing it my choices are still the Lipatti-Karajan and Cliburn-Reiner recordings, with Dénes Varjón and Heinz Holliger right behind them. Solomon is just too soft in his approach for this concerto, particularly in the first movement where more dynamism is called for. On the other hand, the Mozart Concerto No. 15 was a real surprise for me; Otto Ackermann conducts with real zest and backbone, and although Solomon plays it in a pearly fashion he does have zest and sparkle, though you definitely have to increase the treble on this one. The live performance of the Mozart Sonata No. 8 from August 1956 (shortly before his stroke) is even livelier and crisper, almost on the same level as Nadia Reisenberg or Friedrich Gulda (the latter being my favorite pianist in the Mozart sonatas). By this point I started to realize that Solomon, like many other classical artists, was generally better in live performance than in the recording studio. It wasn’t so much a lack of excitement per se as simply a more “alive” interpretation; he got much more under the skin of the music in a live setting. For a perfect example of what I mean, listen to his terrific performance of the Haydn Sonata No. 50 in D from a live BBC broadcast of August 28, 1956. I can think of very few pianists (Wanda Landowska and Anne-Marie McDermott are two) who played Haydn this well.
The booklet does not say whether or not this 1952 performance of the Brahms Sonata No. 3 is live or a commercial recording, but if the latter it is clearly “one that got away,” for Solomon is emotionally wrapped up in the music and produces a truly dynamic performance. One reviewer on Amazon, reviewing the Testament release of this performance, called it a “desert island disc.” I would agree. The way Solomon plays it, this sonata sounds as if it was inspired by the Liszt sonata: it is unusually large for Brahms, five movements instead of four and lasting nearly 40 minutes, and his canvas includes a great many coloristic effects not normally associated with this composer. (Both this Brahms sonata and the Liszt sonata were composed in 1853 and published in 1854, and of course the two composers knew each other.) The sound, however, is dry and boxy, dulling the “ring” of the piano in those powerful upper-right-hand passages. The Beethoven “Archduke” Trio, a live performance from 1943 with Henry Holst and Anthony Pini, is a very clean, straightforward performance in absolutely dreadful sound (the two string instruments are distorted to the point of caricature), but is worth hearing at least once for Solomon’s Cortot-like pianism.
CD 6, containing the Beethoven “Pathétique,” “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” Sonatas, duplicates the contents of Seraphim LP 60286, issued in 1978 and my first exposure to Solomon’s Beethoven. I remember being most deeply affected by the slow, measured, almost ghostly treatment of the Moonlight’s first movement, which was (and remains) wholly unique in my experience. Here, Profil has added a 1954 recording of the same composer’s Cello Sonata No. 5 with Gregor Piatagorsky to fill out the CD. Having not heard it in nearly 40 years, I was surprised at how good Solomon’s “Pathétique” was, not only clean but almost as passionate as his live performances. Except for the last movement, which for me was just a shade too cautious, it’s right up there with Schnabel, Gieseking (the 1949 live version, not the studio recording), Lewenthal, Korstick and Kovacevich. The “Moonlight” was as good as I remembered it; the “Appassionata” is good but not as good as many others (Schnabel, Gieseking, Korstick, Kovacevich). I would rather they had included his superb performance of the “Waldstein” instead. But the Cello Sonata No. 5 is terrific, with brisk tempi, taut phrasing and exceptionally warm playing by Piatagorsky.
Much to my surprise, the Tchaikovsky First is a pretty good performance, due in part to the exciting conducting of Issay Dobrowen, a vastly underrated conductor. Although a studio recording, Dobrowen brings out some of Solomon’s best qualities; except for some extra moments of rallentando, the opening section is almost as taut a performance as the legendary 1943 Horowitz-Toscanini live performance. The problems come in the second theme, when Dobrowen suddenly slows down things for a few bars, thus halting the momentum he had built up. The Scriabin Concerto is an add performance for this music—very lush and Romantic in scope, with Solomon limning the music with delicate traceries, particularly in the first movement—but in this concerto, Dobrowen keeps the tempo pressure up more consistently than in the Tchaikovsky, and it works. Very nice to hear Dennis Brain on first horn in all these Philharmonia Orchestra recordings. The Liszt Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes just misses the excitement of the performance by György Cziffra with André Cluytens, but is still very good in its own right.
CD 8 opens with the most modern work on this set, Arthur Bliss’ Piano Concerto, of which Solomon gave the world premiere. For once, no apologies are needed for the sonics, which are bright, crisp and clear. The conductor, one of the finest of the 20th century, is Sir Adrian Boult (a close friend of Toscanini, who was a mutual admirer), who draws astonishingly powerful, virtuosic playing from the 1943 Liverpool Philharmonic. It’s really a stupendous work, not only modernistic in harmony but dynamic and exciting, and Solomon tears into it with relish. My sole complaint regarding the sound is that the strings sound a bit edgy and rough at times, which I attribute to Boult driving them to play some of those high-lying passages at quadruple forte. But as I say, this is quite a musical trip; Bliss managed to build huge structures out of his themes and tie them together so well that they make quite an edifice although, at times, it seemed to me that the piano part was an add-on to what was going on in the orchestra. In the slow movement, it sounds as if Bliss had the piano feed lines to the orchestra which would then develop them, another unusual aspect of this concerto. The third movement begins with mysterious biting brass chords under which a solo bass plays a pizzicato line before the piano and strings enter playing Bliss’ fascinating bitonal lines. As the movement develops, Bliss utilizes some remarkably tricky rhythms which are interspersed with slower, quieter sections, including one with a piquant cor anglais solo and another featuring a solo viola (neither player identified). No question about it, this is clearly a performance that rates six fish in the Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music. I seriously doubt that you’ll find a better or more intense performance of this concerto anywhere nowadays.
The Grieg Concerto, recorded in 1956, is actually in stereo. It’s a very good performance but, to my ears, not a particularly special one. When I was very young, I had a terrific (and vastly underrated) recording of this by Kjell Baekkelund with the Oslo Philharmonic led by Odd Grüner-Hegge on RCA Victrola (check it out: it still holds up very well), and I also like the recordings by Lipatti with Alceo Galliera and Shura Cherkassky with Adrian Boult. This fits into the same mold, which is certainly a very good one, but as I said many paragraphs ago, this is often the problem when you get big compilations like this. You’re going to find performances that are very good but oftimes no better than many others available out there.
Solomon’s live February 1956 performance of Schumann’s Carnaval is one of the best I’ve ever heard, quite exciting and dynamic. This, too, is a desert island performance for me. He was clearly on top of his game in this, his last year as a performer. The live Beethoven Sonata No. 3 is also excellent, played crisply and with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, while the live “Moonlight” Sonata follows the same pattern as his studio recording except that the first movement is faster—in fact, almost taken at the standard tempo—which doesn’t quite create the same feeling of unease and melancholy as his studio recording—though, oddly enough, he does slow it down a bit further as the movement proceeds, and even adds some rallentandos to try to recapture the mood of the studio version. The second and third movements are also faster, but the second also includes some moments where the tempo is held hack a shade to create tension. The third movement is actually too fast; despite his digital dexterity, several of those fast left-hand upward runs are blurred and smudged.
The last disc opens with a lively and smiling performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto. By this time Glenn Gould’s famous recording of the Goldberg Variations had been released and it was suddenly OK to play 18th-century music on a modern keyboard again, as long as you kept it clean and didn’t use any sustain pedal. And yes, this is so good that it could almost be confused for a Gould performance. The Brahms pieces which follow, and close out the set, are all played superbly. One thing this collection has shown me is that Solomon was as great an interpreter of Brahms as he was of Beethoven. In fact, I think his slightly more Romantic sensibilities suited Brahms even better. Except for that unique first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, there’s nothing really unique about his Beethoven, excellent though it is, but his playing of Brahms is, to my ears, head and shoulder above anyone we have today. in that music.
We then close with three pieces by Chopin. This performance of the Fantasia in F minor is even more exciting than his earlier version, and the Scherzo in Bb minor is also exemplary.
So there you have it. Roughly half of this collection I would rate as top-notch performances worth having at any cost, though I would surely replace his version of the “Appassionata” Sonata with his “Waldstein.” If you already own these performances I’ve rated so highly, you’re pretty much set, but if you don’t this collection is a wise acquisition as at least half of the set is indispensable. Europadisc has the best price at £37.76, which translates to $47.14 or $4.71 per disc.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)
Return to homepage OR
Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music