Evlyn Howard-Jones, Edward Isaacs – Forgotten Pianists: The Complete Recordings – APR 6035 (2 CDs) 2 hrs 17 minutes (5/4/21) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
[Complete contents listed below]
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn turns his attentions upon two, relatively unknown, British contemporaries: Evlyn Howard-Jones (1877-1951) and Edward Isaacs (1881-1953), pianists whose strong academic backgrounds did not hamper their intrinsic musicality. Both pianists made a limited number of recordings in the 1920s and 1930 and then fell into obscurity. Howard-Jones made a reputation in the music of Bach and Brahms, though only three minutes of the latter testify to his mastery of the style. Isaacs, who would later lose his eyesight, made himself well familiar with the works of Chopin and Liszt.
The Howard-Jones disc opens with a fine set of preludes and fugues from Bach’s WTC, I, recorded for Columbia in February 1930, in cooperation with pianist Harriet Cohen, who played the first nine. The project had to be scuttled because of the 1929 stock market crash, compounded by administrative confusion when Columbia merged with HMV. Howard-Jones reveals a distinctive, articulate sonority in the Bach preludes, of which No. 12 in F Minor enjoys a romantic suasion. While the fugue may seem staid, the power of Howard-Jones’s trill cannot be denied, especially in Prelude No. 16 in G Minor. He immediately makes a new impression on the liquid beauties of the Prelude in F-sharp Major, and its succeeding fugue enjoys natural, breathed phrases. There resonates an intelligent depth to his playing of the Fugue in F-sharp Minor; and for those who claimed a “mechanical” quality in Howard-Jones’s Bach, I counter in my opinion, finding his measured, clean articulation free of over-ripe exaggeration. The Prelude in G Major scurries in bold strokes, its Fugue in rounded phraseology and pulse, with clean, interior lines. The A-flat Major Prelude and Fugue seem imbued with a touch of wistful ardor, not at all “mechanical.”
Beethoven’s popular “Moonlight” Sonata (20 May 1926) proceeds briskly in its first movement, in strict adherence to the demand for two half-notes per measure. The Allegretto has poise and grace. The concluding Presto agitato displays some vivid firepower, the phrasing pointed and robust. A real “find” comes in the way of a previously unissued Rondo in G Major (rec. 1927), a true, expansive improvisation in the Beethoven style of 1796-97, in which the pianist’s trill and scalar technique contribute delicately transparent sense of texture. The Three Ecossaises derive from Howard-Jones’s teacher, Eugen d’Albert, who shared his enthusiasm for the music of Brahms.
The two Liszt performances from June 1927 extend our sense of the virtuoso Howard-Jones, with the Waldesrauschen extremely lithe and volatile, a la Josef Hofmann. Howard-Jones makes fine tone in the Dream of Love in A-flat, investing fire and exalted lyricism into this reading, despite the claim by annotator Jonathan Summers that “it lacks that final ounce of passion at the climax.” The little Capriccio in B Minor by Brahms from 1927 enjoys its quirky metrics and its touch of flirtatious romance. Composer Frederick Delius and his music became dear to Howard-Jones, and between 1927 and 1929 Columbia generously let Howard Jones set down those few piano pieces in his repertory, several of which had been dedicated to him. Of the Five Piano Pieces (1923), Howard-Jones plays four, since the fourth is meant to be hummed or played on a muted violin. The three dances – Mazurka, Waltz for a Little Girl, and Waltz – project an innocent charm. The Toccata is more ambitious, a restrained perpetuum mobile a la Bach or Fauré. The first of Three Preludes (1923) is dedicated to Evlyn Howard-Jones, a Scherzando in calming, arpeggiated figures. Quick, the second Prelude, seems to hover between Debussy and Mendelssohn, for only one minute. The last Prelude, marked Con moto, has a restless romance built into it, a bright pool of light that evaporates in just over one minute.
The Edward Isaacs contribution opens with three excerpts from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 (rec. 1926), of which the Allemande seems unnecessarily hurried but still musical. The ensuing Courante moves even faster, a toccata whose breathless lines begin to smear. The concluding Gigue dances with enough rhythmic clarity to preserve its shape, but the speed outdoes Glenn Gould for velocity. Handel no less endures the rigors of excessive speed: his sprightly Fantasia in C seems to trip over itself at moments. Only the opening phrase retains its vigorous shape. The popular “Harmonious Blacksmith” begins well, clear and unrushed. The first variation moves quickly, still recognizable. The second begins to puff hard at the straps. The third has becomes a torrent of 64th notes. The later scales, too, dissolve of their velocity, moving to a peroration that does land on a decisive cadence.
Thankfully, the Beethoven Pathetique Sonata (rec. 20 November 1928) allows the opening Grave time and tempo to discourse before the passionate Allegro di molto e con brio thunders forth. Isaacs allows the secondary theme to breath, and the result adds much-sought lyricism to this contest between Beethoven’s chromatic pain and his diatonic will. The ubiquitous second movement, Andante cantabile, by Isaacs does sing with tender sensibility, lyrically meditative. The muscular finale combines fleet digital craftsmanship and canny, dramatic poise, in good balance. All but the Chopin Bolero derive from 1926 sessions; the Bolero itself Isaacs recorded in November 1928. The 1834 Bolero sparkles, its 3/8 rhythm’s generating an introduction and trio, with all sorts of modulations in its interior. Isaac keeps the motion fluent, his touch authoritative without “northern” heaviness. The slow Waltz in A Minor enjoys a plastic fluctuation of meter, a poised lilt sans gravitas. As a salon expression, it captures a wistful melancholy. The “Minute” Waltz enjoys a propulsive verve, marked by a dazzling trill and a strong singing line. The immortal Waltz in C-sharp Minor Isaacs takes rather quickly, setting a tempo that he must surpass in each future repetition. The panache here, as in the succeeding D-flat Waltz, remains chaste, in many ways reminiscent in what we marvel at in Dinu Lipatti. The posthumous Waltz in E Minor opens with a brilliant flourish, and the succeeding figures revel – except for a brief, ominous moment – in their speedy, transparent fluency.
Isaacs turns in his final three pieces to a bit more color sonority in his selections: first the Liszt arrangement of Chopin’s Polish song My Joys, Op. 74, No. 12, with its competing harmonic motion filled by Liszt’s especial keyboard application. Fullness of tone marks the Isaacs Liebesträume No. 3 from 27 October 1926, performed with a slow but opulently graceful sweep that one might ascribe to Cortot. The little Tchaikovsky Humoresque – that Stravinsky immortalized in his orchestral treatment – from the same session seems to justify one critic’s assessment of Isaacs as a connoisseur pianist whose “programs. . .embrace all schools and periods.”
It would be all too easy to bypass this APR release on account of its obscure artists; don’t let it happen. The love’s labor exerted to restore these precious documents has been well spent. The 20-page accompanying booklet, its information and excellent commentary and photos, redeem any expenditure.
Evlyn Howard-Jones and Edward Isaacs: The Complete Solo Recordings
J.S. BACH: Preludes and Fugues Nos. 10-17 from WTC, Book I
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”
Rondo in G Major, Op. 51, No. 2
Ecossaises, WoO 83
Liebesträume No. 3
BRAHMS: Capriccio in B Minor, Op. 76, No. 2
DELIUS: Dance for Harpsichord; Four Piano Pieces; Three Prelude
J.S. BACH: French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816: 3 Movements
HANDEL: Fantasia in C Major; Suite No. 5 in E Major: Air and Variations, “The Harmonious Blacksmith”
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”
SCHUBERT: Moment musical in F Minor, D. 7802, No. 3
CHOPIN: Bolero in A Minor, Op. 19
Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2
Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1
Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2; Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3; Waltz in E Minor
CHOPIN (arr. Liszt): My Joys
LISZT: Liebesträume No. 3
TCHAIKOVSKY: Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2