Moriz Rosenthal: The Complete Recordings (1928-1942) – APR (5 CDs)

by | Mar 26, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Moriz Rosenthal, piano: The Complete Recordings = ROSENTHAL: Fantasy on Themes from Johann Strauss; Papillons; Carnaval de Vienne; New Carnaval de Vienne; CHOPIN: 3 Waltzes; 9 Preludes; Tarantelle in A-flat Major; 6 Mazurkas; Chant polonaise No. 1; Chant polonaise No. 5; Berceuse in D-flat Major; 3 Etudes; Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11; Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2;  Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2; Nouvelle etude No. 3 in A-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58; DEBUSSY: Reflets dans l’eau; LIADOV: A Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32; Prelude in B-flat Major; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major; HANDEL: Air and Variations in E Major; SCHUBERT: Moment musical No. 3 in F Minor; Soiree de Vienne No. 6 (arr. Liszt); ALBENIZ: Triana – Berlin State Opera Orchestra/ Frieder Weissmann/ NBC Symphony/ Frank Black (Op. 11 Larghetto)/ Moriz Rosenthal, piano – APR 7503 (5 CDs), TT: 6 hours, 6 minutes [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Five volumes of recordings embrace the entire recorded output of Galician pianist Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946), student of Karol Mikuli and Rafael Joseffy, direct pupils of Chopin and Liszt, respectively. Noted for an uncanny combination of prodigious technique and limitless capacity for expression, Rosenthal emerged everywhere the consummate musician. Rosenthal only began recording in 1928 at the age of sixty-four. He claimed that piano reproduction had been so inferior he had not seen the point in  making records. [Rightly so!…Ed.]  In May and June 1929 Rosenthal recorded for the Lindstroem Company in Germany, and they included his only inscriptions of Chopin’s C Major, E-flat Major, and C Minor Preludes and the E Minor Concerto under Weissmann. When he performed the same concerto in London in 1934 with Beecham, critics noted the authenticity and Old-World suavity of the playing and Rosenthal’s judicious use of the sustaining pedal. The amazing leggierissimo Rosenthal displayed was a direct inheritance from Mikuli, who “gave me his secret,” boasted Rosenthal. The last discs Rosenthal produced were in 1942 of the Chopin Tarantella and Liszt’s arrangement of Chopin’s song “My Joys.” 
Beyond the sheer astonishment that awaits auditors of this splendid set, the immediate impression Rosenthal imparts, like that of his fellow wizard Josef Hofmann, is the willfully narrow range of repertory, repeated on record in infinite takes. To perfect a piece in the most advantageous sound must have remained the musical ideal, given that each rendition of each waltz, mazurka, or prelude reveals the palpable variation in some nuance in touch, speed, or rhythmic pulse. Many of these takes, herein released for the first time, had been rejected or simply unissued for various reasons. The best sound we receive derive from his 1934-1937 sessions with HMV in England, which gives us a new Prelude in G Major of Chopin. The luster of Rosenthal’s scales, arpeggios, grace notes, and trills testify to a revelatory technique and superhuman facility, a strength that exerts every gentleness. His constant exploration of Chopin’s Chant polonaise “The Maiden’s Wish” reveals any number of charming nuances in every bar and the flourish at the end always seems fresh, a flight into the supernal aether. His A-flat Nouvelle Etude (8 April 1929 and 31 March 1935), slower than we expect, also reveal bass harmonies virtually ignored by anyone else. Listen to Rosenthal devour the C Major Etude, Op. 10, No. 1 (8 April 1929), a lion at meat. The F Major Prelude scintillates beyond belief. The wash of the Prelude in A rings with salon nostalgia. The so-called “Black Key” Etude in its various avatars never ceases to sail. The opening to the B Minor Prelude in his first take (1 March 1929) had me guessing what I was hearing. The subsequent versions prove more “ordinary” but still inspired. There exist three readings of the Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, none exactly alike, and Rosenthal’s speed a mite faster in each application. But the tempo rubato and poetic, intimate depths he uncovers renew our own commitment to music.
While the Odeon and Parlophone recordings, 1929-1931, do not deliver particularly pretty sound, they proffer our first Chopin Chant polonaise “My Joys” (29 May 1929) and Berceuse (1 June 1929), each of which in my opinion deeply affected Rosenthal’s eminent protégé Charles Rosen. No less fascinating, the Mazurka in B-flat Minor, Op. 24, No. 4, with its tricky agogics that never quite decide what meter we are in, Rosenthal glides and stalks through like Theseus through the Labyrinth. The fluid Berceuse competes with an equally magical, contemporary account by the immortal British wonder Solomon, and we can savor them both. The four Chopin Preludes (29 May 1929, on Japanese Parlophone) explode with power and pure motor savvy, and we weep that we do not possess a complete Op. 28 to compare to the set Egon Petri afforded us. Rosenthal’s own Papillons (3 May 1930, on French Parlophone) is a broken-chord exercise of no mean difficulty, more Godowsky than Schumann. A Herculean C Major Etude from Chopin’s Op. 10 (March 1931, on German Parlophone) soon moves to Rosenthal’s first Debussy Reflets dans l’eau (29 May 1929, on French and English Parlophone), diaphanous, detached, and pedaled with the same subtlety we hear in Gieseking or the more deconstructionist George Copeland. Forget the incandescent scales and arpeggios and savor the gripping tone quality of Rosenthal’s chords! The same holds true for his Chopin C Minor Prelude. The Albeniz Triana from Iberia (29 May 1929) carries us immediately to the Alhambra, the strumming of guitars deliciously palpable. Liadov’s frisky A Musical Snuffbox (3 May 1930) comes to us from a Dresden China shop, exquisite. Liadov’s Prelude seems the perfect go-between from Chopin to Scriabin, a water piece and a soliloquy at once. Rosenthal then offers tunes created by his dear friend Johann Strauss, Jr. in his Carnaval (3 May 1930) and Fantasy (6 March 1931), respectively. Plenty of glittery, even bombastic, homage to Fledermaus and The Blue Danube in glowing waltz tempo.
The Chopin E Minor Concerto (1 May 1930; 26 November 1930; March 1931) recorded by Ultraphon features conductor Frieder Weismann (1893-1984) and pits acoustical poverty against poetic riches, a remote-sounding keyboard in the first movement and diminished bass in the latter two movements. But the temperamental and stylistic idiom of the conception, excepting the virtual elimination of the first movement opening orchestral tutti, remains an elegantly brilliant, thoroughly polished conception. Editor Ward Marston, by the way, had already prepared the Concerto and the Romanza movement from the Magic Key Hour broadcast for CD format for the Biddulph label (LHW 040).
Moriz Rosenthal plays his master Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (16 April 1930) with Rosenthal’s own tumultuous cadenza, the lassu section rife with marvelous, passing flourishes. The friss section enters diaphanous and diabolic regions forbidden most mortals. The Liebestraum’s dry acoustic mars its magical romance, but the large sympathies still exert themselves. The Chopin Berceuse, a tad faster here in 1930 than in 1929, enjoys a glowing, ageless refinement.
The 1934-1935 unpublished Gramophone Company shellacs open with more Fledermaus antics via a new Carnaval de Vienne (9 February 1934), slick and debonair. His new Chant polonaise “The Maiden’s Wish” never sounded so much like a transposed Hungarian Rhapsody. New to Rosenthal’s catalogue is his 2/4 Waltz in A-flat Major of Chopin, a Hofmann staple here played with its own quicksilver panache. A slightly faster Nocturne in E-flat precedes another then-novelty, Chopin’s F Minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 2, a motor legato touched by a clearly delineated bass line. The A-flat Major Mazurka, Op. 50, No. 2 (31 March 1935; and again, 21 November 1935) exudes a wistful nobility, beautifully lilted. The second version enjoys a remarkably quiet shellac surface. For a heavy-footed Oberek, try the Mazurka in G Major, Op. 67, No. 1, new to Rosenthal’s discography at the time. Another relative novelty (23 November 1935) is the B Minor Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 4, as dramatically lyrical and nobly poised as later versions by masters Moravec and Michelangeli. The D-flat Major Nocturne (22 May 1936) invests new poetry into the Rosenthal recorded arsenal, a gossamer reading extraordinaire. The lithe D Major Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 2 (22 October 1937), a perennial favorite, communicates an easy generous zal, intrinsically aristocratic. A gorgeously haunted, previously unpublished version of Chopin’s Prelude No. 13 in F-sharp Major (23 October 1937) impresses through is layered texture, refined by Rosenthal’s nuanced bass chords.
The two Schubert works, the F Minor Moment musical (22 October 1937) and Liszt’s arrangement of waltzes and laendler, the A Major Soiree de Vienne No. 6 (25 May 1936), bring transparent affection to the most Austrian of Romantic composers.
Disc 5 provides us four works (and two alternate takes on movements from Op. 58) inscribed for RCA Victor in Chicago in 1939 and 1942. The seventy-eight-year-old Rosenthal may have evinced some technical frailty, but his musical instincts remained sublime. Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” Variations (23 June 1939), previously unpublished, proceeds with a steady pulse and no end of chordal balance, aided by seamless roulades. The big work, Chopin’s B Minor Sonata, Op. 58 (26 June 1939), basks in intellectual and affective authority, secure in phrase and poetically virile filigree. Rosenthal’s tone color, lovely and majestic, especially in the Largo, belies the age of performer and recording venue. The Scherzo and Finale each has an alternative take, a mere two seconds’ difference from take one. An incomplete Largo movement from a BBC broadcast exists, the result of an amateur’s desire to preserve a bit of Rosenthal’s seventy-fifth birthday honors in London. The piano sound proves naturally resonant. One more rendition of “My Joys” (18 March 1942), here performed by the octogenarian Rosenthal, pearly as ever. The sprightly Tarantelle (18 March 1942) betrays some stiff joints but the spirit is strong, grandly assertive. Finally, from the NBC archives of 19 December 1937, the Romanze from the E Minor Concerto with Dr. Frank Black and his own “Humoresque,” the Carnaval de Vienne on themes of Johann Strauss. Each bears the valedictory spirit and aristocratic charisma of a by-gone age.
Many thanks to producer and restoration engineer Ward Marston and discographer Donald Manildi for a timeless collection, certainly among the Best of the Year for 2012.
—Gary Lemco

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