Pianist Gina Bachauer: The Mercury Masters – 7 CD Box Retrospective, 1962-1964 [Complete listing below] (5 hrs 15 mins) – Eloquence 484 4358 [Distr by Universal]
Greek piano virtuoso Gina Bachauer (1913-1976) established a fine working relationship with Mercury Records, 1962-1964, producing seven albums. The boxed set from Eloquence restores these performances, with the debut additions to CD format of the Chopin Fantasie from 27 June 1964, the C-sharp Minor Nocturne and three Op. 25 Etudes from 11 March 1964, and the A-flat Major Polonaise from 25 February 1963. Having trained with Cortot and mentored by Rachmaninoff, Bachauer possessed a massive keyboard technique and an imposing, universal culture in virtually any kind of repertory. This reviewer well recalls her performance of the Brahms Concerto No. 2 with Chtistopher Keene in Syracuse not only Herculean in scope but caressingly sweet, christened at the finale by Bachauer’s walking across the stage to embrace the principal cellist for her contribution to the beguiling, lyrical Andante. Here, on CD 1, in the performance from London (6-10 July 1962) with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1927-2013), the cello honors, courtesy of principal Kenneth Heath, complement a big-boned conception whose first movement alone bespeaks a grand line sustained throughout all four movements.
CD 2 devotes itself entirely to the collaboration by Bachauer and Skrowaczewski to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (5-6 July 1962), projects an immediate, vital girth of spirit, plastic and heroic in scale. Skrowaczewsski’s opening foray, after the piano entry, has the figures galloping as well as singing, and Bachauer adds her distinctive, honed phrasing to the mix, rich in bold, octave figuration, lithe in runs, and elegantly postured in legato and parlando phrasing. The LSO brass, and especially Barry Tuckwell’s horn, resonate with an alert sonority no less evident in the woodwinds and low strings. Rarely has the coda been concluded with such facile panache. The ease of transition in the first movement Allegro finds an equally poised serenity in the theme and variations of the Adagio un poco mosso, rounded off by a thrilling execution of the Rondo’s antics.
CD 3 literally transfers the 20-27 February 1963 session from New York that appeared on Mercury LP (SR 90349), the program of Stravinsky, Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms piano works, each a bravura display piece in itself. The original LP impressed mightily, given its 3-microphone mastering by Wilma Cozart Fine and its subsequent remastering by Thomas Fine. The initial flourish from the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, originally conceived for Artur Rubinstein, packs a decisive, percussive wallop that testifies to an athletic conception of this virtuoso piece that does not relent. The remaining two movements of the suite certify Bachauer as a master colorist, offering, alternately, dramatic shifts of register in the Moor’s Room, and a panoply of colliding, kaleidoscopic impulses in the concluding Shrovetide Fair. Bachauer’s sheer momentum simply will not be denied.
The same, set purpose and dramatic resolve pervade the Chopin “Heroic” Polonaise, which finds a canny sympathy within its martial strains. Those who relish Liszt’s pyrotechnics in his every dimension, both granite in the potent episodes and lyrically deft and inflected in the csardas gestures. The connoisseurs of the Twelfth Rhapsody, perhaps already aware of the readings by Levitzky, Bolet, Cziffra, Brailowsky, Maltempo, et al, will find in Bachauer (26 February 1963) an explosively deft advocate for Liszt’s gypsy style, where lyric musing and the national csardas express their persuasive gestures.
Though Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt rarely agreed on aesthetic principles, they found a common ground in Paganini. Bachauer’s realization of Book II (20 February 1963) begs the question of why she did not record the entire Opus 35. The immense technical demands on her technique disappear in the course of these four works, and this disc alone, despite its brevity, warrants the price of admission.
Disc 4 shares the taping venues of London and New York, respectively, for the Chopin Concerto in E Minor with Antal Dorati (1906-1988) and the solo pieces, issued on SR 90368. The opening tutti from Dorati and the LSO in the RCA LP exposes one of the shortcomings of Alexander Brailowsky’s otherwise fine reading for RCA (LM 1020), that of not employing the extended orchestral introduction for the Allegro maestoso. Dorati’s grand leisure sets the tone for Bachauer’s inspired reading, one that projects a noblesse oblige in music, every line aristocratic, articulate in immaculate taste.
Bachauer’s work with Dorati is the equivalent of the equally successful collaboration by Emil Gilels and Eugene Ormandy for CBS, with each soloist resonant in the acrobatic and lyrical colors the composer proffers. Listen to Bachauer’s parlando set against Tuckwell’s responsive horn for the Chopin ethos revealed in its pure form. The Larghetto seems rapt in a glorious, romantic haze, unfettered by earthly concerns. Bachauer here renders an exalted nocturne, rife with coloratura flourishes, the lofty periods nurtured in true bel canto style. The last movement, Rondo (Vivace) moves in fleet, sometimes antiphonal gestures, witty and peppered with an easy bravura. At once pompous and elegant in its rhythmic subtlety, the music enjoys a thorough familiarity of its means, rendered with an almost casual sense of its epic proportions.
The solo pieces combine intimacy and luxuriant fioritura, a startling contrast to the outbursts of the Concerto. The Nocturne, by turns, reveals a deep introspection and an emotional fury, venting its national indignation at Poland’s suffering. The recitativo passage wreaks vengeance on Poland’s oppressors. The marvelous “Harp Study” Etude in A-flat Major is enclosed by two colossal octave studies, those in A Minor “Winter Wind” and the C Minor “Ocean.” The potency of the melodic line in the bravura studies does not succumb to the onrushes of the rhythmic impulses, which from Bachauer are torrential. For me, the only rival to Bachauer’s A-flat Etude comes from Louis Kentner. The C Minor has nothing to fear from Claudio Arrau. Why neither Mercury nor Capitol asked Bachauer for complete Chopin etudes is anyone’s guess.
Disc 5 (rec. 7-9 July 1963) returns to the music of Beethoven, the combination of the Fourth Concerto and the Sonata No. 9 exactly as they appeared on SR 90381. The most lyrical of the five Beethoven piano concertos receives a conscientious realization, articulate and passionate. The rhythmic kernel of the first movement, Allegro moderato, kin to that of the Fifth Symphony, assumes a poetic rather than martial character, and the dialogue achieves a wonderful fluency between Bachauer and the LSO woodwinds. The clarity of line achieved retains a sonorous flexibility, a pellucid texture whose filigree often radiates a luminous pearly play. The strength of Bachauer’s extended trill rivals that of Rudolf Serkin, and her upper register figurations sing with a refreshed vigor. The Andante con moto, a mere 72 measures, compresses the drama to piano and strings alone, the latter often harsh and unsympathetic to the plaints of the keyboard, until the haunted, final bars. The last chord of the movement sets the Rondo into motion, impelled by four minute melodic impulses, but rife with sparkle and cosmic wit.
Bachauer’s clean strength of style marks her rendition of Beethoven’s 1798 Sonata in E Major, whose first movement Allegro, built on ascending fourths, seems to rise in a pool of glowing colors. The secondary tune, in B Major, sings ardently, while Bachauer’s 16th notes, in arpeggios and scales, flow from a ceaseless well of beauty. The famed Allegretto movement, a minuet, reveals a dark, sturm und drang character in its E Minor episodes. The Maggiore section in C Major casts a meditative aura in mysterious tones. The intimacy of the occasion makes the Bachauer experience quite special. The concluding Rondo, despite its mirth, no less intimates in its color contrasts at the darker regions of Romantic sensibility. At a mere 48 minutes playing time, we might wonder why Mercury could not accommodate Bachauer in more Beethoven, perhaps the two sonatas, Op. 49.
CD 6 presents us the most innovative of the programs, here (29-30 June 1964) devoted to the music of Ravel and Debussy. The 1908 Ravel suite, Gaspard de la Nuit has Bachauer joined for the narration – the French text by Aloysius Bertrand translated into English by Christopher Fry – read by Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000) in his mellifluous voice. The effect adds a pungent resonance to the brilliant character of the music, conceived deliberately as a tour de force for the keyboard, Ravel’s having become consciously competitive with Balakirev’s Islamey of 1896. The ecstatic swirls of Ondine lead to the grotesquerie in Le Gibet, with its persistent B-flat that serve as tolling bells to accompany the motions of a swaying corpse. The last section, Scarbo, presents a demonic dwarf, something out of Poe and Fuseli, rendered with pianistic thunder by an inspired Bachauer.
Debussy’s pastiche suite Pour le Piano (1894; 1901) alternately glitters and cascades in luxuriant, “impressionist” harmony, here in a performance worthy of the great acolytes of the composer, Gieseking, Arrau, and Michelangeli. The plainchant quality of the second movement Sarabande projects an austere beauty. The outer movements provide bravura display on every level, the sheer digital fluency from Bachauer astonishing in their fiery, clear articulation. Bachauer then enters Walter Gieseking’s rarified world of pedal effect with three preludes: La Cathedrale engloutie, Bruyères, and Danseuses de Delphes. From a soft palette, Bachauer’s Cathedral at Y’s rises amongst the waves, its tolling bell heralding the passions that dictate human affairs. Her odyssey of the structure’s return to the waves proves mesmeric. Bruyères eludes easy classification, its parlando mixed in with rich bass chords and rippling arpeggios. Bachauer grants the piece a silken allure. The Delphic Dancers would, from Gieseking, receive manifold pedalings within the first few measures; Bachauer accords them the stately poise warranted by their visionary status. Individual notes stand in bold relief against the chordal structures, the whole’s dissolving into mystery.
CD 7 (rec. 22-23 June 1964) returns to Watford Town Hall, London for a session devoted to Chopin, his 1829 F Minor Concerto and the Fantasy in the same key, released on LP as SR 90432. This concerto, actually the first that Chopin composed, had been a repertory staple of Bachauer’s mentor Alfred Cortot, who prepared his own edition of the score. The intensely operatic coloratura elements of the work find immediate, gratifying realization from Bachauer and Dorati, given the orchestra’s essentially obbligato role in the proceedings. The few tuttis Dorati delivers enjoy a visceral force commensurate with Bachauer’s applied reserves of poised energy, both digital and imaginative, especially in her varied, roulade-laden treatment of the secondary, A-flat Major theme. The first movement coda does provide Dorati for a moment of decided intensity.
The Larghetto movement, an operatic tour de force, has Bachauer in competition with Artur Rubinstein for sheer tonal beauty. The arioso melody spins out of a textured loom, only to move to high drama in the recitative section, when Bachauer has feverish, tremolo support from the LSO strings. A series of light, dancing chords leads us to the da capo, lyrically intoned as ever Bellini found his muse on stage. Although Bachauer recorded no mazurkas commercially, she masters the Polish dance for the opening of the Allegro vivace, with its sly agogic accents. The folk dance middle section, in A–flat and requiring col legno strings, casts a rustic charm into the mix, infectious to the core. Bachauer and company soon return to the mazurka impulse, the keyboard sound reveling in its own, elastic sonority. With the call from Barry Tuckwell’s hunting horn, the F Major coda rushes in, suavely confident in the security of its gifted participants.
Chopin’s 1841 Fantasy, his sole contribution to the form, allows Gina Bachauer full sway in a piece that has no set architectural scheme, but falls into various sections that demand that the interpreter hold the work together by way of dramatic and lyric intensity. The beginning Tempo di marcia sets a grim presence, a premonition of mortality that melodic turns, in A-flat Major, E-flat Major, and B Major, attempt to assuage. The contrapuntal writing, now an intrinsic aspect of the late Chopin style, along with idiosyncratic syncopations, receives clear enunciation from Bachauer, whose refined pedal never allows the effect gratuitous percussion. The E-flat Major arpeggios soon sail into a glorious chorale; the third section, Lento sostenuto, provides an unearthly repose in the midst of an often militant defiance. That the intricate journey resolves in a firm F Major testifies to an iron will in the face of adversity, a condition with which Gina Bachauer had been all too familiar.
This set of restored Gina Bachauer performances comes highly recommended.
Gina Bachauer: The Mercury Masters:
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major,Op. 83
Paganini Variations, Op. 35, Book II
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Piano concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Piano Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14/1
Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 “Heroic”
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49; Nocturne in C# Minor, Op. 27/1
3 Etudes, Op. 25
STRAVINSKY: 3 Movements from Petrushka
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 in C# Minor
RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit
DEBUSSY: Pour le Piano; 3 Preludes
London Symphony Orchestra
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Brahms, Beethoven Emperor)
Antal Dorati (Chopin, Beethoven 4th Concerto)
Sir John Gielgud, narrator (Ravel)
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