VASSILY SAPELLNIKOFF: The Complete Recordings, 1924-1927 (rec. 1926); XAVER SCHARWENKA: The Complete Recordings, 1910-1913 – Vassily Sapellnikoff, p./ Aeolian Orchestra/ Stanley Chapple/ Xaver Schwarwenka, p. – APR 6016 (2 CDs) (5/12/15), TT: 2 hrs. 28 minutes [Distr. Harmonia mundi] ****:
Both Vassily Sapellnikoff (1868-1941) and Xaver Scharwenka (1850-1924) took early advantage of the recording medium, inscribing works for Vocalion and Columbia, respectively. Sapellnikoff had been Tchaikovsky’s preferred pianist, having made his debut in the B-flat Minor Concerto in January 1888, Hamburg under the composer’s baton. Though recorded in May 1926, after the advent of electrical recording, the surviving inscription – the first ever made of the Concerto – derives from an already outdated acoustical process, so the Aeolian Orchestra sounds pitifully undernourished. But this is not to say the performance lacks a robust and committed luster, including the fifty-three-year-old pianist’s undeniable panache in the brilliant passagework. Meanwhile, record producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has lavished much effort to bring us the pianist’s fluent technique and thin but expressive tone to us in a relatively luminous setting, given the noisy shellacs. The music-box affect of the cadenza filigree proves most persuasive but does lack for virile subtlety of rhythm.
The second movement Andantino semplice may prove the most compelling, musically, given the lighter, transparent nature of the musical texture and good synchronicity between Sapellnikoff and conductor Chapple. The last movement, abridged, seems somewhat tentative in motor power, but both pianist and orchestral ensemble try hard to achieve a color palette in spite of the sonic limits of the medium. The cut to the rising octave passage also appears arbitrary, especially given the rarity of the occasion. But Sapellnikoff and Chapple explode to the coda, certainly in a titanic manner that might have provided a good model for the Horowitz phenomenon. So, too, Sapellnikoff’s Traumes Wirren (1927) from Schumann’s Op. 12 – the only episode that Horowitz granted from the same suite – anticipates in its canny pedaling the more luminous performer’s excursion in to this whirling-dream fantasy.
Stravinsky’s little favorite, the Op. 10, No. 2 Humoresque, graces us with the only other Tchaikovsky bequeathed us by Sapellnikoff. Glinka’s sweet setting of The Lark (1925) lacks its introduction, but its fluent melodic contour remains charming by Sapellnikoff, especially in his swirling trill. Balakirev’s Mazurka in G-flat Major brings a bouncy gait to the Polish dance, its middle section a clear evocation of Chopin’s slippery rhythmic pulse. Rubinstein’s Staccato Etude, too, takes a cut, but we do sense how fleet Sapellnikov can be in sustained wrist exercise, confirmed even further in his 1927 G-flat Major “Butterfly” Etude of Chopin, as fleet in execution as that of Hofmann. The truncated Invitation to the Dance, however abbreviated, becomes a rousing study in non-legato pyrotechnics. The performance of Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox easily sets the magical example well followed by Alexander Brailowsky. The little E Minor Scherzo from Mendelssohn urges a carillon sonority that we would have given eye-teeth to hear in La Campanella. Liquid figures realize Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s Fruehlingsnacht (1925). Liszt then adjusts Wagner for the keyboard in the “Spinning Chorus” from The Flying Dutchman and a sterling “Entry of the Guests” from Tannhauser, both abridged but plentiful in pearly play, color effects, and a high melodic contour worthy of the great Liszt acolytes. The gypsy flavor of Sapellnikoff’s Hungarian Dance No. 6 in D-flat Major (1924) might well provide the show stopper that endures!
Disc 2 devotes itself to Chopin and Liszt, with three miniatures from Sapellnikoff himself as composer-pianist. Despite a merciless abridgement, the Chopin E-flat Grand Waltz, Op. 18 strikes many a panache-laden chord. All music-box sonority, the D-flat Berceuse survives its acoustic incarnation of 1927 in glistening, cascading colors, a testament to a brilliantly flexible right hand over a solid ground bass. The “Black Key” Etude in G-flat exhibits a high gloss and scintillating dexterity. Liszt at first comes by way of an arrangement of Alyabyev’s Le Rossignol, which flutters and then dances in diaphanous arpeggios. The new have five examples of the bravura Liszt, from the first Valse-Impromptu in A-flat, then the two concert etudes – Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen – and two Hungarian Rhapsodies, those in C-sharp Minor and an abridged A Minor. Collectors will favorably compare Sapellnikov’s Forest-Ecstasies with that of Hofmann, while the fleet Dance of the Gnomes might have provided a model for Gyorgy Cziffra. Next to the inscriptions of Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 12 and 13, Sapellnikoff accounts himself in as dazzling a fashion as Mischa Levitzky, with potent octaves, stunning runs and declamations, and ripe, aerial trills. The gypsy rhythms, rife with portamentos and luftpausen, play naturally and effusively. The C-sharp Minor Rhapsody, recorded electrically (1927) by the Marconi process, delivers a lush sonority than any other offering in the set. In the A Minor Rhapsody, the brilliant repeated notes and flashy czardas rhythm allies the work to much of Bartok.
Sapellnikoff the composer proffers his Op. 1, the witty salon Waltz in E-flat Major. Its pearly bell tones, often in dazzling staccato, imbue it with etude status. Another witty period piece appears in the Gavotte in E Major, a piece tailored to Tchaikovsky’s style in The Months. A touch of Stravinsky inhabits the Polka-Miniature, percussive but charming within its limited sense of national style.
Credit Mark Obert-Thorn for having made the century-old inscriptions by Xaver Scharwenka accessible and more than bearable to audition. His abridged Weber Invitation to the Dance (30 January 1913) enjoys and explosive spontaneity of feeling and hurricane color effects. The Mendelssohn Rondo capriccioso from the same session projects suave lightness and immaculate fury, at will. The set of inscriptions from 27 December 1910, beginning with Chopin’s bravura Waltz No. 2 in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1, display a natural and athletic style, innately lyrical and flamboyantly bold. Scharwenka’s dramatic sense of peroration shines through the last pages, graduated and polished off with a poised cadence. The eternal Fantasie-Impromptu moves in mercurial shadows – or rainbows – tender and diaphanously lyrical. The pre-eminent love-song, Liszt’s A-flat Major Liebestraum, receives a nobly staid and impassioned reading, essentially free of romantic excess. Finally, like Sapellnikoff, Scharwenka proffers his own original compositions: a sultry Spanish Serenade in the learned or “café” manner of Moszkowski, and a rousing Polish Dance, a heavily punctuated mazurka-oberek that wants to claim a warm kinship with Chopin.
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