[This article, footnote and all, was written for Notes, the journal of the Music Library Association. I had more trouble with editing on this (unpaid) project than on any other writing assignment I've ever had, including at least one incident in which an editor argued with me about changing my correct citing of a CD number to his preferred incorrect one. I eventually had to send a photocopy of the CD tray card to preserve my correct citation.]
Pianists That Time Forgot
It’s the same in almost every field of endeavor: the big stars shine so brightly they blot out many others whose efforts are also worthwhile. Over the past century of recordings, we’ve had many famous and excellent pianists who have made major recording careers: Richter, Schnabel (my idols), Rubinstein, Horowitz, Backhaus, Ashkenazy, and many others. But record-collecting pianophiles know that there are also many major pianists who are nearly forgotten except by a handful of specialists. Here are a few of my favorites:
A hard-core pianophile friend of mine told me he was listening to my radio program, “The Grand Piano,” and heard me doing a preview for the next show. I referred to “the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of,” and he thought immediately, Rosita Renard. And he was right.
Renard has one of the sparsest discographies of any major pianist. Although she played several times in the U.S. and Europe, she concentrated most of her career in Chile, where she recorded a handful of 78s for Victor and Brunswick. During World War II she was discovered by the conductor Erich Kleiber, and in 1949 she performed in New York, at Carnegie Hall, for the first time in more than two decades. Her concert was a great success, and she returned to Chile to prepare for a U.S. tour. But she contracted encephalitis, and died at the age of 53.
Fortunately, Renard’s final Carnegie Hall recital was recorded. It was originally issued in a limited LP edition by the Society of Friends of Music of Bogota (perhaps a bogus organization, since the LPs were issued in the U.S.), then reissued by International Piano Archives. Its current edition on CD, VAI Audio VAIA/IPA 1028-2, is supplemented by a generous selection of Renard’s 78s.
The recital shows a great pianist on the very highest level. She plays Bach’s Partita No. 1 and Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, very swiftly and cleanly, and with tremendous drama. Her Chopin Etudes are breathtaking. This is, frankly, one of the greatest recorded live piano recitals ever issued. While the material from the 78s isn’t as exciting, lacking the stimulus of the live audience, it’s still consistent with the level of pianism and musicianship heard in the live concert.
There are a few more Renard 78s not included in this collection, including a set of the same Mozart Sonata. Some Renard Beethoven performances, from 78s and airchecks, were included on a private LP so obscure that it doesn’t have a label name. Until some enterprising label picks up these items for another CD, they’ll be inaccessible to nearly everyone. But the VAI set is enough to convince us of Renard’s greatness.
Despite his umlaut, and American pianist and teacher. He made no commercial recordings at all, just a few piano rolls. At his home in Los Angeles, he made some private acetates, playing in his living room, which reveal him to be a titan. Unfortunately, a serious memory slip mars the fugue of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, but otherwise (and throughout the Sonata No. 30) the playing is engrossing and mesmerising, as it is in Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and an excerpt from his Well-Tempered Clavier. The sound quality of these old home recordings is quite listenable. The material was issued as Dante HPC 015, and has now disappeared from the catalogs with the collapse of the company. It’s well worth searching for.
Romanian Jewish pianist (her religion relevant due to her obscurity beginning during the Second World War), born 1895, died 1980. In the 1920s she had a substantial career, including associations with numerous composers and such highlights as performing the cycle of Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Joseph Szigeti. Although she lived to 85, there are rumors of health and drug problems which further curtailed her public performances, none of them substantiated by anything I have found in print.
Apparently she made only three recordings. A Chopin collection, recorded for Ducretet-Thomson in 1956, is so obscure that I have never even seen a listing for the LP, let alone a copy. Its existence was proved when it was reissued on CD by Dante (HPC 021), a production actually licensed from EMI and in splendid sound. (Andre Charlin was the engineer.) Guller’s playing of 11 Mazurkas and 5 Nocturnes is profound and deeply moving, filled with amazing subtleties but never calling attention to itself.
In 1973, Guller recorded the last two Beethoven Sonatas for Erato (STU 70797). It was reissued by Musical Heritage Society (MHS 3884), by Erato itself on CD (98527 2), and on a licensed CD reissue by Nimbus (NI 5061). Again, the playing is of the utmost profundity, among the greatest Beethoven interpretations ever recorded.
Guller made her final recording for Nimbus in 1975. As issued on LP, (Nimbus 2106), it included two major Bach works in Liszt transcriptions, a collection of Baroque pieces, and a Chopin Etude, all of them magnificently played. A CD reissue (NIM 5030) added two gorgeous Granados Spanish Dances and the Chopin Fourth Ballade, but dropped three Scarlatti Sonatas, for which there would have been plenty of room.
Alas, both Dante and Nimbus have closed up shop and not a note of Guller’s playing remains available today. All of it is worth searching for.
[Since I wrote this, Nimbus has resumed operations.]
When Tagliaferro was allegedly 89, Harold Schonberg heard her play in France and wrote a famous review for the New York Times, saying that she was still a great pianist. This review led to a sold-out return to Carnegie Hall for the first time in half a century, which I was fortunate enough to attend. I also heard two later recitals. Eventually it came out that the pianist’s age was slightly younger than advertised, but no matter. At 91 (her actual age when she last played in New York), she was still able to get through Chopin’s very difficult Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise Brilliant with only a minimal amount of finessing.
Tagliaferro was born in Brazil in 1893 of French parents, went to study in France when she was in her twenties (where Alfred Cortot was one of her teachers), and alternated her residence between the two countries until her death in 1986. She was famous for her performances of Brazilian and Spanish music (Villa-Lobos was a close friend of hers), but her range of sympathies was very extensive.
Tagliaferro had a large discography on 78s and LPs, many of them exquisite rarities. With one exception I will confine myself to CD issues, some of which are difficult enough to find. Tagliaferro’s last recording was made in 1981 for the CBS label, a digital recording never issued on CD. It was produced at the instigation of Tagliaferro’s student Daniel Varsano, who shares the disc with her, and is devoted entirely to the music of Tagliaferro’s friend Gabriel Faure, with whom she first performed when she was 15 years old. The two pianists collaborate on Faure’s Dolly and Ballade, and each plays Faure Nocturnes (Varsano one, Tagliaferro two). This disc would make a short CD, but the quality of the playing, with Tagliaferro’s exquisite nuances of tempo and tone, would certainly make it worthwhile.
Both EMI and Philips have produced invaluable CD reissues of Tagliaferro recordings. The Philips set contains almost 3 ½ hours of superb recordings, all of them except for Saint-Saens’ Fifth Piano Concerto previously unpublished. It lasted in print a very short time and is now a true collectors’ item. The set contains only a few minutes of Villa-Lobos and two works of Saint-Saens, presenting Tagliaferro’s commanding performances of music by Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert, and even Brahms (including the treacherous Third Piano Sonata).
When I last checked, EMI’s two-disc tribute was still available. It contains the latest Tagliaferro recordings to appear on CD, made in Brazil in 1972 (in stereo), along with some of her earlier French recordings. This set too contains some excellent Schumann (the First Piano Sonata), along with an extensive selection of Villa-Lobos and a performance of the Chopin Andante spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillant which is even more powerful than the one I heard in person.
The Dante label had begun a Tagliaferro series, but if its proprietors intended to issue more than two volumes, the series was cut short by the label’s demise. These recordings derive entirely from 78s, transferred in far better sound than this label’s norm. Among the most valuable items are the Reynaldo Hahn Piano Concerto conducted by the composer and a surprisingly stylish Mozart Violin Sonata in Volume 1, and the Faure Ballade with orchestra and Debussy’s Pour le Piano in Volume 2.
A label called Master Class from Brazil has released another Tagliaferro collection of typical repertoire, including another performance of Pour le Piano, in what appears from the credits to be a live concert performance. It’s not. These are studio recordings, probably as credited from a Brazilian recording of 1970, but there is more material (64 minutes) than one finds on the average LP of that period. Since it contains much typical Tagliaferro repertoire, in good sound, and remains available, it shares my highest recommendation with the EMI set. But all of these recordings are worth having in any piano collection!
Yves Nat made most of his recordings near the end of his life, after he had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, long after he had ended his concert career. Knowing these factors, you might hope to hear some superb interpretations even if the pianist’s technique may be compromised. The surprise is that Nat’s playing on most of his recordings is so immensely powerful.
Biographical information on Yves Nat isn’t easy to come by, and EMI hasn’t made life easier by assigning the program notes for Nat to Andre Tubeuf, that antagonist of solid information whose blathery writing disfigures so many of the label’s French-produced reissues. He was born in 1890 and taught at the Paris Conservatory for many years, where among his students were the wonderful Reine Gianoli and the Bach-jazzifier Jacques Loussier. He also made a few 78 rpm recordings in France from 1929 on. Nat stopped playing in public with the coming of World War II.
I have never been able to verify the legend about the resumption of Nat’s recording career from print sources. The story is that, in 1953, Nat was diagnosed with cancer, and that simultaneously he was approached by the label Les Discophiles Francais with a request to start an extensive recording program. Whatever the true story, between 1953 and Nat’s death from a heart attack in 1956, he recorded all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, most of Schumann’s major piano works, and LPs devoted to Chopin and Brahms. Some of these recordings were also issued in the U.S. by Haydn Society.
Nat’s late performances are sometimes direct to the point of bluntness. His playing is as strong technically as it is musically–uninhibited Beethoven, in particular, with the kind of musical force one imagines the composer’s own performances had. With the aid of the great French recording engineer Andre Charlin, Nat’s playing survives half a century with little loss of its immediacy, and if he had any difficulties with such monstrous challenges as the “Hammerklavier” Sonata or the central march of Schumann’s Fantaisie in C, the engineer’s wizardry has removed them completely. I personally wouldn’t want to be without a note of Nat’s playing, but in particular his Beethoven cycle can stand comparison with any ever recorded, offering a unique viewpoint. Hearing it without identification, I would never take Nat’s for the playing of a French pianist.
Fortunately, EMI has preserved Nat’s legacy nearly complete on CD. The one item which remains elusive is Nat’s own Piano Concerto, taken from a French broadcast and issued as a memorial to him on Erato LDE 3187 (LP only). Now that Erato is in the process of being dissolved, we can hardly expect this work to reappear on CD. Judging from the one small intriguing example of Nat’s own music on recording (a Pathe 78 on EMI’s miscellaneous set), his works might well be worth hearing.
Incidentally, the latest EMI transfers of the Chopin and Brahms works listed below have corrected the muffled quality heard on a previous EMI CD.
[The Nat Piano Concerto did appear on a later EMI reissue collecting all of Nat's recordings.]
Nearly as obscure as Buehlig, Freund made no 78s and only two LPs. While biographical information on her is also hard to come by, for once a CD edition gives us adequate background, thanks to a booklet written for Pearl by producer Allan Evans.
Freund was born in 1879. Her older brother Robert (1852-1936) studied with Moscheles and Tausig, and became friendly with Busoni and Brahms. He eventually introduced his younger sister to Busoni and to Brahms, both of whom became teachers of hers, Brahms only informally. She also became a friend of Bartok, and brief correspondence in the collected Bartok letters seems to indicate that the friendship may have developed into romance at some point.
After she married in 1910, Freund ended her concert career, although she gave some performances shortly before the Second World War. After the War she emigrated to the U.S., where she gave only a few performances. Fortunately, she also made her only recordings here, and performed for several radio broadcasts which have been preserved. Freund’s later life, which was occupied mostly with teaching, represents a major lost opportunity, as she was still playing well in her late eighties and could have made stereo recordings. She died in 1977, at the age of 98.
Freund’s two LPs were made for the Remington company. A collection of twelve Chopin Waltzes was issued only on Remington’s super-bargain Plymouth label (P12 125), and has become one of the most sought-after piano LP rarities. Unfortunately, it is not a good example of her playing, mostly well-executed but musically rather tentative. It is the other LP, a Brahms recital (Remington R 199 109), which has made Freund’s reputation, especially the powerful and thrilling performance of the Piano Sonata No. 3. For years there were rumors that yet another Plymouth LP, issued under an obvious pseudonym, was also Freund’s playing, but this now seems to have been definitively disproven.
The entirety of the Remington Brahms LP appears in Pearl’s CD set, along with private recordings, mostly from broadcasts, made between 1948 and 1958. It is hard to overstate the qualities of Freund’s performances, particularly their technical strength. You will never hear a better-executed or more musically satisfying version of the Brahms Sonata than hers. It’s also a treat to hear her playing music by her friend Bartok, even such insignificant little pieces. If Pearl’s engineer Seth Winner had to use a copy of the Brahms LP for his transfer, he did an amazing job with it, because it sounds as though it derives from a master tape. The other, unissued recordings are variable in sound quality but none of them sounds poor enough to inhibit our enjoyment of the performances.
Many other pianists of equal value belong in this survey. No doubt many readers will have their own additions, which the author, at least, would welcome (firstname.lastname@example.org). While approaching the space limits for this article, I simply had to make the arbitrary decision to add a few more pianists to a briefer “honorable mention” listing. But at least we can appreciate their work here.
The excellent Australian-born pianist William Murdoch (1888-1942) was hardly represented at all on LP. A beautifully produced CD of his Beethoven performances (Pearl GEM 0044) suggests that he was a major artist. Despite the lack of a repeat in the finale (doubtless dictated by timing considerations), his playing of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata is intense and thrilling, and amazingly virtuosic, nearly in a class with Richter’s. The disc also includes Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata and “Archduke” Trio, equally fine performances.
The three-CD collection devoted to Lubka Kolessa (1902-1997) (Doremi DHR-7743/5) demonstrates the superb playing of this Ukrainian pianist who ended her life in obscurity in Canada. The set includes numerous items from 78s including a powerful Beethoven Third Concerto with Karl Bohm conducting, and the complete contents of her two Concert Hall Society LPs (Brahms and Schumann). There is also a major discovery, a live performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 from 1936 with Max Fiedler conducting. Regrettably the recordings have been subjected to Doremi’s typical interventionist sound processing, dulling their sound quality and making them more difficult to listen to than they should have been. One still hears the remnants of a titan.
There is even more difficulty in listening to the recorded legacy of Ignace Tigerman (1893-1968), like Buehlig a major pianist who never made any commercial recordings. The amazing story of producer Allan Evans’ investigations and discovery of unpublished Tigerman private recordings is contained in the booklet accompanying his CD issue (Arbiter 116). Some of the recordings are so poor, plagued with flutter and other defects, that they are almost impossible even for an iron-eared listener like myself to appreciate. But the two surviving movements from a broadcast of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (from Cairo, Tigerman’s home) are enough to convince me that Tigerman deserved the comment from Ignaz Friedman: “the greatest talent I ever worked with.”
Ernst Levy (1895-1981) was one of my teachers at Brooklyn College in the early 1960s. At the time I knew him only as an interesting lecturer, and I had no idea of his earlier career as a pianist or his ongoing activity as a composer. A major part of Levy’s recorded legacy as a pianist appears in two two-disc sets from the Marston label (52007-2 and 52021-2), which I gather are teetering precariously on the verge of deletion. Although he had a composer’s analytical mind, the most impressive aspect of Levy’s playing is the way he conveys the “big picture” in huge works like the Liszt Sonata and Beethoven “Hammerklavier.” Levy’s is challenging, aggressive playing, deeply satisfying to hear. As a fine bonus, the first set also gives us a chance to hear some of Levy’s own music (a previously unpublished recording made for Columbia’s Modern American Music series).
And finally, just to demonstrate that all the forgotten giants haven’t vanished from the earth, one living pianist: Jacob Lateiner (1928- ). Although Lateiner still teaches actively at the Juilliard School, he is rarely asked to perform in public. My critical discography of Lateiner’s recordings appeared in a Festschrift published in his honor (1). Regrettably, it reveals that, aside from his chamber music recordings with Jascha Heifetz, only one of Lateiner’s recordings has ever been issued on CD (a Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto), and that he has made no new recordings in more than three decades. Considering a pianist noted for the profundity of his Beethoven interpretations as well as his dedication to contemporary music (including the premiere performances and recording of Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto), this neglect is inexplicable, depriving us of the mature work of one of our major pianists.
Rosita Renard at Carnegie Hall. Bach: Partita No. 1; Mozart: Sonata in A Minor, K. 310; Rondo, K. 485; Mendelssohn: Variations sÃ©rieuses; Prelude, Op. 104, No. 1 Chopin: 9 Etudes; 2 Mazurkas; Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales; Debussy: Danse (Carnegie Hall, January 19, 1949); Beethoven: Sonata No. 16, in G, Op. 31, No. 1; works of Boccherini, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin (3), Strauss/Schulz-Evler, & Santa Cruz (all c. 1928). Rosita Renard, piano. VAI Audio VAIA/IPA 1028-2 (issued 1993).
Richard Buehlig. Bach: Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue, BWV 903; The Well-Tempered Clavier–Prelude & Fugue No. 23, BWV 891; Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 29 & 30. Richard Buehlig, piano Dante HPC 015 (recorded 1938, issued 1995).
Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 31 & 32. Youra Guller, piano. Nimbus NI 5061 (recorded 1973, issued 1987), Erato 98527 2.
Chopin: 11 Mazurkas; 4 Nocturnes. Youra Guller, piano. Dante HPC 021 (recorded 1956, issued 1995).
Youra Guller. Bach-Liszt: Fantasia & Fugue in G Minor; Prelude & Fugue in A Minor; works of M. Albeniz, Couperin, Rameau, Daquin, Balbastre, Chopin (2), & Granados (2). Youra Guller, piano. Nimbus NIM 5030 (recorded 1975, issued 1986).
Faure: Dolly; Ballade (TV); Nocturnes Nos. 4, 6 (T) & 7 (V). Magda Tagliaferro (T), Daniel Varsano (V), piano. CBS IM 37246.
Magda Tagliaferro. Villa-Lobos: Momoprecoce (French National Radio Orchestra, Heitor Villa-Lobos, cond.); 10 pieces; Schumann: Sonata No. 1; Chopin: Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante; Waltz No. 5; works of Falla (2), Granados (3), Albeniz (5), Mompou, & Debussy. Magda Tagliaferro, piano. EMI 69476 2 (recorded 1951-72, issued 1996).
Magda Tagliaferro. Chopin: Polonaises, Opp. 26 & 61; Brahms: Sonata No. 3; 3 Intermezzi; 2 Capricci; Rhapsody No. 1; Schubert: Sonata in A, D. 664; Schumann: Carnaval; St.-SaÃ«ns: Concerto No. 5 (Lamoureux Orchestra, Jean Fournet, cond.); Etude en forme de valse; works of Liszt (2), Weber, Granados (2), & Villa-Lobos (2). Magda Tagliaferro, piano. Philips 438 959-2 (recorded 1953/55, issued 1994).
Magda Tagliaferro, Volume 1. Hahn: Sonatine; Piano Concerto (orchestra, Reynaldo Hahn, cond.); Mozart: Sonata in B Flat, K. 454 (Denise Soriano, violin); Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26; Romance in F#, Op. 28. Magda Tagliaferro, piano. Dante HPC 088 (recorded 1934-37, issued 1998).
Magda Tagliaferro, Volume 2. Faure: Ballade (orchestra, Piero Coppola, cond.); Impromptus Nos. 2 & 3; Debussy: Pour le Piano; Jardins sous la pluie; works of Weber, Mendelssohn (2), Chopin (3), Albeniz, Mompou (2), Mozart, Granados, & Albeniz. Magda Tagliaferro, piano. Dante HPC 095 (recorded 1928-36, issued 1998).
Magda Tagliaferro. Debussy: Pour le Piano; 2 Arabesques; Lâ€™Isle joyeuse; works of Chabrier (2), Severac, Hahn, St.-SaÃ«ns, & FaurÃ© (2). Magda Tagliaferro, piano. Master Class MC 014 (recorded 1970, issued 2000).
Beethoven: 32 Sonatas; 32 Variations in c. Yves Nat, piano. EMI 62901 2 (8 CDs) (recorded 1953-55, issued 1989).
Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26; Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (2 versions); Fantasiestucke, Op. 12; Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 (orchestra, Eugene Bigot, cond.); Papillons, Op. 2; Kreisleriana, Op. 16; 3 Romances, Op. 28; Fantaisie in C, Op. 17; Humoreske, Op. 20; Etudes Symphoniques en forme de variations; Toccata, Op. 7; Novellettes, Op. 21. Yves Nat, piano. EMI 67141 2 (4 CDs) (recorded 1939-56, issued 1990).
Yves Nat. Schubert: Moments musicaux, D. 780; Chopin: Sonata No. 2, in B Flat Minor, Op. 35; Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Waltz No. 14; Brahms: 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117; Franck: Variations symphoniques (Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Gaston Poulet, cond.); Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; Stravinsky: 3 Scenes from “Petrouchka”–Russian Dance; Nat: Pour un petit moujik. Yves Nat, piano. EMI 69461 2 (2 CDs) (recorded 1929-1955, issued 1996).
Etelka Freund. Brahms: Sonata No. 3, in F Minor, Op. 5; Scherzo in E Flat Minor, Op. 4; Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; 3 Intermezzi, Capriccio, Op. 76, No. 1; Mendelssohn: Fantasia in F Sharp Minor, Op. 28; Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier–4 excerpts; Liszt: Funerailles; Legend of St. Francis Preaching to the Birds; Valse oubliÃ©e No. 1; Impromptu in F Sharp; works of Kodaly (2) & Bartok (11). Etelka Freund, piano. Pearl GEMM CDS 9193 (2 CDs) (recorded 1948-58, issued 1996).
(1) Brubaker, Bruce, and Jane Gottlieb, Eds. Pianist, Scholar, Connoisseur: Essays in Honor of Jacob Lateiner. Stuyvesant, New York, Pendragon Press, 2000, pp. 243-50.