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Cantatas for Soprano
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Leff Pouishnoff (piano) The complete 78 rpm and selected Saga LP recordings
rec. 1922-1958, London APR 6022 [73:49 + 75:32]
Asking the question who they consider the greatest pianist of all time to be will attract a myriad of different responses; asked who they consider the greatest ever Beethovenian, Bachian, Handelian etc., and the result is likely to be in the same proportions. Someone who has posted on YouTube a recording of Chopin’s Barcarolle by a pianist who at the time was considered the greatest Chopinist has also garnered some responses which think that is true and several that regard it as hogwash. That pianist was Leff Pouishnoff, the Ukrainian-born pianist who spent most of his life in the UK.
I was lucky enough to have been born into a music-loving family; my parents loved attending concerts and in London in the 1930s there were plenty to go to and during the war they went to Dame Myra Hess’ concerts at the National Gallery. They also had a wind-up gramophone and plenty of weighty 78 rpm shellac records including the whole of Bach’s B Minor Mass which my brothers and I grew to adore. We went to concerts with our parents and saw some fantastic musicians including Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham, Aram Khachaturian, Sir Clifford Curzon, David and Igor Oistrakh and at a Robert Mayer Children’s Concert which we went to with our junior school (!), I saw Sir Arnold Bax take a bow after one of his works had been played. I consider the gift of loving music to be one of the greatest my parents gave me. As a result when I was at a holiday camp for children my parents sent me to, since we couldn’t afford to go on holiday as a family, and I saw a piano recital advertised on the pier I felt that since my parents had paid for me to go there they would approve of me going to the concert which I did (on my own – things were more relaxed circa 1950). I can’t remember what was played but I never forgot who the pianist was: Leff Pouishnoff. Therefore, when I saw this disc on the list of those for review I felt compelled to choose it.
Stephen Greenbank, a fellow MWI reviewer has already had his review posted and I refer you to that for greater detail about his life that I am going to include as that is only required once.
Apart from the Chopin Barcarolle, Glazunov Theme and Variations and the substantial Schubert piano sonata in G major all the pieces are short and sweet and he never recorded anything with an orchestra (more’s the pity) despite performing as soloist in concertos many times. I presume that he worked principally as a recitalist which was how he made most of his living and how I came to see him because it gave him the freedom to play when he wanted, what he wanted, where he wanted and to set his own terms. Even when he did play concertos it sometimes drew criticism; one critic wrote, following his playing of Saint-SaŽns’ fourth piano concerto at the 1923 Proms: “It is unfortunate that this fine pianist should again have been cast for a work so unworthy of his skill”. A real backhanded compliment!
It is inevitable that recordings from as long ago as 1922 will suffer from noise and as a result despite the best efforts of that re-mastering magician Mark Obert-Thorn the first really enjoyable item on the first disc is Liszt’s Gnomenreigen from 1922 in which Pouishnoff’s ability to making notes sound like a cascade of glittering diamonds is shown to the full, followed by a sumptuous-sounding Debussy Arabesque. Other delights include his own Chopinesque Quand il pleut, Petite Valse and Music Box. I also loved his arrangement of Schubert’s Ballet Music No.2 from Rosamunde as well Schubert’s Moment Musicale in F sharp minor, arranged by Godowsky.
The most substantial work on these discs is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G major, a recording from 1928, Schubert’s centenary year and Columbia chose Pouishnoff to record it. It is hard to contemplate that this was only the second time a complete Schubert sonata had ever been recorded, though it was 90 years ago! It is a wonderfully controlled and illuminating performance and one has the impression that Pouishnoff was well aware of the weight of expectation that would ensue from its release, though I doubt anyone was less than thrilled to purchase this historic ‘document’. When I looked out my own disc containing this sonata for comparison I thought someone had made a mistake somewhere because when I checked the timings of Pouishnoff’s reading against Michael Endres’ I saw that Endres is, by only 36 seconds, twice the length of Pouishnoff in the first movement though in the others they are more or less the same, bar the second in which Pouishnoff is getting on for two minutes longer than Endres! I remain to be convinced as to which version I prefer though Endres does seem slow in the extreme in that first movement yet the booklet writer makes no comment concerning his pacing. Listening to Pouishnoff’s recording immediately after Endres’ gives the impression of almost ‘breakneck’ speed but I think it would be interesting to hear any recording which takes its pace as somewhere in between the two. Perhaps it could be said that Pouishnoff doesn’t make enough of the pauses which, surprising as it may seem, often add massively to the overall effect an interpretation can exert on the listener.
Fascinated, I decided to look up other interpretations via the ‘magic’ of YouTube and found my jaw dropping even further when I saw that one of Sviatoslav Richter’s took 46 minutes for the whole sonata (others of his take as long as 48 minutes and vary by as much as five minutes) compared to Endres’ 39Ĺ and Pouishnoff’s 31:14!! I have always regarded Richter as one of the greatest pianists of all time but must admit that I found his playing of that first movement painfully slow. Glenn Gould on the other hand loved it. What is going on I wondered? These were the other timings I found: Wilhelm Kempff 30:54, Daniil Trifonov 34:25, Alfred Brendel 36:58, Radu Lupu 37:17, Arkady Volodos 39:19, Paul Lewis 41:07, and Claudio Arrau 45:33. Richter’s first movement took almost 26 minutes as compared to Pouishnoff’s 9:15! I couldn’t find another recording taken as slowly as Pouishnoff’s, apart from Wilhelm Kempff, yet it had seemed perfectly natural when I played it to begin with. With a difference for the entire work between Pouishnoff and Kempff and Richter’s longest being a full 17 minutes it takes interpretation to a whole other level and makes you wish that Schubert were around to choose his favourite or to pronounce on the optimum speed it should be taken at. Comments on these widely varying interpretations elicited widely varying opinions with those who regarded Richter’s as utterly sublime and unsurpassable and others who thought it too mannered and lethargic. Kempff’s interpretation drew one comment that said it “was celestial. The pearls of sound and conception came across like a meditation from a transcendent dimension”. There were similar reactions to several of the others, dividing opinion just as much as the question as to who people think is greatest pianist in history, or indeed who the greatest composer has been. This has been a thought-provoking exercise since it has made me listen to this work as I never have before and I’m still of the opinion that neither Pouishnoff’s nor Kempff’s is too far from the mark though clearly at least 7 other pianists take the pace considerably faster than they did. Finally I listened to the whole of Kempff’s whose interpretation I especially enjoyed (and who managed to make the most of pauses) and then Michiko Uchida’s take on the first movement which at 18:30 is also nearly twice the length of Kempff’s (10:48) and exactly twice Pouishnoff’s. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Schubert’s genius overrides all the variations in tempo apart from the slowest of all that I feel does take too many liberties. I would love to hear what listeners and readers of this review think.
I have always adored Schubert’s impromptus and I don’t think I could do without at least one on a desert island. The one on this disc is in fact among my favourites but this recording from 1928 doesn’t really do it justice. Once again it is as much a question of pace as anything else and this time I felt that Pouishnoff was too fast which results in a loss of subtlety. Listen to Brendel on YouTube whose rendition takes 6 minutes as opposed to Pouishnoff’s 3:48 and this time Richter at 7 minutes is also much nearer the mark with many also thinking it was sublime, though someone thought it too slow; talk about the sound is in the ear of the listener!
A couple of Liszt pieces close the first disc with his Waldesrauschen giving much pleasure with cascading notes coming over sharply and clearly while it is interesting to note that its companion piece Gnomenreigen is the exact same length in this 1929 recording as it was in 1922, so pace was something he was pretty consistent about.
Turning to the second disc there are seven more recordings that Pouishnoff made for Columbia with two Godowsky arrangements to start. Albťniz’s Tango nicely taking us to sunnier climes while the calm of Saint-SaŽns’ The Swan unfortunately suffers from more surface noise than even the mighty Mark Obert-Thorn could safely erase. Paderewski’s Caprice from two years before by contrast has been cleaned up wonderfully, giving us a brilliantly clear sound. The same goes for Glazunov’s Polka from 1926 making for a delightful little gem.
Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B flat major takes us away from the lollipops to much more serious fare and Pouishnoff deals with it in a fulsome delivery of considerable power. On the same day (20 May, 1927) he recorded Rachmaninov’s Polichinelle and Percy Grainger’s Shepherd’s Hey both of which show his ability to show subtlety in two completely contrasting pieces.
Now we leap forward 20 years to post war recordings from the archives first of HMV then another ten years later to those of Saga. By this time Pouishnoff’s career had gone downhill. I must agree with booklet writer Jonathan Summers when he points out that at this stage his career was in decline as much as anything because the public had moved on from being satisfied with musical trinkets and wanted what Classic FM calls ‘the full works’ and it seems that Pouishnoff was not really happy with performing long orchestral works despite the fact that he gave the premiere of the revised version of Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto in the 1920s. That would explain why someone of his stature would be prepared to give a recital on the pier of an English coastal town, perhaps being thankful to get the engagement. That said, these recordings for HMV of Chopin pieces contain some very satisfying playing which shows his obvious love and respect for the Polish master and his understanding of their essence. Again I agree with Summers’ contention that gone has the spark to be replaced by an element of sad reflection which, as he points out, works well in relation to his reading of Chopin’s ‘Nocturne in B major’ though to the final HMV recording of Chopin’s ‘Waltz in A flat major’ shows plenty of the old verve.
Of the final 5 works presented, four are by Chopin and were made following the signing of a new contract with the recently formed SAGA label which for a time helped lift the feelings of depression which coloured his last years. Once again Summers has it right when he says that these pieces show less of the incisive and insightful Pouishnoff and more of a somewhat mechanical approach towards playing which it would seem had become a chore and simply a way of earning a living rather than there being any real joy in performing. It is also true that the Barcarolle fares better than the rest and this could very well be because it is a longer piece that he was able to enter into to a greater extent and which could also explain why the final work of all, Glazunov’s Theme and Variations is also most enjoyable showing, as it does, some of the characteristic features of the ‘old Pouishnoff’ though it could also be because it was by his old teacher whom he venerated. There is plenty of that poetry in his playing here which had made many of his concerts so memorable in the past. It is a sad fact that these recordings were made in the final year before depression finally got the better of him and he succumbed to the taking of barbiturates washed down with whisky that ended his by now unhappy life leaving his widow depressed to the extent that she followed him a mere three weeks later in July 1959 by the same method. This was a truly regrettable end to what had at one time been a glittering career full of promise. I can’t help feeling that had he felt able to forsake the playing of lollipops in favour of pursuing a concert career playing the major works of the great composers he would have been better equipped to ride the waves of the years. In any event I am pleased that I managed to see him play live, the first big name I can remember seeing and though I cannot recall what he played it was likely to have been similar fare to what is contained in these two discs and I’m sure I enjoyed the programme and left the pier concert hall feeling pleased with myself for honouring my parents in this way. It is both enterprising and deserving of gratitude that APR have released this set, now the only example of Pouishnoff’s art, which will probably have a small sale in terms of numbers but will please as well as educate those who discover this great Ukrainian–born pianist from the early years of the 20th century.
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