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Moura Lympany’s Decca recordings have always generated enthusiasm for their repertoire and their high technical and interpretative standards. Her relationship with the company was sometimes terse – indeed something nearer to stormy – but the seven CDs in this box bring together just over a decade’s worth of commitment, one that mirrored her increasing prominence in a Britain wracked by war and then by post-war privation. Not only were there disc competitors to worry Decca – hence the decision making that informed many of her early discs – but there was a raft of eminent pianists on the local scene; Solomon, Curzon, Moisewitsch, Hess, Pouishnoff, Matthews, Smith, Joyce and Sellick being amongst the most well-known.
One of her most well-known undertakings was to record the Rachmaninov Preludes, which she did three times in all in her career (the first two cycles are here). She only had two Preludes in her repertoire at the start, so had to learn the remainder over the period of 15 months that it took to record the 1941-42 cycle. In doing so she surpassed the composer himself and her fellow-Matthay pupil Eileen Joyce, who had managed six by this point. The critical admiration the discs received was not matched by material reward. By the end of 1942 the complete set had netted her just over £9 in royalties, and Decca was paying 10% royalties per disc, unlike HMV’s 5%.
This first set was quite recently issued on Eloquence 482 6266 (review) and in Philip R Buttall’s review he makes reference to her subsequent traversals. The second cycle was recorded in altogether more focused circumstances – two sessions in May 1951 and issued on LP – and marked her first return to Decca’s studios after several years recording for HMV. Walter Legge had wanted to record her for his company from the very start but she had initially chosen Decca. Both these cycles are invaluable; the earlier the more impulsive, dramatic and very occasionally accident-prone, the 1951 cycle powerful but more poised and better recorded.
Lympany recorded Chopin’s Sonata in B minor in April 1947 but it was never issued. She had noted that the records weren’t up to Decca’s usual standards; indeed, her then husband, who was effectively her manager, added that they ‘sounded as if Miss Lympany was playing behind closed doors’. She offered to re-record the work, subject to approval from HMV, for whom she had now signed a contract but it never happened. Expertly transferred here by Andrew Hallifax with audio restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn has made a rejected work, preserved on test pressings, into a now-excellent example of her art. This is the most important of the previously unpublished items in this set. The remainder of this second disc reflects that period in 1947 when she was recording to meet her obligations to Decca before she could transfer to HMV; there’s a sparking Mendelssohn Rondo brilliant to go with the Capriccio brilliant made two years earlier. Of sterner stuff is Liszt’s First Concerto with the National Symphony conducted by the solid Royalton Kisch; rely on the booklet for the conductor, not the CD sleeve which claims it’s Boyd Neel. But don’t overlook Lympany’s clarity and directness.
The Schumann Concerto, recorded in 1947 and also with Kisch, opens disc three.
This was a work Beecham had asked her to play with his fledgling RPO in
Croydon the previous year (review). She was taught the Mathilde Verne way in this work, with a rather moderato approach to the first movement, a light, fleet Intermezzo, and a relaxed finale. There’s plenty of lyricism throughout. She and Sidney Beer, who was very active during the war years, recorded the Grieg in 1944 but it was rejected. They tried again in March 1945 and the results passed the test. I happen to find both of these concertos sound rather boxy and the Schumann is interpretatively superior, though the Grieg was certainly much admired. The remainder of the disc is given over to some virtuoso solo music – Dohnányi’s Capriccio in F minor, Poulenc’s Novelette No.1 (brilliantly dispatched) and Balakirev’s piledriver Islamey. As ever she marries dexterity and lyricism.
The fourth disc is all-concerto. Saint-Saëns’ Concerto No.2 was something of a
staple of hers. She played it at the First Night of the 1943 Proms with Henry
Wood though, alas, the second movement was too poorly preserved to appear on
Somm’s release (review). Her partner here is Warwick Braithwaite and she remade the work in 1951 with Jean Martinon. This last is somewhat more urgent in the first movement, and rather better recorded too, but otherwise the conception is much the same, as one would surely expect. Though she was soon known as a Russian specialist she had an equal affinity for the Gallic muse. The big surprise in this disc is the existence of an October 1945 BBC transcription set of Rawsthorne’s Piano Concerto No.1, made with the BBC Symphony and Adrian Boult for broadcast. Louis Kentner became associated with this work but it was Lympany who recorded it commercially with the Philharmonia and Herbert Menges in 1956. This earlier version is the more kinetic and the more dramatic, with an especially compelling reading of the central Chaconne. She and Boult had first performed it together the previous year in Paris, just after the Liberation and it’s a relatively rare example of her way with contemporary British music. The other rarity is her Barber Sonata, previously unpublished, and recorded in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in December 1950, once again for broadcast. This certainly wasn’t the work’s first British performance, as Robert Wallenborn had played it before her, but she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have heard Horowitz or Firkušný play it. The recording quality is good if cramped and does splinter a little, but it offers compelling evidence of her mastery of modern repertory for the instrument.
Both booklet discography and CD sleeve (but not annotator Stephen Siek in his notes) err in claiming the conductor of Lympany’s famous Rachmaninov Third Concerto is Anthony Lewis – he of Baroque fame; Anthony Collins is meant. It’s housed in CD6 and a testament to her virtuosity, flair and stylistic affiliation. One of her lasting achievements is the Khachaturian Concerto which she recorded twice, both times with Fistoulari. I reviewed the later 1952 recording in its incarnation on Guild GHCD2427 (review) but this box offers a good opportunity to compare and contrast with the much less often encountered 1945 version. I’ve always preferred the more combative stance of this May 1945 78rpm set to the slightly less volatile LP remake. She had long wanted to make the first recording of this work but Decca held back, allowing William Kapell to get in first. Lympany’s version was recorded a few months later and released much later in the year. Given that her Grieg was not released until a year after it was made – to allow the commercial dust to settle after the Rubinstein-Ormandy recording appeared – it was inevitable that the discontent she felt toward the company should resurface. Even so, by 1947 her Decca royalties had risen astronomically, and we’re told by Siek in his panoramic and erudite booklet notes that they amounted to over £1,500 per annum.
The 1951-52 Rachmaninov Preludes and Concerto and Khachaturian recordings are on Decca Original Masters 4756368. The 1951 Rachmaninov Preludes are also on Testament. However, this enticing box set presents her entire Decca legacy of the period between 1941 and 1952, adding the Rawsthorne and Barber broadcasts and the rejected Chopin sonata and all invaluable additions to her legacy on disc.
The restorations have been splendidly realised and make the best case for recordings that can sometimes be splintery and distant. Kudos to Siek, too, for such a well-informed, insightful and extensive booklet essay that includes numerous photographs and reproductions of letters and materially enhances the pleasure – and value – of this excellent project.
RACHMANINOV Complete Preludes (1941-43 recording)
CHOPIN Piano Sonata No. 3 (previously unpublished Decca recording)
MENDELSSOHN Capriccio brillant (National Symphony Orchestra/Boyd Neel)
Rondo brillant (LSO/Royalton Kisch)
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 (National Symphony Orchestra/Royalton Kisch)
CD 3 SCHUMANN Piano Concerto (LSO/Royalton Kisch) GRIEG Piano Concerto (National Symphony Orchestra/Sidney Beer)
DOHNÁNYI Capriccio in F minor, Op. 28 No. 6
POULENC Novelette No. 1 in C major
BALAKIREV Islamey – Oriental Fantasy
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 (National Symphony Orchestra/Warwick Braithwaite)
KHACHATURIAN Piano Concerto (LSO/Anatole Fistoulari, 1945)
RAWSTHORNE Piano Concerto No. 1 (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult: previously unpublished broadcast recording)
RACHMANINOV Complete Preludes (1951 recording)
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 (LPO/Jean Martinon) RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 (New Symphony Orchestra/Anthony Collins)
KHACHATURIAN Piano Concerto (LPO/Anatole Fistoulari, 1952)
BARBER Piano Sonata (previously unpublished BBC broadcast recording)