arrau early years marston

Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 2003 and the recording is still available.

Claudio Arrau (piano)
The Early Years: The Complete Pre-War Recordings
rec. 1921-39
Marston 52023-2 [2 CDs: 145]

Marston has rectified a serious omission in Claudio Arrau’s (1903-1991) discography by compiling, in a slimline double CD set, his complete pre-War recordings. Much has previously, if rather haphazardly, been available on Dante, EMI and on Pearl amongst others but the earliest recordings, for Aeolian Vocalion, made in 1921 have seldom since seen the light of day. He made this brace of discs as an eighteen year old in London, a situation doubtless engineered as a result of his recent London debut, playing of all things the Goldberg Variations, on the same bill as Nellie Melba. The straight talking Australian characteristically objected when the young pianist received too much applause. But his career really took off when he won the Geneva piano Competition in 1927 – jurors Cortot, Rubinstein, da Motta, and Pembauer – and then the Martin Krause pupil began a lengthy series of recordings in Germany for Polydor.

The very first recordings he made – of the Chopin Waltz in F and the Schubert Moment Musical – make an interesting contrast; the former is attractive though hardly startling but the latter very deliberate, with far too many youthfully forced rubati. Seven years later, at the age of twenty-five, he was recording for Polydor in Berlin. The Paganini-Liszt Etudes are full of operatic impress and drama but his Islamey teems with lashing virtuosity and has some dazzling moments. The remake of the same Chopin Waltz he’d already recorded in London in 1921 is good, brisk but a little garbled at the climax. The C sharp minor Etude is again an example of his not unfeeling but certainly strongly etched Chopin playing whilst the remake a year later – issued in a disc containing three Etudes and a Prelude – is better still; fast certainly but full of the most acute structural control and clarity. The Prelude in F is beautifully poetic and the Etude in E (Op 10/3) similarly distinguished in its tonal production.

The second disc starts in 1928 – the discs are broadly but not absolutely chronological because the previous recordings were all waxed in a series dating from January 1929. Liszt, Chopin and Schumann are the composers represented in this decade’s worth of discs with a couple of pieces by Debussy as well. Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este is vividly played; the sense of animation is visceral and the wide frequency range, thankfully unattenuated by Ward Marston, allows one to appreciate Arrau’s mastery of tonal gradation. The Rapsodie espagnole is abridged but still powerful and virtuosic. His Chopin Etude in F Op 10 No 8 is effortlessly quick but questionably effective. As for the recording of Schumann’s Carnaval, made on 3-4 April 1939, I have very mixed feelings. The Préamble is very combustible with tempo extremes built in, Pierrot choppy and mannered, like a hobbled march. Arlequin by contrast is simply too fast and unstable for comfort. I liked the Valse noble but Eusebius – what was Arrau thinking of? – is indolent and woefully undercharacterised. He does seem from here on to respond rather better but there are still as many ups as there are downs. Papillons is rushed through, Chiarina over excited with hyper-rubati that simply call attention to themselves, whereas Chopin is quite beautiful. Paganini is expertly judged, not too much showing off, Promenade fine and if he uses less pedal than seems to me ideal in the final Davidsbündler movement it’s still a fine ending. His Debussy is generally underestimated; the 1939 recording labelled Danse (actually it’s the Tarantelle styrienne) has the most delicate tracery and gorgeous tone and Jardins sous la pluie is not far behind in its tonal effulgence; marvellous playing. The programme ends with two good but not elite performances of more Chopin, the A flat Ballade and C sharp minor Scherzo.

The recordings are highly successful; fidelity and sensitivity have been exercised. The documentary notes have full recording details and biographical and other material written by Jed Distler. No Arrau admirer would want to be without it.

Jonathan Woolf

Availability: Marston Records

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Waltz in F Op 34/3
Etude in F minor Op 10/9
Etude in C sharp minor Op 10/4
Etude in F minor Op 25/2
Prelude in F Op 28/23
Etude in A flat Op 25/1
Etude in E Op 10/3
Tarantelle in A flat Op 43
Etude in F Op 10/8
Ballade in A flat No 3 Op 47
Scherzo in C sharp minor No 3 Op 39
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Etudes d’exécution transcendente d’après Paganini
Nos 1, 2, 5 and 6
Années de pèlerinage Book 1
Au bord d’une source
Concert Etude No 2 in F minor La Leggierezza
Valse Mélancolique
Années de pèlerinage Book III
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
Rhapsodie espagnole [abridged]
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Moment Musical in F minor No 3
Hark, Hark, the Lark! Arranged by Franz Liszt
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Petrushka – Danse Russe
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Elegie No 5; Die Nächtlichen
Sonatina No 6 Chamber Fantasy on Carmen
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Carnaval Op 9
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Danse; Tarantelle styrienne
Estampes No 3; Jardins sous la pluie