Olga Samaroff (piano) & Frank La Forge (piano)
The Complete Recordings
rec. 1921-1930 (Samaroff), 1907-1925 (La Forge)
APR 6044
[2 CDs: 148]

Here are the complete solo piano recordings of two American pianists whose lasting impact was not as soloists; Samaroff had a successful concert career but she is mostly remembered as the teacher of a whole generation of pianists, William Kapell, Eugene List, Raymond Lewenthal and Richard Farrell amongst them while Frank La Forge went on to acclaim as an accompanist, playing for the likes of Marcella Sembrich, Johanna Gadski, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Lily Pons.

Olga Samaroff was born Lucy Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas in 1880. After lessons with her grandmother, also Lucy, she travelled to Paris and gained entry to the Conservatoire to study with Élie-Miriam Delaborde despite his disdain of Americans’ talent for music, or lack thereof; Why do Anglo-Saxons try to study music? Never can succeed, never play was his opinion until he decided that she may have talent after all as she had German ancestry. She did manage to learn a lot from him and began to build a career though Delaborde’s bias might have helped shape her decision to adopt a foreign sounding name as well as her determination to foster a generation of American pianists later in life. He also honed a dazzling and fearsome technique, a technique that is evident is Liszt’s la Campanella, the Ride of the Valkyries transcription and the finale of Chopin’s B minor Sonata, the latter so sure-footed and well conceived that one wishes she had recorded it all. This is doubtless a regret she shared as Victor records often only wanted popular pieces that either were not part of her repertoire or ones that she had any desire to play. She describes her bargaining with them – they would let me play a Rhapsody of Brahms if I would consent to record the Spring Song of Mendelssohn. The latter is here, laid down in May 1922 – I wonder what happened to the Rhapsody? In Samaroff’s defence the Mendelssohn is not exactly the coolest rendition it has ever had as she wryly described it; certainly it is quite serious but that is not a problem with a piece that can sound trite in some performances. The restrained playing contrasts with the third Liebesträume recorded a year earlier,  doubled bass notes, split playing between the hands and all passion in the central section. It clearly shows that she could sing with the best of them, equally demonstrated by her Chopin, lilting Brahms and the Grieg and Schumann items that are new to CD.

Her Moszkowski Étincelles sparkles appropriately while having more rubato than I expected and though her Liszt La Campanella also dazzles it is played quite straight, almost impersonally. My first experience of Samaroff was her fabulous performance of her teacher Ernest Hutcheson’s transcription of The Ride of the Valkyries and it still delights me; sitting with the score, easy to obtain now though almost impossible when I started collecting, I notice that she makes some little changes, adding texture here and there and generally managing to fit in even more notes. A brilliant rarity, Paul Juon’s étude Naiads at the spring from his collection Satyrs and Nymphs ends disc one, another glimpse into her enviable technique and singing tone.

Her final discs, just four sides recorded in 1930 are in wonderfully clear sound and show off her glorious pedalling and colour. Her arrangement of Bach’s G minor fugue harks back to the transcriptions of Liszt and Busoni but otherwise she plays quite recent repertoire with Debussy’s atmospheric prélude, Griffes White Peacock and Lecuona’s Malagueña; the latter had only been published two years earlier and had already been recorded by the composer and Armando Palacios. I am curious about Samaroff’s bass line in the lento à la capriccio section where Lecuona writes a low D natural; both times it appears she plays a low F natural resolving it to F sharp in the following bar to fit in with the D major arpeggios. Did she misread the note or was the discord/resolution a conscious choice? The Griffes is a magnificent tone poem that sits easily alongside any of Debussy’s impressionist pieces and is given fabulous reading. With the exception of Schumann’s Romance and Grieg’s Nocturne Samaroff’s discs were issued on OPAL CD9860; the excellent transfers by Seth Winner have been further restored by Andrew Halifax who also transferred the two additional Samaroff items as well as the complete solo recordings of the second pianist here.

Frank La Forge was born in Rockford, Illinois and studied in Chicago with Harrison Slater. His next teacher was the far more well known Viennese pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky through whom he became acquainted with Mark Hambourg and Ignaz Friedman. He also studied composition whilst in Vienna with Karl Nawrátil and blind musician Josef Labor who wrote left hand works for another Leschetizky pupil, Paul Wittgenstein. It was around this time that he met the Wagnerian soprano Johanna Gadski who was on the lookout for an accompanist, a chance meeting that forged a path for La Forge into the vocal world that would occupy the rest of his life. His first recordings were in 1904 accompanying Marcella Sembrich and it wasn’t until a little later that he recorded any solo items, recording 16 works between 1907 and 1913. His solo appearances died down after the war and it was only in 1925 that he returned to the studio to record his final solo discs – his disc of song accompaniments recorded fifteen or so years does not really count as ‘solo recordings’.

Not unusually there is a great deal of salon music here alongside record company favourites – Liszt’s Liebesträume No.3, Chopin’s D flat Nocturne – but there are also some of the earliest concerto recordings with orchestra, just a couple of years after Wilhelm Backhaus recorded the very first piano concerto, a highly truncated Grieg. As Backhaus omitted the adagio La Forge’s release would handily provide early collectors with a three movement if extremely abbreviated Grieg Concerto by 1911, ten years before Arthur de Greef’s complete version. The adagio un poco mosso from Beethoven’s Emperor concerto is very flexible in tempo, the unknown conductor setting a brisk pace before La Forge settles back into reflective mood for the piano’s opening espressivo triplet passages. The tempo quickens when the orchestra re-enters and now mostly stays there which may partly explain why the final semiquaver passages sound almost perfunctory. Other than that La Forge charms as he does in the Grieg. His fingerwork in the Liszt Hungarian Fantasy isn’t the crispest I have heard and the band – I hesitate to say orchestra – sounds rather short on parts in the tuttis. It is still interesting to hear these experiments into a new genre for the recording process. His Chopin sings – one would expect nothing less of a Leschetizky pupil – and if the rubato is more excessive in the berceuse it is no more than prevailing practice of the age with accelerandi through more decorative, florid passages. He may not have had the cast iron technique of Samaroff but he was no slouch at the keyboard as Gottschalk’s Pasquinade and two études, Macdowell’s étude de concert and the finger-twisting le Papillon by the Canadian composer Calixa Lavallée amply demonstrate. A short selection of Chaminade’s wonderful miniatures show how popular she was at the time. La Forge is more romantic in the handkerchief dance than Chaminade is in her 1901 recording and also includes the central dance of the veils that is usually omitted. I am even more delighted to welcome four of his own salon pieces; they are idiomatically written and very engaging and include a short mock baroque gavotte and a superb concert waltz Souvenir de Vienne that easily captures the spirit of the Viennese dance that he undoubtedly heard in his formative years. His Romance has echoes of the Russian romantics while his valse de concert is an even more virtuosic evocation of the dance; any of these would make for a surprising encore nowadays and I’m glad to make their acquaintance.

Dr Geoffrey McGillen’s notes to the OPAL Samaroff release have been reproduced here and Donald Manildi provides valuable reference material on La Forge. The sound is fabulous with detail audible in the highest reaches of the keyboard even in La Forge’s early discs and with such vibrant and downright enjoyable playing from both pianists it makes me wish that they had recorded more. We can at least enjoy what we have thanks to this fascinating and welcome release.

Rob Challinor

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Presto Music
Arkiv Music


Olga Samaroff
Victor Co. acoustic discs

Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827) arr. Anton Rubinstein(1829-1894)
Turkish March
from Ruins of Athens – rec. Apr 1921
Frédéric Chopin
Nocturne in E flat major Op.9 No.2 – rec. Jan 1923
Ballade No.3 Op.47 – rec. Oct 1923 and March 1924
Sonata in B minor No.3 Op.58 – finale – rec. Apr 1923
Felix Mendelssohn
Song without words
Op.62 No.6 Spring song – rec. May 1922
Robert Schumann
No.2 from Fantasiestücke Op.12 – rec. Oct 1923
Romance in F sharp major Op.28 No.2 – rec. March 1924
Johannes Brahms
Intermezzo in E flat Op.117 No.3 – rec. Jan 1923
Franz Liszt
La Campanella
No.3 from Grandes études de Paganini S.141 No.3 – rec. Jun 1922
No.3 S.541 No.2 – rec. May 1921
Hungarian Rhapsodie
No.12 in C sharp minor S.244 No.12 – rec. Oct 1023 and Mar 1924
Richard Wagner
(1813-1883) arr. Ernest Hutcheson (1871-1951)
Ride of the Valkyries
from Die Walküre – rec. Jun 1922
Edward Grieg
No.4 from Lyric Pieces Op.54 – rec. May 1922
Moritz Moszkowski
No.6 from Morceaux Caractéristiques Op.36 – rec. May 1921
Claude Debussy
Clair de lune
No.3 from Suite bergamasque – rec. May 1924
Paul Juon
Najaden in Quell
No.1 from Satyre und Nymphen Op.18 – rec. Jan 1923

Victor Co. electric recordings

Johann Sebastian Bach
(1685-1750) arr. Olga Samaroff (1880-1948)
Fugue in G minor BWV.578 – rec. June 1930
Claude Debussy

La Cathédrale engloutie
No.10 from Prélude book 1 – rec. June 1930
Charles Tomlinson Griffes
The White Peacock
No.1 from Roman sketches Op.7 – rec. Oct 1930
Ernesto Lecuona
No.6 from Andalucia – rec. June 1930

Frank La Forge
Victor Co. acoustic recordings

Edward MacDowell
Étude de concert in F minor Op.36 – rec. Nov 1907
Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No.5 Op.73 ii Adagio un poco moto (exc) rec. Oct 1912
Frédéric Chopin

Nocturne in D flat major Op.27 No.2 – rec. May 1911
Op.57 – rec. Sept 1913
Edvard Grieg

No.1 from Lyric Pieces Op.43 – rec. May 1911
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16 ii adagio (slightly abridged) – rec. June 1911
Franz Liszt

No.3 S.541 No.2 – rec. May 1911
Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Themes
S.123 vivace only – rec. Oct 1912
Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Pasquinade ‘caprice’
RO.189 Op.59 – rec. Oct 1912
Cécile Chaminade
La Lisonjera
Op.50 – rec. May 1911
Les Sylvains
Op.60 – rec Sept 1913
Callirhoë – suite for piano
from the ballet – Pas des Écharpes – rec. Sept 1912
Danse créole (2nd Havanaise)
Op.94 – rec. Oct 1912
Calixa Lavallée
Le Papillon – étude de concert
Op.18 – rec. Jan 1908
Frank La Forge
Gavotte – rec. Jan 1908
Souvenir de Vienne
– rec. May 1911

Victor Co. electric recordings – rec. May 1925

Frank La Forge

Valse de concert

Victor Orchestra with unknown conductor (Beethoven and Liszt concertante)
Victor Orchestra/Walter Rogers (Grieg Concerto)