Virtuosity Rekindled: Neglected Pianists Blaze Anew On CDs

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Once upon a time: Warner’s 9-CD, 2-DVD set documents the extraordinary talent of Yehudi’s younger sister, Hephzibah. (Jacket cover detail)

Hephzibah Menuhin Homage. 9 CDs, 2 DVDs. Warner Classics 90295270315
Pierre Barbizet – Complete Erato & HMV Recordings. 14 CDs. Erato 9029518762 
Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings
. 10 CDs. ELQ4841302

Great pianists are emerging from the shadows with substantial box sets that remind you how much fame and artistry are anything but synonymous.

Especially with pianists. A major competition win can make a career overnight – and devour one’s personal life. Quickly, the shine wears off the touring lifestyle. Management comes and goes. And those are only two explanations for why even those who assiduously keep up with concert pianists, past and present, can draw a blank over box sets by artists whose names are only vaguely familiar.

Hephzibah Menuhin – Homage (Warner Classics, nine CDs, two DVDs, 019029527-315) documents Yehudi Menuhin’s just-as-talented younger sister, despite the odds against tracking down recordings by an artist who was as much a human rights activist as she was a pianist.

Pierre Barbizet: The Complete Erato and HMV Recordings (Erato, 14 CDs, 0190295) traces the career of this Chilean-born pianist, who won the International Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaut Competition in 1949 but is known mainly as the recital partner for violinist Christian Ferras. He as a drinking buddy with Samson François and simply opted out of concert life in 1963: Barbizet become director of the Marseilles Conservatory, where his students included Hélène Grimaud and Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Ruth Slenczynska – Complete American Decca Recordings (Deutsche Grammophon/Eloquence, ten CDs, ELQ4841302) surveys one of many heydays for the now-90-something American pianist who has the distinction of having studied with both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alfred Cortot but ultimately retreated into a university residency position. 

These box sets can’t be expected to do full justice to their subjects. With Barbizet and Menuhin, how do you define musicians who were known by who they were with, more than who they were? Often, the discographies are scattered over so many labels that the licensing fees could sink the project. But these boxes represent an important development in the evolution of the international recording industry – to retrieve from obscurity catalogue recordings by important musicians who wouldn’t be nearly so shadowy were they alive and working in today’s world of self-made recordings.

Often the recordings that do survive were made under circumstances that don’t always let their artistic voices come through. Slenczynska was the first-tier artist on the second-tier American Decca label, which often pressed its discs on some sort of plastic hybrid that tended to wear out. Try chasing down some of Barbizet’s solo discs: You have to take whatever grimy copy you can find, and mine sound terrible. Menuhin played a wide repertoire when living in Australia, but her radio recordings went largely un-preserved. Unlike Arthur Rubinstein, whose artistic trajectory is easily traceable because his repertoire was recorded at all stages of his career, these artists have large gaps in their legacies. One assembles their artistic personalities through a series of fragments.

Child prodigy Ruth Slenczynska, concertizing at age 4. (SIUE.edu)

Slenczynska, for example: Born in 1925 in Sacramento, she was driven obsessively by her father and had one of the most exploitative child prodigy biographies of all time. She was concertizing by age 4, not stopping until her late teens, when critics detected that her playing was more about how she was told to play than how she felt the music. Later, as an anonymous University of Southern California student, she still played privately, building her own musical personality step by step before re-emerging, as documented by this box set with recordings made between 1956 and 1963. By then, she had become a law unto herself. Analytical listening is nearly impossible. She’s a tidal force that you either accept or not.

That kind of pianism would naturally prompt label execs to demand middle-brow encores. The well-played concertos are a bit more upmarket – Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and a particularly excellent Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 – but still not the Brahms and Rachmaninoff concertos one wants to hear from her. Luckily, much Chopin is here – etudes, preludes, and ballades – that show what a pianist is truly made of.

This is playing of steep contrasts, with compelling, rumbling bass lines and great rhythmic vitality. But even in her most blazing moments, the sound always has a veneer that feels right for whatever she’s playing. Even in the most dense welter of notes, there’s time and place for everything. Ornamental moments sound as if they’re blooming from the depths of the pianistic texture, momentarily slowing what feels like an unstoppable pulse. 

The Chopin waltzes may seem too brisk, too businesslike for any wistfulness or charm. But those postiive qualities do surface. While many pianists give Chopin a confiding air with rallentandos, Slenczynska sometimes finds greater expressive power in accelerandos that suggest racing hearts and mounting anxiety. However, one makes generalities about her playing only to find her contradicting them. Among the Chopin Preludes, the mysterious No. 2 has one of the most elongated endings I’ve ever heard, feeling like a tragically hesitant goodbye. Many of the preludes have such a succession of narrative events that No. 13 feels like a three-act play. And then No. 15 is more like a five-act play. Ballade No. 4 begins steadily and decisively, one might think almost inexpressively, until you realize how she’s developing the opening motif like a motto theme in a Tchaikovsky symphony, progressing into an expression of great existential weight – and maybe beyond that. Time and again in her playing, the clearly audible completion of a structural idea also translates into a greater level of emotional realization.

The new century became a new chapter for her. Slenczynska enjoyed the domestic normality denied to her as a child prodigy during her years as artist in residence at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville from the mid-1960s until the 2001 death of her second husband (a fellow faculty member). Then, a teaching engagement at Soochow University in Taipei led to annual visits to Japan for concerts and recordings. Thus, listeners jump from Slenczynska’s artistic spring to her Indian summer, where the kinds of personality touches in her Decca recordings are even more original and convincing in the hard-to-obtain 11-CD The Art of Ruth Slenczynska, on the Liu MAER label. Maybe if the Decca box is a success, these later recordings will become more available.

Though the Menuhin and Barbizet box sets exist partly to showcase their artistry as soloists, they can’t help but be dominated by their seamlessly unified chamber-music performances with high-octane soloists. How well they asserted themselves within those narrow bounds can sometimes be decided by the original recording’s engineer: We’re talking about the pre-Martha Argerich era of chamber music, when pianists were often considered accompanists.

Luckily, Hephzibah Menuhin (1920-1981) enjoyed sibling deference rather than rivalry with her famous brother Yehudi. Because she didn’t push herself from a career standpoint, her recording presence may have much to do with his encouragement and clout — but mostly for their extraordinary musical rapport. They were truly singular. As happy as I am to revisit her Philips-label recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas on this set with George Pieterson, it can’t touch the adventurousness, even recklessness, of her performances with Yehudi on video in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and the Franck Violin Sonata seen on the set’s DVDs.

Photos suggest she was a stoic presence, something like Emma Thompson in sensible shoes. What a surprise to find in one extensive DVD interview that she was extremely lively, with a devilish glint in her eye. She had married an Australian sheep farmer, concertized extensively in Melbourne for the war effort, became a major presence in Australia, and performed a huge variety of concerto repertoire. Then a second marriage to a sociologist who shared her humanitarian ideals put her in an iffy section of London, where they opened their doors to the needy, even when the visitors felt the need to destroy their pianos. She frequently intersected with Yehudi both in concert and in the recording studio, as long as she was physically able before succumbing to cancer in 1981.

Hephziba and brother Yehudi Menuhin in 1963 (Wiki Commons)

The selections here, curated by the eminent filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, cover her entire chronology in ways puzzling and revelatory. Overlap with the 2016 Menuhin Century box set is natural. The 1965 Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 14 (K. 449) and 19 (K. 459) with the Menuhin Festival Orchestra have to be there: These studio recordings are up there with the finest-ever Mozart concerto recordings – including the collaborations of Lili Krauss/Pierre Monteux and Peter Serkin/Alexander Schneider (both RCA). Hephzibah’s sense of color, phrase inflection, weight, and tempo feel consistently right, but with a sense of constantly unfolding spontaneity rather than a pre-meditated interpretive concept. Most important, her ever-varying tone is beautifully captured by the engineering. If any single recording testifies to her greatness, it’s this one. As with The Menuhin Century box, the disc is filled out by Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 for two pianos, though replacing the 1964 studio recording with Fou Ts’ong with a live, 1976 outing with Jeremy Menuhin, Yehudi’s son. Hephzibah was best heard live, though conditions were sometimes far from optimal.

A television broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 has her strangely mismatched with conductor Rudolf Kempe, with her holding her ground next to some surprisingly blunt, harsh orchestral sonorities. Since both Hephzibah and Yehudi were disciples of the composer/violinist George Enescu, their performances of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 3, Op. 25, carry special authority in their 1936 or 1966 studio recordings. But the 1973 live outing from Bucharest heard here is on a whole other level of controlled wildness. A 1960 BBC performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, leaves you wanting more. But the same disc ends with Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer with a high-powered vocal quartet (including Janet Baker), in which Hephzibah is only an incidental presence.

At first, the great prize of the set promises to be a 1950 Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra under Fernando Previtali. Hephzibah reportedly loved Brahms, but one’s heart sinks in the opening bars. Not only is the sound quality compromised, but the pitch is unstable. The set’s producers could have done better than this. Subsequent hearings, however, are significantly different experiences. Once accustomed to the recording’s limited sound world, one hears an incredibly animated response to every phrase, bar, and note. Yes, this is the set’s great prize, but with an asterisk. Oddly missing is her notable Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yehudi conducting that was included in the Menuhin Century box. Maybe a licensing problem? Or a budgetary restriction? Who knows what is behind these decisions. We’re extremely fortunate to have what is here.

Among these pianists, Barbizet (1922-1990) is the least known to Americans, though concert posters from his duo recitals with Christian Ferras show their names in equally large, imposing typefaces. Barbizet still performed and made recordings after turning to teaching in his mid-40s, and that later-life period is what I first discovered, convincing me that he was a great pianist. These recordings, most notably Schubert’s intense, meditative Moments Musicaux, are heard on the Lyrinx label.

This Erato-label box suggests the younger Barbizet was a case of multiple musical personalities. With Ferras, he creates a respectful frame. And how could he do otherwise in the face of this incredibly poetic talent who balanced pre-war portamento with post-war dignity?

But in all other recordings here – such as Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, with Quatuor Parrenin – Barbizet is a highly imposing presence with a taste for brisk tempos and phrases contoured with purposefully sharp edges. For me, the set’s knockout is Berg’s Chamber Concerto with Ferras under the direction of Georges Prêtre. Few recordings – especially of this era – command this complex piece with such a personal stamp. A trio of Beethoven piano sonatas (No. 23, Op. 57, Appassionata; No. 26, Op. 81a, Les Adieux; and No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2, Moonlight) suggest that he had been listening to the post-war experiments with historically authentic instruments: Sonority is contained, and phrasing is clipped, though, unlike some historically informed outings, never do these performances feel provisional. There’s conviction in every bar. Two CDs are taken up by Barbizet’s 1980s complete Chabrier piano music recordings – no doubt inspired by the short Chabrier disc he made in the mid-1950s. There’s some great music here but not to the extent that is found in the composer’s operas. The recordings are pleasant enough, but given the large repertoire gaps in Barbizet’s discography, you can’t say this was time well spent.

But then, he did play with Ferras, one of the great violinists of the century, even amid the alcoholic decline that led to the violinist’s 1982 suicide. Their two recordings of Faure’s Violin Sonata No. 1 chart an interesting progression: The 1957 mono recording defines each event with subtle tempo manipulation that takes you deeper inside the piece, while their 1964 recording has a more suave, cosmopolitan long-term sweep. Was the partnership losing what made it so special?

Ferras started to record concertos for Deutsche Grammophon in the plush environs of Herbert von Karajan while Barbizet was headed for a less career-centric life. They still converged – for a 1966 Chausson Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet recording, for example. Barbizet is at his best here, stepping out of the ensemble to make eloquent rhetorical points but easily melding back into the texture. That speaks to the strengths of him and other ensemble-minded pianists: They thrived in the shadows, but in ways that allowed them to re-emerge in a solo capacity with less egotistical artistic integrity. It’s a luxury of options that their more famous counterparts just didn’t have.