Sunday, 30 June 2013

A British take on Bohemian composition

I have written on the London String Quartet before for my website [admittedly not updated for a year or more because its a complete faff and much easier to post on a blog] I can't think I have ever seen this Dvořák Quartet re-issued so thought it needed an outing.

London String Quartet
John Pennington (first violin) Thomas W. Petre  (second violin)
Harry Waldo Warner (viola) Charles Warwick Evans, (cello)

Dvořák: Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, S. 116
Allegro ma non troppo
Molto vivace
Finale: Vivace ma non troppo

Columbia L2092-2094 
[WAX3124-1; WAX3125-1; WAX3126-1
WAX3127-1; WAX3128-1; WAX3128-2]
Recorded: Monday 21st November 1927

Link (FLAC files, 73 MB)

The leader of the London String Quartet was originally Albert Sammons then James Levy and by 1928for  this recording it was John Pennington. Pennington was born in Bournemouth in 1902 and by 11 was playing in Sir Dan Godfrey's symphony concerts - probably just as illegal then as now. He became a member of the LSO, Covent Garden Opera Orchestra, leader of he first Wireless Orchestra during 1923-24 and concert master of the San Francisco orchestra from 1934 when the Quartet was disbanded for a time. I have not been able to find a photograph of the line up at the time the recording was made. The viola player Harry Waldo Warner had to retire in 1929 due to ill heath so I have instead included a photograph with his wife at the foot of this post.

An excellent article by Tully Potter can be found in Autumn 2010 issue of Classical Recordings Quarterly [Very well worth subscribing to by the way] He calls the performance 'so-so' I shall drop him a line on this as he may not have heard the performance in goodish sound - there are a few pitch problems in the set too that have been corrected here.

The London String Quartet.
Top to bottom: Warwick Evans, cello; John Pennington, first violin;
William Primrose, viola; Thomas Petre, second violin.

The Gramophone contains the following review for June 1928  'This is as fine a performance as one expects it to be with this excellent ensemble. The recording, though faultless, is slightly on the thin side, a fact which makes me wonder all the more whether it was a very happy idea of Dvořák's to use these tunes as material for a romantic string quartet which - small wonder - has a good deal more to do with the land of the Czechs than with U.S.A. I honestly feel that the fruitiness of the negro-idioms is far more suitable in shows like "The Black Birds " and others than in the little string quartet, however well written it is.'

'Discus' in The Musical Times for June 1928 has a brisk review and  liked the performance 'Chamber Music recordings have a popular addition in Dvořák s 'Nigger' Quartet, played by the London String Quartet, who give a sensitive performance of this beautiful quartet.'

The unfortunate appellation of the 'N' word was quite universal at this period, as can be seen from the label illustrated above. This thankfully starts to die out by the 1940s when the more acceptable 'American' was substituted. Neither is correct as Dvořák never gave any title to the work.

Probably the performance was thought to sound too British without enough Bohemian vitality and edge in it, but having listened to it a few times I think it has a spirit all of its own. The set was issued by Columbia in May 1928 and withdrawn  probably around January 1933 when Columbia replaced it with a performance given by the Lener String Quartet.

The Columbia Supplement for May 1928 seems slightly unsure of the recording quality as they explain in their blurb that 'The ensemble is so perfect that the four  play like one instrument. The fact that the beautiful viola playing of Mr Waldo Warner stands out a little above the rest is entirely due to the prominent place that Dvořák gave this instrument. it does not stand out a moment longer than it should and thus shows the perfect artistry of the quartet. The recording is very rich, and the string tone is perfectly reproduced.'

I quite like old W.W. Corbett's description of the piece in his Cyclopedia of Chamber Music OUP 1929 'Dvořák spent eight months in the chaos of metropolitan life in a society and nation quite strange to him, in journalistic world both sensational and polemical, amid vociferous praise and celebrations given in his honour; then suddenly he found himself in the strangely quiet beauty of the the heart of America, surrounded by a circle of Czech agriculturalist, worthy farmers, lusty peasants, cheery priests, and kindly old wives, who listened with tears in their eyes to the old church music of their native Bohemian villages which the musician played for the them on the organ at mass. here then, is the origin of the fundamental mood which inspired this charming, quickly written (in three days) [sometime between 8-23 June 1893] but detailed work, touches the places with painful yearning, yet with smiling, idyllic sentiment prevailing throughout.'

Rose & Harry Waldo Warner
Going completely off at a tangent the Rose in the photograph was born Rose Amy Pettigrew and was to  marry Harry in 1896. Daughter of a cork cutter, and one of 13 children she became, from an early age, a model who sat for Rudolph Onslow Ford, William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, John Everett Millais, Edward Poynter, Val Prinsep, John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert,  Philip Wilson Steer and James McNeill Whistler.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Best friend with Charles Ives

 Elie Robert Schmitz (Piano)

Debussy: Arabesque No. 2 in G Major
Debussy: Children's Corner - Suite  
5. The Little Shepherd  6. Golliwogg's Cake Walk  

Edison Diamond Disc 80690
[18261 B-1-7; 18262 B-2-2]
Recorded: Saturday 25th February 1928

Chopin: Nocturne in F Sharp Major Op. 15, No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op. 64, No. 2

Edison Diamond Disc 80696
[18590 B-1-3; 18591 B-1-2]
Recorded: Monday 25th June 1928

Link (FLAC files, 73 MB)

I don't think these four electrically recorded solos played by  Elie Robert Schmitz (1889-1949) on Edison have ever surfaced on CD or the Internet. The Schumann Piano Quintet Op 44 (see below) is however available through the British Library site but only to Europeans so I thought I should tag this recording onto the end. I also recommend listening to Bryan's transfer at Shellackophile blog of Beethoven: Piano Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 16 with members of the Roth String Quartet.

A biography of Schmitz can be found on Wikipedia and Yale University (who hold his archive) has an even more fulsome details. Being both well acquainted with Debussy and his works and a pupil of Louis Diémer, teacher of Cortot among many others, his small recorded output ought to have had more exposure.

I don't agree with Charles Timbrell's assessment (in his essay on Debussy in Performance in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy) that Schmitz playing was affected due to an injury on his left hand during the First World War and that it 'may account for the inelegant and erratic playing heard on his Debussy recordings.' Trimbell had access to only the recordings of Debussy Preludes Books I & II from 1947 but still I think he has misunderstood Schmitz's interpretations.

Of the Chopin the middle section of the Nocturne is quite magical and I would dearly have like to heard more of Schmitz's Chopin playing, especially so considering his pedagogical lineage.

I feel a better assessment of this musician place in the history of performance is better understood by Ronald V. Wiecki in his article (Two Musical Idealists - Charles Ives and E. Robert Schmitz: A Friendship Reconsidered American Music Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 1-19.) Wiecki also gives cogent reasons why Schmitz is near forgotten, and when remembered, often misunderstood:-

'For a number of interconnected and complex reasons, Schmitz's importance, not only for Ives, but also for the history of music in America between the two world wars, has been overlooked. In part, this is because his musical and cultural ideals were at odds with the dominant trend of the time toward commercialization of "classical" music and reliance on "superstar" virtuosi. But, in addition, Schmitz's internationalist outlook in music means that he does not fit easily into the nationalistic perspective of historians studying the emergence of post-World War I "American Music." From his early association with American composers such as Emerson Whithorne and Leo Sowerby through Ives to Virgil Thomson, Schmitz was a friend of American music more committed than many American-born musicians. Schmitz has fallen into relative obscurity because he has been commonly perceived as insufficiently "modern."' his, in spite of the fact that the composers he championed were at the time considered to be among those seriously committed to carrying on the musical tradition through the combination of both old and new elements.' 

Elie Robert Schmitz (Piano) & 
Philharmonic String Quartet of New York
Scipione Guidi (vn), Arthur Lichstein (vn), 
Louis E. Barzin (va), Osvaldo Mazzucchi (vc)

Schumann Piano Quintet Op 44 (abridged)  
Edison Diamond Disc 80885-80886
[18051 B-1-3; 18052 C-2-1; 18055 C-1-2; 18056 C-1-3 [1-1] ]
Recorded: Tuesday 22nd  & Wednesday 23rd November 1927

Link (FLAC files, 90 MB)

Of the Schumann Piano Quintet one member of the Philharmonic Quartet remembered the recording session and was none too happy about the result:-

HARVITHS: We know that you took part in a recording of the Schumann Piano Quintet for Edison in the late 1920s, with E. Robert Schmitz and the Philharmonic String Quartet of New York.
BARZIN: I wasn't at all happy with that quintet release [issued on Edison Diamond Discs EDD 80885/6, out of print]. If I hadn't been bound by contract, I wouldn't have allowed it to be released.
Schmitz was a French pianist who came to this country. He wanted to record, and his outlet was Edison. He knew me from Europe, so he came to me, mentioned the upcoming recording, and I said, "Well, if you want to play that quintet, use the Philharmonic Quartet. Why go and get four strangers?" That's how the project started.
HARVITHS: As a musician who recorded for both Victor and Edison in the 1920s, how would you compare the behind-the-scenes recording operations of the two companies?
BARZIN: You know, that dog in front of the horn is quite a symbol. The professional music world completely disregarded Edison. The people who registered the sound at the other companies knew more about what they were registering and therefore tried to get more fidelity and a sense of live music.;
HARVITHS: And you felt that musicians were more in control at the Victor Company?
BARZIN: Much more. The staff was geared totally differently. At Victor you kept in contact with a musician who was the head of what they called serious music. There was the sheet music department, you had the jazz department. I mean, they had people who handled things. It was better organized, and certainly commercially they were much better, distribution was much greater.
At Edison you didn't know. There was no musician attached to the department. You might have been talking to a very good, efficient bureaucrat, yes. But you were never talking directly to a musician. They just worked from a scientific point of view. They were never interested in the relation of the tone of a violin to the tone of a viola, for instance. They just let us play through the quintet, and they took it. They never said, "This bar or this passage could be clearer." They just took it, and that was it. The other companies made you play it six or seven times before they would make a take.
HARVITHS: What kind of reliance do you think present-day musicians can place on recordings of forty, fifty, sixty years ago?
BARZIN: Reliance is purely nostalgic.
HARVITHS: You really don't think there is anything of substance that we can rely on in those recordings?
BARZIN: Well I hear, for instance, pianists say "X," and they go into ecstasy. I hear a recording of "X" and I say, "Yes, he must have been great, but that's not the way he played." Artists sit in the studio and repeat and repeat. Or they finally say, "All right! I allow you to send this out." But inwardly, they're not very happy. Understand what I mean? They're never
HARVITHS: What do you think the advantage of recording has proved to be, then?
BARZIN: Purely as home recreation. "I heard Schnabel; I'd love to have him home." That was the original idea. If I could hear today a recording of [violinist Eugene] Ysaye, I wouldn't care if it was a terrible recording. Because having known him, I'd say, "Oh, yes, but this is the way I hear
him." I hear him as a human being; I don't hear him because of the record. I hear what he would have done.
HARVITHS: So you would say that anyone who listens to recordings would have to have an idea of what the artist sounded like in person?
BARZIN: I think so. I think there should be some kind of human contact.

Edison, musicians, and the phonograph : a century in retrospect edited by John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith. New York : Greenwood Press, c1987 (pp. 170-171).

Slightly earlier in the interview Barzin complains of playbacks sounding different from the performance. From this I believe that the pitch problems in the Edison's – apart from the balance and abridgement of the piece, caused his negative judgement.  

The first side starts about a quarter-tone down and sinks another quarter tone towards the end – the next three side are about a half-tone out and again are not consistent. In fact Edison Diamond Discs seem to have a tendency to speed up or slow down! I have managed to correct this annoying habit in these downloads.

The usual problems with Edison is the amount of rumble and the variability of the pressings - I'd rather leave in the noise than loose any of the sound.