Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Musical Couple

The cellist William Pleeth is probably best remembered for his association with Edmund Rubbra and as a teacher to Jacqueline du Pré. Alas his wife, the pianist Margaret Good, is maybe less well known and probably hardly remembered at all. 

From the late 1930's to the early 1970's the couple were to some extent fairly regular contributors to BBC programmes and also to concert life around Britain. Their main commercial recorded output was chiefly restricted to the early 1940's, together with the odd work doted about the following decades. A certain snobbishness for musicians with foreign, rather than British sounding names, is alluded to in Margaret Campbell's The Great Cellist, Gollancz, 1988. I wonder if this is the case for all performers who can only find  proper acknowledgement in foreign fields?

William Pleeth, cello & Margaret Good, piano
London, West Hampstead - Tuesday, 27th May 1941

Grieg: Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 36
I. Allegro agitato : II. Andante molto tranquillo : III. Allegro molto e marcato

Decca K1048-K1051
[AR5429-5,  AR5430-5,  AR5431-4,  AR5432-4, 
AR5441-4, AR5442-4 & AR5443-5]

Lyric Pieces, Op.38 No.1 - Berceuse 
arr. by Joachim Stutschewsky & Isco Thaler

Decca K1051

(If you are not familiar with FLAC I can recommend Foobar2000 player)
Both pieces can also be streamed as mp3 @ 192 kbps below each label

All other Decca recording issued by these two fine artists can be listened to and/or downloaded from CHARM through this link.

The Recording

I think [something I do need to check!] that takes -1, -2 and -3 were recorded in March 5th, 7th & 10th. All of these takes failed to be passed as satisfactory so another session took place on the 27th May. This session produced two takes of each side, -4 and -5, and it is from this session that sides for the published set were chosen.

In all probability the work was recorded in the smaller No. 2 studio in the basement of Decca's West Hampstead building. This  studio was pressed into uses that it was not intended for during the war, and it may account for the sound we hear. Tension was maybe a bit high on the 27th of May, as a couple of weeks earlier, on the night of the 10th & 11th May 1941, London had endured it's worst bomb damage of the war. The quality for the recording is trifle close miked with not much reverberation, some forte passages are also bit full on, a combination that does not really help the piano tone much. The shellac of my copy is abominable and the condition is not to great either, still, being enthusiasts, we are not too concerned with these trifling distractions. The original recording wavers around 79-80 rpm to produce A at 440Hz [see my footnote on this].

The Performers

Decca publicity, February 1942

Margarate Good was a very interesting pianist, she studied under the great Tobias Matthay and then evolved her own style with the incorporation of the Leschetizky 'method' - I'm not quite sure what that really means, except the playing is both very fluid, exciting, almost a hard driven sound, that still retains a very musical view of the composition without being simply technically brilliant.

Pleeth is a true master of the cello, his most influential teacher was the Julius Klengel (1859-1933). 'At thirteen Pleeth won a two-year scholarship to study with Julius Klengel at the Conservatory in Leipzig. He was the youngest person ever to receive this scholarship at the time. Pleeth much appreciated Klengel. He said: "He was a wonderful teacher because he allowed you to be yourself. He hated it if someone copied him. He wanted us to develop our own musicality - and we did, and we're all different after all. Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky were both Klengel pupils and they were totally different in their style of playing. Klengel himself was a very simple, unsophisticated man whose integrity was unquestionable. He was always honest and I loved him for it."' [quoted in Wikipedia]. Again a very fine artist and up their with other great cellists

Julius Klengel about 1914

Klengel is important link between Grieg, for although Friedrich Ludwig Grützmacher premiered the first public performance of this work with Grieg at the piano on 22nd October 1883 in Dresden, it was Julies Klengel on the 27th October, again with Grieg, who gave the next performance at Leipzig. I hazard to even guess how the work developed in Klengel's mind over the next 50 years; further the very idea that Klengel ever produced a pupil that sounded anything like him is a misnomer. He would, I understand have guided Pleeth, but only in the possibilities the work afforded a player, not how Pleeth could interpreted it.

Grieg looking youthful

So we have a performance of the work which has connections with the composer but we can't really say more.

Contemporary Review

It was not until February 1942 that the set was advertised and then the first 'review' in Gramophone appeared the April issue. Compton Mackenzie's was after all leading the Home Guard on the Isle of Barra, so it looks as if it took a while for Mackenzie to get his hands on the records and delayed publication of any comments:-

Compton Mackenzie surveying his domain in 1936

'... a most delightful recording on four Decca discs of Grieg's Violoncello and Piano Sonata in A minor, played by William Pleeth and Margaret Good. This is a tender work full of simple melodies, and requiring from the string instrument just what Mr. Pleeth provides with his performance. It is almost easier to sentimentalize the violoncello than the violin, and when this is done the result is more nauseating. The same is true of the human voice. The lachrymose tenor or contralto is more trying than the lachrymose soprano, and, let me add, much more frequent. On the other hand, there is the danger of pomposity to' which the violoncello virtuoso is apt to succumb in the interpretation of a major opus, and all too often in the interpretation of a minor one. I alluded last month to the restraint and depth of emotion conveyed by Mr. Anthony Pini in that superb recording of the First Rasoumovsky Quartet by Columbia. That is an example of what I mean by avoiding pomposity. There is no pomposity to avoid in Grieg's A minor Sonata, but it would be all too easy to plunge into sentimentality, and this Mr. Pleeth avoids with complete success. The balance between the violoncello and the piano (yes, I realise I am being illogical in not writing pianoforte) is- beautifully preserved, and these Decca discs have given me particular pleasure. The eighth side is taken up by an arrangement of Grieg's Berceuse, which I do not think is found on any other disc.' [Gramophone April 1942, p. 176]

The records remained in the catalogues to 1948 or thereabouts, dispatched to the deletion list when lots of other pre-FFRR recordings appeared together with the first tentative LP's.

Biographies of Good & Pleeth

Instead of the obituaries etc., readily available online, I have transcribed the entries of this musical team from publication nearer in date to the recordings. Russell Palmer's British Music, London, Skelton Robinson, [1947]. These entries, I hope give a better idea how they, or possibly their agents Ibbs & Tillett, thought to have the couple promoted.

Margaret Good & William Pleeth in the 1960's

Good, Margaret. Pianist, b. London (date not for publication [27 April, 1906]). Showed a love for the piano at the early age of five, took her first lessons at seven, and a year later played at her first concert. While at school she also studied the violin, and wrote several small compositions. She gained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when she was sixteen, where she studied piano and gained several prizes, including the coveted Macfarren Gold Medal. She took lessons for a very short time with Tobias Matthay, and during this period appeared several times with orchestra under the late Sir Henry Wood at Queen's Hall, London. She was the first musician to be made an Associate of the R.A.M. while still a student. Her first broadcasting began in 1930, playing solo works and sonatas with her brother, Ronald Good, the violinist. This partner-ship continued until he joined the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra a year or two later. After leaving the Academy, Margaret Good studied the Leschetizsky method of piano technique, and her present system is evolved from a combination of the Matthay and Leschetizsky methods. In 1937 she met and formed a partnership with William Pleeth, the 'cellist, whom she later married (see separate entry). They broadcast together from 1938 onwards, and gave their first recital as a combination at Wigmore Hall in the same year. They record for Decca, and have given recitals all over the country, as far north as Dunfermline. Margaret Good played in Paris, 1938, and was prevented from doing so again the following year by the outbreak of war. She has always been particularly interested in contemporary music, and has given many first performances of works by young British composers, including Herbert Murrill, Alan Bush, Elizabeth Maconchy, Grace Williams, etc. She has broadcast the solo part of many piano concertos under Boult, Raybould, Lambert, Julius Harrison, etc., and has appeared in Promenade Concerts. Perhaps her greatest love has always been chamber music. With the Silverman Piano Quartet she made records of the Dvorak Quartets in D Major, Op. 23 and E Flat, Op. 87 for Decca, and has immersed herself in a great deal of other chamber work in company with Harry Blech and William Pleeth. She has a small daughter, born in March, 1946. [d. August, 2000]

Pleeth, William. 'Cellist, b. London, [12, January] 1916. Came from a family of well-known musicians, and began to study the 'cello at the age of seven, afterwards gaining a scholarship to the London 'Cello School where he was trained by Herbert Walenn. At thirteen he won a scholarship to the Leipzig Conservatoire, and there studied with the distinguished teacher Julius Klengel, at the same time taking piano lessons from Paul Klengel, brother of Julius. Two years later, William Pleeth made his debut as a 'cellist in Leipzig with the Conservatoire Orchestra under Walter Davidson, playing the Haydn Concerto. Subsequently Pleeth was engaged to perform with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Bruno Walter, and was the only 'cellist besides Feuermann to gain this distinction at such an early age. Returning to England in 1932, Pleeth gave his first recital and made his first broadcast during the following year. In 1936 he joined the Blech String Quartet, and in 1937 formed a partnership with Margaret Good, the pianist, who later became his wife (see separate entry). The two artists have played together since 1938 in most of the important centres of music in England and Scotland, apart from a deal of recording activity for Decca. William Pleeth plays a beautiful old 'cello by Stradivari, dated 1732 ; he has used his skill equally in the spheres of chamber music and solo repertoire, this latter in association with our leading conductors. He served for four years as an N.C.O. during the second world war, during which duties he met and worked with Edmund Rubbra, the composer. As a result of this association, Rubbra wrote his Soliloquy for 'Cello and Orchestra for Pleeth, who first performed the work in London, 1945. The 'Cello Sonata which Rubbra has just completed at the time of writing is dedicated to Pleeth and his wife. [d. 6 April, 1999]

First page of the manuscript score


I have dubbed this recording at A = 440Hz. This is not to claim that the recording was actually recorded at 440Hz for when played at 78rpm it is actually at a quite acceptable A = 435Hz. 

However their is a trace of a 50Hz hum, now all thing being equal that would be a good baseline to calculate the correct speed. This was after all the frequency used for most of the UK alternating current mains electricity at this time. 

Or rather it would be nice to use this baseline but in this recording the hum is around 49Hz at A = 440Hz. So it should follow that the recording maybe be then in a higher realm and play even faster at say around A= 445Hz. Ah but there is here a fatal flaw in this argument. Unfortunately this 50Hz cannot really be relied on to solve our pitch problem. 

During times of scarcity (wartime), or high usage (when everyone put the radio on for the 6 o'clock news whilst plopping the kettle on for a soothing cuppa) the national grid did drop the standard alternating frequency of 50c/s a tad so that there is less strain on the system. The net effect for users is their voltage stays constant but your kettle takes longer to boil - A digression: their is a neat way they avoid this problem today which you can see here. 

During wartime this frequency could drop as low as 47c/s which in turn would produce a hum of 47Hz. Much below this frequency you can collapse the grid system and cause blackouts. So the hum actually proves very little, so to avoid madness, I have recorded at the supposed standard in the UK for this period at A=440Hz.   


  1. Ramarkably informative notes, as always!

  2. Make that "remarkably," please!

  3. I take praise however spelt!

  4. Thank you very much, as ever.

    1. Thanks Nick I think it a really good performance of this work


    2. I'm deep in distracting stuff, so must set aside time to listen properly. Wonderful duo - CHARM did several sets. Sad if he was overlooked on account on not being foreign! Thanks again!

    3. In fact CHARM has all the Pleeth-Good Deccas *except* this one (including the two Dvorak quartets), so, thanks to both of you for giving us a complete run! What an endearing work the Grieg cello sonata is, and Pleeth's account is among the very finest I've heard.

    4. Dear Bryan

      Might be a neat project filling in the gaps - I will add links at the foot of my post to the CHARM items as they could do with a greater distribution. I agree with you it is a really fine performance.


  5. Very interesting (as always)!

  6. It is a terrific performance (and transfer!),

  7. Glad you like it - just full of energy and passion

  8. Thank you for this.
    If you have doubts about pitch remember one thing, Hum never lies, power can vary at that time but frecuency not. 50Hz Europe, 60Hz USA.

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