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Sari Biro Legacy: Historic Performances 1944-1972

Bach / Scarlatti / Rameau / Kodaly / Biro
Release Date: 01/25/2011 
Label:  Cambria   Catalog #: 1174  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian BachDomenico ScarlattiJean-Philippe RameauZoltán Kodály,   ... 
Performer:  Sari Biro
Conductor:  Emanuel VardiWilhelm Loibner
Number of Discs: 4 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



THE SARI BIRO LEGACY Sari Biro, pn; Emanuel Vardi 1 , Wilhelm Loibner 2 , cond; unidentified orchestra; 1 Austrian SO 2 CAMBRIA 1174, mono (4 CDs: 312:36)


ALBÉNIZ Espa?a: Malagueña. BACH Read more class="ARIAL12b">Partita No. 2. BARTÓK Hungarian Dances: Nos. 9–15. BEETHOVEN 1 Piano Concerto No. 3. Piano Sonata No. 32. CASELLA 11 Pezzi Infantili: Carillon; Bolero. CHOPIN 1 Piano Concerto No. 1: Larghetto. Mazurkas: op. 6/2; op. 33/2. GERSHWIN Preludes Nos. 1–3. HAYDN Piano Sonata No. 59. KABALEVSKY Piano Sonata No. 3. KODÁLY Dances of Marosszék. MENDELSSOHN Prelude, op. 35/1. 1 MENOTTI Piano Concerto. MILHAUD 1 Piano Concerto No. 2. MOZART 2 Piano Concerto No. 24. PROKOFIEV Prelude. RAMEAU Suite No. 4: Gavotte and Variations. MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. SAUER The Musical Box. SCARLATTI Sonatas: in D, L 14; in E , L 23; in F , L 119; in F , L 433. SCHUMANN Papillons. WEINER Concertino


By my reckoning, Sari Biro (1910–90) was one of the three greatest female Hungarian pianists of the last century, along with the much better-known Lili Kraus (1903–86) and Annie Fischer (1914–95). But save for her live 1944 account of Pick-Mangiagalli’s tricky Danse d’Olaf (heard in Volume 1 of the Naxos series Women at the Piano ) and a lone Pearl disc of live performances, no other CD examples of Biro’s artistry have surfaced until now. Thus, this excellent compilation from Cambria (with a 44-page booklet) is most welcome for enabling us to hear nearly everything Biro recorded: her 1944 accounts made at RCA studios in New York for radio broadcasts, the early 1950s studio efforts for Remington (her only commercial LP releases), and a wide variety of live concerts and recitals up to 1972 (primarily from Carnegie Hall). Actually, most of the contents here are either live or “quasi-live.” That’s because the 1950s LPs were done almost entirely as single takes (Remington’s boss, Don Gabor, was a notorious penny-pincher), and the same was likely the case with her 1944 studio broadcast sessions at RCA. It also should be noted that the Bartók, Kabalevsky, and Mussorgsky items, plus Schumann’s Papillons , are the first-ever recordings of these works by a woman pianist.


Born in Budapest to a musical family, Biro first displayed her talent at age four, when she played from memory several pieces her older sister had performed. Biro soon enrolled at Budapest’s Fodor Music School, where she studied with György Kalman. When in her teens, Biro received a scholarship to the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where she was a private pupil of Imre Stefánial; Biro graduated with an artist’s diploma in 1930. By then she had already been concertizing for several years. In 1928 Biro performed Weiner’s Concertino; among those in the audience was composer Vincent d’Indy, who remarked, “To hear Sari play makes one a better human being.” During the 1930s, Biro gave concerts all over Europe and played often on the radio (those broadcast recordings were destroyed by German bombing of the Hungarian Radio archives during World War II). In 1939 Biro left Hungary and moved to New York. She made her debut there in 1940 at Town Hall, and the favorable critical response launched her American career.


Biro, a petite blond with a rather angelic and fragile appearance (she was just five feet tall), occasionally got chauvinistic notices from the male music critics of the 1940s. As Cambria’s notes indicate, “In that era, women pianists were still judged by different standards than were men. After a Carnegie Hall recital the New York Times wrote that ‘Sari Biro plays the piano as well as she looks, which is saying a lot.’” During the 1940s, Biro toured with the Rochester Philharmonic and Erich Leinsdorf. Per Cambria’s booklet: “In 1949 she played nine concertos in three consecutive programs at Carnegie Hall, the only woman ever to do so” (the Weiner, Milhaud, and Menotti in this set, along with Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 and the surviving movement of Chopin’s First Concerto, are from those concerts). Biro moved to San Francisco during the late 1950s, continued to concertize into the early 1970s, and gave master classes until 1990.


Every recording in this set demonstrates a high level of artistic conviction (nothing from Biro ever sounds offhand or disinterested), an extraordinary degree of versatility, and an unusual singing tone that at times can seem almost operatic. But with such a wide variety of works from 21 different composers, it should come as no surprise that some of Biro’s performances here work better than others. So, with review space limits in mind, I’ll simply try to give brief impressions of the performances in roughly ascending order of personal preference.


A few items are compromised by poor sound. Gershwin’s Three Preludes suffer from foggy acetates; the performances strike me as a tad square in rhythm when compared to the composer’s straightforward but more tellingly inflected 1928 accounts (in a three-disc Pearl set of Gershwin’s recordings). Likewise, the sound is rather dim in the Casella encores from a live 1944 war bond concert at the Brooklyn Museum; far more of this music’s requisite sparkle can be heard in Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s excellent all-Casella CD (ASV). Mussorgsky’s Pictures has some instances of waver on sustained notes (ditto the original Remington LP). Biro employs a mixed text with a few extras (mainly octave doublings and added tremolos). Her reading is conscientious and well characterized (most notably in “The Old Castle” and “Bydlo”), but much of the playing is earthbound and heavy (“The Great Gate of Kiev” is simply too slow and underpowered). Mussorgsky’s original text is still my preference in this work, and Sviatoslav Richter’s mercurial live 1958 Sofia account (Philips), despite mediocre sound, a noisy audience, and occasional wrong notes, remains the most exciting Pictures I’ve heard. The Chopin concerto (just the Larghetto on a cloudy acetate) and the mazurkas are neatly played but lack the unique Polish rubato and dreamy introspection that make the recordings by Halina Czerny-Stefanska so special (her various CDs from Pearl, Supraphon, and Japanese RCA).


Biro’s live 1954 Carnegie Hall account of Beethoven’s last sonata was performed shortly after the death of her second husband. It’s quite emotional and a bit unsettled, with some chaotic passagework along the way. However, despite some interpretive liberties with the score, the concluding Arietta has moments of utter serenity that are quite moving. Biro’s ruminative account of the Bach partita and her generally excellent way with Scarlatti’s sonatas display a deep affection for the music, but I still prefer Marcelle Meyer’s swifter, more stylishly played Bach (she also observes more repeats) and the inimitably bouncy gait and tighter-spun trills heard in Meyer’s Scarlatti (all are in a terrific 15-disc Meyer set available on French EMI). However, in Rameau’s lovely Gavotte (from a live concert in Santa Monica), Biro is fully equal to Meyer; both are first-rate. Biro’s live 1972 reading of the late Haydn sonata is from her final New York concert at Town Hall. I’m fond of this warmly expressive account, although its weighty and deliberate pacing reflects a decidedly old-fashioned view of Haydn. In stereo, my preferences include the witty, crisply articulated André Tchaikowsky (deleted Danté) and two favorites among sets of all 62 sonatas: the incisively dramatic Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec/Warner) and the lyrically stylish Carmen Piazzini (Oehms).


The Beethoven Third Concerto, as with Biro’s other live 1949 concerto readings, is led by Israeli-American viola virtuoso Emanuel Vardi (1915–2011), whose conducting is both expressive and highly sensitive. I’m especially taken here with the pacing of the outer movements, which are fairly close in tempo to the classic 1933 Schnabel/Sargent (mine is in a deleted 14-disc Danté set of Schnabel’s Beethoven, but there’s an excellent single-disc transfer on Naxos). Despite a few glitches in the opening movement—a minor pitch shift at about 4:42, an ill-tuned unison woodwind entry at 8:46, some minor finger slips by Biro—the music moves along smartly and Biro is bolder and more declamatory than her norm. But like every other pianist I’ve heard, Biro doesn’t quite convey the haunting, otherworldly calm that Schnabel achieves so memorably in the Largo. By the way, like Schnabel, Biro wisely chooses Beethoven’s own cadenza in the first movement.


The 12 short pieces that comprise Schumann’s whimsical Papillons have a dizzying array of sudden mood changes. Biro proves especially attentive to the many staccato markings that give this work its peculiar charm, and her rubato for the most part is expertly judged. One can cavil at certain details, such as Biro’s occasional lack of swagger and her excessively metrical handling of the march-like themes in Nos. 3, 6 and 10, but Biro’s Papillons overall strikes me as one of the finest mono accounts, perhaps just a step or two behind the sublimely poetic Yves Nat (French EMI) and the more extroverted Alfred Cortot (Biddulph). I can pay no higher compliment to Biro’s flavorfully idiomatic Albéniz other than to say it could easily be mistaken for a performance by Alicia de Larrocha, a diminutive and often spiky pianist with a tendency (like Biro) to play from the wrist rather than the shoulder. Biro’s kinetic Prokofiev prelude is quite stunningly played, with each of the harplike glissando effects perfectly etched. She is also at her best in Emil von Sauer’s quixotic The Musical Box (Cambria describes the latter as a 1944 NBC account, but it’s actually from a live Carnegie Hall recital of 1954). Two of this set’s other winners are the very warm and flowing Mendelssohn prelude and the Kodály, where Biro delivers a splendidly ethnic and animated reading.


The pleasantly tuneful Menotti Piano Concerto is given an expressive and sincerely impassioned reading that makes the otherwise fine studio account from Earl Wild and Jorge Mester seem a bit glib by comparison (that Vanguard CD is worth having for Wild’s top-notch Copland Piano Concerto with the composer at the helm). In similar fashion, no other account of Milhaud’s Second Concerto I’ve heard has quite the same vitality and commitment as what’s given here by Biro and Vardi. The same can be said for the reading of Leo Weiner’s wonderfully eloquent and life-affirming Concertino, a minor masterpiece that certainly deserves to be better known. According to Cambria’s booklet, “In 1945 Béla Bartók heard her on the radio in New York playing his 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs. He and his wife came to visit and praised the singing tone with which she infused his work.” I can’t think of a better endorsement. Incidentally, Cambria errs in stating that “prior to Biro’s recording on Remington Records, which was issued in 1953, the only other performance (on 78s) was Bartók’s own (although he too selected from the 15 pieces).” But in fact, Andor Foldes recorded all 15 pieces for a Vox LP released in 1950 (I still own a copy). Biro’s elegantly light-fingered and virtuosic account of the wickedly amusing Kabalevsky Third Sonata is a startling contrast to the grim, hard-edged Horowitz (RCA) and the heavy, overly-pedaled version from Moiseiwitsch (Philips). To my way of hearing, this sonata’s banal tunes, inane repetition, and pointless developments come across as a virtual parody of Prokofiev (or perhaps it’s just a spoof of Kabalevsky’s own imitations of that composer’s music). Either way, Biro mines a particularly rich vein of humor here.


I’ve saved the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 for last because it was my introduction to Biro’s playing back in the early 1970s, when I stumbled across the Remington LP at a used record shop near Harvard Square. The performance is led by Austrian conductor Wilhelm Loibner (1909–71), and the pseudonymous “Austrian Symphony” is most likely the Vienna Tonkünstler (Loibner used that orchestra in a 1953 Remington account of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Albert Spalding that’s now on a Pearl CD). Mozart didn’t leave any cadenzas for this concerto, so Biro opts to play the stylistically apt and superbly inventive Hummel cadenza in the first movement, which is far and away my preferred choice. Loibner’s leisurely conducting won’t be to all tastes (HIP enthusiasts should consider themselves forewarned); the ensemble sounds a bit under-rehearsed, there are a few sloppy entries, some of the string playing displays a fulsome vibrato that’s probably more appropriate to Puccini than Mozart, and Loibner focuses mainly on the felicitous beauties of the score instead of probing its dark, minor-key undercurrents. However, there’s a wealth of expressively gemütlich wind playing and, most importantly, Biro’s reading of the solo part is simply fabulous. Her exquisitely nuanced and delicately shaped phrasing is downright hypnotic (the cadenza is a complete triumph), and there’s some delightful interplay with the orchestra (winds especially) along the way. Curiously, my stereo favorite in this work is the much swifter EMI recording that features Biro’s friend and colleague Annie Fisher with a trenchantly incisive Efrem Kurtz leading the New Philharmonia. Like Biro, Fischer employs the first-movement Hummel cadenza (after all, Hummel was a fellow Hungarian!). Fischer’s account has good stereo sound, a better orchestra, and is largely in accord with current notions of Mozart style, but her more muscular playing lacks the sheer magnetism of Biro’s. Also, it should be noted that Biro performs Hummel’s much briefer cadenza in the finale, whereas Fischer plays just a two-bar arpeggio flourish (apparently of her own devising) and then moves on.


Despite my occasional quibbles, I find this Cambria set to be a veritable treasure trove of great piano playing by a vastly underrated artist. It’s sure to be on my 2011 Fanfare Want List, and thus deserves a very warm recommendation.


FANFARE: Jeffrey J. Lipscomb
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Works on This Recording

1. Partita for Keyboard no 2 in C minor, BWV 826 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1726-1731; Germany 
Length: 20 Minutes 17 Secs. 
2. Sonata for Harpsichord in D major, K 492/L 14 by Domenico Scarlatti
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 18th Century 
Date of Recording: 01/09/1957 
Venue:  Santa Monica, California 
Length: 2 Minutes 1 Secs. 
3. Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin: no 7, Gavotte [with 6 Doubles] in A minor by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1729-1730; France 
Length: 6 Minutes 58 Secs. 
4. Dances of Marosszék by Zoltán Kodály
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; Hungary 
Length: 10 Minutes 15 Secs. 
5. Concerto for Piano no 2, Op. 225 by Darius Milhaud
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Emanuel Vardi
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; France 
Date of Recording: 11/05/1949 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 13 Minutes 57 Secs. 
6. Sonata for Piano no 32 in C minor, Op. 111 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1821-1822; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/02/1954 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 23 Minutes 1 Secs. 
7. Hungarian Peasant Songs (15) for Piano, Sz 71: no 9 by Béla Bartók
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1918; Budapest, Hungary 
Length: 5 Minutes 13 Secs. 
8. Concertino for piano & orchestra, Op 15 by Leó Weiner
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Emanuel Vardi
Period: Modern 
Date of Recording: 12/03/1949 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 10 Minutes 45 Secs. 
9. Sonata for Harpsichord in E major, K 380/L 23 by Domenico Scarlatti
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 18th Century 
Date of Recording: 11/02/1954 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 50 Secs. 
10. Sonata for Harpsichord in F minor, K 466/L 118 by Domenico Scarlatti
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 18th Century 
Date of Recording: 11/02/1954 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 27 Secs. 
11. Sonata for Harpsichord in F major, K 366/L 119 by Domenico Scarlatti
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 18th Century 
Date of Recording: 11/02/1954 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 2 Secs. 
12. Hojas de album (6), Op. 165 "España": no 3, Malagueña by Isaac Albeniz
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; London, England 
Date of Recording: 11/1944 
Venue:  NBC Studios, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 53 Secs. 
13. Pezzi infantili (11), Op. 35: no 9, Carillon by Alfredo Casella
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
14. Pezzi infantili (11), Op. 35: no 4, Bolero by Alfredo Casella
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
15. Sonata for Piano no 3, Op. 46 by Dmitri Kabalevsky
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1946; USSR 
Length: 14 Minutes 32 Secs. 
16. Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano by Modest Mussorgsky
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1874; Russia 
Length: 26 Minutes 15 Secs. 
17. Concerto for Piano in F major by Gian Carlo Menotti
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Emanuel Vardi
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1945; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/08/1949 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 13 Minutes 44 Secs. 
18. Concerto for Piano no 1 in E minor, B 53/Op. 11: 2nd movement, Romanze by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Emanuel Vardi
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Poland 
Date of Recording: 11/05/1949 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 8 Minutes 27 Secs. 
19. Papillons, Op. 2 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829-1831; Germany 
Date of Recording: 11/20/1944 
Venue:  NBC Studios, New York 
Length: 9 Minutes 28 Secs. 
20. Sonata for Keyboard no 59 in E flat major, H 16 no 49 by Franz Joseph Haydn
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1789; Eszterhazá, Hungary 
Date of Recording: 10/29/1972 
Venue:  Alice Tully Hall, New York 
Length: 17 Minutes 33 Secs. 
21. Die Spieluhr (The Musical Box) by Emil Von Sauer
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Date of Recording: 11/1944 
Venue:  NBC Studios, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 39 Secs. 
22. Preludes and Fugues (6) for Piano, Op. 35: no 1 in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837; Germany 
Date of Recording: 11/02/1954 
Venue:  Carnegil Hall, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 56 Secs. 
23. Concerto for Piano no 24 in C minor, K 491 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Wilhelm Loibner
Period: Classical 
Written: 1786; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 1951 
Venue:  Austria 
Length: 31 Minutes 31 Secs. 
24. Preludes (3) for Piano by George Gershwin
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; USA 
Date of Recording: 02/01/1946 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 5 Minutes 7 Secs. 
25. Mazurkas (4) for Piano, B 60/Op. 6: no 2 in C sharp minor by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/1944 
Venue:  NBC Studios, New York 
Length: 1 Minutes 55 Secs. 
26. Mazurkas (4) for Piano, B 115/Op. 33: no 2 in D major by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837-1838; Paris, France 
Date of Recording: 12/1944 
Venue:  NBC Studios, New York 
Length: 2 Minutes 16 Secs. 
27. Concerto for Piano no 3 in C minor, Op. 37 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sari Biro (Piano)
Conductor:  Emanuel Vardi
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 12/03/1949 
Venue:  Carnegie Hall, New York 
Length: 34 Minutes 27 Secs. 

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