Notes and Editorial Reviews
The continued appearance of pre-war radio recordings never fails to excite the collector of historic material. This one was carried off by the Red Army in 1945 as war booty. Much of this booty was only returned to Germany in 1988 but as Allan Evans of Arbiter comments, there are almost certainly more artefacts in Moscow, or elsewhere, that have yet to be made available.
The pianist in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto is Alfred Hoehn in a performance given with the distinguished Max Fiedler in 1936. This is historically important for all sorts of reasons. Hoehn only made a few recordings: three of Chopin and one Scarlatti-Tausig, a very meagre discography indeed for the Thuringian pianist who took first prize at the 1910 Anton
Rubinstein Competition in St Petersburg, where he beat a certain Arthur Rubinstein into second place. Hoehn had earlier studied with Lazzaro Uzielli in Frankfurt, as had Cyril Scott (the English composer dedicated his Piano Sonata No.1 to Hoehn) before going on to Busoni and d’Albert in Berlin. Both Hoehn and Fiedler knew Fritz Steinbach, Brahms’s esteemed colleague in Frankfurt. Thus, whilst one wouldn’t wish to elevate it unreasonably, there is a strong sense of association, lineage and cultural self-awareness involved in this milieu.
The performance is a remarkable one in many ways. It enshrines considerable rhythmic latitude, with elasticity an aesthetic prerequisite. The first movement has notable breadth as well, with Fiedler powerfully applying downbeats and slowing rhetorically for the pianist’s first entry, a moment of real raptness in this performance. This fascinatingly discursive tapestry, non-linear and often introspective, is also imbued with strength. Though it’s certainly not brisk, indeed it’s one of the slower performances you’ll encounter (in the opening movement at least) it all sounds structurally comprehensible. The slow movement is very expressively shaped, indeed limpid in places. Hoehn was famed for his poetic and quiet playing and if this is a true reflection, then those critical comments are quite right. Fortunately the piano is quite forwardly recorded so one can admire Hoehn’s desynchronous chording, as one can in the Rondo finale where dynamics are again shaped with constant variation, from a whisper to a roar. So, indeed, this is a restoration of real significance.
With the exception of Joachim’s much reissued 1903 recording of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor, the rest of the programme consists of previously unissued piano music. All the pianists are important and were part of Brahms’s circle. Etelka Freund was coached by Brahms when she was studying in Vienna. These two Op.76 performances date from 1951 when she was 72 and preserve her ‘swung’ rhythm and singing tone. Carl Friedberg also plays the same Intermezzo that Freund does, but in a very different way, a touch brisker and more colour-consciously. This 1949 live performance is rather scuffy. Better recorded is the early Scherzo in E flat where we can hear a marvellously fluent and exciting private performance. Brahms once said of the young Ilona Eibenschutz that ‘She is the pianist I best like to hear playing my works’. She made a few, very rare and sought after discs in 1903, the same year as Joachim’s discs, but wasn’t to be heard again until private recordings were made of her playing. She recorded the Ballade in B, and three Intermezzi, to go with those 1903 sides of the Ballade in G minor and two waltzes. Her playing, half a century on, is inevitably more laboured, but it shows the Brahms (and Clara Schumann) lineage surviving well into the second half of the twentieth century, and is paramount stylistic interest.
This is a most accomplished and historically significant disc. The notes are excellent and transfers assured.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
Piano Concerto No. 1 in d,
op. 76/3 (2 vers).
op. 119/2 & 3.
Alfred Hoehn (pn);
Max Fiedler, cond;
Berlin R O;
Etelka Freund (pn);
Carl Friedberg (pn);
Ilona Eibenschütz (pn);
Joseph Joachim (vn)
ARBITER 160, mono (79:36)
Every so often, one is presented with discs from the past by artists who either worked with famous composers, coached with them, or were trained by those who worked with the composer, and thus are told that “this is the style the composer wanted.” Unless one of the performers
the composer, for instance in Pablo de Sarasate’s discs or the Mary Garden recordings with Claude Debussy, I tend to take this with a grain of salt. Various writers have claimed, for instance, that both the
excerpts recorded by tenor Francesco Tamagno and the
excerpt recorded by baritone Victor Maurel, the creators of Otello and Iago, respectively, represent Verdi’s ideal, but whereas Maurel sings “Era la notte” in strict tempo, Tamagno only does so (more or less) in “Niun mi tema.” His performances of “Esultate!” and “Ora e per sempre addio” are dragged out so mercilessly that one could almost imagine Verdi screaming from the back of the theater, “No, no, noooo!”
Moreover, such souvenirs of the distant past (or pretty close to distant) seem to vary in style. There’s a rare recording of Schubert’s song
sung by Gustav Walter, a tenor who studied with Michael Vogl, the baritone Schubert used most often to introduce his songs. It’s straightforward in tempo and phrasing, nothing at all like the “Viennese school” of Lieder singing one hears in the recordings of Elisabeth Schumann. Even B. H. Haggin would have loved it. Bronislaw Huberman, who didn’t coach with Brahms but played the Violin Concerto in the composer’s presence, gives an interesting and fabulous interpretation of this work, but his recorded performances of it date from a half-century after Brahms’s death. Is this how he really played it in 1895? Raoul von Koczalski studied with one of Chopin’s pupils, who taught him an exact method of playing that composer’s works that is often radically different from the score. Is this really Chopin’s style? One thinks yes, based on the fact that Chopin was heavily influenced by bel canto opera stylings, and such singers often stretched out the musical line in a similar fashion. But then there is Gustav Walter’s recording of
as living contradiction of the Viennese style of Lieder singing. So who’s right, and who’s wrong? Perhaps we’ll never really know…unless, as I say, the composer is actually involved in the recording.
I bring all this up as a prelude to reviewing this recording, an album of performances of “Brahms performed by colleagues and pupils” titled
Behind the Notes.
The colleagues are two, conductor Max Fiedler (1859-1939) and famed violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), the pupils pianists Etelka Freund (1879-1977), Carl Friedberg (1871-1955), and Ilona Eibenschutz (1872-1967), but the longest work and highlight of this disc is the complete Piano Concerto No. 1, a radio broadcast conducted by Fiedler and featuring the little-known Alfred Hoehn (1887-1945) as soloist, and Hoehn neither played for Brahms nor was coached by him. The liner notes by one Allan Evans devote an inordinate amount of space to Hoehn, possibly because this
the only major recording by him that will ever appear (his only commercial recordings were four short works (a Scarlatti-Tasig Pastorale and three pieces by Chopin, the Barcarolle and two etudes), but eight pages is a little excessive, particularly when most of the extensive quotes about him are primarily negative. Composer-critic Walter Niemann praised him as “tremendously talented, capable of the subtlest nuances,” yet took him to task because “the power, accomplishment and independence of the fingers of the right hand fall substantially short of the left…He likes to force the pace, sets garish accents and plays without noticeable inner warmth. In his fervor he distorts the melodic line in favor of volume, plays unevenly, and has a tendency towards pomposity, flirtatiousness, and mushiness which blurs the contours…” And Stanis?aw Niewiadomski, reviewing Hoehn during a concert in Warsaw, made similar complaints: “The eruptions of sheer strength and outbursts of temperament, a somewhat aimless tenderness and affection, manifested in barely audible pianissimos, crossed paths so often that it created an effect of something bordering on the whimsical if not downright hysterical.” But there might have been a reason for both reviews, since both Niemann and Niewiadomski were fans of rival pianists—Ignacy Friedman in the first case, Artur Rubinstein in the second, and it should be noted that Rubinstein lost the 1910 St. Petersburg competition to Hoehn and so forever hated and demeaned him. The third, even more extensive portrait of Hoehn is so laudatory that you’d think the guy laid golden eggs every time he sat down at a piano. My goodness, he’s the Greatest Living Exponent of Teutonic Culture, don’t you know, and therefore no one else can lay a finger on his Beethoven, Brahms, or Liszt (all of which, I’m sure, was news to such Brahms exponents as Friedberg and Eibenschütz and such rival Germans as Backhaus, Gieseking, and Schnabel). But all we can really judge him by is this 1936 broadcast performance of the Brahms First, which really is splendid, and to be 100 percent fair I compared his performance to that of Rubinstein in the famous 1954 recording with Fritz Reiner on RCA-BMG. Yes, it’s true that in Fiedler’s conducting one hears a warmer, more genial and relaxed performance, but the Reiner of 1954 was operating at the peak of his powers (his 1954-56 recordings are generally considered the greatest he ever made) and, putting his cruel and cutting podium demeanor aside for the moment, the musical results are extraordinarily fine. Fiedler conducts the first movement rather slower than Reiner, running 23:37 to Reiner’s 21:32, but astonishingly the phrasing and shaping of the music are only a bit dissimilar. Hoehn’s playing is also quite fine; whether or not one could claim that Fiedler was leading this interpretation or not is difficult, however, as the notes mention that this conductor and pianist performed together several times. There are, as the notes indicate, “playful tempo changes not seen in the music” in this performance, but they are small and only noticeable under close scrutiny. I was especially impressed by the way Fiedler brings out the winds in the second movement, a detail not even as clearly etched as in Reiner’s stereo recording. In general, it might be said that Rubinstein’s interpretation has a firmer structure whereas Hoehn’s has greater color, but Rubinstein is occasionally colorful and Hoehn is certainly not as willful or capricious in his shaping of the music as those earlier comments may indicate. Only in the last movement did I hear some of the “lagging” left hand that Nieman complained of, and small moments in which he rushed the beat, but his sins here are as nothing compared to the way Horowitz often pressurized the beat in his concerto performances.
The other pianists on here were all coached to one extent or another by Brahms, although only Friedberg’s involvement is documented in detail. One of his pupils was the teenaged Bruce Hungerford, who had the good sense to tape record Friedberg’s reminiscences. Among the many interesting quotes is this one, which probably indicates what Brahms did for all three of these pianists: “He said ‘Come home with me and I will show you what I mean concerning certain phrasings, tempi, and personal interpretations of my work.’” Many visits to Brahms’s home followed, with the composer illustrating his phrasing at the piano. “He paused only now and then to pick up a pencil to jot down new and more definitive marks of expression than the published editions indicated. He took pains to explain certain intricacies, to interpret different readings.” This I accept as what you would call the “gospel truth,” and I’m sure he did exactly the same things with Freund and Eibenschütz. The liner notes indicate, for instance, that both Friedberg and Freund interpret the Intermezzo, op. 76/3, with almost the identical syncopated rhythm which “swings” into “a momentum hardly indicated in the sober score.” Freund, who was Hungarian, plays it with a slightly stiffer Hungarian rhythm that makes it sound a little like Bartók, while Friedberg plays it a little looser. Yet, to me, it was Friedberg’s performance of the op. 4 Scherzo that really grabbed me. I’ve never heard this piece played so loosely, with so much
. It almost sounds as if it’s informed with the same kind of Gypsy flair that one hears in Brahms’s “Rondo alla Zingara” of the First Piano Quartet. Indeed, there’s a combination of looseness and forward momentum to Friedberg’s playing that I’ve seldom encountered in Brahms pianists, period.
Eibenschütz’s recordings, though also made on a home tape recorder, seem to have somewhat more amplitude and a better piano tone. Her playing is quite remarkable for an 80-year-old woman who actually stopped performing publicly in 1902 (though her only commercial recordings were made in 1903)! The Intermezzo, op. 119/3, has a wonderful “swing” to it reminiscent of dance music, something I’ve never quite encountered before.
The sound quality of these selections varies. For the most part, the concerto is remarkably warm and clear, the noisiest passage coming in the last movement. Freund’s home recordings of 1951, made on a home tape recorder, are somewhat boxy and have tape hum, and Eibenschütz’s also have a little bit of tape “waver.” Friedberg’s broadcast of the Intermezzo has quite a bit of acetate swish and crackle, but the Scherzo is clear as a bell in every respect: the piano tone rings out naturally, there is no acetate noise, and every nuance is telling. I can’t recall the last time I heard any of Joachim’s recordings (I’m sure it must be around 40 years ago), but I can say that, despite a little more surface crackle than I’d like, his somewhat dry violin tone (he was one of the last famous virtuosi, other than Huberman, who used straight tone most of the time, employing vibrato only for certain notes) comes through clearly. Truthfully, I don’t find his style as engaging as Huberman’s, but you must remember that Joachim was noted for playing the violin sonatas with Brahms in concert. I think a recording of one of those movements would be more telling than a little bagatelle like the
So, then, we return to Square One. If these recordings are indeed indicative of what Brahms had in mind, and I believe they are, how much of Chopin do you think you hear in the playing of Koczalski? Rubinstein would tell you none (as would Haggin), but Koczalski was another pianist whose fame rankled Rubinstein. (I’m not sure there was a single rival pianist who Rubinstein
liked.) And so we project this back through the ages. Little by little, small samples of the way composers played their own music, or wanted others to play it, come down through the space-time continuum and land in our lap. This is one such souvenir.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15 by Johannes Brahms
Alfred Hoehn (Piano)
Written: 1854-1858; Germany
Date of Recording: 10/26/1936
Length: 48 Minutes 29 Secs.
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