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The 1949 Town Hall Recital

Unissued Studio Recordings

CHOPIN: Sonatas 2 & 3; Fantasy; 24 Preludes; Scherzos 3 & 4; Nocturne op 15:2; Etudes op 10:3; 9; Two Mazurkas; Impromptu 2; GLUCK-FRIEDMAN: Dance of the Blessed Spirits; PHILIPP: Feux-Follets
Music & Arts 1029 (Koch)  [2CD]  133 minutes

Some pianists just have everything, and for the most part, Guiomar Novaes was one of them. In this all-too-brief survey of her studio and concert recordings at the zenith of a remarkable career, what emerges is a picture of an artist who was far more comfortable and persuasive in front of an audience than in front of a microphone. Nevertheless, this document preserves for posterity the kind of free flowing plasticity, insouciant charm and gentility of phrasing that made her famous.

But for all the flexibility, her readings want for a rhythmic spine and edge; she seems to have no particular interest in delineating and highlighting compositional goals, creating suspense through illustrating a work's immanent teleology. Rarely is there a feel for linear destiny or arrival at significant harmonic events, as if she had no particular grasp of harmonic function and structure. It's all very fluid, of course, and pretty, but essentially glib. In the third sonata, for example, Ms. Novaes just moves blithely through things: it's not simply a matter of tempo that compromises her reading, which runs a bit on the fast side, but the manner of its strategic organization. The opening anacrusis en route to the dominant in the right hand, and the tonic on a weak beat in the left, are left in the lurch as it were, as if they had no structural importance. Worse still is her tendency to rush at the most inappropriate moments, something I suspect she does unconsciously and not judiciously in the name of rubato. Nevertheless, she produces some astonishing effects; indeed, no one to my knowledge can make a more effective, even lionesque crescendo than Ms. Novaes; witness the concluding arpeggios of the A section of the Sonata's second movement scherzo. And surprise of surprises, in the third sonata, the producers tell us, an (undesignated) segment of the first movement, for reasons undisclosed, had to be replaced, but not with one of Ms. Novaes's own takes. Incredibly, the 3 or so measures in question were replaced by a recording of an unnamed pianist (This brings to mind a similarly amusing faux pas in Furtwangler's famous 1953 Tristan recording, where Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was brought in to replace a single high note that an exhausted Kirsten Flagstead was unable to reach). The second sonata is more convincing. Here she navigates its oceanic thrusts without parrying once nor losing site of its rhythmic trajectory. It is a dark, deftly colored and thoroughly compelling reading that moves right in with the very best of them.

In concert Ms. Novaes becomes much freer. In spite of some severe distortion that makes certain works, such as the 15th and 16th preludes, inaudible (the tapes, we are told, were partially destroyed by fungi and time) there is much here that seduces the senses. The Impromptu is all charm and sunlight, a marvel of subtle shadings and ever-so-slight hesitations equaled only by Cortot's magical reading. She is breathtaking in the F minor Fantasy, which she envisions as if it were the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, reveling in its declamative throes and subfusc intonations. Scherzo 4 is sylvan and stylish, as it should be, but underpinned by a distant strain of melancholy; here, Ms. Novaes shrewdly makes music out of its perpetuum mobile scales, spinning them out seductively in a wash of pianissimo. And the mazurkas are so elegantly defined that one regrets she never recorded the entire set. The preludes are no less affecting; she sculpts each into an intimate poem with the consummate care of one whispering privately into the ear of a lover.

Errors abound in the liner notes, misstating the keys of certain works (we are told , for example, that the Chopin B flat minor sonata is in the major, and that the 13th Prelude is in F sharp minor, instead of F sharp major). Two mazurkas (op. 41:1 and the posthumous A minor) go entirely uncredited. A citation from a review of Novaes by Virgil Thomson implies he had written an appraisal of the performance heard here. It was not, but was the curmudgeonly critic's reaction to an unpublished recording.

Copyright © 1999 JOHN BELL YOUNG


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