Classical Reissue Reviews

Irene Scharrer, piano: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings = APR (2 CDs)

A comprehensive look at the art of British pianist Irene Scharrer (1888-1971).

Published on August 29, 2012

Irene Scharrer, piano: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings = APR (2 CDs)

Irene Scharrer: The Complete Electric and Selected Acoustic Recordings = PURCELL: Toccata; Prelude; Sarabande; Minuet (arr. Henderson); PARADIES: Toccata in A; SCARLATTI: 4 Sonatas; BACH: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (arr. Hess); Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major, BWV 848; BOYCE: Gavotte; MOZART: Sonata in G Major, K. 283; MENDELSSOHN: Spinning Song; Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14; SINDING: Rustle of Spring; DEBUSSY: Arabesque No. 2 in G; Reflets dans l’eau; Poissons d’or; CHOPIN: Waltz in E Minor; Waltz in D-flat Major; Prelude in F-sharp Minor; Funeral March from Sonata No. 2; Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66; Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major; 8 Etudes; Two Nouvelles Etudes; Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31; Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12; Rigoletto Paraphrase de Concert; Gnomenreigen; Fantasia on Hungarian Themes; LITOLFF: Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique; SCHUMANN: Intermezzo from Carnival Jest from Vienna; SAINT-SAENS: Allegro scherzando from Concerto No. 2; SCOTT: Danse negre; GOODHART: “Tipperary” Variations – Irene Scharrer, piano/ London Sym. Orch./ Henry Wood (Litolff)/ New Sym. Orch./ Landon Ronald (Saint-Saens and Liszt Hungarian Fantasy) – APR 6010 (2 CDs), 79:53; 78:06 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

This comprehensive look at the art of British pianist Irene Scharrer (1888-1971) surveys her recorded output 1912-1933 and includes a hearty selection of acoustic recordings from HMV. Often described as a Tobias Matthay (1858-1948) student who played for refinement rather than for power, these inscriptions may well belie that over-simplification, especially after one hears her Toccata in A by Paradies (rec. 23 December 1925) or her glistening Rustle of Spring by Sinding (5 July 1927). Considering the breadth of Scharrer’s repertory, which included concertos by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, and Beethoven, we must lament that her legacy confines itself to relative miniatures, with the occasional exception from Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt. A dear friend and colleague of her slightly junior compatriot Myra Hess, Scharrer often indulged in four-hand or two-piano works with Hess, as they shared the same Matthay pedagogy and similarity of approach. The transcription of the Boyce Gavotte (5 September 1927) by Scharrer reveals a keyboard mastery of dragonfly dynamics we could easily impart to Josef Hofmann. One should audition her rendition of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (18 January 1929) just to savor the kind of inner-voice texturing in Scharrer that Hess does not educe, even though the transcription is hers!

Among the largest of the selections, the Mozart Sonata in G, recorded over three distinct dates 1926-1929, elicits great dynamic sensitivity despite the speed of performance, likely a factor of the 78 rpm format. The Andante enjoys a crisp, articulate, cantabile line that sings effortlessly in the manner of a music-box. Noted for her Chopin, everything on this set, even the acoustics (which I rarely favor or review) generate excitement and canny stylistic élan. The “Black Key” Etude (5 July 1927) sizzles while the E Minor Waltz (29 December 1926) alternately gallops and blisters the keyboard with explosively limber runs and trills. The fleet facility and personal rubato of the A-flat Impromptu (23 December 1925) competes with anything in Horowitz or Arrau. The Fantasie-Impromptu (13 December 1925) combines uncanny motor power and an exalted singing line; Scharrer repeats the coup at slightly greater speed in her second recording, this for Columbia 5 December 1932. The last two etudes from Chopin’s Op. 10, the E-flat (21 July 1933) with its tortuous stretches in legato phrasing, and the behemoth “Revolutionary” C Minor (5 December 1932), respectively, testify to a talent rivaling Lhevinne or Godowsky. The surprising intimacy and quicksilver counterpoint Scharrer brings to the second of Debussy’s Arabesques (20 December 1926) beautifully balances the light, scherzando trappings of its gossamer figures. We have more Debussy in the acoustic years for HMV, in the Reflets dans l’eau and Poissons d’or from the two books of Images (4 March 1924) made on the eve of electrical recordings. We can sense what kind of canny pedaling Scharrer had imbibed from Matthay, though even in a passionate mode she never smears the upper vocal line. Her Herculean bravura demonstrated in Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 (24 September 1930) anticipates the kind of lithe virtuosity Ruth Slenczynska would likewise bring to this delicious bon-bon.

Scharrer maintained a firm repute in the music of Liszt, but the major works bequeathed us suffer abridgement, like her stylistic, even savage Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 (12 November 1929), with its music-box chimes, a fate ironically duplicated in Gina Bachauer’s first inscription of the piece as well. Her 1912 Liszt Hungarian Fantasia with Henry Wood (14 September 1912) is truncated to virtually half its natural length. Still, the stylistic energy and pearly play that virtually define her keyboard gift comes through. The Rigoletto Paraphrase (12 November 1929) survives intact, allowing the Verdi quintet its full complement of brilliant, joyous fioritura. In the same elegantly athletic league comes Scharrer’s excerpted middle movement of the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto (13 November 1915), an acrobatic tour de force now almost one hundred years old! Just consider that the composer was still alive when this recording was inscribed.

Disc 2 continues Scharrer’s Chopin traversals, opening with the so-called “Aeolian Harp” Etude in A-flat Major ,Op. 25, No. 1, a testament to her fine legato and seamless pulsation. From the same session (14 September 1933), the “Black Key” Etude resonates with the same aggressive authority we hear in the Hofmann “Golden Jubilee” concert of 1938. From July 1993 come another brilliant triad of etudes, the G-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 6 with its contrary motions in thirds for the hands, a concentrated whirlpool of emotion; the A Minor “Winter Wind,” Op. 25, No. 11, demonstrating a large hand and supple wrist articulation; and the “Ocean” Etude in C Minor, Op. 25, No. 12, and a darkly thunderous sea it is.  Scharrer recorded two of so-called 1839 New Etudes after Fetis (14 September 1933), the F Minor and the D-flat Major, their tone color and (swaggering in the D-flat) bass motion held in perfect symmetry. The largest of the Chopin group, the Scherzo No. 2 (5 December 1932), deliciously extracts inner voice textures that eminently raise the depth of the melodic line. She leaves out repeats, so the version has a clipped quality despite the girth of her conception. The electrical selections end with my own first introduction to the art of Irene Scharrer, her 30 October 1933 collaboration with Henry Wood and the LSO in the Litolff Scherzo, a combination of Saint-Saens and Mendelssohn in wickedly tingling hues.

Like Myra Hess, Scharrer possesses a natural flair in Scarlatti, so her 1920 rendition of the G Major Sonata (Kk14) proves, in spite of constricted sound, just as lucidly persuasive as her later work in 1925. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in C# Major (6 July 1921) dances with plastic resonance, again in spite of acoustical restrictions. Chopin appears once more acoustically, abridged at first (12 October 1916) in the C Minor Nocturne, but no less thoughtfully paced despite its age. A striking rendition of the F Sharp Minor Prelude’s rolling chords (6 October 1921) whose passions do not become smeared in the blazing matrix Scharrer creates. A limpid Etude in F Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 (19 September 1912), almost anticipatory of what Gilels would bring some 50 years later. The abridged Chopin Funeral March from Sonata No. 2 (11 December 1916) suffers some bass deterioration despite restoration master Mark Obert-Thorn’s best efforts. But the grand line and trill are there, and the middle section’s diaphanous nostalgia remains a special moment for Scharrer’s admirers. What an expressive diminuendo she projects! Pure fleet authority dominates the “Minute” Waltz in D-flat (19 September 1912), the lines taut and thin, almost an invisible veil of sound. That Scharrer might have been a superb Schumann acolyte has its hints in the brief excerpt from the Faschingsschwank aus Wien (12 October 1916), a moment of lustrous magic on acoustic records. A whirlwind Gnomenreigen of Liszt (11 December 1916) transcends the acoustic medium by transparent leaps and bounds.  The set concludes with two moment of British jingoism: Cyril Scott’s Danse negre (20 September 1915) and Good hart’s “Tipperary” Variations (17 December 1915), the first of which barely touches the ground; and the latter, in the course of overt bravura and bravado on a popular tune (published in 1912), quotes the opening of Mozart’s K. 550 G Minor Symphony! 

Irene Scharrer withdrew from recording after her Litolff recording of 1933. She was forty-five years old and at the height of her powers.  We mourn the loss of “fairer hopes,” but we can be grateful for what we have.  A magnificent effort of restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn, if I risk repeating myself.

—Gary Lemco




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