Many people in the arts in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century attempted to pass themselves off as displaced European royalty or nobility; the advantage of passing yourself off as a noble was the ability to gain entry to advanced social situations of privilege. Michael Zadora did not need to impersonate anyone noble, as he was the real thing, the son of Polish Baron Louis von Zadora, though born to his exile family in New York City. A child prodigy, he studied with Leschetizky in Vienna and, after World War I, with Ferruccio Busoni who had an enormous influence on Zadora as an artist. Zadora was the first pianist, presumably including Busoni himself, to give an all-Busoni recital; this was held at the Beethovensaal In Berlin in 1923. The whole first disc of APR's collection Michael Zadora: The Complete Recordings 1922-1938 was recorded right around that very time; however, in the acoustic era his playing was captured only on German Vox and Polydor discs. Anyone who has ever owned one of these records can attest to how disappointingly noisy they can be, and sadly most of the items on the first disc are no exception to this rule, although the earliest and latest of the Polydors presented here betray a notable sonic improvement on others. Most of the disc sounds like listening to a piano through a 90-year-old shortwave broadcast, limiting this release to rather specialized tastes.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to hear; while the high number of Chopin selections may indicate the 78 era orientation toward Chopin as a composer whose works fit the average recorded length of the medium, Zadora was known as a Chopin interpreter and was acclaimed for his sensitivity and restraint in the works of the melancholy Pole. While the dim, noisy sound may cloud his achievement in this area, at least he doesn't sound incompetent in Chopin which is the bane of historic pianists, the tone-deafness of technology defeating their best efforts at nuance and the one-take hierarchy of recording discouraging studio polishing as is common in the digital era. Zadora's Chopin is indeed restrained; extremely so, to the point of being nearly classicistic. By contrast, his Scarlatti-Tausig has the expected romantic tug at the tempo. Zadora's own transcriptions of other composers are tasteful and beautifully parsed out for the piano; his transcription of the aria "Se tu m'ami" -- attributed to Pergolesi but actually belonging to the nineteenth century -- is something to hear, as is his recasting of the Delibes Valse lente from Sylvia. The second disc is sourced from electrical recordings and it is far easier to grasp Zadora's special artistry in the better sound, and it is naturally in this set that Zadora made the recordings he is best known for, the first made by anyone of Busoni's Sonatinas -- Nos. 6 (1929), and in his final recorded outing, No. 3 and No. 5 (1938). By temperament, that Zadora was exactly the opposite of his master -- cool, strategic, and understated -- is apparent in everything he recorded, except for in his interpretations of Busoni, where he applies a little more heft. This results in some instability in the "ad usum infantis," but is dazzling in the justly famed 1929 disc of the "Sonatina supra Carmen," perhaps the best record he made and one that has been anthologized elsewhere, though there are several other rewarding outings found here, as well.
Zadora did not make a great many recordings; in addition to the 45 selections included here two more are known to have existed, but have never been found. After decades of teaching piano, occasionally concertizing and maintaining a modest existence, Zadora finally did tap into his social connections and married for the first time in 1943 to a society lady who already had a fortune of her own; he only lived three years into their marriage. It seems unfair that so much of Zadora's quiet, carefully controlled art was witnessed by a medium that preserved it so poorly; nevertheless, if you are deeply concerned with the history of great pianists, and with Busoni in particular, you won't want to miss this APR release. Non-specialists, sorry to say, need not apply.