Arbiter's Eugen d'Albert: The Centaur Pianist is a collection exclusively devoted to all but one of the surviving phonograph recordings of Scots pianist Eugen d'Albert, a veritable titan among pianist-composers of a very remote era. D'Albert emerges here, in recordings so rare that several exist only in single copies, as an audible representative of the taste and style prevalent in the late Romantic and early Modern periods, an era so maligned and misunderstood that its once vaunted and proud traditions have largely disappeared from the current context. Among critics, d'Albert's own recorded contributions heretofore have been regarded with suspicion, despite the fact that he made more records than any student of Franz Liszt, aside from Moriz Rosenthal. In past years, critics have accused d'Albert of being too fast and loose with musical texts, carelessly racing through his recordings -- Harold C. Schonberg once called him "eccentric, sloppy and undisciplined." Nearly all of d'Albert's recordings are acoustical, a process that was hardly friendly to the sound of the piano. As these discs were recorded in Germany, they suffered from indifferent sound, noisy surfaces, and, worst of all, unpredictable speeds. Previous single-disc surveys appearing on the Symposium label revealed that d'Albert's recorded pianism was at least worth reviewing in light of Schonberg's comments, but unresolved problems of pitch rendered them more difficult than revelatory.
Arbiter has not found a way to conquer all of the noise, and in a few cases, they could have gone a little further than they did in terms of cleaning up d'Albert's efforts. In the earlier performance of Chopin's A flat Polonaise, Op. 53, there are a couple of big thumps in the recording that could've been dodged out without making much difference to the listener, and in general the level of surface noise allowed will prove difficult for average ears; painful to admit, but so. Nonetheless, in all instances, the speeds are correct, and this helps d'Albert more than just about anything Arbiter could have done on his behalf. On Eugen d'Albert: The Centaur Pianist, d'Albert sounds far less "eccentric, sloppy, and undisciplined" and more "impulsive, but inspired" once the right pitch on the recording is employed, and that is just in his "bad" recordings. His great recordings, those of Beethoven, his Liszt Au bord d'une source, d'Albert's own music, and those of his contemporaries, stand out from the inferior Chopin interpretations d'Albert was often obliged to make to please record companies (and some of these are not so bad either!). In general his style is dynamic, forceful, and even swinging, as in his own transcription of Beethoven's Ecossaises, although he did have qualities of depth and sensitivity, such as in the Liszt. Lightness of touch is not something one would associate with d'Albert, but it is found everywhere in his recordings.
The notes, by Mark Mitchell and Allan Evans, are very good, even engrossing at times. They praise d'Albert's pianism at the expense of his composing, a wholly unnecessary stance, and a debatable one given the stubborn popularity of his opera Tiefland and the successful revival of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor. Mitchell and Evans assess only d'Albert's performances of romantic literature, whereas the modern works here, for example the Debussy and some of his own pieces, are among the most fascinating of all the recordings he left to us. His circa 1922 Goossens Punch and Judy Show has to be about the weirdest acoustical piano recording made this side of Frank Westphal's 1923 recording of Dustin' the Keys! Overall, Eugen d'Albert: The Centaur Pianist is a most amazing thing -- to finally have access to all of these recordings, a gift to the twenty-first century from the early twentieth, the legacy of a great artist who made his reputation in the nineteenth.