Eugen d'Albert

The Great Pianists, Vol. 6: Eugène d'Albert

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Eugen d'Albert was a diminutive titan of the piano, a tiny man with a wide girth that was an exceptional concert soloist and composer who studied with Franz Liszt and was once married to stormy concert virtuoso Teresa Carreño. Unlike most other concert pianists born in the 1860s, d'Albert did not shy away from recording media; the "centaur pianist" left nearly three hours of recordings and made mountains of hand-played piano rolls between 1905 and his death in 1932. If the rolls could be located, then one could handily assemble an all-Liszt CD under d'Albert's hands that would include performances of the B minor Sonata and the First Concerto in E flat! Working with Welte rolls, Dal Segno has assembled a mixed program of d'Albert's performances, "mixed" in that some fabulous items are combined with other things that don't really show d'Albert off at his best. For example, the phonograph recordings make clear -- except in big showstoppers like the A flat Polonaise, Op. 53 -- that Chopin was not d'Albert's strong suit, and the two Chopin performances here are just inferior, with the roll of the F major Ballade being a rather clunky one to boot. D'Albert is usually in his very strongest suit in his own material, such as in his big-boned transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach's C minor Passacaglia. But as the roll progresses there is considerable confusion and it's hard to say if this owes to yet another clunky roll -- like the Chopin Ballade, this too dates from 1913 -- or just flagging energy on the part of the player.

However, what's good here is dazzling: D'Albert recorded several different rolls of selections from his opera Tiefland, all consisting of loose improvisations on themes heard in the opera and all different from one another. Included here is d'Albert's last such roll, made for the Duo Art company in 1931, and it's superb: a towering, inventive jam that likely represents his last thoughts on the opera that ensured his place in the repertory, if not immortality. Too bad he didn't have the presence of mind to also record a gloss on the opera he was working on at the time, Mister Wu, but the 1931 Duo Art rolls are the highlight of the disc; a bizarre, swinging version of Beethoven's B minor Bagatelle, Op. 126/4, and Debussy's Général Lavine, eccentric (emphasis on the word eccentric). The remaining performances help amplify one of the true pleasures of listening to d'Albert as a pianist who "boldly goes where no player (is likely) to go again," both Liszt works are done as glittering showpieces, as is Saint-Saëns' Etude in the Form of a Waltz. The Beethoven E minor Sonata No. 27, Op. 90, by contrast, is relatively straightforward and respectful in d'Albert's treatment, although the second roll seems a little confused in spots. The digital recording of the reproducing piano is slightly narrower in sound in the Beethoven in comparison with the others, and this might come from a different source than the rest of the disc.

Although Dal Segno may decry "acoustic or electric recordings re-mastered" in favor of its piano roll to digital transfers, one cannot beat d'Albert's phonograph records in terms of conveying his sound and approach, despite the generally poor sound of the German records he made; they preserve his lightness of touch, an aspect of playing even the most sensitive of roll mechanisms had trouble conveying. Nevertheless, Dal Segno's The Great Pianists Vol. 6, Eugen d'Albert can be recommended as a valuable supplement to d'Albert's disc recordings, collected already as The Centaur Pianist: Complete Studio Recordings, 1910-1928, on the Arbiter label.

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