C1730. DIMITRI MITROPOULOS Cond. NYPO, w.PIETRO SCARPINI: Piano Concerto #2 in g - Live Performance, 7 Nov., 1954, Carnegie Hall; w.GINA BACHAUER: Piano Concerto #3 in C - Live Performance, 29 Jan., 1956, Carnegie Hall (both Prokofiev). [Without a moment's hesitation, this is one of the greatest issues from St Laurent Studio, in superb sound!] (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-854. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Dimitri Mitropoulos was highly esteemed and unfortunate at the same time. A charismatic conductor who was also gay, he was outshone by his even more charismatic protégé, Leonard Bernstein, whose sexuality came out of the closet at a more propitious time. As inspiring as Mitropoulos could be, he left too few commercial releases that fully convey this - Columbia Records laid down none of his Mahler in New York, for example. I’ve also heard a handful of live recordings that feature miserably lax ensemble; he was no Szell or Reiner. Yet even with sonic limitations - and the present release of two Prokofiev piano concertos has its fair share - few conductors of the time are as fascinating in retrospect.
The star attraction here is Gina Bachauer’s scintillating reading of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, and although I only knew Pietro Scarpini by name (barely), no pianist would attempt the treacherously difficult Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto who didn’t feel confident about pulling it off. Before delving further, I’ll underline that Mitropoulos plays a major part in the success of both performances, and they are eminently listenable as historic monaural broadcasts once you make allowances.
Although he was associated specifically with Russian music, one of Mitropoulos’ great triumphs was the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony #10 with the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra he first conducted in 1942, then becoming its co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski in 1949 before rising to music director in 1951. Mitropoulos made a studio recording of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet (Sony), along with an exciting live Symphony #5 with the Vienna Philharmonic (Orfeo) to support his excellence in Prokofiev.
Under him the Prokofiev Second Concerto sounds as if it came from a steely modernist and a survivor of Stalinist horrors (even though the score dates to 1912–13; Prokofiev also started sketching in Concerto #3 during this time). Modern readings lighten the textures and do not tread as ominously as Mitropoulos and Scarpini do. I don’t mean that this power is carried too far into heavy plodding. The electricity in Prokofiev’s piano writing comes through with skill from the soloist. Scarpini, who was born in Rome in 1911 and lived until 1997, has the fingers, stamina, and star power to embrace the long cadenza in the first movement and the exhausting, continuous passagework in the Scherzo. There’s enormous musical character to relish here. The Intermezzo is full of drollery and suspense juxtaposed, while the finale, on the surface a taxing moto perpetuo, is given all manner of shading and inflection. The sound, which I assume came from a radio broadcast in Carnegie Hall, puts the piano forward enough so that the soloist is clear, but naturally modern recordings are much fuller in the orchestra.
Gina Bachauer was Greek, like Mitropoulos, and had a major international career, but I must confess that I have heard few of her recordings. She was in her early forties for this concert from Carnegie Hall in 1956. She is riveting, fully matching Mitropoulos for attention-grabbing passion, brio, and imagination - the two are on fire. But without such strong conducting, which wrings new excitement and shifting moods from a thrice-familiar score, the performance wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, the sound is patchier and thinner than in the previous performance. The trick is to imagine that you are sitting at your kitchen table listening to a thrilling concert over a tabletop AM radio. I’ve had great musical experiences under those conditions, and this is another one. Highly recommended as a fine addition to the Mitropoulos discography.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
"A recital by Pietro Scarpini, the pianist who has placed his own art in the service of music from the 1900s, is always replete with stimulating modernity, even when the concert artist sits at the keyboard to play masterpieces of the past….in concerts held in Turin and Milan during a brief Italian tour, the apostle and divulgator of the piano works by Schönberg and Berg, by Prokofiev and Busoni….How did it happen that Pietro Scarpini became nearly the only pianist of his generation to systematically undertake the difficult path of contemporary repertoire? ‘It might be explained’, the pianist replies, ‘by the fact that I was born to be a composer and conductor, and then I became a pianist by chance’. Born in Rome in 1911 to a father who was a General [in the Italian Army before World War I] and music lover and to a mother who was a pianist, Pietro Scarpini already knew at age four how to play the piano and gave his first recital at six. What followed came in a life which moved at a record-breaking pace: granted a diploma in piano at age twelve (he was a pupil of Alfredo Casella), diplomas in composition and organ at eighteen, and two years later a degree in literature. But this was not enough: at twenty-two, Pietro fell in love with the young Austrian pianist Teresita Rimer, and married her.
His career seemed oriented towards leading an orchestra. Bernardino Molinari, his teacher, considered Scarpini as the most worthy successor possible and offered him invaluable advice until a fortuitous event changed his destiny. One day during a conducting lesson, Molinari asked who among his students wished to play, for better or worse, the solo part of a Rachmaninoff concerto which would serve as a runthrough before a full rehearsal. ‘I came forward’ Scarpini recalls, ‘not because I wished to distinguish myself from the others but rather to please the teacher. While I thrummed on the piano under the direction of a fellow student, I noted that Molinari was following me with attention and growing amazement. At the end of the work he came up and slapping his hand on my shoulder, he said to me, ‘A good conductor, you could become but a pianist, rather, an excellent pianist, you already are’.
Following his teacher’s exhortations, Scarpini came forth again as pianist: he was invited to Berlin to give a series of concerts with the Philharmonic Orchestra under Furtwängler….With the great German conductor, Scarpini had repeated occasions on which to play, and each time Furtwängler praised him further, causing the young pianist’s cheeks to burn with emotion. Soon after, this pupil of Casella threw himself headlong into the study of 20th century repertoire of which he would become an impassioned and intrepid popularizer.
Good doses of courage and self-effacement were needed to present oneself to a biased public, to sit at the keyboard with certainty and arise at the end to a hurricane of whistles and boos. For many years Scarpini made his entrance into the concert hall with the spirit which an apostle of a creed would have when entering an arena of ferocious beasts about to tear him apart. For many years, he smilingly confronted a public which asked itself how was it that a pianist of his calibre persisted in playing ‘impossible’ music. Among those who asked himself such a question more than once was old Alfred Cortot, who greatly admired the young Italian colleague: each time when Scarpini played in Paris, even if Cortot understood nothing of what was played he applauded Scarpini and intimidated a public prone to hostility with his authoritative stance.”
- Giovanni Carli Ballola
“Daughter of an Austrian father and Italian mother, Gina Bachauer was born in Greece where her family had settled in the 1870s. She studied at the Athens Conservatory with Woldemar Freeman, but only part-time as her father believed success in the music world impossible for a woman. She studied law at Athens University for two years, but her progress at the piano was such that her father allowed her, as a teenager, to go to Paris to study at the École Normale de Musique with Alfred Cortot. After making her Paris début in 1929 she had some lessons with Sergei Rachmaninov (a friend of Freeman) with whom she studied intermittently during the early 1930s. A year after her 1932 début in London she won a medal at the International Competition in Vienna and went on to make her orchestral début in Athens in 1935, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 in b flat minor under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Bachauer toured Europe and played in Egypt, where she met and married John Christodoulou in 1936, living in Alexandria. Her career was interrupted by World War II, though she gave more than six hundred concerts for the troops in Northern Africa during this time.
After the war Christodoulou died, leaving little support for his young wife as all their money had been invested in Greek government bonds. Bachauer was fortunate in being taken to London by movie producer Gabriel Pascal as a consultant on his film CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, and there she had the opportunity of auditioning for conductor Alec Sherman, who engaged her to play with his New London Orchestra. She made her orchestral début in London in 1946 at the Royal Albert Hall with Grieg’s Piano Concerto in a minor. After her successful début in the USA, where she gave a recital at New York’s Town Hall, she received wonderful reviews, the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE referring to her as ‘…a truly phenomenal pianist having few peers among pianists of either sex’. Successful tours of Europe, the Americas, New Zealand, Australia and the Orient followed, and in 1951 Bachauer married Alec Sherman, who then gave up his own career as a conductor to manage his wife’s career. They lived in London but Bachauer toured most of the time, visiting the USA regularly. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Utah and, after her death, an international piano competition bearing her name was founded in Salt Lake City.
Bachauer was a strong, powerful player with a formidable technique. She was often compared to Teresa Carreño (1853–1917), and a 1955 description of her shows the attitude of the time. ‘Her technique shows a decidedly masculine approach, and unlike other famous woman pianists she is very much at home with works usually regarded as the prerogative of the ‘stronger’ sex’. Rachmaninov instilled into Bachauer his idea that music was ‘sound and colour’ and it is her range of both that makes her playing so distinctive. Extremely self-critical, Bachauer was always working, listening and improving her interpretations.
Bachauer’s repertoire covered practically everything from Couperin to Stravinsky. Her own favourites were virtuoso works, including Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la nuit’, Brahms’ ‘Variations on a theme of Paganini’, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from PETRUSHKA. Her concerto repertoire included Brahms’ #2, both of Chopin’s, Saint-Saëns’ #2, Rachmaninov’s Nos. 2 and 3, and Beethoven’s Nos. 4 and 5. In 1960 she played the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall.
At the end of the 78rpm era HMV had recorded her in Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Concerto K. 537 and Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s ‘Rhapsodie Espagnole’ with Sherman and the New London Orchestra. These works and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #12 in a revision by Saint-Saëns appeared. Other HMV LP issues include two more Mozart concertos, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in b minor, a classic performance of Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la nuit’ made in 1954, and Bachauer’s recording of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto #2 in g minor made the following year with her husband Sherman and the New London Orchestra.
During the early 1960s Bachauer recorded for Mercury, and the 1964 recording of her ‘Gaspard de la nuit’, with Mercury’s superlative sound, includes a reading by John Gielgud of the Bertrand poems that inspired the compositions. On the same compact disc is some Debussy and Bachauer’s recording of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from PETRUSHKA, which is brimming with energy, especially in the last movement. Other highlights from the Mercury catalogue include Brahms’ Piano Concerto #2 in B flat and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 in G major with the London Symphony Orchestra and Antal Dorati. In the early 1970s Bachauer recorded the Piano Concerto #2 in c minor by her mentor Rachmaninov with the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra and Alain Lombard for Erato. This is a big, fine, virile performance and it is complemented by three of the composer’s préludes.”
— Jonathan Summers, Naxos' A–Z of Pianists