P1102. MARYLA JONAS: Handel, Rossi, Schubert, Schumann & Chopin. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL 78-219, recorded 1946-49. [At last, the recordings of this sublime poet are once again available! Jonas played as a performer truly possessed!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
"Maryla Jonas recordings have generally been given short shrift by the historical reissue labels, with the exception of a single CD by Pearl, long since deleted, of a selection of her 78s in transfers by the late Roger Beardsley. Chopin Mazurkas and Schumann's ‘Kinderszenen’ make up the lion’s share of that compilation. Apart from this, there's a single track devoted to the pianist, featuring the Handel ‘Passacaglia’, on a historical Naxos CD entitled ‘Women at the Piano’ Volume 1. It is laudable that the Canadian-based historical label St. Laurent Studio has released the pianist’s complete recorded legacy on four CDs. These are divided into two volumes of two discs each. Volume 1 is titled The 78 RPM Recordings, and Volume 2 is dedicated to The LP Records. The volume's titles refer to the recording's source material. Christopher Howell’s recent comprehensive article on Jonas for MusicWebInternational has rekindled my interest in the pianist. I have long admired the Chopin Mazurkas on a Columbia LP (RL 6624).
The main bulk of the Jonas discography is devoted to solo piano works by Chopin, and more than half of this is assigned to the mazurkas; she recorded twenty-two in all, in four sessions between 1946 and 1949. The selection covers a broad emotional range and she explores and reveals the individual character of each of these miniature jewels. Op. 17, #2 is imbued with world weariness and likewise Op 68, #4 in f minor is wistful. Op. 17, #4 speaks of nostalgia and regret, whilst Op. 63, #3 in c sharp minor is delivered with elegant refinement. The Mazurka in B-flat Op. Posth is subtly articulated, and the G major Op. Posth is more upbeat and genial.
Aside from the mazurkas, Jonas set down several other Chopin solo works. A group of nocturnes is included and I love the way she etches the ornate melodies, emphasizing their vocal qualities. These are some of Chopin's most intimate endeavours, and Jonas' approach is reflective and expressive. The Berceuse in D flat Major has a charming simplicity and to each variation she brings delicate filigree. The Impromptu in A flat, Op. 29 is free-flowing and improvisatory. The Polonaise in B-flat Op. 71, #2 is showy and virtuosic, and impressively despatched. The only disappointment in the Étude in e flat minor, Op.10, #6 which sounds routine and lacklustre. Robert Schumann's ‘Kinderszenen’ is outstanding and stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest versions by Lupu, Haskil, Cortot and Horowitz. Jonas effectively contrasts the more introspective pieces with the more exuberant ones. Each of these miniatures has its own tale to tell, and everything is approached with a child-like simplicity. Her pellucid tonal palette, instinctive phrasing and rapt sensitivity are wondrous.
These highly desirable and valuable recorded documents have been expertly transferred. Yves St Laurent has a non-interventionist policy, where there is no filtering and the natural surface noise is preserved. The transfers are similar to those of Opus Kura. The recordings emerge fresh, warm and vibrant. He has had access to well-preserved source material. I would urge anyone with an interest in historical pianists to investigate this compelling legacy and, as no documentation is provided with these volumes, I would point the reader in the direction of Howell's excellent article.”
- Stephen Greenbank, MusicWebInternational
“…the greatest pianist since Teresa Carreño.”
- Jerome D. Bohm ,THE HERALD TRIBUNE, 26 Feb., 1946
“The date was 25 February, 1946, and the place was Carnegie Hall. Even close observers of New York's musical scene paid little attention to the announcement that one Maryla Jonas would play the piano in that hall on that evening. Who had ever heard of Maryla Jonas? Apparently no one. The New York manager putting on the recital knew only that she had come up from South America ten days before, and had been born and trained in Poland. Could she play the piano? The manager didn't know; he'd never heard her. Carnegie Hall, which seats almost 3,000, was grim and cavernous and virtually empty. The ushers had nothing to do. A handful of critics wondered how long they would have to sit through another dreary début. A few friends and relatives of the pianist huddled in a couple of boxes, bitter at the big city's coldness. No one bought admission at the box office, and the people who had received free tickets didn't bother to use them. It looked like a public wake, with precious little public.
The lights were dimmed and the pianist walked out on the big stage. She was about five feet six and well padded in the wrong places, or so the ill-fitting gown-made it seem. She looked like a caricature of a suburban matron. Miss Jonas sat down at the Steinway and began to play. As she lost herself in the music, she forgot that this was almost a private recital. All the emotions and understanding that had accumulated within her over the years came through, under the perfectly controlled fingers. The tiny audience listened in amazement, then in absorption. The ushers stopped whispering in the back of the hall. The critics stayed to the end. There was something irresistibly compelling about this woman's music. The lady could play — and how!
The notices the next morning were ecstatic. Maryla Jonas found herself on 26 February an overnight sensation. Columbia Concerts hastily signed her to a long-term contract and booked her for another recital at Carnegie Hall on 30 March. Tickets this time sold out, and every pianist in town was in the audience. The great hall was tense with one question: Could she do it again?
This time Miss Jonas no longer looked like a caricature. Her appearance was en grande tenue, and so was her playing. The question was answered for all time. A new star was made.
Maryla was born in Warsaw in 1911 in a comfortably well-to-do family. At seven she began to study the piano, and at nine she was so good that she made her début with the Warsaw Philharmonic, playing a Mozart concerto. At eleven she was invited to play for Paderewski. Her father, a physician, didn't want his daughter to seek a virtuosa's career; but when Poland's greatest musician invited, one did not decline. Paderewski's influence was the profoundest in her life. She worked with him periodically for many years.
At fifteen she made her début in Germany, then a republic where art and human generosity were valued. For three years she worked there with Emil Sauer. When she was sixteen and seventeen she gave a series of Mozart Festival recitals in Salzburg and Bayreuth which earned her tremendous acclaim. In 1932 she won the International Chopin Prize against all comers, and in 1933 she walked off with another gaudy award, the International Beethoven Prize of Vienna. She toured Europe and conquered wherever she went.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Maryla and her husband, her parents and her three brothers were in Warsaw. Her sister, who had married a Viennese Jew, had migrated to Brazil when the Nazis moved into Austria the year before. Maryla and her family lived through the daily bombing of their capital. They huddled in cellars and shelters, changing their refuges as one area after another was pulverized. It was not long before resistance was crushed and the Nazis moved into Warsaw. Maryla's home was gone. Her husband and brothers had taken up arms and were somewhere with the retreating Polish forces. Her father's house still stood, but the Germans had requisitioned it. She and her parents drifted from one place to the next. Finally, in one of the Germans' periodic round-ups, they were hauled in. They were questioned by the Gestapo. The man who cross-examined Maryla recalled that she had played in Germany. He turned agreeable and persuasive. ‘Why don't you go to Berlin?’ he suggested. ‘We'll send you there in style. There you can play—and eat’. Maryla shook her head - and was locked up. She remained under arrest for many weeks. One day a high German officer who had heard her in Germany had her released. He was genuinely helpful. He advised her to make for Berlin and apply at the Brazilian Embassy for aid. Maryla started for Berlin—on foot. She walked the several hundred miles from Warsaw to Cracow. From Cracow she walked to Katowice, near the German border.
Somehow she got to Berlin. It took weeks and weeks; she doesn't remember how many. She seldom ate. She slept in barns, under trees by the roadside.
The Brazilian Embassy in Berlin gave her asylum and fixed up a false passport that made her out to be the wife of the Ambassador's son. With him she flew to Lisbon, whence from Lisbon she made her way by ship to Rio de Janeiro and her sister. Safely in the Brazilian capital, late in 1940, her nerves broke from the strain. She spent months in sanatoriums. When she seemed to be mending, she received word that one of her brothers had been killed. This was followed by the news that her husband and parents had perished. Her sister, searching for some way to reach through the haze of misery, urged Maryla to resume playing the piano, which she had not touched since the attack on Poland. She could not bring herself even to sit down before a keyboard. Her mind was numb, her fingers were stiff.
About this time Arthur Rubinstein, another illustrious Polish pianist, came to Rio in the course of a tour of South America. He had known Maryla in Warsaw, and called on her. He urged her eloquently to resume playing. He told her she was now a representative of Poland. It was her duty, he said, to keep reminding the world that her country had stood for something, and to work and earn money to help rescue other Poles from their Nazi-dominated homeland. She agreed with every word. But she could not play. Rubinstein is a man of character. One morning he phoned and asked her to come over to the Municipal Theater to hear him rehearse his program for that evening. She didn't want to go, but her sister argued that she could not insult Rubinstein by ignoring his invitation. She went. Rubinstein played with more fervor than a great pianist needs to expend in a practice session. She listened. Vague memories brushed her mind, but they did not rouse her from her apathy. When he finished, Rubinstein asked her to try out the piano while he went to the back of the hall to test the acoustics. Miss Jonas recalls that she was too inert to remember that Rubinstein had often played in that theater and knew everything there was to know about it. At last she went indifferently to the piano. She recalls that it was 2.30 P.M. when she sat down at the keyboard. Her fingers drew out of the hazy past precise recollections of Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and Paderewski. She didn't notice the minutes and hours slipping by, nor was she conscious that the hall was filling with the audience for Rubinstein's concert, which was to start at 8. It was 7.30 P.M. when she arose from the piano. There were tears in her sister's eyes. Rubinstein was still there, too. He had barely time to dress, and he had not eaten. But Maryla had played. The spell was broken.
A few days later Rubinstein arranged for her to play at a private gathering of musicians and critics. This introduction led to a recital in Rio. She was now awake, determined to build her career anew. But building a career takes time and money. In those days she knew want. She lived in one small room, hardly large enough for a piano. Ernesto de Quesada, a manager, began to book her, and in the next three years she played all over South and Central America. She did well, but her fees were small. Quesada kept telling her she must brave New York and click there; otherwise she would not command any real money in the rest of the Americas. Maryla figured she would need $2,000 to pay for the trip and the recital. Finally she induced a Mexican friend to hire her for eight radio concerts for that sum. Her estimate was correct. She spent $1,400 on the début recital, and the rest on traveling expenses.
For three days and night before the Carnegie recital she could not sleep. That did not alarm her; she thought it was nerves. She had known more sleepless nights than most people. And on the morning after her début a cable from Poland informed her that one of her two surviving brothers had been found dead — another Nazi victim. Miss Jonas has a distaste for making herself out a tragic figure. When I saw her in her small hotel room shortly after her first New York recital, she refused at first to tell her own story. She insisted on talking about the difficulties that face other young musicians. She herself did not reveal that dozens of fellow Poles were thronging to her, seeking help and advice. I got that story from those she had helped.”
- Howard Taubman, LIBERTY, 10 May, 1947
“Each of these disks, from Canadian engineer Yves St Laurent… [feature] St Laurent's natural transfer – made without filtering, like all his dubbings – it is easy to listen to, despite the surface noise.”
- Tully Potter, CLASSICAL RECORD QUARTERLY, Summer, 2011