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The Independent Culture

When Hyperion's founding MD Ted Perry died three months ago, the record industry lost one of its boldest and best-loved pioneers. Happily, one of Perry's last off-the-wall projects lay waiting as a potential memorial, a tasty programme of two-dozen morceaux, the sort you might find tucked away in any well-worn piano stool. The Maiden's Prayer (Hyperion CDA67379, ***), named after "a dowdy product of ineptitude" by Tekla Badarzewska (Arthur Loesser's snub), tickles the senses with sepia-tinted charmers, "The Rustle of Spring", "The Harmonious Blacksmith", "Poupée valsante", Minuet in G and 20 more, indelibly tuneful and played by Philip Martin with winning insouciance. Students of the period can also enjoy Jeremy Nicholas's exemplary notes, models of their kind.

Likewise David Owen Norris, who both plays and annotates Elgar solo piano works in a fascinating new CD on Elgar Editions (EECD002: editions@elgar.org, ***). The sizeable Concert Allegro carries the biggest reputation, but the real draw is Norris's considered re-working of five improvisations that Elgar himself recorded back in November 1929. "I have plotted a more considered course round the same harmonic rocks and melodic rapids," claims Norris, and in doing so he has effectively given us five rather beautiful Elgar "impromptus". Putb>on No 1 in G and Elgar's signature registers withinb>the first 10 seconds. Other selections (there are 19 inb>all) include Three Bavarian Dances, "Imperial March" and one of Elgar's last pieces, a brief butb>touching "Adieu".

The seemingly unstoppable flood of older recordings is dominated, piano-wise, by three important first-ever releases. Had Mahler composed for piano and orchestra it may well have sounded something like Busoni's Piano Concerto of 1903, a 68-minute marathon that ends with a male chorus singing a Hymn to Allah. As to recordings, Ogdon, Hamelin and Postnikova have all given us good versions, but only those in the know could have reflected how, in 1948, the hugely gifted but ill-fated Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood (he killed himself, aged 31) had played the concerto under Sir Thomas Beecham. I'm tempted to award Somm's fine-sounding first-release transfer five stars purely on grounds of its historic importance, but being an old recording, I suppose I should exercise some caution. The performance blazes, the playing – solo and orchestral (the BBC SO) – is committed to the last semiquaver (Somm-Beecham 15, ****).

In 1928 Beecham and Vladimir Horowitz shared their American debuts at the same concert, Horowitz soon becoming the world's most sought-after piano virtuoso. RCA's Horowitz Rediscovered (82876 50754 2, ***) is a previously unreleased recital from November 1975 featuring Schumann'sb>so-called Concerto without Orchestra. Not that in this case Schumann would have needed one: Horowitz's piano is a virtual orchestra in itself, its range of colours and dynamics unthinkable from any other player. The rest – Rachmaninov, Chopin, Liszt – will enrapture romantics and infuriate purists, though only the most mealy-mouthed could deny that, at 72, Horowitz was still able to transform Moszkowski's frothy "Etincelles" into a miracle of digital dexterity. Three further Horowitz encores turn up on a Naxos Great Pianists CD (8.110696, ***), all pre-war, the Schubert-Liszt Liebesbotschaft being the finest. The main work is Rachmaninov's Third under Albert Coates, thrown off with an informed nonchalance that no rival could dare even dream of, save perhaps the composer himself. The transfers from shellac are truthful and clean.

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