The Compact Collection  

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The Independent Culture

Listening to studio recordings can, occasionally, have a negative effect: so much earnestness in pursuit of the right expression that spontaneous delight in the music's spirit somehow falls off the agenda. Then along comes an album like Arthur Loesser in Recital and you appreciate the value of eavesdropping on someone who loves playing simply for its own sake.

Arthur Loesser (1894-1969, brother of Broadway composer Frank Loesser) made his Berlin debut in 1916, his New York debut in 1918, and went on to head the piano department at the Cleveland Institute. His Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History is a classic, and his few recordings are treasured by piano aficionados.

Marston's compilation centres on five recitals that Loesser gave towards the end of his life, the most substantial of which – it plays for nearly 79 minutes and dates from 1967 – is here receiving its first-ever complete release. Aside from the charm and novelty value of the music (Dussek, Clementi, Jensen, Rubinstein, Reger, Casella, Ravina etc) there's Loesser's rapturous control of tone, tempo and gesture. You hear it most acutely near the start of Hummel's La Galante, or in John Field's Ninth Nocturne (I've never heard Field's music played with such rapt concentration), or Raff's "Rigaudon". The second disc weighs in more heavily, repertoire-wise, with Bach, Haydn and Prokofiev, but still there's that uncanny sensation that the only reason Loesser is playing for us is because he just happens to be in the mood.

Throwing caution to the wind can also benefit bigger structures. Paul Jacobs' high-velocity Beethoven, for example, where fleet-fingered readings of the Waldstein and Op 10/3 Sonatas suggest that speed is part of the meaning, not just a symptom of showing off. Jacobs was a New Music specialist who, like Loesser, had a penchant for the obscure and arcane. In his case it included Falla's fiery Fantasia Bética and a bizarre take on Bach by Busoni, the D major Prelude and Fugue from Book I of "the 48", first played "straight" then in awkward counterpoint. A real feat of co-ordination, though Ravel's haunting Valses Nobles et Sentimentales bear witness to the more reflective side of Jacobs's temperament.

All these recordings are one-offs: there are no known "other versions" by the same artists that we can draw on for comparison. But in the case of Clifford Curzon and Liszt's Piano Sonata, BBC Legends has unexpectedly challenged the pianist's philosophical 1963 Decca recording (452 306-2) with a demonic live Edinburgh Festival performance from two years earlier. Granted, there are fistfuls of wrong notes and the sound isn't exactly hi-fi, but with the musical storm erupting internally, you would expect some level of chaos. By contrast, Curzon's more wistful side revels in the sculpted melancholy of Haydn's F minor Andante and Variations, as well as more Liszt and three Schubert Impromptus. An unforgettable recital.

'Arthur Loesser In Recital', (Marston 520 36-2, two discs, www.marstonrecords.com)

'Paul Jacobs in Recital', (Arbiter 130, Harmonia Mundi or www.arbiterrecords.com)

'Clifford Curzon plays Liszt, Haydn and Schubert' (BBC Legends BBCL 4078-2)

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