Vox and Vanguard reissue memorable recordings by pianist Guiomar Novaes

October 16, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes, who made her final American appearance in 1972 and who died in 1979, was unquestionably one of the great pianists of the century. The year of her birth was a bumper year for pianists -- Novaes shares 1895 with Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff -- and she was perhaps the best of the three. But while the careers of Gieseking and Kempff continue to be well-documented on disc -- they are nearly as famous dead as they were alive -- Novaes is almost forgotten.

Several newly reissued performances on Vox and Vanguard exemplify part of the Novaes problem. During the early years of the LP era, when she was in the last years of her prime, the pianist recorded for Vox -- a cheapie operation that featured poorly pressed records with sound so low-fi that one sometimes suspected performances were taped by cross-Atlantic telephone calls. By the time Novaes was recorded by companies that did justice to her liquid, infinitely varied sound -- she recorded a Debussy-Chopin-Liszt album for American Decca in 1963 and recorded for Vanguard the newly reissued all-Chopin and all-Beethoven discs in 1967 -- her best years were behind her.

When she made her American debut in 1915, the French-trained, 20-year-old virtuosa was favorably compared by New York's toughest critic, W. J. Henderson, to the most popular pianists of the day, Josef Hofmann and Ignace Paderewski. In the late 1950s, her fee was a substantial $3,000 per concert, and her 20-odd Vox recordings were mainstays of the catalog. But to average record buyers, she was the Queen of the B's, while lesser pianists -- such as Witold Malcuzynski and Alexander Brailowsky -- received carte blanche from A labels such as Columbia and Angel.

Less praise for women

It might be fashionable to think that Novaes suffered because she was a woman. It might also be the truth. When one considers some of the other great female pianists of Novaes' era -- Myra Hess, Clara Haskil, Magda Tagliaferro, Gina Bachauer -- one realizes that none received the attention she deserved from major companies.

It was usually said of a powerful female pianist, such as Bachauer, that she "played like a man" -- a double-edged remark connoting respect while also suggesting a violation of the natural order of gender. But the treatment of Novaes may have been worse. That her playing was called "charming," "ingratiating," "capricious," "poetic," "delicate" and "feminine" suggests that it was not received with the seriousness accorded to men.

One well-known critic, reviewing Schumann recordings by Novaes and Artur Rubinstein in a national magazine, condescended to her by writing that Rubinstein "clearly outplays his distinguished distaff colleague." The irony -- in these recordings, at least -- was that the opposite was true. In Schumann's treacherous "Traumeswirren," for example, Novaes leaves the labored-sounding Rubinstein in the dust. No one -- at least in her best years -- ever outplayed Guiomar Novaes.

Although she performed Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Debussy with distinction, it was as a Chopin specialist that she was most famous. The performances in the three-CD Vox Box show why. Novaes' nocturnes may be even better than Rubinstein's: She makes more of the subtle pastels in the late E major Nocturne, plays more exquisite trills in its companion piece in B major, and achieves a more telling quasi-vocal flexibility in Bellini-inspired pieces such as the early E-flat Nocturne. And in the great C-minor Nocturne, Novaes generates more power in its central octave onslaught and achieves it with greater control.

Renewing acquaintance with her "Funeral March" Sonata came as something of a revelation. One remembered that she played the enigmatic final movement with a command of nuance and a mastery of inner voices unmatched in any other version. What one did not expect was the force of her conception: She turns the movement into a veritable Walpurgisnacht. And although Novaes rarely took liberties with the text, she plays the third movement funeral march in much the free way Rachmaninoff did -- building to a ferocious climax up to the trio, resuming the fortissimo at the end of the trio, then tapering off to a pianissimo at the end.

Peculiar performances

Novaes' uneven performances of the 24 etudes of Opus 10 and && Opus 25 are another matter. The best show a monster technique equal to the etudes' terrible demands. (Rubinstein scrupulously avoided almost all of these pieces throughout his career.) But some are downright peculiar. How the same pianist plays Opus 10, No. 1, which contrasts compound arpeggios in the right hand with sustained bass notes in the left, so poorly, yet plays Opus 25, No. 12, which features compound arpeggios in both hands, so splendidly is a mystery. But the mystery deepens when one compares a labored performance of Opus 10, No. 10, a study in cross-rhythms, with a terrific one of Opus 25, No. 2, another exercise in cross-rhythms.

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