Brilliant - and forgotten Guiomar Novaes played the piano superbly, yet she is barely remembered 20 years after her death.

December 13, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Brazilian 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 1896 with Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff - and she was 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.

It is sad, as well as infuriating, that in the Philips label's series, "The Great Pianists," Novaes is not among the 70-odd pianists so memorialized.

An important historic recording of previously unreleased material two CDs priced as one on Music & Arts 1029) both demonstrates Novaes' greatness and suggests why she is not as well remembered as she deserves. These discs contain some of the works she recorded for Columbia between 1940 and 1947 and a transcript, originally recorded on 78 rpm acetates, of an all-Chopin recital in 1949 in New York's Town Hall. Why the Columbias were never released remains a mystery. Except for a few recordings made for Victor in the 1920s, these were the only recordings Novaes ever made for a major label when she was in her prime.

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the pianist recorded for Vox, a cheapie operation that featured poorly pressed records with sound so low-fi that performances sounded as if they were )) taped by cross-Atlantic telephone calls. By the time Novaes was recorded by companies who did justice to her liquid, infinitely varied sound - she recorded a Debussy-Chopin-Liszt album for American Decca in 1963 and recorded all-Chopin and all-Beethoven discs for Vanguard in 1967 - her best years were behind her.

When she made her American debut in 1915, the French-trained, 19-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 "Bs," while lesser pianists such as Witold Malcuzynski and Alexander Brailowsky received carte blanche from "A" labels such as Columbia and Angel.

It might be fashionable to think that Novaes suffered because she was a woman; it might also be the truth. Many of the other great female pianists of Novaes' era, such as Myra Hess, Clara Haskil, Magda Taflierro or Gina Bachauer, also did not receive the attention they 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. Her playing was called "charming," "ingratiating," "capricious," "poetic," "delicate" and "feminine," suggesting 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 was that the opposite was true. In Schumann's treacherous "Traumeswirren," for example, Novaes left the labored-sounding Rubinstein in the dust. No one ever outplayed Guiomar Novaes in her prime.

Although she played Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Debussy with distinction, it was as a Chopin specialist that she was most famous. The performances recorded here show why. Her readings of the Sonatas No. 2 ("Funeral March") in B-flat minor and No. 3 in B Minor may be even finer than her versions for Vox a few years later.

The "Funeral March" Sonata comes as a particular revelation. She plays the enigmatic final movement with a command of nuance and a mastery of inner voices unmatched in any other version: she turns the movement into a veritable Walpurgis Nacht. And although Novaes rarely took liberties with the text, she plays the third movement funeral march much as Rachmaninoff did, building to a ferocious climax up to the trio, resuming the fortissimo at the end of the trio, and then tapering off to a pianissimo at the end.

Apart from this, there are other details in the performance that leave one gasping. Not the least of these is the ease with which she negotiates the tricky figurations in the outer parts of the scherzo and the exquisite lyricism she reveals in the central section.

The live performance of the composer's 24 Preludes belies the pianist's reputation as simply an ingratiatingly feminine, intimately poetic player. These bravura readings exude tension as high-pitched as those recorded 40 years later by Martha Argerich. Novaes plays the B-flat Minor with a tempo as fast and in a manner as fierce as Argerich, and, in the work's spread left-hand extended chords, she is certainly more accurate.

Her playing in Chopin's E Major Scherzo - with its spontaneously shaped inner lines, exquisite phrasing and extraordinary control of structure - is equally sensational. The performance also has a dimension that can only be called spiritual. Novaes takes the listener through the vicissitudes of human experience, weighting each phrase with a yearning quality that I have never heard from any other pianist.

The recorded sound on these discs is variable - ranging from good (the studio recordings), to acceptable (in the scherzo and some of the preludes), to all-but-unlistenably awful (in other preludes and the F Minor Fantasy). But with playing of this order, who cares?

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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